The Paleo diet is barbaric, tribal and trendy. But why?
Researchers at Tribal Connections parsed the web to see why the caveman phenomenon is so sexy:
After examining the data collected from the different forums, it was obvious that there were certain trends among Paleo advocates and the reasons as to why the public would adopt a lifestyle of living like a caveman.
The most popular response that people gave for following the Paleo diet was because of athletic or fitness related endeavors. 78% of those who responded that they were following the Paleo diet because of these reasons were males between 18-39 years old. The second most popular reason that people gave for joining the Paleo movement was disease related. Either they were suffering from a certain disease that required a restrictive diet, or they had a fear of succumbing to one of the many diet related illnesses that a Standard American Diet has been shown to foster.
Within this category, the gender distribution was not as skewed towards men, but although a number of women expressed concerns for maladies such as gluten and dairy intolerance, the majority remained male.
Other reasons for abiding by the Paleo diet that were encountered during this study included aspirations for general weight loss, seeing others succeed and wanting to attain the same results, and even pregnancy. A full list of the reasons given for following the diet and how the data for this paper was coded can be found in the appendix.
The way that the diet was discussed among participants in the forums yielded some intriguing results. As mentioned in the Data and Methods section, I was looking for discussion outside the realm of strictly diet. What I found was a discussion of a multitude of topics being discussed in depth that were not to be found in the dietetic literature. 12 users commented on the importance of minimizing exposure to blue light waves (coming from TV, computer, or cell phones) after the sun set, which one claimed “affects melatonin secretion” (Mark’s Daily Apple).
At least one post from each different site stressed the consequences of succumbing to the perils of modern technology. There were a variety of different discussions about what kinds of exercises were being practiced among those that mentioned fitness as the primary reason for living like a caveman. 15 people were resolute in their effort to wear only minimalist shoes to mimic the bare footedness of our ancestors. One thread discussed how “our mechanics are not adapted to the supportive shoes of the modern age” and the only way to develop proper ankle stability and leg strength is to “go barefoot” to “avoid atrophy of leg and ankle muscles” (1).
One user in particular commented on his exercise routine consisting of barefoot running, jumping over bushes, swinging from tree to tree, and hopping from rock to rock to simulate fleeing from a potential predator (CAVEMAN Forum). Many other posts demonstrated the extremes to which people have gone in order to imitate a genuine hunter-gatherer experience.
Given that the Paleo diet encourages large quantities of meat eating, it was not shocking to discover that it was popular among young athletic men. The image of a barbaric, bearded man devouring a turkey leg straight from the bone epitomizes the sentiment of virility that has been glamorized by Paleo enthusiasts. Men who see meat eating as masculine are drawn to the diet because of its carnivorous tendencies and reinforce the ideals that have been set in place by society through performativity. The male ideal of living the life of a rootless nomad has always captivated even the most settled of men. Foraging often represents a dangerous and romantic existence with nature that cannot be conquered by civilization. As society has grown increasingly complex and industrialized, the longing to live as a hunter who fends for himself has become even more pervasive among many men, and a Paleo lifestyle offers an excuse to live on the fringes of modern societal norms.
Just as masculinity has been glamorized by Paleo culture, I also found there to be a sentiment reflecting an aversion to modernity among many adherents to the diet. While there exists a wide range of reasons why people have chosen to follow the diet, this initial motivation appears to be irrelevant once people start embracing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Many have implemented lifestyle habits that stray from simply the dietary recommendations found in literature and have made radical life changes regardless of their preliminary inclinations. A discontent with technological modernity and the desire to strip life down to its caveman essence is intrinsic to many Paleo advocates, but is certainly not exclusive to Paleo followers. In his 1913 experiment to “turn back to nature and enjoy her countless benefits,” Joseph Knowles took to the Maine wilderness with nothing but his own self where he would forage for his food and live in solitude for months (Knowles 193). Knowles believed that many people in society were “accepting artificial [lives] rather than natural [ones],” and hoped to prove that we are natural creatures that shouldn’t conform to societal norms.
One of the pioneers in attempting to turn back the hands of time, Knowles shared the same beliefs with Paleo supporters, which are based on the idea that we have become out of touch with our ancestral roots and thrive best in the natural habitat in which we evolved. This romanticism is demonstrated through those who practice unconventional workout routines and abide by unorthodox practices such as not using artificial light after sundown.
It is clear that a Paleolithic world as it stood 10,000 years ago is incapable of being reproduced and reenacted given all the technological and societal advancements that have occurred since the time of cavemen, but by attempting to realign their lifestyles with how humans were originally evolved and adapted, Paleo enthusiasts have taken the longstanding idea of reconnecting ourselves with our ancestors and adapted it to fit a modern lifestyle. While scientific literature provided the initial spark in raising awareness for the disconnect between a modern diet and the diet that best suits our evolutionary advantages, the underlying sentiment of a romanticization for the past and virility have allowed the diet to gain popularity and transform into a full-fledged lifestyle that encompasses aspects other than simply eating habits.
1. Paleo Hacks. N.p., n.d. Web. http://paleohacks.com/index.html.
2. Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. New York: Penguin, 2008. 139-201. PDF file.
3. Raw Paleo Forum. N.p., n.d. Web. http://www.rawpaleodietforum.com/.
4. Saguy, Abigail. 2013. What’s Wrong with Fat? New York, NY: Oxford University