Paleo is the Scientology of Diets
I was close to landing a fitness interview with Tom Cruise, but then he bailed. And so I am now free to say that Scientology is stupid.
People make fun of the space alien aspect of it, but did you know that one of their beliefs is “silent birth?” A.K.A. Hey, woman who is passing a human being through a tiny orifice, quit yer damn caterwauling and just STFU because the baby’s head is getting squished into a cone shape and doesn’t need your howls of pain to make his mind any more reactive, or something.
What does this have to do with paleo? Paleo is the Scientology of the diet world. It’s just as stupid, and I’m going to tell you why it’s stupid, and I’ll follow that up with why I have a bug up my ass about it.
But one little thing first.
If You Follow Paleo, it Doesn’t Mean You’re Stupid
Well, maybe it does, like if you eat paleo, text “#YOLO” while cranking Nickelback and going double the speed limit through a playground zone because you’re rushing to get to the latest Adam Sandler movie, then yeah, you’re pretty stupid.
But just because you do paleo? No. It’s the diet I’m calling stupid, not the adherents.
One of the things I describe in detail in my book is “Weight Loss Inc.” It’s the crap-filled industry of which I am a part, although I try to set myself apart from the excrement. Not everything in the industry is something you’d be better off flushing down the toilet. Anyway, I reference an FTC report that determines weight loss is the #1 form of fraud in the U.S., and it has been for a long time. More people get taken in by weight loss scams than any other type of fraud.
Here is a quote from said book:
In his 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things, Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer asserted that “smart people” could be more susceptible to outrageous claims than others “because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” These non-smart reasons can include peer pressure, sibling and parental influences, life experiences, cultural pressure and even genetic predispositions. Shermer further explained: “More than any other, the reason people believe weird things is that they want to. It feels good. It is comforting. It is consoling.”
So there you go. Don’t feel bad if you fell for it. I used to believe aliens abducted and probed people after doing their crop circle happy dance. I’m not kidding. Still friends?
This isn’t about you, it’s about paleo, and now we’re on to …
Why Paleo Is Stupid
Unless you have a time machine, you can’t eat paleo. You can’t even get close to it, the food environment has changed that much.
“But, like, paleo is an idea of eating, man. It’s like a metaphor.”
A metaphor for eating like they did during a time when starvation was the #1 killer of humans, and you were lucky to live to 35? Sign me up for that. Living in the Paleolithic era sucked.
And before you go stating some dumbfuckery about how “you need to correct for infant mortality,” read this.
Nutrition expert Alan Aragon summed up paleo pretty nicely in an interview I did with him. He said the paleo diet, which is really just a form of low-carb dieting that its advocates presume our Stone Age, hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, is just another fad. “Paleo philosophy is wrong on a couple of different levels,” he told me. “They say our ancestors didn’t eat grains, and therefore we shouldn’t eat grains. First, our ancestors did eat grains. There is also the logical error that if our ancestors didn’t eat something we shouldn’t either. Well, our ancestors didn’t concern themselves with optimal nutrition, they just wanted to survive.”
“It’s just another fad,” sport nutrition expert and registered dietitian Nancy Clark told me, echoing Aragon’s opinions on paleo. “There’s no science to support it.”
I already said it’s impossible to replicate any aspects of the diet, because our food supply. Even the meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables have been so manipulated since humans first began farming that what we eat today can’t ever possible resemble that of mammoth-slaying Stone Age. Oh, and like I wrote in this piece, eating mammoth or any kind of meat was exceptionally rare.
Our Paleolithic ancestors were far more likely to get protein from bugs. So instead of paying double for your antibiotic free, grass-fed methane dispenser meat, you should just head to your nearest field and commence chopping down crickets.
But the modern concept of the paleo diet is way stupider than that. Why? Because you can buy these products, that’s why:
- Paleo butter
- Paleo coffee
- Paleo dog food
- Paleo chocolate
- Paleo chocolate chip cookies
- Paleo turkey jerky, which comes in plain, spicy and extra spicy
- Paleo caviar
- Paleo energy bars
- Paleo waffles
- Paleo syrup
- Paleo yogurt
- Paleo ice cream
- Paleo protein powder
Paleo protein powder? Really? These guys also sell you paleo Vitamin D (which I expect our ancestors got by, you know, going outside), and even paleo “recovery powder.” Check out those prices.
Being paleo is like paying a stupidity tax. Again, it’s not you who is stupid, but the diet sure is, because it lets you drink paleo coffee while putting paleo butter and paleo syrup on your paleo waffles before you drive your paleo minivan to the paleo office to sit in your paleo cube and do spreadsheets on your paleo computer. You’re groking hard now.
See, the paleo diet made up a bunch of silly rules on how we allegedly ate, and then goes and twists them all to hell in the name of selling you a crappy, overpriced product. That is scientology-level stupid.
Let’s have some fun. I’m going to make up my own stupid diet with my own stupid rules. I’ll call it …
The Disney Diet
Everyone loves Disney movies. Just like the Paleolithic era, men were the heroes and women were the damsels in distress, although Disney damsels had way less body hair and much better teeth.
So, based on what I’ve learned from watching Disney films, here are the rules of the Disney Diet:
- Never eat anything given to you by an old woman, because it’s poison – Snow White
- Eat only fresh kills, but only the females are allowed to do the hunting – Lion King
- Unless you think you killed your father and ran away from home, in which case you can eat lots of bugs – Lion King
- Sugar can only be consumed while taking medicine – Mary Poppins
- Don’t eat turkey, popcorn or sweet potato pie. And definitely not pancakes piled up until they reach the sky, because if you do, it will cause mental deficiencies of Goofy proportions, not to mention the fact that you will eat and eat and eat and eat and eat until you die – Jack and the Beanstalk
- Chicken is okay, but not duck, because I love Donald
- Spaghetti can only be eaten as a couple, and must lead to a kiss, followed by the male chivalrously passing the last meatball to the female using only his nose. Any fornication that results from this romantic gesture must be done doggie style – Lady and the Tramp
See how silly a diet can become when you start adopting arbitrary rules based on mythical thinking?
Why Paleo is Dangerous
Paleo can end up excluding nutritious foods for no other reason than its proponents think that we didn’t eat them a long time ago, and so we shouldn’t eat them now. Secondly, it’s dangerous for your financial future to be forking out big bucks for paleo-approved products, because such things usually don’t come cheap. Apparently that bulletproof coffee crap is paleo, and it costs a bloody fortune.
But the real problem? Following a paleo diet can lead you down a path to an eating disorder. That’s why I rag on this kind of crap.
My friend and registered dietitian Jennifer Sygo says, “The science of nutrition is complex. Eating shouldn’t be.” By the way, Jennifer has an excellent book entitled Unmasking Superfoods that I highly recommend.
Eating shouldn’t be complex, but paleo is far from flexible. It creates a system of arbitrary, difficult-to-follow rules for eating that can lead to disordered eating. Primarily, it can cause one to obsess over eating the “right” foods and avoiding the “wrong” ones. This phenomenon has been coined “orthorexia,” which is not yet recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but enough mental health professionals are talking about it that it has gained some scientific legitimacy. While other eating disorders tend to obsess over calories and body weight, so-called orthorexics obsess over food quality. Again, which foods are right, and which foods are wrong. Some people end up thinking the right foods are 1,600 calories worth of butter paired with five eggs.
A lot of paleo is about which foods are right and which ones are wrong. This is not a healthy mindset to go through life with, constantly obsessing over whether something is paleo approved or not, several times each day. It creates a toxic mindset about eating, and anxiety and fear around certain food types that are not good for your mental health. Such unhealthy obsession can eventually lead to a full-blown eating disorder.
When people break these food rules they can feel like a failure, which increases stress levels and can cause binge eating because Well, I already blew my highly restrictive diet, so I might as well really blow it and go down in a blaze of gluttonous glory.
So what’s the solution? Stop falling for all the marketing. Realize that paleo is just a cheesy gimmick designed to sell an expensive pile of crap and adopt a more flexible approach to eating that isn’t so rule-based or restrictive.
I understand that the skeptical mindset is not easy to adopt. People are naturally gullible, it seems, and will fall for just about anything if it sounds scientifically valid. I wrote a sarcasm-laden Facebook update a while ago about why people shouldn’t eat salmon, and a number of people fell for it. The followers of my page weren’t easily taken in because they know me for being a skeptic and a joker. But the post was shared by many people, resulting in comments by readers who don’t know me, and I was amazed that some thought the post was actually serious. Have a read.
Skepticism can make you strong, so don’t go thinking it’s a negative mindset to have. Quite the opposite. Things like paleo create a negative mindset about how living in the modern age is allegedly toxic. They make you pine for good old days that never were.
Quit living in the past, because it’s not coming back, and you shouldn’t want it to. The past sucked!
Even in the middle of the last century we had far more chemical exposure, lead was everywhere, non-smoking areas didn’t exist, anyone who wasn’t a white male was second-class, and kids were being taught to duck and cover because the nukes could start flying any minute.
You don’t live in the Paleolithic era. You don’t live I the 19th century, or even the 20th. You are alive, right now, in the 21st century, and it’s pretty damn awesome.
So act like it’s awesome. Quit freaking out about all the allegedly bad shit that’s going to cause your innards to explode if you inhale a whiff of it, and stop lamenting about how things were supposedly so much better long ago, and just get on with living the best version of modern life you can.
And for crap’s sake, stop putting butter in your coffee.
This piece was first published on my old site – Six Pack Abs – on June 6, 2014 and was shared over 20,000 times on Facebook.
James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.