Sometimes all you can do is laugh.  I love this new piece at Time: Should you eat like a caveman?  It's a perfect example of how this whole paleo concept can be sensationalized — by the press AND by practitioners.  But it's important to take these issues head on because as this paleo approach grows, this type of thing is going to happen more often. 

It all went down at the De Vany book-signing a couple weeks ago.  After the talk, this smart, sexy, firebrand of a reporter approached me about the potential conflict between Dan Lieberman's research, which points to the importance of endurance running in human evolution, and some of the paleo community, which tends to emphasize the role of high-intensity, "move like your life depends on it" exercise in human evolution.  A good question, which we proceeded to discuss.  But it quickly became clear that she was looking to stir up some controversy.  The end result, an article that portrays paleo as an ideology that holds the following silly beliefs:

  • Evolution stopped 40,000 years ago
  • There was one single paleolithic diet and lifestyle
  • Women did not contribute very much to the tribe

Sigh.

What's odd about the article is that we offered up nearly every counter-point she uses to de-bunk the ideas above.  Mainstream media, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

Evolution did not stop 40,000 years ago

I can't think of a single paleo blogger or author or claims this.  When the reporter asked about whether there has been continuing evolution, particularly in regards to diet, both Robb and I said, well, yeah, of course.  Robb pointed out that indigenous tribes, like the Pima, will get diabetes in their teens and 20s eating a modern diet whereas people of European and Middle-Eastern descent won't get diabetes until a decade or more later eating the same diet.

There is no one, single paleolithic diet and lifestyle

Duh.  Hunter-gatherers had all sorts of different diets depending on time, geography, season, and culture.  Does anyone think the Inuit ate the same thing as the Hadza?  And moved in the exact same ways?  Or that these modern hunter-gatherer tribes perfectly represent the paleolithic?  The paleolithic was a long period of time.  There is no one "paleolithic diet".

That said, it's a common technique in mainstream peer-reviewed evolutionary psychology to talk about an Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), an environment containing the selection pressures that led to specific adaptations.  It's a theoretical construct, to be sure, but a useful construct nonetheless.  Lieberman does the same thing when he talks about persistence hunting in some ancient savannah habitat from long ago.

And trying to reconstruct "the" diet of a species is something we do for all kinds of animals, not just humans.  I think the burden of proof is on people who want to treat Homo sapiens as exceptional.  We certainly have found ways to be generalist omnivores, but that's not to say there isn't a set of foods that we are better or worse adapted to.  What would be completely unbelievable from an evolutionary standpoint is if we weren't better or worse adapted to certain foods — now that would stretch the imagination.

Women are essential providers to the tribe

If I got annoyed at one point in this article, it was the one that implied we held misogynistic views:

"Meanwhile, it's likely the gatherer members of the hunter-gatherer community — who tend to get less attention from Paleos, despite having provided up to half of Paleolithic calories — walked up to 9 km (6 mi.) a day, often while weighed down by babies and food."

Again, the reporter's counter-point is based on what we told her.  That gathering wouldn't have been some walk in the woods, but carrying pounds and pounds of plants, getting heavier as you go, toting a baby, digging up roots, walking miles.  And we pointed out that gathering often includes catching small game and collecting seafood.  Not to mention lots of evidence that hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian than most people assume.

Nearly all reporters have to depend on conventional wisdom to do their job

Because mainstream reporters are writing for the mainstream, they tend to reflect conventional points of view.  This reporter did a good job of not putting too much conventional wisdom in her piece, but consider her brief "stated as fact" health views: 

"There's no doubt that something is way off about our collective health; rampant rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes make that self-evident. And there's no doubt that this is a direct result of our high-fat, high-calorie, sedentary lives."

Dogmatic acceptance of the calories-in / calories-out hypothesis AND the fat-makes-you-fat hypothesis (they're one and the same).  Ignoring the scads and scads of diets that focus on indiscriminately cutting calories and fat and that don't work.  This reporter had a more gentle touch than most.

We need to learn some lessons too.

  • There are many experts in fields like evolutionary biology and paleo-anthropology who know a hell of a lot more about specific subjects than Random Paleo Luminary X.  And these experts may start chiming in.  Good!  There will be views in the "paleo world" that turn out to be wrong.  Is dairy as evil as wheat?  Is endurance running good for you?  Are there long-term trade-offs to sun exposure?  Maybe, maybe not.  That's okay, realizing that you're wrong is a great way to figure out what is right.
  • We have to be good stewards of these ideas.  So no gnawing on a raw steak for the cameras, please.  Also, Art saying that Dan Lieberman's ideas are "full of crap"…well, let's just put it this way…Art confirmed that he has as much testosterone as he claims.
  • Reporters don't have your interests at heart.  Their incentives are to get people to read articles, watch videos, consume their story.  And in most cases, that means sensationalizing.  Making something seem extraordinary, abnormal, and weird.  Dan Lieberman knows what this is like…he's had his barefoot running work mangled in the press countless times. 

This is just another natural stage in the movement as it starts to attract more attention.  Now let's see what Nightline does tonight…


21 Responses to “How the media sensationalizes paleo”

  1. Roland says:

    [Many]  Paleo people give paleo a bad name.

    Paleo seems to be the first popular "diet" that also comes with a lifestyle idea and cool historical imagery. Getting back to such basics is a romantic thing that drives paleo authors and bloggers to write silly things, which are often repeated, quoted, and exaggerated in the media.

    The way our ancestors lived merely points us in a direction for looking closer at better dietary and lifestyle choices, but should not define our choices.

  2. Jamie Scott says:

    Nice balanced piece John.  I could imagine that others (likely myself included) might have gone off the deep end a bit over the positioning to the Time article.

    Whilst I have the utmost respect for the likes of Dan Lieberman, I really struggle with the concept that our ancestors didn’t have to sprint – or at least would have been lousy sprinters.  Or was this taken out of context?  I just can’t see how we wouldn’t have required (and acquired)  the ability to move fast if needed.  And whilst we might have been very good at endurance-type running as used in persistence hunting, was this sustained efforts spanning hours at or near anaerobic threshold?  I can understand running for long periods sub-threshold, but not at threshold as is often translated in the modern world.

    • John says:

      Lieberman has never said we were exclusively endurance athletes. Simple that we have that capability and it seems to be an advantage relative to other animals. We absolutely would have been doing sprinting and other high-intensity movements too. I’ll do a post on this soon.

  3. J. Stanton says:

    Never forget that billions of dollars are paid each year to agribusiness to grow grains, via direct government subsidies.

    And never forget that all major media vet all news stories with their biggest advertisers, so as not to anger their revenue source.  

    "Paleo", as taken seriously and practiced here, is a threat to agribusiness hegemony – because it supports grass-fed, small-scale farms and discourages the products of large industrial CAFOs…made possible in large part by massive grain subsidies.

    Expect more and more hatchet jobs like this one as time goes on.  And don’t count on major media exposure to grow: keep the websites up and the message strong, and stay healthy so we’re all an example to others. People who jump on a fad will jump off as soon as the next fad comes by: people who see us being strong, healthy, and happy will join us because they want to be strong, healthy, and happy too.

    Live in freedom, live in beauty.

    J. Stanton - gnolls.org

  4. Carson says:

    I’d be really curious to see if there are any predators living or extinct that actually do just run their prey to exhaustion/death.

    It’s seems like it would be a rarity in the animal kingdom, since I can’t think of one example of this type of predator.

  5. Lori says:

    For an article called "Should you Eat Like a Caveman," it didn’t answer the question. There was nothing about the health problems modern foods cause some people–a major reason that many people try, and stick to, a paleo diet. 

    An irritating quote:  "The problem is, of course, that …there’s no going back 40,000 years ago. There’s not enough game to feed us all, grains and dairy are dietary staples." So just because everybody can’t eat a paleo diet, nobody should? A totally irrelevant quote: "Anyway, to be really Paleolithic, you have to jettison written language, public sanitation, Jet Blue, and representational government." Kind of like how Time seems to have jettisoned their editors and fact checkers?

    As for the remark on sexism–ah yes, the chronically offended woman, or at least a remark to appeal to that type.

    However, I didn’t get the idea from the article that there was only one type of paleo diet or that evolution stopped 40,000 years ago (see the fourth paragraph on page 1).

    • John says:

      The article was implying that WE thought there was only one type of paleo diet and that we thought that evolution stopped 40k years ago. Yeah, there were a lot of aggravating parts.

  6. Jim says:

     John,

    From a big picture, macro point of view, I think the article was satisfactory.  I think the ideas set forth are valid, and are only a problem if you are one of the people being misquoted or mischaracterized in the article.

    Further, while I originally thought the paleo world didn’t need yet another book, I’m actually looking forward to yours.  Perhaps because I think your niche in this busy area will be as the "steward" of the movement. Perhaps, also, because you don’t seem too locked in to any one detail or point of veiw.  

     

    Enjoy.     

    –Jim

     

     

  7. Jim says:

     John,

    From a big picture, macro point of view, I think the article was satisfactory.  I think the ideas set forth are valid, and are only a problem if you are one of the people being misquoted or mischaracterized in the article.

    Further, while I originally thought the paleo world didn’t need yet another book, I’m actually looking forward to yours.  Perhaps because I think your niche in this busy area will be as the "steward" of the movement. Perhaps, also, because you don’t seem too locked in to any one detail or point of veiw.  

     

    Enjoy.     

    –Jim

     

     

  8. Ron Scott says:

    Very well written John. Direct and concise
    One of your best posts.

  9. Ken says:

    You’re not helping your image on the misogyny front by making a point of referring to the reporter as a sexy firebrand.  Just saying.

  10. Weston says:

    Great post John.

    I saw that reporter at De Vany’s book signing and could tell she was up to some counter piece the way she periodically smirked. Anyway, this stuff is unfortunately going to happen as it approaches mainstream. I will just fall back on any press is good press.

  11. Tuck says:

    “No doubt”, huh?

    You’re very charitable in this post, John. ;)

  12. Colette says:

    John I completely agree, well said! I see paleo as a broad term for a heathly lifestyle but I constantly get flak from people who don’t want to question what they know, they feel "ok" so why change. I’ve now read 3 books on the topic (Wolf, Cordain, & De Vany) and just started Mark Sisson’s book. There are obviously differences between all, which I expected or I wouldn’t have read 3 books on the same subject. I personally like to question my beliefs and either find I learn new things or strengthen what I already believe, some can’t handle that and need a fixed set of “facts” to be guided by. No surprise that anything questioning the norm, or convenient way to live, will be radical to many, playing different ideas against each other is an attempt to weaken the argument – not show variety. Similar to how we have political parties – to say all Republicans are one way or the other is just ignorant. There are social, economic, religious, environmental, regional, and personal beliefs – but the general beliefs like less government, personally responsibility, free-markets, etc lets Right-wings, Conservatives, Tea Partiers, and most Libertarians find common ground for a bigger cause. Same for Dems with Left-wing, Liberals, Progressives, Green-people, etc. The media will always focus on elements to make a story – like the running, of course we had to run long distances at times and there are many situations we could imagine, but thats missing the point of the bigger picture.  And like politics, some bad seeds or images/quotes get more attention and the media likes to generalize to make it a bigger deal, so I agree – no caveman extremes.  The media will do this, but that’s why blogs like yours are necessary and successful, so maybe being the voice of reason after all of the nonsense is one positive. 

    • John says:

      Thanks, Colette. It’s interesting how different hunter-gatherer “tribes” have sprung up with slightly different versions of the diet.

  13. Excellent thoughts John,

    I think the important thing is, as you have done in this article, is to keep people aware and skeptical of the sensationalizing media can put on our stories. If we can get readers to be better skeptics, then perhaps they’ll stop citing magazine stories, and product endorsements/advertisements as "evidence" – which I have been confronted with many times… I know, I’m not paleo, or perhaps I am, a kind of paleo-Vegan, but one co-worker argued against my diet by citing the familiar "Milk does a body good?" advertising slogan as evidence that I should be drinking milk!

    I’ve even been told I was running wrong because of a story that mis-stated the concept of running barefoot… (ball-of-foot landing, does not mean that the rest of the foot never touches, it just isn’t the intial point of contact with the earth)

    Be skeptical, be very skeptical, even about anything I write, and be even more skeptical about writers that don’t invite you to be skeptical about their own writing.

    By the way, distance running, when done correctly, is not an "endurance" sport. If running is something to be "endured", rather than enjoyed, that’s the first sign that you’re doing it incorrectly.

    Have fun,

    -barefoot ken bob

    • John says:

      Thanks, Ken Bob. Agreed on the need for skepticism. As for endurance running…I’ll try to switch terminology to distance running! Hope you’re well

  14. M Miller says:

    I’ve found that as I’ve become more educated about (the paleo approach to) health and fitness, my explanations have consisted of less "paleolithic man ate X and didn’t eat Y", and more "X is good for us today because P, and Y is bad for us today because Q." I think talking in terms of what is good for us today (and why) is going to be more effective in advancing the movement than talking about what cavemen did back in the day. The last thing I want to do is demand that those who go paleo become educated on all of this stuff, but perhaps those who want to be spokespeople for the movement have this responsibility.

    • John says:

      That’s a good approach, and it was the thrust of Robb Wolf’s quote in the article. That we don’t need the paleolithic, you can build the scientific case up purely from molecular biology.

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