The Paleo diet has reached some pretty spectacular new heights in popularity over the past few years. In fact, Paleo has been the most searched diet term of 2013 so far and I don’t see any signs of this slowing down anytime soon. I think we can credit the success of the Paleo movement on the symbiosis of a lot of different things–total frustration by people wanting to lose weight and get healthy using the failed low-fat, grain-heavy diet leading them to seek out alternative ways to get there; the positive influence and education coming from key thought leaders in this community like Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser and Mark Sisson; the mainstream success of new Paleo books hitting the New York Times bestsellers list such as Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo, It Starts With Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig and, of course, The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf; the domination of the iTunes health charts by Paleo-focused podcasts like “The Fat Burning Man Show” by Abel James, “Paleo Lifestyle And Fitness Podcast” by Sarah Fragoso and Jason Seib and “Latest In Paleo” by Angelo Coppola; and the emergence of some amazing conferences supporting the ancestral movement like PaleoFX in March and the Ancestral Health Symposium in August. This is only scratching the surface of all the things that are influencing the spread of Paleo far and wide to new levels of awareness.
But as with any sign of progress and momentum like we’ve seen with Paleo over the past few years, there comes the inevitable set of key issues that need to be addressed in order to keep the ball rolling in the right direction. If these things remain unaddressed, though, it could have the potential for ostracizing the very people who could stand to benefit from the Paleo message the most and relegate it to fringe status attracting what would be perceived to be a small minority of whacked out renegades. But we know better. The real, whole foods idea is one our culture needs now more than ever before as obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, gut health issues and worse all continue to go down a destructive path as a direct result of our modern-day diet and lifestyle. If we’re ever going to reach more people with the Paleo message, then the Paleo community needs to take a closer look at what I see as 10 critical issues that have the potential of derailing the success train:
1. Paleo Christians
This to me is one of the great unspoken taboo topics that’s been simmering beneath the surface for the past several years in the Paleo community that nobody really seems to want to address. I attempted to do just that in this November 2010 blog post, but the not-so-subtle digs at people who believe in God and also support and use the Paleo lifestyle has only gotten worse. There’s a by-invitation-only “Paleo For Christians” Facebook group as well as quite a few Paleo bloggers who have professed having a Christian faith like Laura Schoenfeld, Ashley North, Lea Valle, Jennifer Maltby, Steven Gray, Dr. Steve Parker, Chris Masterjohnn and Denise Skidmore. And the interest in the complex cross-section between Christianity and Paleo even showed up on PaleoHacks previously with some examples of the kind of behavior I’m referring to. Whether you choose to believe in God or not, that’s a personal decision made by the individual that should be respected. Unfortunately, somehow there’s this misconception out there from some people in the Paleo community who seemingly have such utter contempt for Christians that they think if you believe in Jesus then you obviously don’t believe in the theory of evolution, you must think the Earth is only 6,000 years old, you can’t possibly believe there was such a thing as the Paleolithic era and other such examples exposing their downright ignorance of what Christians actually believe. I realize not every non-Christian Paleo follower has this attitude towards the Christians who support the Paleo lifestyle. But this exclusionary mentality towards those of us who profess Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior AND follow a Paleo lifestyle should stop if we ever hope to see Paleo penetrate into the mainstream even more. Right now there’s probably a Christian who is closely examining Paleo and deciding whether or not to implement these healthy principles into their life. If they feel mocked or ridiculed because of their Christian faith, then perhaps they’ll look elsewhere where they will feel more welcomed. My friend and fellow blogger Karen Phelps from the “Paleo Periodical” blog will be addressing this topic even further in her column appearing in the upcoming April/May 2013 issue of Paleo Magazine.
2. Caveman imagery
Unga bunga! One of the most interesting aspects of the Paleo diet is the popular marketing of it as “The Caveman Diet.” When I first interviewed Professor Loren Cordain on “The Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb Show” podcast in 2009, he said the media immediately took his groundbreaking 2002 book release The Paleo Diet and attached this caveman imagery to it ostensibly to discredit and mock the idea that we should all start living like cavemen again. Of course, that’s not at all what Paleo is about to those of us who eat and live this way. But the characterization has stuck. In fact, several Paleo bloggers have embraced the caveman concept to the point that they include it in the name of their blog with a cute little cartoon character image of their little Paleo buddy, including Mark Sisson, George Bryant, Badier Velji and Dr. Colin Champ, just to name a few prominent ones. Heck, there’s even a new food truck that has emerged in the past year called the “Caveman Truck” by Shelby Malaterre in Indianapolis, Indiana with a caveman dude named “Pal Leo” plastered across the side. While I can see the value in use the caveman imagery as a creative tool for drawing some people into the Paleo lifestyle, there’s no doubt a lot of people who are turned off by it. In my podcast interview with Paleoista author Nell Stephenson in 2012, she noted to me that it’s not necessary for Paleo to be “cave-y” to attract people to the core components of what makes it work. She says it’s possible to have the ancestral nutrition without having to copy all the actions of the ancestral lifestyle. Nells says you may attract a lot more females to Paleo if we can ditch the caveman characterization. Maybe there’s room for both, but this is an issue that should at least be considered moving forward.
3. Low-carb antagonism
This is another one of those issues that just refuses to go away but still very much remains a threat to Paleo going forward. In February 2012, I wrote a blog post entitled “What’s With The Antagonism About Low-Carb From The Paleo Community Lately?” after noticing a steady drumbeat of anger and just plain ugliness towards people who choose to lean more towards the low-carb end of what Chris Kresser describes as “the Paleo template.” While not everyone needs to be low-carb (something I’ve readily stated time and time again as I’ve encouraged people to “find what works for you”), the fact is a well-formulated low-carb Paleo plan is an extremely effective way to help a great number of people frustrated by obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance and other such chronic health and weight issues get themselves back on the right track. By dismissing a real foods-based low-carb nutritional plan as a viable first choice option for creating the desired therapeutic benefits, the anti-low-carb wing of the Paleo community is cutting off a large segment of the population who could stand to benefit from the overall Paleo message. Perhaps once these people begin seeing benefits from the significant reduction in their carbohydrate consumption they can start tweaking around with foods like sweet potatoes and other such things to test how their blood sugar and other key health markers respond. But if members of the Paleo community keep putting out negative messages like eating a low-carb diet will lower your thyroid function and thus should be avoided at all costs (when it’s quite possible a low-carb Paleo plan is PRECISELY what they need to be doing), then that only causes harm to the cause. We’re on the same team and we’d be better served working together than against one another. I don’t know why there is such animosity and antagonism towards those of us who choose to eat a very low-carb ketogenic-style Paleo diet (because we have to), but this is another one of those nagging issues that won’t go away unless it is adequately addressed.
4. Negative bloggers
Speaking of negativity, it seems the Paleo blogosphere has become inhabited by several individuals who have made it their sole purpose in life is to spread lies, rumors and hatred about various people within the community who are fully dedicated to the mission of the Paleo lifestyle. I’ve been blogging at “Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb” for eight years and realize that this kind of thing just comes with the territory when you put yourself out there sharing information about your life. The funny thing is you’d expect vegetarians and vegans to act this way towards bloggers who are promoting animal-based foods as part of a healthy diet–but not people who purport to eat a low-carb and/or Paleo diet. While most of my fellow low-carb and Paleo health bloggers are providing some truly outstanding information and encouragement to their readers, there are a few who do nothing more than spread negativity and dissension in everything they do. In my opinion, these people don’t add any value to the Paleo community and are like a cancer that spreads within if left unchecked. If you can’t add anything positive to the conversation, then I just don’t have the time or energy to waste on you. It would behoove the people in this community who want to see Paleo become more widely accepted by the mainstream to stop giving these negative nannies the attention they so desperately crave and whose true motive is to halt the progress that has been happening. It’s okay to disagree, but being disagreeable in the process benefits nobody.
5. Support positive influences
In contrast to the previous issue regarding negative bloggers, I think it’s extremely important to lend support to those people who are doing great work spreading the Paleo message. I attempt to do this regularly by highlighting new blogs and podcasts, retweeting items of interest I see on Twitter, providing encouraging words and advice on Facebook pages, leaving comments on blogs I love and enjoy and, of course, featuring those people who are making a difference on one of my podcasts. People always ask me how they can get involved in the Paleo community more and I am constantly pushing people to start their own blog if they like to write, create a new podcast if you’ve got the gift of gab, make YouTube videos if you enjoy being in front of the camera–ANYTHING you can do to share Paleo with those people in your sphere of influence is a good thing. And as your work gets out there, others of us will pick up on it and share what you are doing to show the world that this is a lifestyle they should consider trying for themselves. This is where I choose to devote my time and energy to as a means for pushing the Paleo message out into the open so that many millions more can be changed by it.
6. Lean meats mantra
One of my pet peeves about the Paleo community are those who promote the idea of eating “lean meats” as opposed to fatty ones. While I understand we are all on our own journey to health through a variety of ways along that Paleo template, there are far too many people who begin eating a low-carb Paleo plan and think a chicken breast is a good option because they were encouraged to eat “lean meats” in books like the Loren Cordain classic The Paleo Diet. After all, that chicken breast is 99% fat-free and you can’t get much more “lean” than that! Unfortunately, the predictable happens when people eat a green leafy salad with grilled chicken breast on top–they get ravenously hungry two hours later and wonder why anyone would choose to eat this way on purpose. Anyone been down that road before? I realize dietary fat is still a dirty word in most health circles these days, but this is our opportunity to explain why MORE of the right kind of fats are good for you to consume, even saturated fat. As long as we keep talking about “lean meats” as part of the Paleo diet, it only continues the mistaken idea that dietary fat is the enemy in our diet. Refined and processed sugars and whole grains are the true enemies of our diet along with pro-inflammatory vegetable oils and other highly-processed modern-day “health” foods like soy. This is all a part of the education process even for people like Cordain who has since clarified his support for saturated fat on a Paleo diet by writing an entire chapter about it in his 2012 book The Paleo Answer.
7. Metabolically broken
My podcasting buddy Angelo Coppola recently created an interesting new blog he calls “Humans Are Not Broken” extending the idea he shares quite often on his “Latest In Paleo” podcast that “human beings are not broken by default.” And I tend to agree with Angelo’s statement. But I have a special place in my heart for those dear people who are seemingly doing all of the right things in their Paleo diet, fitness and lifestyle and still failing to see the results they desire in their weight and health. I’ve been there myself which is what started me to begin my n=1 testing of nutritional ketosis in May 2012 that has so far resulted in more than 60 pounds being shed off of my body (and counting!) along with various other health improvements. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I am metabolically challenged, damaged, deranged, broken…however you want to describe it. Decades of consuming pure unadulterated carbage have taken their toll on me metabolically and now I’m paying for it by being required to be a lot more strict about my diet than I otherwise would have been. My amazingly courageous Paleo blogging and podcasting friend Stacy Toth from the “Paleo Parents” blog wrote a post about this very subject entitled “Why the Metabolically Broken Can’t Eat Carbs.” She and I are not alone in this internal battle with our own bodies to return to some semblance of normal again. It’s not like we aren’t trying hard enough or doing the same things that others in the Paleo community are doing that is producing great success in them. And yet people like me and Stacy are perhaps looked down upon as gluttons, slothful or failing to meet some unspoken expectations of someone who is supposed to be doing Paleo. Acknowledging that this journey is a lot more difficult for some of us who might be metabolically broken in some form or fashion would be quite inviting to those people who may not see spectacular results when they first start doing Paleo.
8. Commercial success
As with any movement that begins to build an audience and branch out into the mainstream, the opportunities for commercial success are sure to follow. I’m always amazed whenever I hear people actually criticize the capitalistic ventures of highly-respected people in this community like Mark Sisson and his accompanying Primal Blueprint product line or the brand new PaleoLogix supplements brand created by Robb Wolf and Chris Kresser. How much FREE information have those three men alone given out to the Paleo community over the years to help start this Paleo revolution we are now seeing? Don’t they deserve to be remunerated for literally investing tens of thousands of hours into the lives of others at no charge? I certainly think so. And I’ve even heard this same complaint about the work that I do because I have sponsors on my sites and I solicit donations from those who find benefit in my work. Never mind the fact that all of my three podcasts that air five days a week, my blog, my forum, my YouTube videos and so much more are all 100% FREE to anyone who chooses to partake of them. I’m a strong believer in working hard, providing quality content and being appropriately rewarded for your efforts. One of the ways Paleo will become a part of the overall nutrition and health conversation is to have businesses and business ventures succeed in the marketplace of ideas and dollars. That’s why it’s encouraging to see so many Paleo books making it on the bestsellers lists and companies like Pre-made Paleo, Primal Paleo Concepts and Louise’s Foods providing consumers with quality real food-based items to enhance their Paleo lifestyle. We shouldn’t fear commercial success, but should embrace it as a means for expanding the Paleo message even further into the mainstream.
9. Building the community
I’ve heard it time and time again from people I come into contact with wanting to be a part of the Paleo community but unsure about how to go about doing it or have hesitations about putting themselves out there (see #4). Growing the community and making our presence known will tell the world that this lifestyle we are promoting is indeed “normal” and that they too should give it a try for themselves. It’s not enough to just rely on those of us who are already out there because there are millions of people who stand ready to learn about Paleo and give it a try for themselves. When that huge influx of new people looking to begin on their own Paleo and/or low-carb lifestyle change, we need a front line of defense in place and ready to go to help assist them in their efforts. Just as so many of you got your start eating and living this way thanks to the work of people like Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, Tom Naughton, Chris Kresser, Diane Sanfilippo, Art DeVany or me, so too does the next generation of Paleo followers need their own inspiration to get going and doing this in earnest. Building the community in this way should be a major priority of the Paleosphere and the sooner the better. Google Trends is showing an explosion of growth in Paleo over the past couple of years. Are we ready for the next big influx expected later in 2013 and beyond?
And finally, let’s address that annoying little “p” word known as perfection. Diane Sanfilippo from “Balanced Bites” says demanding Paleo perfection is “paralyzing others” from even attempting to begin this journey of giving up sugar, grains, vegetable oils and all of the other core principles that make up Paleo. She’s got it exactly right when she states that “You have to understand where people are coming from before you can throw a list of rules and dos/don’ts at them thinking it’ll be possible for them to ‘just do it.'” And that statement is so very true. Sadly, too many people seem to think Paleo is an all-or-nothing proposition. But I absolutely love how Dallas and Melissa Hartwig at “The Whole 30” describe this as a work in “progress, not perfection.” Here’s a key quote from their post: “Follow the rules, but don’t self-impose perfection. Changing your life doesn’t happen in just 30 days, so think about this as ‘kaizen’ (continual progress or improvement), not ‘flip the switch’ to Paleo perfection by Day 30.” The sooner we stop ridiculing people on Paleo who happen to do non-Paleo things from time to time, the sooner we will gain better acceptance by those who have been brainwashed into believing that must be 100% on target all the time or they are a failure. That’s the mentality that so many of us grew up with regarding diet and that anything that wasn’t low-fat, high-carb that crossed our lips doomed us to a lifetime of obesity and disease. It’s time to break that cycle and embrace the pursuit and the journey rather than perfection. That simple concept alone could make Paleo more attractive to people than anything.
What do you think about these 10 critical issues I believe the Paleo community must address in order for this message to continue progressing forward into the mainstream? Is there anything else that you think might be pressing and warrant more attention? Feel free to share your comments about what I’ve shared as well as your own ideas in the comments section below.