Monday, August 22, 2011

Paleo as a School of Thought

By Diana Hsieh

On occasion, I've noticed some consternation in the paleosphere about what constitutes a truly "paleo" approach to diet. Undoubtedly, I've got my own share of pet peeves. I'm annoyed when paleo advocates disparage saturated fat, recommend canola oil, or insist on lean meats. I don't like that many people equate paleo with low-carb, as if potatoes are on par with wheat. I regard talk against "processed" or "industrial" foods as seriously misguided, since foods are not rendered more or less healthy by mere processing or mass production per se. I'm not concerned with whether cavemen ate some particular food or not.

However, I try not to get too fussed over my disagreements with other paleo eaters and advocates. That's because, in my view, paleo is a school of thought based on early science. Let me explain what that means and why that matters.

First, "paleo" is a nutritional school of thought, not a single dietary regimen.

The major advocates of paleo nutrition offer definite recommendations on diet, based on their own experiences and their understanding of the science. We see particular diets from Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, etc. Similarly, various paleo bloggers and eaters have their own ideas about better and worse diets.

The idea of "eating paleo" should not be equated with any one of these diets. Rather, it's an abstraction based on the core of similarity between them. What is that core of similarity? I identified it pretty well at the top of Modern Paleo's Principles, I think. It says:

The core of paleo is the diet: it eschews grains, sugars, and modern vegetable oils in favor of high-quality meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables.
That's not the particular diet of Modern Paleo. That's what advocates of a paleo diet agree on and advocate, first and foremost. People who disagree with that -- as do low-carbers or Weston A. Price followers -- just aren't paleo. Of course, they might be friendly and interesting to us paleo-eaters! But they're not paleo.

Basically, "paleo" is like a school of thought in philosophy which encompasses the work of many philosophers (like positivism or existentialism) rather than the ideas of just one philosopher (like Objectivism or Platonism). It's a useful grouping of ideas, because it identifies real and important commonalities, even though its borders may not be clearly defined... yet.

As a result, we should not expect perfect agreement between the various paleo-advocates. We will disagree, perhaps vehemently at times. But absent some departure from that core of similarity, all sides will be just as much "paleo" as ever.

Second, "paleo" is based on a growing body of scientific literature, not dogma.

The science of nutrition is in its infancy, and we have much to learn about it. Over the next few decades, we can expect to learn a whole heck of a lot. Do I expect to learn that corn dogs fried in soybean oil are the epitome of health? No, I expect the basic framework of paleo to remain intact. That's not just because of already-established science, but also because the evolutionary approach to nutrition is correct and useful. Still, I expect all kinds of interesting and useful discoveries -- and people's views will change as a result, just as Cordain changed his views on saturated fat and canola oil over the last few years.

If some paleo folks advocate views that aren't warranted by the scientific evidence, others should speak up in disagreement, pointing out the flaws in their stance. We don't need to feign solidarity: we need to get the facts right! If people are honest, they'll correct themselves with time. If not, then they'll be increasingly ignored -- and justly so. Basically, I expect the truth to win out in the paleo community, because most people care more about the facts than about "their side" of some dispute.

So when someone in the paleo community advocates something that seems wacky, consider whether it has any merit -- and if not, then explain your disagreement. But don't worry that we're all going to hell in a handbasket over these kinds of disagreements. They're something we should expect, and they'll sort themselves out with time.

Happily, that seems to be the standard approach -- or at least, that's exactly what I saw at the Ancestral Health Symposium in the debates about carbohydrates. Hopefully, that will continue for all the other debates on the horizon -- about supplements, fitness, fats, dairy, and so on.

Personally, I try to read a wide variety of sources, perform some n=1 tests on myself, and report the results, in the hopes that they'll be useful to others. If that puts me at odds with some paleo luminaries, as happens sometimes, so be it. We'll figure it out eventually!

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