Why I Hate Saying, “I’m Paleo”

As many of you know, I’ve been about the paleo life for about a year and a half now. Last April (2014), I decided to do a month-long paleo challenge to see what all the fuss was about and…I was sold. I loved the new relationship that I developed with food and health more broadly. I loved my new understandings of how different foods affected my mind and body. I loved the motivation to be creative in the kitchen – trying new techniques and flavors as well as varying my produce and meats. What I have enjoyed the least about “being paleo” is having to navigate awkward social/dining situations. Recently, I’ve found myself saying things like, “I’m not eating grains right now,” or “I’m staying away from gluten at the moment,” as a way of trying to draw less attention and not be the weird-eating girl. 

Like most buzz words, “paleo” functions to convey information succinctly and efficiently, but with that comes oversimplification. While telling someone that I’m “paleo” can be a easy way to give them a sense of my dietary preferences (assuming that they are familiar with the term), it can also lead to being stereotyped as a cross-fit obsessed freak who eats insane amounts of meat and walks around barefoot. 

This overly simplistic understanding of the paleo lifestyle often gives way to substance-less critiques of the paleo diet that ignore both the foundational ideas behind it and the fact that “living paleo” goes far beyond food. For example, the fact that our cavemen ancestors didn’t have very long lifespans is one of the most common critiques of paleo. This is a fact that no one who lives the paleo life would contest. We would, however, note that our ancestors also lacked the inventions of modern medicine and often encountered predators that no longer roam the Earth. While it’s easy enough to retort this critique of the diet, this conversation distracts us from thinking about the ideas that underly the paleo lifestyle. Paleo is not a nostalgic quest. It is not about resisting modernity or mimicking a pre-existing time. Rather than doing a strict compare and contrast between modern human beings and our caveman ancestors, it’s more productive to think about the framework that history provides for thinking about present day.

When we examine health historically, the positive correlation between the increased “production” of food through industrial development and the decline of our overall health is evident. Paleo forces us to confront the impacts that over-development and capitalism have had on our minds and bodies. It asks us to question the information about food and nutrition that we have been fed (pun intended) for years and to start listening to our bodies. It highlights the uncertainty of “fact” by exposing flawed scientific studies. It makes us uncomfortably aware of how our health is linked to larger social, political, and economic structures over which we as individuals have little control. 

So while I might find myself saying, “I’m paleo” as a quick reference, I do so in hopes that it will open a space to think critically and holistically about healthy living. 

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