Hunting the paleo beast: what does the caveman diet craze say about us?

Illustration: Matt Davidson.
Illustration: Matt Davidson. 

What's happened to Pete Evans? The chef best known for his role on TV's My Kitchen Rules looks so healthy as to be otherworldly. Were there ever teeth so white? Eyes so incandescently blue? Surely it's Photoshop… or is it paleo, the diet for which he has become a poster boy?

Otherwise known as the caveman diet, paleo is the latest contribution to the time-honoured oeuvre of The Diet That Will Change Your Life.

On the front cover of his latest cookbook, Family Food ("130 Delicious Paleo Recipes for Every Day"),  Evans' eyes and teeth glow with alarming luminescence. It's a bestseller in the competitive Christmas market, despite advocating a fairly radical reappraisal of the modern diet. In fact, it advises ditching the modern diet and returning to the eating habits of our ancestors – yes, those cavemen from the paleolithic era, between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago. That means a hunter-gatherer lifestyle: plenty of meat and vegetables, and eschewing the trappings of industrial agriculture – no rice, legumes, wheat, dairy, sugar and processed oils such a rice bran and canola. This indeed is a transformative diet. Actually, transformative doesn't go far enough. Revolutionary is more like it - especially when Evans dedicates his book to its everyday users in far more masculine tones than recipes for chia porridge and pumpkin muffins could reasonably hope to expect: "There is a health revolution dawning and you are on the front lines of the battlefield."

To all the people groaning along on the currently fashionable 5:2 diet, in which they fast for two days every week, it might look like a walk in the park. The vexed question of how to eat and what to eat has plagued humanity since the invention of fire. Yet paleo seems to have set up a very profitable shop in the grey area of modern dietetics. It advocates, for example, the healthfulness of butter, which after years of being declared a "bad" fat has been given a leave pass by dieticians now saying saturated fat, consumed in moderation, isn't the devil in disguise. So too its low-carb focus, which dovetails with new thinking that the high-carb, low-fat focus of the 1980s and `90s actually made us fatter.

In a nutshell (a paleo in-joke, by the way – nuts are highly esteemed by these modern hunter-gatherers), paleo feeds off consumer disquiet that we've been fed questionable dietary advice by government and health bodies with occasionally vested interests (the ABC's Catalyst program came in for a serve last month for advocating a low-carb diet; the dairy and meat-heavy CSIRO Wellbeing Diet had its credentials dented when it was revealed to have received funding from Meat and Livestock Australia, and Dairy Australia). If even a government-funded body pushes a diet described by experts as "a bit of science with a lot of hype", it's easy to see disillusioned people shrugging their shoulders and throwing their nutritional lot in following a chef with bluer-than-blue eyes. As "Rachel" posts on Evans' Facebook page, "You are awesome Pete. So sick of reading all the negative media about you from so-called 'health experts'."

Paleo posterboy: Pete Evans.
Paleo posterboy: Pete Evans. Photo: Supplied

"Clearly there's a crisis of legitimacy," says University of Melbourne lecturer in food and politics Gyorgy Scrinis, author of Nutritionism. "It's easy to see the flourishing of all these nutritional movements since the 1990s caused by people's lack of faith in the official guidelines."

Paleo's rejection of processed foods is quite appealing,  but the science underpinning it is questionable, he says. "Simply eating something because humans ate it 50,000 years ago is pretty flimsy. Among other things, it fails to take into account that paleolithic people didn't die of chronic disease simply because of their shorter life spans. They died thanks to accidents and infectious disease."

By way of justification, the paleo brigade points to the fact that despite 40 solid years of dietary pyramids and plates -  the composition of which have changed quite markedly -obesity rates continue to climb. Nutrition is taught in schools, yet 63 per cent of all Australians are now overweight. Health guidelines appear inert in the face of crisis.

Chew on this: the paleo diet is protein-heavy.
Chew on this: the paleo diet is protein-heavy. 

"Traditional health authorities basically say the same thing over and over again: eat less, move more, and so on," says cultural theorist Dr Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. "Such advice isn't new, fashionable or quick… so people seek other sources of information."

In terms of the true healthfulness of their diet, says Scrinis, paleo advocates would be surprised to hear they're probably more aligned to traditional agricultural and peasant diets than the processed food diets of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Dietician Rosemary Stanton has warned going paleo has the potential to cause bowel cancer (all that red meat) as well as nutritional deficiencies (thanks to ignoring whole food groups such as grains), and Evans appears to stray into its nuttier fringes when he claims it can help cure autism and polycistic ovary syndrome, among other things. Yet its wholefood focus gets a tick from Scrinis, as well as the emphasis on meat sustainably and ethically raised.

But let's turn the tables. Ask not what the experts say about paleo; what does paleo say about us? Is it the dictum "you are what you eat", given a 21st century celebrity spin with the chef as modern food guru? Certainly one of the lessons of 2014 is that the hedonistic enjoyment of food is so – well, so yesterday. George Calombaris, another high-profile chef thanks to MasterChef, recently shed more than 20 kilograms thanks to, he says, a wholefoods diet – which ties in nicely with his recently opened wholefoods-based Kew cafe, Mastic.  It doesn't seem such a coincidence that chefs whose fame stems from image-conscious TV are preaching about the body beautiful.

"Like fashion, food goes through trends and inevitably, they're driven by celebrities," says Dr Rosewarne. "Celebrities don't need expertise in physiology or biology or mental health and yet we look at them for answers because we think they've got themselves sorted out. When they espouse a way of living - in the case of paleo - it is often looked at as the magic bullet to get that celebrity's life."

The diet may be based on ancient principles, but it has spread with the help of modern technology. Pinterest and Instagram heave with paleo-spiration. Hollywood stars such as Uma Thurman, Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Biel are all reportedly devotees due to its supposed weight-loss factor. The celebrity factor has turned it into dietary click-bait.

Diet is a dirty word in paleo-land. Advocates calls it a lifestyle. This "tribe", as they like to call themselves, boasts hard-core splinter factions. Evans is actually a bit of a softie with his lamb shank pie and chicken meatballs. Raw paleos eat only uncooked foods, flesh included. Instinctos go one step further and eat only what they "instinctually" hunger for, so long as it is raw and unprepared in any way, with no spices or mixing of foods.

What self-respecting bloke doesn't want to be a caveman? Paleo has become a byword for strength and masculinity. It is the diet of the self-sufficient crossfit generation. It is primal, in the very essence of the word. "Paleo taps into a number of things happening in the zeitgeist," says Rosenwarne. "It is in line with a return to more 'natural' eating. Throughout culture there are signs that people are wanting to embrace things that seem to be made in more natural, organic ways – craft brews, for example. It also fits with the idea of `fit is the new thin' - that paleo is about strength rather than weight loss."

Certainly the paleo online community is awash with images of super-fit men flashing their washboard abdominals. A picture is worth more than a thousand stuffy dieticians. Its emphasis on red meat and animal fat has helped the paleo diet take on a strongly male persona. Writer Steven Shapin has remarked that low-carb, high-protein diets such as the Atkins diet and paleo have resulted in the "masculination" of dieting, allowing men to come out of the dieting closet. "Female" foods, particularly foods marketed as low-fat, are a blokey no-no.

Could there be more underpinning the paleo craze than a healthy longing for an idealised hunter-gathering past? Dairy, for example, is rejected for its lactose content and the mere fact it wasn't around in the paleolithic era. Yet it's nothing new for dairy to be instinctively twinned with femininity. The Art of the Table, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria exploring the history of eating, shows milk was a particularly female preoccupation in the late 18th century, when dairies were established on aristocratic estates for the enjoyment of promenading noblewomen.

It's not like we expect Evans et al to justify the paleo dairy aversion based on a scientifically voracious longitudinal study of 20,000 people. If anything, it's their status as outsiders from academia and the medical profession driving their popularity. Shapin calls it the "studied rejection of credentialed expertise": "(Popular diet figures) speak a Truth inconvenient to Vested Interests."

And rugged individuals create their own diets rather than following government-sponsored healthy-eating plates. Scrinis calls them "nutricentric individuals… (who) are increasingly compelled to actively construct their own diets and nutritional worldviews. They have little choice but to do so in the face of competing nutritional claims and the erosion of traditional ways of understanding food."

Are we to believe paleo is the One Diet to Rule Them All? Information and willpower are the two ingredients crucial to the success of any diet. But maybe trumping them both, in the absence of scientific certainty, is belief. We eat together, but we diet alone. In our secular society, maybe diet is as close as we get to religion.
Paleo was the most-Googled diet of 2013 and is on track to repeat the trick for 2014. The paleo way is becoming crowded. The entire Melbourne Football Club squad has adopted the diet. Hamburger chain Grill'd is also hip to the "wellness trend sweeping the nation", as founder Simon Crowe puts it. They've just introduced a paleo-friendly "Low Carb Superbun" – assuming, of course, that cavemen ate burgers.

Fifty years of fads

1970s: Grapefruit diet

A classic quick-fix fad diet, based on eating grapefruit (which advocates say has a special fat-burning enzyme) with every meal. Because dieting shouldn't mean having no fun.

1980s: Pritikin and Scarsdale diets 

Greed was good but denial was better. Stick with these and you could die of boredom. The diet for the gym-junkie in the G-string leotard.

1990s: Zone and Atkins diets

Science reigns supreme. Calorie counting is radically jettisoned in favour of keeping the carbs down. The impressively muscled Madonna and Jennifer Anniston lead the charge. 

2000s: Dukan diet

Two words. Kate Middleton. The future Duchess of Cambridge put the high-protein Dukan on the diet map when she whittled her already trim figure down ahead of her wedding to Prince William.

2010s: Paleo diet

Get in touch with your inner caveman and flash those washboard abs. The diet for the age of social media. 

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