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Mar 26, 2015

Paleo is a stupid cult, and it is killing people

A toxic mix of scientism and a delusional belief in pseudo-history have created a world in which we pick and choose easy "answers", rather than search for actual knowledge.


In shocking news recently and less recently and, really, since there was scholarly response about the nutty matter to hand, the Paleo Diet might not be evolutionary perfection on a plate. The meat-rich eating plan might increase, and not decrease, as is claimed by its profiteering advocates, the risk of colorectal cancers, and despite cheerleading by its slender celebrity squad, it’s about as sustainable an energy source as coal. You don’t endorse a commercially popular “movement” that relies on the mass-farming of beasts and get to claim you’re getting back to nature. It doesn’t matter how artisanal or grass-fed your steak is, it remains, rare or well done, a product with an immense carbon hoof-print.

But let’s set aside the irritating matter of the planet and ignore the claims of pseudo-sustainability for meat made by the I Quit Sugar cult and others. Popular diets, however compassionately they choose to market themselves, are rarely designed to save the world and appeal almost exclusively to an idea of individual “wellness” — the new and acceptable term for thin. But we’ll make-believe for the sake of argument that this caveman bunkum — and all promotional urging to nature from Belle Gibson to Atkins — is commercially responsible and that increasing the demand for artisanal meat can only end well. Let’s agree with the proposition that 7 billion stomachs, nearly all of them on a direct IV to the free market, can be sustainably filled by kilos of meat every week produced by small and responsible farmers, who enrich the land and do not brutally slaughter their stock but simply bore them to death by reading them passages of Sarah Wilson’s swill.

Even if the mass production of meat can never be “natural” or a return to the proto-agricultural methods of a handful of hominids who tended to die before they were 40, let’s just overlook this selfishly liberal naivete and pretend that we can replicate the recipes of a golden, natural age.

Apparently, cave-persons were not terribly good at leaving records of their diets, and as much as the dazzling smile of Pete Evans might suggest direct spiritual access to a record of Palaeolithic menus — as much as it does expensive cosmetic dentistry — he might not actually be a credentialed scientific authority on this particular matter. There are people, such as anthropologists, who are not simply content to dream the diets of our ancestors, but instead actively study the foods likely to have been eaten in an era. According to the scholarship, prehistoric people ate what they could find. Which was various within a lifetime and changed drastically over regions and was not often sugar-free cacao raw-food brownies and artisanal meat.

Like all Back-to-Nature health propositions, Paleo rests on a historical fiction, and one that conveniently ignores the fact that many Stone Age eaters died of starvation or malnutrition. But not nearly as many, of course, who currently perish from the same deficiencies. It is the same global market that provides us with Paleo-friendly plastic containers of grass-fed beef that robs trade nations of calories. Paleo-friendly people, in turn, would seek to rob those same nations of the right to consume life-saving GMO crops, which are Not Natural and therefore bad. But here we go worrying about the planet and all its citizens again when, really, we should just be thinking about the privileged Western metabolism and its unassailable right to be fuelled by a made-up version of things our ancestors didn’t even eat.

Pseudo-science, pseudo-history and pseudo-sustainable claims fuel the mania for this latest dietary vanity. Since the onset of mass culture, pseudo-knowledges have been employed to sell us crap and we believe, often for long periods, that we have come to independent and logical conclusions even when they are based on bad science, scientism and marketing. The importance of vitamin supplements in fighting disease, for example, is now being deflated, and reliable science commentators explain that the notion that Vitamin C as a warrior against the common cold was never scientific fact but largely the hypothesis of a single dietician mistaken in mass culture for scientific theory. But this is the way of things now. Any single study that appeals to folk wisdom — antibiotics are bad, climate change isn’t real, measles are good — is upheld as established theory. A look at the increasingly populist Facebook page for ABC’s once reliable-and-boring and now unreliable-but-thrilling Catalyst program is testimony to our belief that we are all scientists.

We are not all scientists. We are idiots who mistake both our proximity to vast repositories of knowledge and our hunger for an easy answer, or a guilt-free, grass-fed steak, for knowledge itself. We are as selective about the “science” we choose to believe as we are about our beef. Which is to say, we choose the one with the label that best represents our identity as consumers.

It is this gullibility, which we misread as great and informed cynicism despite its manufacture by markets, that gives us Belle Gibson. It is this erroneous and terrible belief in our own wisdom that leads us to think that babies need nothing so much as they do liver terrines and “freedom” from immunisation.

We believe that all the science with which we disagree is the result of a conspiracy but all the marketing that appeals to our vanity and our faux-knowledge is somehow independent of the market. If this arrogant stupidity didn’t kill people, from the Wellness Warrior to infants, it would be funny. As it is, it’s no joke.


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31 thoughts on “Paleo is a stupid cult, and it is killing people

  1. Desmond Graham

    Didn’t they become extinct ??? Good diet !!!

  2. Sean

    The single best article I’ve read on this frustratingly presented topic. Spot on.

  3. Art Randolph

    Once again Razer hits it out of the park. Articles like this keep me subscribing to Crikey.

  4. Steven Grant Haby


    Another well written article / rant on these obsessions with ridiculous diets and so on.

    You’ve called it for what it is … a cult.

    Well done Ms R.


  5. Duncan Gilbey

    The good thing about fads is that they don’t last long. The bad thing is that there’s always another one coming.

  6. Sean

    Funnily enough there is a lot to disagree with in Helen’s article, although I often sympathise with her work.

    Her treatment of what science is and is not and what Paleolithic people ate or didn’t eat and how long or short they lived and why or why not, and why trivial measles is bad but vaccines with pretty questionable safety profiles are good, GMO products are not longitudinally tested for safety and are designed for profit and not to feed the poor but here, have some more (despite a few experimental strains causing lesions and cancers), the world population has exploded and is starving due to various factors not really touched on, and it is irrelevant to our biology and digestion anyhow, are themselves subjective claims to the truth, and not necessarily the absolute truth. And a few more things I might choose to pick at when I get to a real keyboard and off this smartphone.

    Oh, and I have a science degree including studies in human biology, immunology and epidemiology, and a major in anthropology, and work these days in logic. Will talk anthropology and diet and longevity once I get to a bigger computing device.

    1. Warwick Saunders

      What rot. Do you even provide one source? Classic troll.

  7. Vicki Brous

    I take your points about Paleo eating which I am trying out even though I agree on the mass cult attitudes and climate change issues, however where do you get that “antibiotics are bad for you” is folk lore? Any one with any medical knowledge and experience will tell you that as a society we have become overly dependent on antibiotics. Yes, this is fact and yes this is bad, because if you get sick and there are no antibiotics that will fix you, well you will die! Since when was that folk lore?

  8. Sean

    Certainly it has artifacts of a fad and a religion and has a few requisite weird rituals and the smugness and superiority that goes with all good religions and fads and preys on today’s individualistic self-obsession about health and beauty, and, yes, his teeth are all wrong nd it’s a midlife money spinner, but that’s not to say its reasoning is entirely invalid from a health perspective.

    Naturally this article will appeal to the cognitive biases of the worst pseudosceptics in the crikey collective and they’ll all come out of the woodwork to nod and harrumph and stroke their beards, thus validating all the incorrect assertions and cultural memes repeated here that say keep doing what you’re doing, science and medicine and giant agribusiness are great and not the least corrupted by money, etc…

  9. Rais

    One thing I don’t quite follow is how grass-fed beef is a product with an immense carbon hoof-print. They’re eating grass, not grain. Grass doesn’t require a big carbon input to grow and being green vegetation it absorbs some carbon from the atmosphere. The cattle emit methane but this is a short lived gas in the atmosphere. Cereals and legumes on the other hand do require a large carbon input to grow and harvest them on an industrial scale.

  10. Gregory Grasshopper

    Ouch. Double bite there about Catalyst and historical fiction!

  11. Gregory Grasshopper

    Rais…methane has a very long term impact in the atmosphere. Tips are better off burning their methane waste emissions and letting the CO2 go than just letting the methane free. Google arctic permafrost methane, you will be shocked

  12. esf rdggrd

    why is paleo horseshit?

    olive oil, first used around 6000bc is in – AOK
    lentils, used as far back as 8-9-10000bc – OUT

  13. David Ritchie

    Totally agree about the cult nature of Paleo but not with the attack on grass fed free range beef as part of a balanced diet. GMO definitely not proven and is promoted by chemical companies with such wonderful track records as Monsanto and Bayer – not much comfort there!
    Perhaps industrial agriculture and the amount of waste (up to 50%) in modern food production/ distribution/consumption should be addressed by Helen Razer rather than a veiled attack on meat eaters. But Msynd I’m missing something – just a simple farmer.

  14. mark petrolo

    Sean, simply pointing out the flaws of GMO products and agribusiness does not make the paleo diet any less ridiculous. Mass produced food has not solved world hunger but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t fed millions more than an elite handful of insufferable people grazing on pretentious artisanal hipster fare.

  15. Bob the builder

    Jaysus, what a mixed-up rant!

    You could have pointed out that almost any cursory – or detailed – study of foraging societies (apart from those in the Arctic) shows that meat was a small percentage of the diet, as little as 20% in many parts of Australia for instance. No need for the generalised verbal diarrhoea about paleoes, plain old facts would have sufficed.

    You idiot, GMO’s are not life-saving crops, unless you’re talking about the lives of well-fed western business leaders. In all your kuhl kid blah you haven’t bothered to actually think. Google the ‘Green Revolution’ and go on from there…

    Yes, paleo and all these other silly fads are rubbish – and selfish to boot – but no, being sceptical about non-natural foods and medicines is not. Sceptical, not anti-scientific.

    This feels more like your own self-doubt about your own reasons for food gardening, Razer, and a distancing from hipster foodies that you’re afraid you’re a part of, than any reasoned argument about food production.

    Please either re-write or never broach this subject again.

  16. Nick Kenny

    I think I’ve finally found a media outlet I am stimulated by. I thought regular, decent, original and clever work no longer existed… I’ve been saved! Consider yourself subscribed. (Jesus I sound like a spruiker).

  17. matt kennedy

    Jesus Razor, you were fun and contentious in the early days of JJJ but now you’re just a female Victor Meldrew. I expect poorly researched drivel from The Herald Sun and Fox, not from Crikey.

    I’d usually assume you were perhaps using your own reasonable logic and simply clutching at straws, but your baloney is borderline plagiarism of the misinformation that every other lazy hack has pulled from the interwebs and the odd old copy of Woman’s Day.

    This deserves a long response but it’s 6am and I’m on my phone, so:

    Paleo has NEVER been about eating what cavemen ate. Ever. This notion exists ONLY in the minds of idiots and lazy researchers.

    Paleo is NOT all about meat. Paleo is mostly (good) fats, with meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds and FAR MORE vegetables than most vegans and vegetarians. (How can that be? Because we don’t eat ‘fillers’ like grains which make up the BULK of the diet of most vego folk.

    Meat CAN be sustainable and much of it IS in Australia. We don’t live in the USA where cattle are fed corn and waste candy (look it up!). Most of our cattle is grazed on land where NOTHING else can grow. But even if grass-fed meat wasn’t sustainable, it doesn’t mean it’s not FAR more nutrient dense and better for us than a bowl of pasta with some garlic bread on the side. We have our big brains because of meat, not because of Corn Flakes.

    Read ‘Meat. A Benign Extravagance’ a truly scientific book which turned George Monbiot away from veganism (which had made him ill).

    The biggest environmental disaster food-wise is monocrops. That’s grains and seed oils. And yes, the dumbest thing ever is growing grain and shipping it to farms to feed to cattle (where, just like with us, it makes them fat and sick) which is why I eat grass fed.

    And Paleo is NOT expensive!
    If you want to follow all the funky recipes, sure. It can be exy. Just like Jamie Oliver’s recipes. For most of the past 3yrs I’ve been church-mouse poor, yet I eat Paleo/slow-card/primal/whatever very cheaply. Grass fed meat from Aldi, grass fed butter from NZ at $2 pack (Westgold), veggies eggs and chicken* from Footscray market and my yard. *okay my chicken and bacon is the cheap stuff most of the time but I still eat far better than most Australians on $100k+

    As for nutritionists. Pah. Ask ANY scientist about the field of nutrition and they’ll tell you it’s regarded as the LEAST scientific stream within the health/medical world and embraces dogma over the ‘scientific method’ en masse.

    The great thing about the leaders in the Paleo world (and Pete dippy Evans is NOT one) is that they all have a science background and they have ALL altered their positions on various issues (fish oil dose, safe starches, nitrites etc.) as better science has come along.
    I suggest you get your head out of the chaff-bag and do the same.

    Matt in Footscray

  18. matt kennedy

    Oops. Razer not Razor. I blame sleeplessness and iPhone autocorrect.

  19. matt kennedy

    PS: While a lot of the loony fringe have been jumping on the Paleo bandwagon as it’s become more popular, it should be noted that the Paleo/Primal/Ancestral/slow-carb/HFLC movement has never been anti-vax, pro colloidal silver, anti-amalgam or even anti-fluoridation. And no, we don’t think Chen-trails are drugging the planet either. It’s simply this:
    Eat real food* (things you could pick or kill, seasonally if possible) move naturally, and keep an eye on the science.

    *grains as we know them aren’t real food for any mammal. We all know how they make cows fat (and sick) and those ruminant lumps of dullness are far better equipped to deal with them than us. Grains have anti predation proteins to resist being eaten because they’re not like fruit – they don’t have seeds that need to be pooped out in a lump of rich fertiliser. Their reproduction is self contained. If a grain is eaten then it’s dead. It can’t reproduce. Yes, grains have helped us to survive, but because of them, few of us ‘thrive’. Ditch your Wheeties and grab a couple of eggs and some spinach. Ditch your sambos and make a Thai chicken salad instead. If eating Paleo/Primal looks dull then you don’t like food!

  20. Legs

    The thing I don’t understand not-about-cavemen-but-called-paleo diet is what can be wrong about whole unprocessed grains and legumes? These are nutritious healthy foods humans have been surviving and ‘thriving’ on for a long time. The idea we can’t process them is tenuous and BS.

    Producing grain and legumes is much more efficient in a hungry world – affluent meat centric fad diets do nothing to help with global food supply.

  21. Brighita Algeri

    You’ve missed the point of Paleo completely. Perhaps you should do your research first before spewing hate on those who choose to look nice in skinny jeans. Which I do. Because I follow the Paleo lifestyle.

  22. AR

    I wouldn’t mind in the least whichever stupid fad diet was killing wankers – it is the killing of the planet in general and our soils specifically with hard hooved, euroid mammals and fossil fuel dependent agriculture to which I object.
    The only cattle in Oz that grow on native grasses are the Brahma cross that we export live to points north for pre slaughter fattening.
    The beef eaten by us is grown on heavily idustrialised grass pastures before fattening in feedlots.
    Razer is more like Victoria Mildew, noxious and irritating.

  23. Gabrielle Schammer

    The last paragraph perfect.

  24. Chris Hartwell

    How many mammoth have you hunted recently Brightia?

  25. Dogs breakfast

    Gordon Bennett. The article is an excellent slapdown Helen. Unfortunately the blathering classes didn’t quite pick up the nuance.

    Apparently the line about ignoring science and following the latest marketed fad was too subtle for many of the commenters.

    And apparently one subscriber has been duped into the line that meat made out brains big!

    Well, only some of us, is all I can respond.

  26. paul waldren

    Really poorly researched article Helen. Do the math on soil damage by commercial crops versus grazing. You may be surprised. Also, if we loose the silly pale label, most advocates are recommending small serves of protein (100g) with an abundance of vegetables – just real food, produced with sustainable, responsible farming practices. Cant be a bad thing?

  27. Marty Kendall

    Here’s some real data comparing dietary approaches… https://optimisingnutrition.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/best_diet/

  28. Amy Ekstrom

    You, my dear, are a misinformed dumbass…to put it in your chosen form of diatribe. You obviously know very little about paleo other than maybe what you choose to select to read that is against it. But regardless of what paleo is or is not…I believe someone below commented on that, you are totally out of touch with what many consumers are asking for…which is to know more about where their food came from, to grow their own food, and to buy food directly from farmers. Farmers markets have grown substantially over recent years, the foodie movement is all about having some sort of genealogy record of where the food came from, and many young adults are going into small scale farming instead of corporate jobs. There will always be those that eat whatever commercial tv splashes in front of them, those that won’t eat meat of any kind, and those that move from one fad diet to the next. What you also are apparently out of touch with is the incredible rates of disease facing many children and adults in developed countries. People are looking for some sort of answer because the medical community is not finding it. So what the hell does it matter to you if someone finds relief from an autoimmune disease by eating a certain way? And while you are spewing untruths about kids dying why don’t you look up the rates of children with diabetes and heart disease because they are eating a modern diet full of processed foods. While you are at it why don’t you look at how many children are starving although they are fed tons of breads and processed foods from food banks and from whatever their parents can buy on food assistance or in an inner city where there is no access to fresh foods. Everyone should do their research and not blindly follow anything anyone says, scientist, doctor and certainly not Facebook, but most DEFINITELY not you!

    1. Lesley Graham

      You are the dumbass, you just don’t want to accept the truth, and the fact that the Paleo Warrior’s like Pete Evans who don’t ever back up their claims with evidence are no better than the snake oil salespeople from the past.
      I also suggest before you get on you soap box, you actually look at the amount of young babies & children who are either to young to be immunised, being killed by preventable illnesses, because the type of thinking being driven by these rich uninformed self appointed “experts,” that surround themselves with people that aren’t brave enough to contest his “theories” or where his “evidence” actually comes from. Being gullible enough to fall for much of this nonsense is the quickest way to get someone you love in real trouble, or end up dying from an illness that is entirely preventable. If you bother Amy to actually do your research, there are many young children who have lost their lives because their parents have fallen in with this cult mentality, that faith, belief & a “special die/medicine” will cure their child of whatever ills them, and often ends up killing them, there are many examples of this happening. We need to start being aware of what damage these personalities cause and their unwillingness to admit that the likes of Pete Evans, not only have youth on their side, but have also been blessed with good health & good looks, some of us are not as lucky in the health department. I used to be one of those people that was alternative in this way, but once my health deteriorated I realised that we have to fall back onto good old science as there isn’t in all reality anything else we can do. We are lucky we are living in an age where, on the whole we have this choice if a health issue does crop up, only 100 years ago we didn’t have this choice, if your illness didn’t fit in with the limited knowledge they had, you bang out of luck, even if the doctors, scientists were familiar with whatever illness you had, it didn’t mean they necessarily had any sort of medication to halt the progress of the illness. Even now there are still medications whose side effects are worst than the disease/illness. But we need to be practical, science isn’t perfect, and I agree this Paleo diet, isn’t the answer, we need to be aware that there are many factors that contribute to keeping us healthy, (mind & body) people espousing one solution, need to be treated with a great amount of suspicion & and “wisdom” they convey on their awaiting fans needs to be taken with a grain of salt. (at best)

    2. Desmond Graham

      “Everyone should do their research”-Not everyone is capable doing research what you really mean is that one should do their own reading because it that is exactly what they do – they do not do research.
      So it comes back to everyone reading what they wanted to read -so convincing themselves what they are already convinced of. Precisely what the article says. Glad you agree.

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