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May 14, 2015

Paleo idiots v facts: trying to stop the bullshit bandwagon

Our only current hope for real revelation and proper address of social problems, from obesity to mental illness, lies with science and scholarship.

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The truly phenomenal thing about a true mass culture phenomenon is rarely the book, fad, belief or thing-in-itself but the way in which taking a clear position on that thing quickly becomes an individual obligation. You can climb aboard the particular, immense bandwagon or you can throw yourself under its carriage, but if you are to outrun cultural bankruptcy, you cannot say, “I am largely unmoved by the movement of that bandwagon”.

The ice-bucket challenge was either “inspiring” and “joyous” or an empty act of self-gratification. Fifty Shades of Grey was either “inspiring” and “liberating” for women or “a handbook for domestic violence”.  The Paleo lifestyle is currently either “inspiring” and “revolutionary” for dieters or it is a pack of dangerous lies.

It certainly is true that the Paleo program of eating and Pete Evans, its most identifiable Australian advocate, make false and potentially hazardous claims and these are only inspiring to those critically un-inspirable souls otherwise likely to purchase infomercial secrets that They Don’t Want You To Know. But what is also true is that, short of burning the kale supply and slipping all the grass-fed cattle GMO grain, it is currently impossible to jam this bandwagon. At least not with recourse to facts.

On several occasions in Crikey, I have personally tried and comprehensively failed to employ widely available facts to puncture these pre-industrial tyres. I will again remind adherents of the diet that its foundational claim “All body fat is made from glucose” opposes the teachings of biochemistry. I will restate that the unanimous view of Paleo-anthropology is that nutritional claims made by Evans and Co. are more historically fantastic than Game of Thrones.

I restate that medical consensus remains diverse and undecided on the matter of “good” and “bad” fats and that the Cambridge University meta-analysis — which led to well-received but badly conceived “Loads of Lovely Animal Fat is Good For You!” headlines — remains the subject of qualified dietary debate. I say that for every morsel of pro-beef pseudo-scientific propaganda, there is a study examining the benefits of low-protein eating, especially for those in midlife, and that the mummified body of Otzi the iceman is no Palaeolithic plus. Guy had brain damage, cardiovascular disease and a gut disorder without the help of hot chips fried in canola.

Facts don’t work to detonate this phenomenon. This is for several reasons. First, “facts” to the Paleo faithful are the product of an agro-industrial behemoth supported by the evil and/or institutional naivety of the Dietitians Association of Australia and their good friends at Monsanto. They Don’t Want You To Know the “real” science that only a celebrity chef can access.

Second, I have personally learned that unless you are as profoundly tanned and cheerful as Pete Evans, you have no authority to speak on the matter of health communications.  (Seriously. I have received so many comments on my disqualifying pale appearance that I think this fallacy deserves a name: argumentum ad melanin.)

Third, it’s impossible to argue with people who feel temporarily good. Just try telling a woman who has just used Fifty Shades as a fap-aid or an ice-bucket challenger who has just got 50 “likes” on YouTube that the thing they love is rubbish. A former cream-cake habitue who has just seen their genitals for the first time in a decade thanks to the Paleo plan, which, shock, works to reduce body fat by reducing calories (who knew!?) is not going to listen to facts. Finally, any challenge to Paleo is seen by a Paleo idiot as an endorsement of the Monsanto Chemical Plastic Food Cult of Eating Late Western Industrial Cheese In A Can. Why do you want the children to die of diabesity, Helen? Why do you hate life and innocence and kale chips lightly toasted in cold-pressed natural oil?

Look. I’m not a complete tool of industry, and I know quite well that as the processed foods and broadacre crops consumed in the West move to other regions, particular diseases follow. The food activism proposed by thinkers like journalist Michael Pollan and former banker Raj Patel has no little merit. But, Paleo, a burgeoning mini-industry in itself, whose local star, Pete Evans, has recently announced his intention to make his “inspiring” recipes more “Thermomix friendly”, is hardly the voice of a revolutionary class.

The way to undo a complex biopolitical system drained of intrinsic morality is not to show me how to pour fucking bone broth into a $2000 German benchtop appliance. And don’t give me “but you can do Paleo on the cheap”. First, bullshit. How much do you earn and who in your lovely household has all this leisure time to activate an almond? (Which, by the way, is a cultivar agriculturally created by post-Palaeolithic humans.) Second, the aspirational and demonstrably false nature of this newly fat quacking duck is as market-friendly as a Happy Meal. Pollan and other slow- and ethical-food advocates have publicly decried the “principles” of a for-sale lifestyle that uses the appearance of ethics to hide its crazy capitalist core.

So. There’s no point in using facts to persuade Paleo idiots.

But recently A Current Affair tried to do just that. Evans is the subject of popular scrutiny for his lopsided “Paleo” dietary claims. That ACA, a non-news program that has previously advocated for all kinds of woo — from magnet “therapy” to the uncovering the “medical myths the big drug companies don’t want you to know” (here, we are reassured that it’s OK to sink piss while taking a course of antibiotics, TAKE THAT AGRO-INDUSTRIAL-MEDICAL COMPLEX) — chose to cover this story is curious.

Of course, it is easy to take pleasure in Pete’s pain, and it’s fun to see how, in recent days, he’s been busy taking down some of his more incendiary YouTube declarations thanks to the ACA attack. I’ve had immense fun watching his veneer crack on social and terrestrial media, and see a limp defence emerge that amounts to: How could I be dangerous when I’m just a simple chef? These claims lose a little of their intended humility when told to 1 million Facebook subscribers and about the same number of dicks sufficiently thick that they listen voluntarily to the Kyle and Jackie O Show.

Such claims seem especially disingenuous when you hear Pete utter hopes like “Where I want to take my career is to reach as many people as I can globally” or to upturn the official Australian dietary pyramid using “science”. By which we mean the borrowed, tertiary, anti-grain ramblings of slick Americans, whose Kevin Trudeau-like promises to reveal the truth They Don’t Want You To Know are enough to convince a simple chef. A simple chef who, when asked by one of the employees of the American organisation from which he attained his health coach qualification how he “got clear”, a turn of phrase not in common usage outside the Church of Scientology, answered that it was the motivational speaker Anthony Robbins who set him on the path to righteous recipes.

It’s easy to piss on Pete and the insubstantial “lifestyle” he naively advocates. It must be, because ACA has done it. But what is not so easy is to stop this bullshit bandwagon onto which hundreds of thousands have loaded their dreams and their dollars in the last few days. Pete’s Facebook page is enjoying a great surge in subscription and Kyle and Jackie O treated him to a very sympathetic spot. With every “fact”, and there were some actual and uncharacteristic facts in the ACA story, the evidence to people who don’t know or care what evidence is mounts that there is a Truth They Don’t Want You To Know.

There is, of course, no They. The market, of which Evans and the Paleo industry masquerading as a cause are a very successful part, is less often a case of conspiracy than it is of complex events. Just as Evans absolutely believes “food is medicine” that can “heal” a range of diseases including autism and multiple sclerosis, the market implicitly believes nothing. The market has no human face and no capacity for intentional evil or good. What it does have is the implicit faith of many that it can correct the world, in this case through a series of “healthy choices”.

As Pete might say, “Someone has to ring the bell, because I think a lot of people are asleep”. The belief that a simple, and woefully misinformed, chef can detonate agro-business through responsible use of a Thermomix is as deluded as the claim that better television will make a better society or that a media campaign urging us to be nice to people will prevent mental illness.

The media and the market economy they endorse don’t fix shit. These complexes unwittingly cause problems, sell solutions and then give us an occasional Woodstein to help us believe that real evil can be meaningfully revealed and addressed.

Our only current hope for real revelation and proper address of social problems, from obesity to mental illness, lies with science and scholarship. Of course, as Pete reminds us, as these processes can be compromised by the market; we remember the dietetic disgrace of the CSIRO. But the solution to this bias is not to falsely declare that there is truth They Don’t Want You To Know, because there really isn’t, but to fight for the health of the organs of reason in the hope of finding and testing real solutions to disease.

As for this bandwagon and all its easy temptations to either climb it or laugh at its absurd clientele, perhaps it’s best left to run out of fuel. Frankly, if a few lives and colons are negatively impacted by its low-fibre cheering, I don’t really mind. But, I do mind the circular nature of a debate, which sees conspiracy on both sides where, really, there is none. There is no conspiracy in the market. All there is, in this sale and critique of Big Hope, is business as usual.

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20 comments

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20 thoughts on “Paleo idiots v facts: trying to stop the bullshit bandwagon

  1. inkblot

    I love Pete Evan’s T Shirt. Excellent choice.

  2. Rosemary Stanton

    Brilliant piece, Helen.
    Having worked in human nutrition for almost 50 years and lived through dozens of dietary fads and foibles, I wish we could follow something as simple as Michael Pollan’s advice: “eat food; not too much; mostly plants”. Nothing forbidden.

  3. Helen Razer

    Thanks, Rosemary. I think this and Pollan’s other axioms really cut straight to the heart of what little can be known about nutrition. (Anyone interested in reading the piece from wish Ms Stanton quotes http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/magazine/28nutritionism.t.html?pagewanted=all)
    I also think that we have come, not just in nutrition but in other matters, to all regard ourselves as experts. I spent about two hours staring at Britannica diagrams for lipogenesis working out whether or not the Paleo claim that all fat is formed from glucose was false before I was confident enough to ring a biochemist to have it explained. It’s hard yards even for professionals to understand the complex interaction between foods, the human digestive tract and human health. That anyone can think that an uncredentialled man knows anything or that his entreaty to “do your own research” is in any way useful is beyond me.
    Yes, medical science is not perfect and it, along with the market, has offered dietary advice that turned out to be bad. But this was not through conspiracy and not through the desire to withhold truth and there is NO GOOD REASON to say medical science is a pack of lies when it is actually just a fallible process but still the very best we have.
    We are not capable of understanding complex systems. We should stop believing that we are and, in the meantime, just follow the sensible Pollan advice that includes things like “don’t eat too many things that your great grandma wouldn’t recognise as food”.

  4. John Newton

    I hear Peter’s Paleo diet is now Halal.

  5. scot mcphee

    Here’s my version of the Paleo lifestyle.

    I am cold, alone, and hungry. My brother fell off a rock and broke his leg and the next day a leopard ate him. Then Fghuilloodtleopolo the great sky god sent a pestilence and killed all the other 13 people that I know. I have sharpened a stick to fend off the leopard when it comes back tomorrow morning.

  6. Mike Smith

    Sorry, Helen, your column picture pails in comparison to Pete’s. And I suspect I’m going to be needing a pail. :^)

    argumentum ad melanin ? I’m so stealing that.

    So many pauses to google whilst reading this. ‘activated almonds’; ‘glucose to fat’ (ok, sort of, but if you do this carte blanche you are heading for type II, BTDT)

  7. Duncan Gilbey

    There’s only one bit of dietary advice I’d give to the ‘average’ Australian.

    Eat.Less.

  8. Red Bob

    So grateful you have written this article, Helen! Every time I see or hear the word ‘paleo’, I want to vomit into the gutter.
    Bone broth for six month old babies? How do people believe this shit?

  9. Pete Crawford

    This one’s a cracker Helen, and thanks. It’s been a while since I’ve boned up on Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit but I reckon it may have a few tools to ward off such a foul “brand” of pseudoscience.

  10. mark petrolo

    ‘They’ are the cats’ mothers and there is so much they don’t want you to know! They especially don’t want you to know this recipe for bone broth gluten-free lasagne which will cure your herpes and help you overcome your fear of heights…

  11. AR

    Another helpful suggestion from Pollan was “don’t eat anything that your grandparents wouldn’t recognise”.
    To which I’d add “or sealed in steel”.

  12. Mike Smith

    @AR: ‘or sealed in steel”. But my parents/grandparents would have been more likely to have done the equivalent of this themselves; preserving fruit/etc in glass. aka Fowlers Vacola.

    My grandparents thought rice was a dessert. That curry had to have sultanas in it.

  13. Jason Mountney

    Hang on, someone is seeking endorsement for a diet from Kyle Sandilands? The man is the size of a barn. What next, encyclopaedias endorsed by Warwick Capper?

  14. John Taylor

    There is evidence in the archaeological record that prior to agriculture the human animal ate grains as they were foragers/hunter-gathers – so not sure about not eating grains being paleo. But for mine if you are going to do the paelo thing you really ought go the whole hog – live in a cave, wear animal skins, kill your own meat, forage for other foods etc. Wonder how many of the hermetically sealed paleo pissants could take it that far?

  15. Lubo Gregor

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the article from Michael Pollan. Casimir Funk, George McGovern and Marion Nestle – it just kept on giving. 😀 Thank you for broadening my horizons and taking up the challenge to challenge the challenged. I found that there’s no point in arguing with believers be it in god, food fad or anti-vac anti-science. The mother of their argument is – you are wrong because you are opposing our beliefs. Once I was accused of being brainwashed by science. And when they sign off with “love and light” you know you’ve lost. 1/3 of Australians don’t know how long it takes the Earth to orbit around the Sun. The scientists are in fact quite lucky that pitchforks are not a common household item anymore.

  16. TwoEyeHead

    What a cop out – impending deadline and no article ready – I know, write about diets.
    However, it was quite interesting.

  17. Marchfly

    What nonsense. Helen Razer should learn how to undertake scientific studies. All she ever seems to do is rubbish other people with absolutely no credible science behind her. Does it not occur to anyone that the present dietary guidelines do not work. Diabetes, obesity, alzheimers, and many other problems, all caused by an overabundance of carbohydrate. Find out for yourselves. Don’t rely on a journalist with no real knowledge. Pete Evans is trying to help you.

  18. Anthony Munter

    I’m not remotely interested in Pete Evans. He’s an easy target, a “straw Palaeolithic man”, if you will.

    But let’s be equally frank about conventional dietary advice, and yes I’m looking at you Rosemary. The mantra has been “low-fat, blah blah, low-fat” for so long that it is a sacred piece of dogma. Except it’s also based on shit science. I was getting sicker trying to do the right thing, eating small portions and feeling tired and hungry, and getting shit blood test results. Until my GP told me to cut back on carbs and not to be scared of saturated fats. Yes, that’s right, my local general practitioner in a run-of-the mill clinic in fecking Balwyn. You can mock the easy targets all you like Raze, but my triglycerides have halved, my HDL / LDL ratio has improved out of sight, by cutting back on sugar, bread, pasta and rice, and replacing them with butter, fatty meat, eggs, avocado, almonds, etc. Of course, my blood results can’t be considered scientific because it’s, umm, well, sorry – can you explain again Raze? Or are you just too busy writing pissy articles that laugh at people who dare to question flawed studies from forty years ago?

  19. Bob Bobson

    Article is just hilariously contradictory and childishly insecure. Umm maybe rely on scientific consensus and authority when there admittedly is none, smarter people than you have been getting this wrong for years and anyway if you dont have a PhD your opinion is literal garbage so certainly don’t even experiment yourself it’s probably all far too expensive for you tripe-eating (lol) kitchenaid-less peasants to understand anyway. Hmm yes I am sure I should rely on noted quality journalism outfits ACA, TED talks and youtube to tell me what to think after all; renowned for immunity to market pressures and which, finally, we also shouldn’t question because impartiality? Just wolf down the lazy celebrity character assasination instead of bothering to even fix broken hyperlinks nevermind other sources. It’s all just too hard, throw a few swear words and carefully couch what little criticism remain with convenient escape hatches (fibre? what?) and most importantly -and easiest- comparisons to unrelated conjecture du jour. I guess after a while it all just kind of blurs together but as long as we retain our ironic distance no-one can accuse me of caring about anything etc etc.

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