Paleo 2018. It’s about illness.

“Far from the ripped CrossFitter’s or nostalgic primitivist’s that engagement with the media and celebrity representations of the (paleo) diet had led me to expect, the majority of Paleo’s both posting in online forums, and with… Click To Tweet

Catie Gressier, ‘Illness, Identity and Taboo Among Australian Paleo Dieters’ (pg124)


Paleo. Fad or something else?

About 12 months ago, I found myself in a somewhat awkward conversation with an academic who had introduced himself as an obesity expert. The topic was the controversial Paleo diet. The obesity expert was adamant that people who ‘went Paleo’ were little more than faddists, beholden to the latest celebrity craze. Foolishly I dared to mention that based upon conversations I had had with Paleo followers while writing Eating Ourselves Sick, I couldn’t agree with his assessment – I felt there was more to the issue and the key driver was more likely to be linked to their experience of chronic illness. Snorts, scoffs and eye-rolling followed as the obesity expert chortled that everybody knows it’s “Atkins one minute” and “Something else the next.”

Just. Another. Fad.

I disagreed. He refused to budge

He disagreed. I refused to budge.

And then he remembered a prior engagement.

Like I said, it was awkward.

One year later…

Fast forward to 2018 and the publication of a new book by a Melbourne cultural anthropologist, Dr Catie Gressier titled Illness, Identity and Taboo Among Australian Paleo Dieters. Gressier spent two years studying Paleo dieters in both Melbourne and Sydney, immersing herself in both the online and real-life world of the Paleo community.

So what did Catie learn?

The true face of Paleo

Far from being a noisy mob of trendy kale-munching fad dieters looking for the next big thing, Gressier found that Paleo followers:

  • hailed from a range of occupations as diverse as engineering, IT, farming, personal training and project management, and her informants included a prison guard, a beautician and a school counsellor
  • were aged from late teens to their early seventies
  • came from diverse cultural backgrounds
  • were disparate in terms of income
  • did not attend CrossFit classes (in spite of the stereotype, CrossFit was also not a concern for those in online Paleo forums)
  • identified as middle class

Common struggle

What Paleo dieters did have in common, however, was an ongoing struggle with a chronic health condition such as inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), overweight/obesity and its associated health problems; skin problems and autoimmunity.

They had embarked on the Paleo diet as a way to ameliorate their symptoms and in many cases had been successful.

Paleo diet getting results

The Paleo diet eschews the commodity ingredients of the Western diet. Sugar, grains, seed oil, legumes and dairy are strictly avoided while vegetables, seeds, nuts, grass fed meat, wild caught seafood, free-range eggs, fermented foods and a small amount of fruit are encouraged. The removal of Western diet food products also by default removes the food additives and artificial ingredients also linked to health problems.

While it shouldn’t be difficult to grasp why those who dramatically alter the quality of their diet in this way feel better and reduce or eliminate their symptoms (after all no one diet fits all), Paleo as a concept and Paleo dieters have been heavily criticized by everybody from uninformed media commentators to vegans to authoritarian diet experts.  In addition, Gressier’s informants noted that they had felt patronised or experienced ridicule by doctors for trying to help themselves and make life more bearable, more tolerable – you know, so that they can hold down a career, earn an income, travel, help look after children or family or just…have a bit of a normal life.

The ridicule, criticism and patronising defy all logic to those forced to endure daily health battles, particularly when they find a diet or way of life that is working for them.

Hazards of the Western diet

Gressier notes that from a medical perspective at least, the transition to the Western diet is a known factor in the increased prevalence of IBD (as it is with some other chronic health conditions) and reports that a gastroenterologist she interviewed “described a pattern whereby overweight, middle-aged male patients consuming a great deal of fast food would go into remission with very limited therapy, if they switched to a whole-foods, plant-based diet” (although he stressed that this was anecdotal). This tale of remission is similar to that told by many people with type 2 diabetes after embarking on a low carbohydrate diet which also forbids added sugar, refined grains and seed oil and advocates a return to above ground vegetables, some fruit, meat, some dairy, nuts, seeds and reduced carbohydrate from grains or legumes.

Health populism or something else?

Gressier presents the notion that the Paleo diet is symptomatic of growing frustration with both the biomedical model and the failure of the government to address the chronic disease problem in favour of supporting industry. The rejection of traditional authorities such as business, media, government, academia or NGO’s as sources of trustworthy information also comes into the mix. This is all part of what she terms ‘health populism’.

While broader issues with the current sociopolitical landscape are worth noting, there is still no escaping the fact that the core of the problem is that Australians are increasingly experiencing diet-related health issues that are not being adequately addressed by the health system. There is only so much the ‘pill for every ill’ model can achieve – particularly when we find that many health problems that can affect our day-to-day activities are, today, driven by consuming health-damaging foods.

Where to from here?

I still disagree with the obesity expert and doubt that in this era of food-related health problems that Paleo, low-carb or plant-based diets are going anywhere, anytime soon.  I was disappointed that instead of displaying the insatiable curiosity I thought would be the hallmark of a top academic, all I found was a snorting, scoffing, eye-rolling ‘expert’ who unlike Catie Gressier, hadn’t even tried to understand the core drivers of the Paleo phenomenon.

One can only hope he wasn’t representative of his tribe.