The Big Picture (Beyond the Paleo Diet)

While I was not able to attend the Ancestral Health Symposium last week in L.A. I have enjoyed reading how it went down via various attendees including Richard Nikoley, Matt Metzgar, Frank Forencich, and others.

Like so many others who were fortunate enough to attend AHS 2011, I’m fascinated by diet and nutrition (and largely got into “adventures in diet, fasting, and self-experimentation” via Paleo). However, a comment made by Frank Forencich really resonated with me — and hits on an element regarding the mission of OEM Human. Here’s Frank on AHS 2011 (emphasis and links added are mine):

In general, the preponderance of the presentations were on Paleo diet concepts. Naturally, there were differences of opinion on details, but the consensus view was that the low-fat, high-carb diets of the late 20th century were a dreadful mistake. A string of presenters made it abundantly clear: refined sugars, flour and food products contribute enormously to our modern health woes. Vegetarian diets also took a hit: most agreed that vegetarian diets simply don’t provide adequate support for good health. The scientific data and clinical reports were impressive. I will never look at a loaf of bread the same way again.

Curiously though, the strength of the conference was also its weakness. That is, a first-time observer of this Paleo scene would surely have walked away with the impression that Paleo is almost entirely about food, diet and nutrition. There was no question: diet was the central focus of this event. In fact, the conference might have well been called “The Paleo Diet Symposium.”

This is where I take issue. Powerful as the dietary evidence was, it still came across as an isolated, mono-disciplinary specialty. Several presenters drilled the biochemistry down so deep that I thought they would come out the other side of the earth. And in this sense, it wasn’t really consistent with a Paleo world view. If we know one thing about native, pre-modern cultures, it is that their orientations were inclusive and holistic. Food was obviously important to our ancestors, but they would find our focus/obsession with food to be completely out of balance.

The full range of Paleo experience was simply not represented at the conference. As far as I could tell, there was little interest in the human connection with land, tribe or the animal world. (Refreshing exceptions included Mark Sisson speaking about play and Erwan Le Corre talking about natural movement.)

If you’re not familiar with Frank Forencich or Exuberant Animal, you should get acquainted. I read his book by the same name a couple years back and what struck me then (see the quotes on my review) still strikes me today: Frank sees the big picture and it’s not just diet. Frank’s present reaction to AHS 2011 actually is an echo of a prescient insight he had back when he wrote Exuberant Animal:

“I hear you,” agreed the philosopher. “The specialists have run amok. They do one thing really well, but they can never get to the other side of the oscillation. Fragmented disciplines, isolated studies. One trick-ponies. No one goes meta anymore. Conservatives are tightening the screws at every level. Multi-disciplinary studies are out of fashion and so no one can see the big picture. When you’re a specialist, taking the big view just isn’t part of your job description. and if you can’t see the big picture, you’re not going to adopt a rhythm. More likely, you’ll live and teach in a rut.”

The paleo diet is a powerful tool to drastically improve your health, which is why it gets so much attention. But what is it really? It is but a small piece of an overarching lifestyle — one founded on human nature from the ground up — and not human nature as we want it to be.

Narrow focus can make us blind to the big picture.

The whole failure-to-see-the-big-picture in the Paleosphere reminds me of another audience I serve — the community at Here is a growing body of people empowered by simply freeing their feet. Mostly, anyway: how many fans of FiveFingers have actually run barefoot down the street? If barefoot is best, then some barefoot running is a given, right? I haven’t observed that being the case though. It’s hard to step outside and run down the street with naked feet — even when you know you could! Even when you think maybe you should.

Regardless of whether or not minimalist footwear fans have included a dose of actual barefootedness in their repertoire, the reason behind the success of minimalist footwear is that the human form is powerful when it’s natural functionality is exploited and not restrained. This is a big picture idea.

So why are so many missing it? Why are so many getting into the Paleo diet and not realizing that being human is more than what we eat. Being human is more than what we put on our feet. And it’s more than physical movement, too.

Being human is about how we live, our work, our families, our homes, and our relationships.

It’s the big picture.

FURTHER READING: There is no single cause of (or treatment for) obesity by Chris Kresser:

Those who’ve lost a lot of weight on a low-carb diet have a tendency to become convinced that their wife, friends, family, plumber and everyone else will also lose weight following the same diet.

From this personal experience, a belief is formed. And once we believe in something, we have a remarkable ability to filter out any evidence that might contradict that belief.

7 Replies to “The Big Picture (Beyond the Paleo Diet)”

  1. Great post, and from what I read about the AHS (a lot thru Twitter) I was thinking along the same lines. It’s lifestyle – not just eating Paleo. Not just wearing FiveFingers (which, by the way, I saw a woman wearing the other day while smoking a cigarette – not too Paleo there!). What I love about MovNat and I discussed in my guest post there is that it does encompass the entire lifestyle – diet, exercise, sleep, mental attitude, relationships.

  2. Great post. I couldn’t agree more — there’s so much talk in the media about “the paleo fad” as if it is solely based on a way of eating and a flash in the pan phenomenon. I’m glad you mentioned Mark Sisson in here because I believe he focuses on other areas of Primal/Paleo living beyond simply diet.

  3. Spot on. I am not of the same caliper as Sisson, Wolf, Nikoley, LeCorre, etc., and my paleo blog does put a lot of emphasis on diet, but I also try to put emphasis on things like hunting and growing your own food, playing, getting plenty of sleep, simplifying one’s life, and not conforming to the modern ideals of the rat race. Love the title (and message) of this website.

  4. In addition to those mentioned in your post, I thought Tucker Max brought an interesting perspective to the forum and was glad to see him on the roster. Otherwise I agree. If “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle,” then why focus primarily on the diet? My attempt to rationalize this contradiction is simply that it was AHS’s inaugural year. It makes sense that the event began with what initiated a shift to a primal/paleo lifestyle for so many of us: our diets. That said, I have high expectations for 2012 that the conversation will, well, evolve.

  5. It’s true this was the focus, but this focus on food was developed out of necessity. We have failed so horribly in the direction of nutrition in this country that I can understand why the food portion of the Paleo lifestyle is driven home so hard and frequently. Those attending the Symposium could have probably dealt with a broader view, I mean…come on…they were truly preaching to the converted. But for the masses, it’s a great place to start.

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