The Placebo Diet: Thinking through the paleo principle

Kirby Farrell | November 15, 2014

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

The Paleolithic or Stone Age Diet, they tell me, really works.  By eating like our ancestors before Farmer Brown started planting about 10,000 years ago, folks trapped in the decadent 21st century report losing weight and feeling healthier. The diet calls for protein and meat, fewer carbohydrates, and lots of fibre: you shun grain, legumes, and dairy products, and especially “processed” foods and sugar.

But the most intriguing ingredients in the diet are in the Placebo Group. They’re ideas about who we are and how we’re built—ideas that promise to make us feel better and shed lard by encouraging an old-fashioned, naturally organic Cave Dweller palate. The assumption is that since we evolved as hunter-gatherers, modern fare is making us sick.

This is an ancient dream. Roman aristocrats envied Vergil’s idyllic shepherd his unwashed, underfed freedom from the noxious city. The Victorians anguished over “the disease of modernism” and envied the Romans. Dr Cheyne, the 18th century’s Deepak Chopra, prescribed simple fare and fresh air for his dyspeptic, porky aristos. You remember granny’s proverb: “An apple a day from the Garden of Eden keeps the doctor away.”

The dream is that our metabolism is “in tune” with primordial conditions, with the possibility that our minds are out of tune with jangling modernity. But Stone Age birthday cakes were not overloaded with candles. Life was short and raw—and demanding. You did get lots of exercise. You didn’t go prowling in the refrigerator at bedtime. And when bones broke or childbirth went wrong, you saved a lot on copays and funeral expenses.

Today it’s never been easier to live the cave life. Supermarkets make hunter-gatherer shopping easy. Except for the occasional unlucky first-grader, we no longer have lifelong tormenting parasites such as scabies and lice, which make it hard to count calories on your fingers when you’re scratching all the time.

Humans around the world thrive on a variety of diets. Like dogs, we have a gift for adaptation. Some pathologies such as diabetes and tooth decay can be blamed on modern diets—thank the sugar trade that kept Caribbean slavery healthy for centuries, and the corn syrup racket that’s corrupting American agriculture. But the ancients also suffered from cancer and heart disease. After a hard day of scavenging, they couldn’t sleep too deeply lest they be scavenged.

We have tangled attitudes toward our animal origins. Usually we imagine ourselves as unique creatures, spiritual or psychological beings operating in a world of ideas, not bodies doomed to end up as forgettable as roadkill or the dead fly on the windowsill. We think of ourselves as a life story, moving through a plot that allows us to feel a bit heroic in the end, or at least not insignificant.

Because we live in culture, we dream of having some godlike control over our lives. We can forget that Mother Nature is still bossing us around all the time. We have to eat, and have to breathe. We have to sleep, and have to die. To eat, we kill and chew the Little Red Hen, the Moo-cow, and Porky Pig. In Thailand just now they’re debating whether it’s taboo to eat filet of Fido. Culture lets us rationalize a band of predators gnawing on a turkey carcass as “Thanksgiving.”

One reason for hostility to the poor is that they remind us of how trapped we are in animal bodies. The poor have to struggle for food, sleep, a roof, leisure, safe neighborhood, and cash to pay bills. And the poor die younger and less elegantly than everybody else.

In culture, all bipeds are said to be created equal. Yet everywhere you look, societies are still crippled by our predilection for hierarchy, with the rich lording it over the “animal” poor. On southern plantations they worked you like a mule because your face and coloring reminded them of the apes, and they despised you for reminding us that there’s ape in everybody’s family album.

The Global Slavery Index (globalslaveryindex.org) reminds you that slavery’s alive and well today. We praise Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, but if you work for Walmart, you need government welfare to have enough to eat. As in cotton-picking days, patriotic politicians profess democracy while scheming to block the “animals” from voting, Likewise, wherever you find alpha gunslingers in uniform, you find kleptocracy, and alpha animals hogging the bananas, whether it’s the corporate military or an African clique.

Culture, that is, tames nature. It disguises our creaturely motives. In multi-million-dollar football, “big man” males try to steal a morsel of animal flesh—“pigskin”—from each other. Their prosthetic carapaces and helmets swell their muscles and heads. They name themselves after ferocious predators such as tigers and bears. While eating football snacks, the audience thrills to the battling heroes on screen.  During the breaks, fertile females cheer to keep the audience excited until the contest reveals the most potent alpha mates in the land.

For that matter, you don’t even notice that most pop music is a mating call, without which we face extinction. Many hot button social issues, from gay marriage to anti-abortion fervor, involve misplaced anxiety about fertility, children, and extinction. Passionate abortion foes have dreamed they were rescuing humanity by murdering “child-killer” docs and forcing women to give birth. We’re unable to resist the urge to populate. History is a record of migrating groups absorbing or exterminating settled groups, as Europeans did in North America, the Bantu in Africa, and the Han in China. The conquerors don’t think of themselves greedy for life or scuffling to survive: their conquest just feels right. Culture edits out the insanity.

The paleo diet lets you love your inner animal.

In those moments when modern culture seems mind-twisting, phony, and dangerous to your health, you can dream of self-reliance in a paleo world, like those pop novels of yesteryear about the Cave Bear Clan. By contrast, modernity means we’re all involved with—and dependent on—strangers and strange bureaucracies. Please listen closely as our menu options have changed. Ugh.

So why does the paleo diet work for its fans?

For one thing, the food’s not bad for you. It’s also not so delicious that you heap your plate with seconds. And if you’re giving up sweets and hidden corn syrup fructose sweets, you’re automatically shucking calories.

Beyond that, the paleo diet takes you out of the mental world of toxic ads, corporate manipulation (“processing”), confusing labels, and bullyingdoctors. It Just Says No to modernity-caused climate change. It’s KSS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The paleo you can really focus on you.

To put it another way, you’re not striving to reach some photoshopped glossy ideal self as in most diet promotions. You’re only watching what you eat in order to get back in touch with the natural you. It’s you wanting to be who you really are. The more you believe it, the better it works.

Put it that way, and the paleo diet is a mild version of psychotherapy andphilosophy: the project of considering how to live. There’s a certain amount of placebo in all such endeavors. It will be interesting to see how long the paleo magic lasts. Already media report that a few enthusiasts are trying to pump up its benefits by giving up modern soap, shampoo, and deodorant.

Well, let’s be pragmatic. Hold your nose and wish them well.

 

Resources used in this essay:

  1. Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90s.

This winter Leveller’s Press will be bringing out in paperback my new book, The Psychology of Abandon: Berserk Style in American Culture. 

5 Comments

  1. Much truth here! Thanks for sharing. The football analysis could have continued to include the war and sexual metaphors used in the commentary.

  2. Another great article by Kirby! Thanks.

  3. I like the part about birthday candles. Yet oddly, the introduction of agriculture may have shortened life expectancy – say, from about 30 yrs for paleolithic people to about 18 yrs for Egyptians, although such figures are highly uncertain. It certainly stunted growth, as adult height lost 5 inches after grain farming came in. And while stone age groups had violence, the early states were even crueler.

  4. Your comments about people’s psychological reasons for adopting the Paleo Diet seem correct to me.

    However, you have not bothered to do any research into nutrition research, or anthropology, otherwise you would know that the “cavemen live short, brutish lives” idea is a myth. In terms of health, modern life has many benefits, but nutrition is one area where agriculture is vastly inferior to the hunter-gatherer diet.

    Yes, the “noble savage” idea is quite flawed, but those who originated the Paleo Diet – such as Dr Loren Cordain – where only concerned with nutrition.

  5. The Paleo diet has a space in the cluster of tributes to the idea of a Golden Age, when neotenate folks were frisky and unmolested by death anxiety. For golden age fun, google <> or the like. Cranach, Piero di Cosimo, & the gang. Lots of moving Early Modern evocations.

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