I’ve been paying close attention to diet this past year. It’s something I’ve had some focus on for decades now, but new info has recently changed the public debate going on. For example, a few years back, the research data from Ancel Keys was reanalyzed and an entirely different conclusion was found to be more plausible — instead of blaming saturated fat, the stronger correlation was to sugar. So much of what mainstream dietitians and nutritionists asserted as fact was based on Keys’ work, but it has since come under a dark cloud of doubt. Simply put, it was horrible science and even worse public health policy.
My own recent interest, though, was piqued in watching the documentary The Magic Pill. It came out in 2017 and several other great documentaries have come out in the last few years, with Nina Teicholz’s documentary in the works. In playing around with diet in the broad sense, I didn’t find much that helped, beyond limiting added sugar and throwing in a few healthy traditional foods (e.g., cultured dairy). It’s not that I ever was much interested in formal diets — some combination of laziness, apathy, and being too independent-minded, hence figuring something out for myself or else failing on my own terms, no doubt plenty of failure was involved and long periods of depressive despair and frustration. I’ve always been more about experimenting and finding what works or doesn’t work for me, if for no other reason than being stubborn in going my own way.
The problem was that nothing fundamentally had worked for my depression that plagued me my whole life nor for the weight gain that hit me as I approached my 40s. It is damn hard struggling to be healthy while depressed, but I did try such things as exercising regularly for it had some immediate palpable effect. Still, it was strange to exercise and yet not lose weight, even if aerobics did lift my mood ever so slightly. I was literally running to stay in place.
That is where The Magic Pill came in. I randomly came across it and watched it out of passing curiosity. Something about the case made was compelling to me, a blend of science and personal experience that rang true to my decades of reading and experimentation. It brought many pieces together: the whole foods emphasis on quality, the vegetarian emphasis on plant foods, the traditional food emphasis on nutrient-density, the low-carb emphasis on avoiding grains, legumes and sugar, the ketogenic emphasis on shifting metabolism, mood and much else, the alternative health emphasis on eliminating processed foods and additives, and the holistic/functional medicine emphasis on seeing the body as a system and part of larger systems.
So, what miraculous diet brings all of this diversity of views together under the umbrella of a coherent understanding? It’s the paleo diet, although some prefer to call it a lifestyle or a philosophy as it isn’t a singular dietary regimen or protocol. It’s about learning how to be healthy by following the examples of traditional societies in combination with the best science available, not only research in diet and nutrition as narrow fields but also research from dentistry, anthropology, archaeology, etc — any and all info that helps us understand the evolution of human health, specifically in explaining what has gone so terribly wrong in industrialized societies with the diseases of civilization. Diet is important, but only one part. Through an alliance with functional medicine, there is a greater focus on what makes for a healthy lifestyle: exercise, stress reduction, toxicity elimination, forest bathing, sun exposure, learning new things, etc… and don’t forget about play, something lost to so many modern adults.
Despite that greater focus of concern, it is the dietary angle that draws people in. Simply put, a lot of people feel better on the paleo diet, often in healing numerous conditions or at least reversing some of the worst symptoms, from conditions like obesity and diabetes to autism and depression to Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, and much else. The paleo diet, as with traditional foods (both inspired by the work of Weston A. Price), is a good introduction to an alternative way of thinking not only about diet but health in general. It seems to be a gateway diet for many who go on to try related diets: primal (paleo plus dairy), Whole30, ketogenic, ketotarian, pegan, pescatarian, carnivore, etc. Primal, as one common example, demonstrates how paleolists have a tendency of drifting toward the similar traditional foods. Paleo is more of a framework than anything else, to the extent that it requires or promotes a paradigm change in one’s attitude.
The greater issue at hand is a potential paradigm change of society. That is the battle going on right now, those promoting that shift and those defending the status quo. Most figures and institutions of authority attack diets like paleo and keto because they are threatening. And the reason they are threatening is because of their growing popularity which in turn comes from their being highly effective for their intended purposes, while also being followed and sometimes promoted by many famous people, from media figures to politicians, including plenty of athletes (according to various sources, and in no particular order):
Bill Clinton, Madonna, Drew Carey, Renee Zellweger, Katie Couric, Al Roker, Halle Berry, Kim Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian, Vinny Guadagnino, Jordan Peterson, Vanessa Hudgens, Megan Fox, Adriana Lima, Jessica Biel, Blake Lively, Channing Tatum, Eva La Rue, Phil Mickelson, Aisha Tyler, Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Jeb Bush, Kanye West, Christina Aguilera, Jack Osbourne, Kelly Osbourne, Sharon Osbourne, Miley Cyrus, Ursula Grobler, Becca Borawski, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Flintoff, Jenna Jameson, Savannah Guthrie, Chris Scott, Tamra Judge, Grant Hill, Uma Thurman, Kobe Bryant, Gwyneth Paltrow, LeBron James, Alicia Vikander, Tim McGraw, Kristin Cavallari, Tom Jones, Grant Hill, Mick Jagger, Melissa McCarthy, Jennifer Lopez, Robin Wright, Cindy Crawford, Jennifer Aniston, Guy Sebastian, Elle Macpherson, Courteney Cox, Catherine Zeta Jones, Geri Halliwell, Ben Affleck, Joe Rogan, Brendan Schaub, Shane Watson, Tim Ferris, Jessica Simpson, Rosie O’Donnell, Lindsey Vonn, Alyssa Milano, Kendra Wilkinson, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Joe Manganiello, Tom Kerridge, Jessica Alba, Mariah Carey, Tobey McGuire, Jennifer Hudson, Shania Twain, etc.
These low-carb diets work. People feel better, lose weight, go off their meds, have a lot of energy, and on and on. It’s a paradigm change with a real kick and so the change is largely coming from below, from probably hundreds of thousands of individuals experimenting similar to what I’ve done, including individual doctors who decide to buck the system and sometimes are punished for it (a few key examples are: John Yudkin, Tim Noakes, and Gary Fettke). And every individual this works for ends up being an inspiration to numerous others, even if only to the people they personally know such as family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Other people see it works and so they try it themselves. This is how it went from a minor diet to its present growing momentum and did so in a fairly short period of time.
As I was saying at the beginning of this piece, I’ve been observing this shift. And I’ve come to realize it might be a seismic change going on. Every now and then, I see hints of the impact in the world around me. These alternative views are taking hold and won’t remain alternative for long. They are forcing their way into mainstream awareness. Unsurprisingly, there is backlash.
There is the corporate media, of course, with their typical attack pieces on “fad diets”, ignoring the fact that the keto diet has been medically researched since the early 1900s, the low-carb diet having been the first popular diet starting back in the 1800s, the traditional foods diet based on thousands of years of shared human experience, and the paleo diet as the diet hominids have thrived on for millions of years. The corporate media prefers to ignore what is threatening, until the point it no longer can be ignored, and so we are in that second phase right now, maybe a bit beyond since the mainstream authorities have already adopted some of the alternative views without acknowledging it (e.g., AHA quietly lowering its recommendations of carb intake after pushing a high-carb diet for a half century, as if hoping no one would notice this implicit admission to having been wrong, and wrong in a way that harmed so many). Local media is sometimes more open to new views, though.
The whole EAT-Lancet issue demonstrates the sense of conflict in the air. The authors of the report frame the situation as a crisis for all of humanity and the earth. And they use that as a cudgel to bash the new low-carb challengers, to nip them in the bud, even to the extreme of pushing for international regulations that would force conformity with the high-carb approach of conventional diets that have risen to prominence these past decades — mainstream versions of: vegetarianism, veganism, and Mediterranean (the modern Mediterranean diet as studied after World War II, not the traditional one with high levels of animal foods that existed for millennia before 20th century industrialization of the food system, no noodles or tomatoes prior to modern colonial trade, and surprisingly not much if any olive oil since according to ancient texts it was mainly used for lamp fuel, with animal fat being preferred for cooking). We’ve seen this push with such things as “Veganuary”.
It has become an overtly ideological fight, but maybe it always was. The politicization of diet goes back to the early formalized food laws that became widespread in the Axial Age and regained centrality in the Middle Ages, which for Europeans meant a revival of ancient Greek thought, specifically that of Galen. And it is utterly fascinating that pre-scientific Galenic dietary philosophy has since taken on scientific garb and gets peddled to this day, as a main current in conventional dietary thought (see Food and Faith in Christian Culture ed. by Ken Albala and Trudy Eden with an excerpt to be read here; I made this connection in realizing that Stephen Le, a biological anthropologist, was without awareness parroting Galenic thought in his book 100 Million Years of Food).
But the top-down approach to pushing dietary regimens hasn’t been all that successful in more recent years, maybe because of growing cynicism about past failures. Even with it being heavily promoted by well-funded organizations and government agencies, the high-carb plant-based diets are beginning to find it hard to maintain their footing in the tides of change. According to various data, it’s easy to get people to try veganism for a short period, but few maintain it. Vegetarianism is less restrictive, of course, but consistent adherence is still rare. The vast majority who start veganism or vegetarianism either occasionally eat meat or fish or else eventually give up on the diet. There is big money, including corporate money, behind the campaigns promoting it (most processed foods, including junk food, are technically vegan and big food has come to realize this is an effective way of marketing unhealthy food as healthy). Still, it doesn’t seem to be catching on with the general public, not that I doubt there will be those who continue their games of propaganda, persuasion, and perception management.
People have gotten the message that a plant-based diet is good. That part of the official messaging machine has been successful. Indeed, for decades, most Americans have been increasing their intake of fruits and vegetables and that is a good thing, but as far as that goes the paleo diet and many related diets also tend to recommend high levels of fruits and vegetables. The main advantage the low-carb diets have is that it’s easier to give up bread than to give up all animal foods (including eggs and dairy), though vegetarianism is a decent compromise since it allows some animal foods and that increases availability of the key fat-soluble vitamins. It’s not that low-carb, keto, or paleo vegetarianism is hard to do — so it isn’t an either/or scenario, but many pushing a so-called “plant-based” diet for some reason want to portray it in such dualistic terms, maybe as a way of falsely portraying low-carb as an anti-plant caricature in order to make it seem ridiculous and extremist.
Despite the ideological reaction, there is the growing realization that maybe there is some profit to be had in this emerging trend, as most businesses ultimately don’t care about dietary ideology and will go where the wind blows. New products cater to these alternative diets (paleo creamer, keto supplements, etc) or else old products are repackaged (“Keto Friendly!”). This is why it gets called a “fad diet”. But if being heavily marketed makes a diet a fad, then the same label applies to conventional diets as well that are more heavily marketed than any alternative diet. I’ve also begun seeing paleo and keto magazines, guides, and recipe booklets in grocery stores. Even when dismissed by experts such as in rankings of recommended diets, these “fad diets” nonetheless get mentioned, albeit usually tossed to the bottom of the list. As all this demonstrates, we are long past the silent treatment.
Furthermore, it goes beyond the products specifically marketed as paleo or keto or whatever. Demand has been increasing for organ meats, coconut products (from coconut milk to coconut oil), cauliflower, etc; consumption of eggs is likewise on the rise — all favorites on the paleo diet, in particular, but also favorites for similar diets. Prices have been going up on these items and, because demand sometimes exceeds supply, they can go out of stock at stores. Why are they so sought after? Organ meats are nutrient-dense, coconut milk is a good replacement for dairy and coconut oil for unhealthy vegetable/seed oils, and cauliflower can be used as a replacement for rice, mashed potatoes, tater tots and pizza crust (“The weird thing about cauliflower, though, is that while it has allies, it doesn’t really have adversaries.” ~Rachel Sugar); as for eggs, their popularity needs no explanation now that the cholesterol and saturated fat myths are evaporating.
Even Oprah Winfrey, though financially invested in the conventional Weight Watchers diet (in owning 8% of the company) and a self-declared lover of bread (actual quote: “I love bread!”), has put out a line of products that includes a low-carb pizza with cauliflower crust. This is interesting since, as low-carb diets have gained popularity, the stock of Weight Watchers has plunged 60% and Oprah lost at least 58 million dollars in one night and a loss of 500 million over all, putting Oprah’s star power to a serious test — maybe Oprah decided it is wise to not put all her eggs in one basket, in case Weight Watchers totally tanks. The company is finding it difficult to gain and retain subscribers. Those profiting from established dietary ideology are feeling the pinch.
It’s amusing how Weight Watchers CEO Cindy Grossman responded to the low-carb threat: “We have a keto surge,” she said. “It’s a meme, it’s not like a company, it’s people have keto donuts, and everybody on the diet side look for the quick fix. We’ve been through this before, and we know that we are the program that works.” And that, “We’ve lived through this [competition from fad diets] for 57 years and we’re not going to play a game and we never have.” Good luck with that! Maybe in reassuring stockholders, she also stated that, “We’re going to be science informed and we’re sustainable for the long term.” That is great. Everyone should be science informed. The problem for those trying to hold onto old views is that the science has changed and so has the public’s knowledge of that science.
Most people these days aren’t looking for complicated diets with eating plans and paid services, much less pre-prepared meals to be bought. A subscription model is becoming less appealing, as so much info and other resources are now available online. Besides, the DYI approach (Do It Yourself) is preferred these days. Diets like paleo and keto are simple and straightforward, and they can be easily modified for individual needs or affordability. But even for those looking for a ready-made system like Weight Watchers, there are other options out there that are looking attractive: “Wall Street is clearly nervous, too. JPMorgan analyst Christina Brathwaite downgraded the [Weight Watchers] stock to “underperform” last week and slashed her price target. One of the reasons? She was worried about competition from rival weight-loss service Diet Doctor, which is a proponent of keto.”
In whatever form, like it or not, low-carb diets are on the rise. Even among vegans and vegetarianism, the low-carb approach will probably become more common. Maybe that is why we’ve suddenly seen new low-carb, plant-based diets like Dena Harris’ paleo vegetarianism (2015), Will Coles’s ketotarianism (2018), and Mark Hyman’s peganism (2018). Do a web search about any of this and you’ll find numerous vegans and vegetarians asking about, discussing, or else praising low-carb diets. The same is true in how one sees broad interest in thousands of websites, blogs, and articles. Hundreds upon hundreds of organizations, discussion forums, Reddit groups, Facebook groups, Twitter alliances, etc have sprouted up like mushrooms. More and more are jumping on the low-carb bandwagon, as apparently that is what a large and growing part of the public is demanding. Whether or not it ever was a fad, it is now a movement and it isn’t slowing down.
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Why are these changes happening now? Here is one answer. The wisdom of crowds.