Friday 17 August 2012

The paleo culture

A volunteer of the Ancestral Health Symposium 2012 has criticized the culture of the paleo movement. Richard Nikoley apparently felt attacked and as a prolific blogger immediately wrote a hot tempered post in defence. (In the meantime, the blog with the criticism has been deleted due to the personal attacks and threats.) Richards defensive post focused on the few lines that went over the top.

The demographic at this event was almost all white, child bearing age, healthy, wealthy, highly educated, libertarian, racist, sexist and bigoted.
I presume these lines were more provoked by a life of discrimination as by a single symposium.

It is normal to be defensive while receiving criticism. The day after, one often notices that honest feedback is actually very valuable, that it gives rare and precious insight into how one is seen from the outside. The valuable points of the criticism were (i) that she did not feel welcome, as a not wealthy person and also as an older woman. Furthermore, there were (ii) many crackpots at the symposium.


I must admit that I also sometimes find the paleo culture to be rather off putting. The reason I stay is because many good ideas from the paleo community have helped improve my health enormously. The main bloggers are friendly and many focus just on science, which is neutral, but you are often just one click away from the National Rife Association. The community has a strong focus on the health effects of nature, but I never saw a link to a nature conservation group. Paleo is inspired by the life style of hunter-gatherers, but I had to hear about Survival International, an organisation that helps indigenous peoples protect themselves, on the German radio. There is lots of talk about expensive food, supplements and gear, but not about anti-hierarchical strategies used by hunter-gather groups to keep their band egalitarian and strong. Much of the advice is focused on males and it may, for example, well be that the standard routines for intermittent fasting are too heavy for woman.

Survival of the fittest

One reason for the self-centred culture may be a bad understanding of evolution, which is one of the underpinnings of the paleo theory. Many people seem to use quite simplistic Darwinian ideas, where the survival of the fittest is directly interpreted as survival of the strongest, meanest, most intelligent or powerful. Evolution is a much richer concept than that, if only because all these attributes come at a cost and the optimum is thus not the maximum. Especially the evolution of humans as a highly social species is much richer. The first step is wonderfully described by the Dutch comedian Theo Maassen as becoming a refined ass-hole.

When I meet two girls and one is very beautiful and the other not that much, then I am also very nice to the girl, which is not that beautiful, so the the beautiful one thinks: hey, that is a very nice guy.

The next evolutionary step is to internalise pro-social values. Humans have very good bullshit meters and being nice is thus often easier easier as acting nice in a convincing way.

The main feature of humans is our ability to build non-kin coalitions. We do not have such a large brain to solve integrals or study grammar. That is nice, but not worth getting your skull stuck during birth. We have a large brain to judge how reliable other people are and whether they would be valuable group members. If someone behaves aggressively or egoistically, it is relatively easy for us to build a coalition of the willing to kill this person in a joint action from a secure distance (human uniqueness). Of course we also have a competitive side and cheating and lying will never go away (if only because if it would be gone, it would no longer pay to have a large brain to protect ourselves against it), but humans also have a social side, a sense of fairness and a natural tendency to share.

Evolution and health are not conservative or progressive, the simplistic view of evolution in the paleo community makes the spread of our ideas to other groups and continents more difficult.

First movers

Food is a topic that provokes strong emotions, probably because you actually put it in your body. It is one thing to repeat the stupid slogan: "Eat less, move more" to someone who is overweight, but it is something else to say that most of the standard fare in the super market, which almost everyone eats, leads to chronic deceases. Quite naturally people feel attacked and become defensive. Thus also naturally the first adopters are people who trust their own judgement strongly. (Maybe even too strongly in those cases where the paleo diet works, but maybe for other reasons as previously thought.) They would be people who are independent and do not fear upsetting their community members. Thus naturally wealthy, academic males are overrepresented. They are the people who do not have to care too much what the neighbours are gossiping.

If we want to help more people improve their health, this group will have to become broader. Thus looking at the future, Sara rightly said in a comment: (now removed together with the blog)

This "community" will have to grow up in order to encourage broader participation and interest. ... If this AHS is to survive, wouldn’t it, too, have to grow according to participatory interest?

Now, I do not mean to imply that Richard should become relaxed and polite. There is apparently an audience for his rants. I must say, that I occasionally also find them entertaining, especially when he is attacking pushy public figures (such as bariatric surgeon Dr. Garth Davis or fruitarian Durian Rider) and not advocating to destroy democracy and make every one equal the Cambodian way, equal poverty. But it would be good if the paleo movement had more diverse and also more progressive voices. Richards attack on a normal volunteer and blogger was not a move in that direction.

Low carb crackpots

The other main criticism was that there were too many crackpots at the AHS12, more specifically Jimmy Moore (Living la vida low carb) and Gary Taubes (Good calories, bad calories) and that they would redefine paleo as a low carb diet. She had visited a panel discussion on "safe starches", moderated by Jimmy Moore. (He may not be the most neutral moderator for such a discussion.)

I do not fear that these people will be able to redefine paleo as a low carb diet. Actually, I have the feeling that the support for a low carb diet as necessary for everyone and all the time, is dwindling in the paleo community. (Former fruitarian Denise Minger still eats a lot of fruit and is very popular in the paleo community,  even Mark Sisson advocates carb refeeds after weight training, Richard Nikoley eats sweet potatoes, Chris Kresser has no problems with safe starches or fructose in fruits, Stephan Guyenet found "the fact that this debate even took place [...] absurd" and the perfect health diet advocates eating a pound of safe starches every day.)

The summary of the Chris Kresser on the safe starch discussion makes it clear that that are no arguments for seeing a paleo diet as a low carb diet. (Not that low carb may be useful for some, for instance in the beginning of a paleo diet, for people who need to loose weight and need to learn to burn fat.) Actually, I would say that there is not much support for any fixed macro-nutrient ratio. Most solid arguments focus on the quality of food.

Should we exclude crackpots? Maybe if they misbehave and make a fruitful discussion more difficult. Otherwise, I would prefer to stay as inclusive as possible. The community is still small and you need a certain mass to organise a symposium. This was also the reason for the ancestral health symposium to combine the paleo movement with the WAPF crowd (short: eat like your great grandmother). Furthermore, some of the crackpots of today, may be the heroes of tomorrow. The ideas in the paleo community are still developing fast (for instance, one or two years ago, the support for low carb was still quite strong). Thus strong selection from the top is probably not productive. It may be better to let the visitors vote with their feet and trust that they will prefer people with good arguments.


I think it is good to have this discussion and would thus like to thank the volunteer for offering her criticism. That she no longer feels part of the community is a pity and narrows its diversity, in stead of the opening up and the broadening that we need in this phase. That she is being threatened and consequently stopped blogging is simply disgusting.

External links

The REAL Paleo Challenge: How NOT to be Just Another Elitist Fad for Skinny White People Wearing Goofy Shoes
Paleo as part of an inclusive health movement.
Kickass Womanhood at The Big Fat Paleo Symposium
Another view on Richard Nikoley's post, plus some more paleo female issues.
Paleo Drama
A Tumblr blog on the paleo culture
My Response Regarding The Critics
Richard Nikoley kinda apologizes and puts most of the blame on his followers

More paleo posts

Paleo and fruitarian lifestyles have a lot in common
A comparison of the main ideas and recommendations of these two lifestyles.
Natural cures for asthma?
Some ideas for natural ways, which helped me cure or reduce asthma.
Sleep and diversity
Differences in sleeping times, from early bird to night owls, may provide security advantages.
Is obesity bias evolutionary?
A critical comment on an article, which states that humans have an intrinsic propensity to eat too much.
Freedom to learn
Forcing children to learn stifles their innate motivation to teach themselves and may thus be counter productive.


  1. So.... you think Gary Taubes is a crackpot?

    1. That would not have been the word I would have chosen, and his book GCBC have helped a lot of people finding the right track, but whether he is still helpful is a question.

      To cite the volunteer: "I’ve been to a couple of the Food Law Society’s paleo-related presentations, one with Mat LaLonde, a Harvard biochemistry professor, presenting a full day’s worth of nutrition/biochemistry fundamentals along with some therapeutic diet principles. They also hosted Gary Taubes, and at that, LaLonde attended, along with several key nutrition researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health. Taubes was rude, crude and dismissive of just about everyone. He blew off and was rude to the HSPH researchers when they tried to ask questions and engage him around research study design; he blew off LaLonde, who was beside himself, and he refused to answer a key food policy question posed by one of the Food Law Society students. I tried to rephrase that question, and he blew me off, too.

      But the AHS12 planning committee put Taubes back on this year’s agenda, along with Mat LaLonde and Stephan Guyenet, who Taubes blind-sided at last year’s symposium with an attack at Guyenet’s Q&A.

      I was not there, but it does not sound like a helpful contribution to the discussion.

      In his book Taubes talked about the carbohydrate hypothesis as something that should be tested. Since I have only heard statements from him as if it is already proven, but that may also be due to the tendency of journalists to simplify matters too much.

      In my post, I cite several people who (no longer) think carbs are bad: "Former fruitarian Denise Minger still eats a lot of fruit and is very popular in the paleo community,  Mark Sisson advocates carb refeeds after weight training, Richard Nicoley eats sweet potatoes, Chris Kresser has no problems with save starches or fructose in fruits, Stephan Guyenet found the "the fact that this debate even took place is absurd" and the perfect health diet advocates eating a pound of save starches every day."

      A low carb diet may be helpful for some (for some period). The reason may well be something different, for example, avoidance of grains, eating a lot less processed foods and less possibility to snack. The same results may also be achieved by other means such as intermittent fasting; in both cases you do not eat carbs for one day (or longer). I think we do not understand the reasons yet and it is likely not all due to insulin (which is also spiked by eating protein), as Taubes suggests. I am also not yet convinced that a low carb diet is sustainable; some people seem to run into health problems in the long run.

      So.... you think Gary Taubes is not a crackpot? ;-)

    2. Victor, no, I don't think he's a crackpot ... the reason I brought it up was because you listed him immediately after "Low carb crackpots". I was just seeing if you thought he was a crackpot, and if so, why.

      I think from listening to him that his position on carbs is more nuanced that "carbs are bad, m'kay?". For example, I think he would not be opposed to athletes or people engaged in field work using them to "restock" after periods of intensive physical activity.

      I think your comments about his behavior are more on target of the problem with him than him being purely a crackpot. He's from the physics community and is used to being extremely blunt (that's how we often engage with each other). But you really need to know your audience and behave appropriately as you switch between communities, and I think his behavior often is not helpful.

      I think the low-carb diet is a good starting point for people who have become insulin resistant, but it isn't a magic cure, you still have to tailor your diet to your body and where it is at any given point. So I think we agree with each other on this.

      Interestingly enough, I found much more health benefits (lower body mass, improved blood pressure numbers, reduced joint pain) from dropping wheat from my diet than any other dietary modification I've made. It's possible that I'm mildly intolerant to wheat gluten (there is a family medical history of this) and it simply hadn't been diagnosed in my case, so once again I think "what works for one person may not work for another" applies.

  2. Enjoyed the article, but noticed a few minor errors. It is "Nikoley", not "Nicoley", and I believe the topic of the panel was "Safe Starches", not "Save Starches".

    Don't meant to nit-pick, just trying to be helpful... :)

    1. Dear anonymous, Thank you very much. I have implemented the corrections. "Save starches" would also be an interesting topic.

  3. Hat tip for the nice article and getting the message out there that the "paleo culture can be off-putting". Amen to that. You were very gracious in your description of Nikoley. I am glad that Melissa is speaking out although her boiling over taints her message (understandably when Nikoley was giving Kruse a platform with no evidence of rational thought). Keep up the great work!

    1. " I am glad that Melissa is speaking out although her boiling over taints her message "

      Kind of my thought too. You shouldn't go around being critical of others, then be thin-skinned when they respond in kind. Especially if you have plenty of evidence to know what you're dealing with. From certain people, you just wouldn't expect a tepid response, regardless of how well-reasoned your arguments were.

  4. Just because one volunteers at an event does not give them the unfettered right to dish it out and then not be able to take it. We all see things through our own biased eyes and her insights are no more truthful than those of anyone else volunteering or attending - plenty of whom disagreed with her views. She accuses others of being rude yet she herself made some awfully rude and judgemental comments about people based upon their appearance -- race, age, attire, etc. She posted her views (rant) on a public internet space and therefore, others have a right to answer back.

    PS: I am glad I discovered your blog Victor. I found it through your postings at Carb Sane's blog and find your comments thoughtful and interesting.

    PPS: From your posting at Carb Sane re: your experience with switching up eggs for yoghurt. It may not be the dairy that's the problem - -may be the lactose that causes less satiation. If you are inclined, as an experiment, try hard cheese. I apologize for not responding at that web site but I cannot seem to post there -- only at her forum.

  5. Thank you, Oolong, for your kind words.

    Yes, her post would have been much stronger if she would just have written what she felt and not have started judging people herself. Answering that is okay, the question is how and Richard should have known that his hot tempered "answer" would set the dogs lose in the comments.

    With Richards status as a popular blogger comes responsibility. It looks as if his brand of libertarianism does not know responsibility, only individual freedom, without noticing that your freedom always affects the freedom of others. It is a matter of proportionality. Richards behaviour makes the paleo community a less hospitable place for many, especially for women who experience verbal violence much more like men experience physical violence.

    Good idea, I do not like cheese that much, but understanding this better may be worth such an experiment.

  6. Women fighting back works.

    The traffic of Free the animal is going down.

  7. Thanks for the very civilized discussion about these issues. I've known both Gary Taubes and Jimmy Moore for a good while now & I fully understand that they can rub folks the wrong me (I can too). But Jimmy has been a tireless archivist of the players involved in our nutritional thinking, on all sides of the issue. When American Studies grad students look for information about the shift in our nutrition paradigm, they are going to be picking through Jimmy's work. I'm not sure the low-carb, WAPF, and paleo communities would even know each other if it weren't for Gary's book, which--whether you agree with what he's saying or not--changed the nature of our conversation around nutrition and nutrition policy.
    So in terms of being as inclusive as possible, let's not leave out the low-carb folks. They, along with WAPF and paleo, are all working on the same goal. Nutrition and Metabolism Society and the American Society for Bariatric Physicians were pioneers in looking beyond the calories in/calories out paradigm. Although neither promotes low-carb diets specifically, they were probably the first organizations to welcome discussion about carbohydrate reduction and to support investigators and clinicians like Steve Phinney, Jeff Volek, Eric Westman, and Mary Vernon.

    1. When I wrote this post, I hardly knew Jimmy Moore. Now that I heard some of this podcasts, I must say that I am glad that he was not my introduction to paleo, because I would have left screaming and would never have given the idea a serious thought again. He may be a pleasant person to talk to, but scientific thinking is not his strength. I would hope that grad students show the same reaction.

      But then, even if all scientists would be in better health, the national average health would not improve than much. If Moore or Nikoley can reach other groups better (and they probably partially do so by leaving out all the scientific disclaimers about our lack of knowledge), that would be an asset.

      On the other hand their lack of science scares me, because their overconfident advice can easily be wrong. Their overconfidence may make people do less research as they should and take doubtful if not harmful supplements, eat industrial foods and perform dangerous actions. People should apply advice very carefully and listen to their bodies very well. Emphasising the severe limits of our knowledge could contribute to such a more careful attitude.

      I would personally not see all low-carb folks as working on the same goal. Many low-carb people advocate horrible industrial food stuffs as long as there are no carbs in it. Quite similar to industrial products for Atkinson or veg*an diets.

  8. Excellent Post. I disagree with you about Richard. I don't like his blog, it isn't my style. I don't read it more than occasionally. However, just because he has a bigger audience doesn't mean he shouldn't address someone with a smaller. Most especially when the blogger in question is claiming that everyone in the Paleo community is a racist and a sexist? Even the women? How about Sean Croxton, does he have a "white" agenda? I think a lot of men are over-sensitive about this stuff, Richard seems to be. I will say that if a man wrote an article claiming Paleos were all sexist and racist no one would have been angry at Richard. They would have cheered...and that is a little sexist.

    1. Thank you for the compliment. Unfortunately, I have to disagree about almost every argument in your comment.

      Nowadays I also only read FTA occasionally. The discussion made me realise that I do not get any value from reading FTA; it is entertainment at best.

      The problem is not big against small, as such. The problem is that Richard has a big follow, that his fans are not know for the civility, and Richard can thus deliver a big punch. With power comes responsibility. The issue is not that the volunteer had a small blog or is a woman, but that everyone with a little empathy would have seen that she would not respond well to such a punch. I was not surprised that she closed down her blog and I really hope nothing worse has happened.

      This is one of the problems of blogging. I am quite sure that Richard does not use the same language among strangers in real life. If only because he would probably not be alive any more, but also because if you see the response of your words in the face of the others, any sane person automatically tunes down. And if that does not happen, the communication will be interrupted. In written communication you do not see the face and in case of such a large blog as FTA the hateful comments keep on flooding in, where they would have stopped in real life.

      In my view everyone is a sexist and a racist, myself included. You cannot think without categories, you meet so many people every day, you cannot do all of them justice. Many prejudice are also partially true and using them as short cuts makes communication easier. Woman are also sexist and minorities are also racist. I would not have believed how much my improved health and fitness has changed the way strange women treat me.

      (Instead of denying having prejudice, it is better to acknowledge them and in interacting with a specific person look out for signs that the prejudice is wrong. Try to falsify your initial hypothesis about the other person as much as possible.)

      You notice such prejudice most when you are surrounded by people form another group. To me, she was mainly saying: I did not feel at home at the AHS.

      As I wrote in the post, it would have been much better if she had just written what she felt and not start to interpret that in such hostile words. To point that out to her, Richard could have left a comment at her blog. That would have been much better than his post, which set the dogs loose.


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