The Paleo Diet and Politics




I hoped this day would never come. Alas, it was almost inevitable. Of the many #notpaleo concepts we face in the modern world, two of the biggest are politics and religion; the collision of the paleo ideas with 10K years of subsequent dogma has only just begun. State politics and codified law arose directly from the unintended problem of property rights inherent in the agricultural revolution. While shamanistic religion existed in the upper paleolithic, the theism of historical and modern religions (one in the same, really) is also firmly rooted in the agricultural revolution. In many ways, it’s hard to separate politics and religion as civilizations formed around agriculture.


The seeds of this article have been on my mind for a while, but its timing is a reaction to an article I saw yesterday in the Chicago Sun Times titled “Meaty fad diet goes back to Stone Age“. Here we go… Back to the 3.4 million year “fad”. The author added to the fad rhetoric by calling the paleo diet “silly”. That sort of title is pretty common in the anti-paleo polemics that circulate in the blogosphere. However, this was from what I presumed to be a nominally significant traditional media outlet. It was clearly written by a non-journalist, which is fine I guess, but it struck me as particularly poorly researched. There were no online responses when I read it, so I fired off a hasty, but I think accurate, comment. At the time of this writing, it’s the first of a few comments, but who knows what whims might change that.

Semi-Irrelevant Backstory

When I first read the article, I read every word, but stopped at the 2nd to last sentence of the piece: “Cornell McClellan is the owner of Naturally Fit… a personal training and wellness facility.” Maybe it’s not fair nor accurate, but when I think gym owner / personal trainer, I envision a wall of supplements and meal replacement bars and powders… you know…. merchandise that needs to be “moved”. Thus, I tend to take their advice on nutrition with a grain of yeah, right. In missing the last sentence, I missed something that would have changed my comment somewhat. Here’s that non-trivial sentence: “He is also the fitness trainer for the President of the United States and the First Lady.” Yes, you may {insert scratching record sound here}.

Let it be known that I am was in no way hostile to the Obama administration when I read the article. Sure, I could work up a reasonable critique of a dozen or so things I think were bad policy decisions, but my critiques of the Bush Jr. administration would be measured in hundreds or thousands. For reasons mentioned by neither Democrats nor Republicans, I find the health care bill to be flawed. It also strikes me as unconstitutional, but I went to the law school of James Spader and William Shatner. To the Presiden’ts credit, as a non-theist, the following may be my favorite quote by any U.S. President since James Madison:

“I’m somebody who deeply believes that the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and no faith. This is a country that is still predominantly Christian, but we have… atheists, agnostics… that we have to revere and respect….” Barack Obama, September 28, 2010.<

The only reason I’m writing this article is that I got curious and googled Cornell McClellan. It was then that I found out he’s 1 of 16 official members of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. It was only after finding that page that I went back to the article and connected all of the dots. I remain skeptical of its claim that Mr. McClellan has an “extensive knowledge of the human body and nutrition.”

The Meat of It

Cornell McClellan’s article really is garbage. I do encourage you to read the whole thing to take in the totality of its emptiness. The portrait of the paleo diet that he paints is more a cartoonish mischaracterization of the Atkins diet than paleo. And to be fair to the Atkins folks, it’s not a fair representation of them either.

The problem with this sort of article is that the average person sincerely looking for a way to improve their health is not likely to see through the unsupported assertions made by someone who’s a professional personal trainer backed by the President and officially promoted as an outstanding exemplar by the United States government. My thoughts and references follow each of the quoted snippets.

“a recent study has come out that refutes some of [the paleo diet's] basic tenets. Findings from archeological digs in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic suggest that cavemen did not only rely on meat for sustenance, as evidenced by traces of starch grains found on stones used for grinding and preparing food.”

Well at least Mr. McClellan did go so far as to read the Reuters blurb on this and maybe even the NYT piece ["page not found" error as of this writing]. However, the actual study did not reveal evidence of “grains” in the sense that would be appropriate for a paleo diet discussion of grains… namely, cereal grains such as wheat, barley, amaranth, millet, et cetera. The grains being referred to are grains in the sense that they are particulates; that is, the result of grinding. The popular science media misconstrued this research ad nauseum when it was first published. Its implications for paleo dieters are approximately zero. It’s been refuted many times, but Melissa McEwen provides my favorite critique thus far. It’s based on the actual study, not the other journalists’ general audience pieces, and she even bothered to include a relevant chart from the study that shows the non-grain plants in question.

Not trivial in the media coverage of this study was the post-publishing opining by some of the article’s authors. At least one made a wild and unsubstantiated guess that they used the ground plant material to make bread. I ask again, who among you thinks mashed potatoes are the same as bread? Perhaps we have to be scientists to make such a determination?

Archeologists were shocked to discover that our carnivorous ancestors actually were making and preparing foods such as roots, vegetables and perhaps even cracker-like foods.

Now this is just ridiculous. First of all, no serious scientist currently thinks our ancestors were “carnivores”. It is widely accepted by archaeologists and anthropologists that humans evolved as omnivores. I’d let laymen off the hook on this distinction, but Mr. McClellan knows better and is exaggerating for effect. The paleo diet approach simply echoes a range of foods our omnivorous ancestors would have had access to. Second, there are longstanding hypotheses and evidence of hominid “preparation” of roots and vegetables. The rest of us know that crackers were invented by the Keebler elves, no earlier than the First Age of Middle-Earth. Proving that humans made crackers in the paleolithic is about as likely as leading us to a magical elven forest.

These recent findings suggest that man cannot live on meat alone, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people from signing up for the Paleo Diet.

Now we’re getting ridiculous-er. The paleolithic diet doesn’t suggest that anyone could, should, or would survive on meat alone.  I’m sure someone could make a case that humans could survive on meat alone, but it would remain a question of how long and how well. Scientists do hypothesize that Neanderthals were mostly carnivorous, but they’re a separate species and that argument is beside the point.

a meat-heavy diet isn’t recommended for most people. Not only do I discourage any diet that disallows entire food groups, but cholesterol levels are directly linked to the ingestion of animal products.

Meat-heavy is vague, unhelpful, and pejorative in a way the author clearly intended. Here we also have a legitimate disagreement on what constitutes a food group. Grain might be a Food Group™, but it is not a group of foods or nutrients required for human health. There are no essential nutrients found in grains that are not found in dramatically higher concentrations in the other “food groups”. Yes, grains, as a practical matter, are necessary to sustain the massive current global population of Homo sapiens with the current agribusiness-dominated farming system, but they are by no means necessary for individual people. Please examine your assumptions, Mr. McClellan.

The final claim about cholesterol and animal products is too big to discuss here. I’ll blindly assert his unsupported claim has been sufficiently refuted and address references should they be provided at some future time.

Eating a steak three times a day can potentially whittle your waistline, but the impact it’s having on your insides might not be as attractive. Sadly, Paleo dieters also are encouraged to limit fruit to small helpings, as it believed that our ancestors didn’t have access to the amazing produce offerings that we now do.

Until I see a citation for the “steak three times a day” charge, I’m going to assume that it’s again made up for dramatization of the author’s non-point. While our ancestors did eat a lot of meat when it was available, it wasn’t available in steak form three times a day. Such is life when you don’t have refrigeration and a pantry.

Paleo dieters are encouraged to adjust fruit consumption based on their current body composition and how much exercise they’re getting. Fruit generally has naturally high levels of sugar. Is it really sad to suggest that obese, sedentary individuals throttle back on their intake of sugar, while marathon runners shovel it down as needed?

Not only are these diet choices somewhat questionable, it’s also worth pointing out that our Stone Age ancestors were not eating factory-farmed meat, which is full of chemicals and hormones. Unless you have a spear handy and access to unlimited buffalo, you are going to have a hard time truly eating like a caveman.

Yes, the mythical all meat diet that excludes spuriously essential food groups and bans fruit would definitely be questionable. Unfortunately for the arguments of Mr. McClellan, that isn’t the paleo diet. The paleolithic dieters are fully aware of the problems with factory farmed, chemically-treated meat and make it a point to eat naturally fed (typically grass or pastured) meats. And yes, such meats are difficult to find at a fast food window, but they are often available at standard grocery stores. And as I’ve said before, paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment.

Finally, any diet that is as restrictive as the Paleo Diet is problematic because it requires cavemen-sized willpower, which means many people will soon abandon their hunks of meat for a modern-day helping of lasagna.

The willpower problem is a modern diet carbohydrate addiction problem, not a paleolithic problem. Direct links have been demonstrated between carbohydrate cravings and obesity (Spring 2008). In effect, suggesting that sufficient willpower is too difficult implies that we should all simply give up and submit to an unbreakable cycle of carbohydrate addiction. The cool thing about paleolithic diets is that most people find the addiction and cravings go away. Indeed, you find yourself quite full if you eat ample amounts of meat, fruit, and vegetables.

After discovering the naive nutritional understanding of “The First Trainer”, I’m a little worried for the President. I hope his doctors aren’t using similarly anachronistic, post-medieval methods. Nobody likes leeches and bloodletting.

McClellan’s sagelike advice? Don’t eat “Big Macs”. Deet deeeet deeet deet deeeet… This just in off the news wire.

Dear President Obama, myself and many others in the paleo community would be happy to update your nutrition regime. P.S. Please tell President Clinton he could probably use a bit more protein these days. Bonus: Many of us have a natural immune system resistance to TV and radio pundits. Which brings me to my next point…


Religion (in some forms) is fundamentally anti-paleo. Obvious culprits in this regard are Creationists. While I formally and warmly invite them to apply paleolithic ideas to their eating and exercise habits, it’s also pretty obvious that the paleo diet relies on the logic of Darwinian evolution. Some folks who believe in “intelligent” design may also be inclined to reject the logic of the paleo diet. The adaptive power of natural selection in evolutionary theory is a foundation of the paleo diet. If a divine force was guiding the process, adaptation would be irrelevant. It could be claimed that the “intelligence” knew all along that humans would need grain to force an artificially large population explosion, and therefore, paleolithic habits would be irrelevant.

I personally know Creationists who have been quite successful on the paleo diet. I wonder how they ignore the implications there. If their holy books tell them eating bread is a good thing, how do they reconcile that unhealthy advice with reality?

Corporate Interests

I don’t want to get all conspiratorial, but I think it’s at least worth considering financial influence in politics as it relates to pushback against paleolithic dieting. As the famous quote from the 1976 film All the President’s Men says, “Follow the money”. And lookey here, we just happen to be talking about one of the President’s men. The list below highlights a few publicly traded companies with direct financial interest in producing, fertilizing, transporting, and/or distributing paleo-unfriendly wheat & corn products for human consumption [2010 Fortune 500 Rank, $Revenue]. Major direct producers in bold.

  • Wal-Mart [1]
  • Exxon Mobil [2]
  • Chevron [3]
  • ConocoPhillips [6]
  • CVS Caremark [18]
  • Procter & Gamble [22]
  • Kroger [23]
  • Costco Wholesale [25]
  • Walgreen [32]
  • Marathon Oil [41]
  • PepsiCo [50, $43 billion]
  • Safeway [52]
  • Kraft Foods [53, $40 billion]
  • Sysco [55, $37 billion]
  • Coca-Cola [72, $31 billion]
  • Tyson Foods [87, $27 billion]
  • Rite Aid [89]
  • Publix Super Markets [99]
  • Deere [107]
  • McDonald’s [108, $23 billion]
  • Coca-Cola Enterprises [113, $22 billion]
  • Tesoro [139]
  • General Mills [155 $15 billion]
  • Smithfield Foods [163, $14 billion]
  • Pepsi Bottling [174, $13 billion]
  • ConAgra Foods [178, $13 billion]
  • Sara Lee [180, $13 billion]
  • Kellog [184, $13 billion]
  • Monsanto [197]

I’ll just leave it at that for now. Government subsidies of the crops in question raises an entirely different, yet equally important level of questioning. If I get requests to flesh this out further, maybe I’ll put some more work into it.

Vegan / Vegetarian

Noooooo… Not again! There are a lot of veg*ans out there. They’re politically active, they like to team up, and they [some] hate that other people eat meat.

Guilt by Association / Ad Hominem

We see this time and again in propagandists rallying against those of unknown motives trying to quash the idea that eating grains is bad (see the reference to Gwyneth Paltrow in the intro here). This is true in attacks on anti-gluten folks and anti-paleo folks.  Indeed Cornell McClellan injects this approach into his piece, “celebrities such as Megan Fox are rumored to owe their hot bodies to this ancient diet plan… there is no secret behind the body of your favorite celebrity”. Dismissing something as a celebrity fad is itself a fad and it carries with it a very real sign (in the semiotic sense) value. Its cultural meaning instantly evokes mental images of superficiality, imminent expiration, and flakiness. Thus, accusing something of being a celebrity fad associates the idea of hollow vapidity to whatever is linked to it. Propaganda 101, baby.


We have good reason to question the personal business motivations, political motivations, and religious motivations of individuals launching derisive attacks at paleo. The financial stakes alone are in the hundreds of billions (more likely trillions) annually. The perceived religious stakes are just as powerful and perhaps more, if slightly less lucrative and less…um… what’s the word I’m looking for here? The stakes for vegetarians can be just as powerful and personal.

There are reasonable arguments within the scientific community that are worth having. However, when pieces such as McClellan’s hit the media with such a gaping chasm between the known science and the claims, red flags should go off and alarm bells should ring.

Yes, our knowledge of the paleolithic environment in which humans evolved is less than 100% complete. However, we know a lot more about it than Mr. McClellan and other politically motivated paleo haters would lead you to believe. We know enough to help people in a very real and immediate way. I’ll link up a couple books below, and feel free to ask me questions if you’re not sure about where to start or where to go next.



UPDATE: Cornell McClellan is a vegan advocate!


Spring, B., Schneider, K., Smith, M., Kendzor, D., Appelhans, B., Hedeker, D., et al. (2008). Abuse potential of carbohydrates for overweight carbohydrate cravers. Psychopharmacology197(4), 637-647.