The long read: eating like a caveman

We must resist the recent movement towards counterfactual dietary and health advice.

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In July 2018, Jordan Peterson appeared on comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast and shocked the world by declaring that he followed a diet consisting exclusively of “beef, salt, water” – and nothing else. He claimed this diet, inspired by that of his twenty-six-year-old daughter Mikhaila, had not only resulted in improved energy, sleep, mental health, digestion, and drastic weight loss, but was also responsible for the total recovery of his daughter from a lifelong series of autoimmune diseases and rare illnesses.

In fact, Peterson’s daughter had been making these claims herself long before her father took them to the global stage. Her blog, mikhailapeterson.com, appropriately entitled Don’t Eat That, advocates an elimination diet as the solution to almost all health issues – indeed, everything from bleeding gums to just “feel[ing] like you could do better”. Once the international news picked up on Peterson’s claims, a flurry of articles followed, doing everything from breaking down the (lack of ) nutritional science behind it to having reporters try it out for themselves and document the effects.

Clearly, Jordan and Mikhaila Peterson’s diets are at the extreme end of the spectrum. But what may be more familiar is the attitude that Mikhaila has toward nutritional science, and, indeed, all mainstream science. The first line of the subtitle of her blog – which, by the way, has almost fifty thousand subscribers – is “the food pyramid is a lie”. This is closely followed by “many (if not most) health problems are treatable with diet alone.”

The nature of the Peterson’s extreme forms of clean eating are clearly founded on total scepticism for scientific professionals, and indeed, an almost paranoid idea that the entire nutritionist and medical professions are implicated in a giant conspiracy theory designed to sell dairy and grains. There is no doubt that it has become harder to tell what is and isn’t good for us to eat.

In October 2015, for example, the World Health Organisation broke the news that processed meats like bacon and sausages were now officially classed as a group 1 carcinogen, ranking them alongside other carcinogens like tobacco and alcohol. What made matters worse was the extent to which the meat industry lobbied to prevent people taking this news seriously while at the same time adding chemicals to make meats like bacon look pinker.

Meanwhile, in fruit and vegetable production, the pesticide glyphosate was found to have been relicensed by the EU, just this January, based on a report that was plagiarised, meaning that the European Food Safety Authority had declared this pesticide safe for use despite the World Health Organisation deeming it a probable human carcinogen. It is therefore understandable that consumers might be wary about what exactly they are eating, since the food industry has proven it does not always have our best interests at heart.

But cases like the Peterson’s show that this scepticism has been taken to the extreme and should be seen as part of a wider movement of counterfactual dietary and health advice. Jordan Peterson, for example, argues in favour of his all beef diet by drawing attention to human societies in the past that survived largely or almost entirely on meat. There are parallels here to be drawn with the so-called paleo diet, which is a dietary plan that aims to mimic the food that would have been eaten during the Paleolithic era, i.e. in the time of cavemen.

Unlike the Peterson diet, the average follower of the Paleolithic diet eats fruit, vegetables, nut, seeds and fish, simply avoiding foods which were not available to humans ten thousand years ago. Thus, the paleo diet steers clear of dairy, grains and legumes (pulses like beans, chickpeas and lentils). Those who believe in the merits of the paleo diet argue that the human body is not equipped to deal with many components in our diets today. Changes in human dietary patterns brought about by developments in farming happened faster than the body could adapt to match them. This mismatch is the cause of many contemporary dietary issues, particularly obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

In keeping with this idea of a genetic ‘mismatch’, advocates of a Paleo diet are sceptical of mainstream dietary advice, which views pulses and legumes as a useful source of protein, dairy as a source of calcium and other minerals, and grains as important for fibre. The paleo approach holds that these benefits are fictional, and that in the long term consuming these ‘mismatched’ foods causes health problems. Effectively, extreme advocates of the Paleo diet question the validity of any medical advice and scientific research that goes against their beliefs.

Celebrity paleo chef Pete Evans is one such advocate. He came under fire in June 2018 by the Australian Medical Association, which strongly criticised Netflix’s decision to allow his documentary, The Magic Pill, to be available on their platform. Evans has argued, both in the documentary and in a series of his own cookbooks, that the paleo diet and paleo remedies can act to alleviate and aid medical conditions from epilepsy to autism to asthma. Evans has also claimed that breast milk can be replaced with a paleo bone broth for equivalent, if not superior, health benefits in infants.

The Magic Pill trailer features a woman with cancer who states that her tumorous growth started shrinking following her adoption of the diet, and a mother of a child with epilepsy who claims that her daughter stopped having seizures after they started following a high fat, low carb diet which avoided fibre and dairy.

The president of the Australian Medical Association, Doctor Tony Bartone, expressed concerns that the release of the documentary onto Netflix’s platform is a breach of their responsibilities as a broadcasting company. He feared that vulnerable members of society might see the claims of the documentary as a viable alternative to the advice of healthcare professionals, rather than viewing it simply as a programme for entertainment and intrigue.

Evans responded to this criticism in an Instagram post by asking what possible objection the AMA could have to his claim that eating vegetables and fruit with a side of well sourced meat/seafood/eggs is a healthy way to live. He then went on to attack the association, asking if the real reason behind its objections was that “this simple approach may actually hurt the industries that rely on a large percentage of the population being sick?”

The radical message behind his argument is that the reason why society does not follow a paleo diet was because of a grand conspiracy that implicated both the food industry and the medical profession. Evans’ argument ties into a wider movement of people who feel that not only is the food we eat causing more harm than good, but the medications that we take, and indeed the whole western approach to medicine, is flawed. This distrust for conventional medicine is particularly potent in the US; aside from the various criticisms of the US healthcare system in general, and all the questions that have been raised about its affordability and accessibility, it is most clearly exemplified by the anti-vaccination movement.

This trend, sparked by a highly problematic 1998 study that linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism in children, is verging on the point of a national crisis, as these nineteenth century diseases resurge in communities where parents choose to for the babies forego basic childhood vaccinations.

But even outside of the anti-vaccine movement, the claim that medical institutions are corrupt has special bite in the USA. Americans are increasingly familiar with the term ‘Big Pharma’ and the notion of health clinics offering a cycle of prescriptions aimed at making profit rather than promoting health.

Consider for instance the litigation currently pending against members of the Sackler family, who own the Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma and the prescription opioid OxyContin. The deceptive marketing campaigns by this pharmaceutical company enabled OxyContin to be overprescribed to the extent that it is now at the centre of a national opioids crisis, which is said to kill almost 200 people a day in the US. It is clear to see why the average American citizen would therefore distrust the same doctors who helped to cause such a crisis.

An article on ‘8 Natural Alternatives to Antibiotics’ on paleohacks.com states that “plants, food, and herbal tinctures have been used as natural antibiotics to treat illness and disease for centuries. Then Big Pharma swept the nation… with the advancement of Western medicine and pharmaceutical drugs, it’s easy to forget how effective ancient healing remedies and natural antibiotics can still be.”

It’s not difficult to see how developments like the OxyContin crisis, as well as wider fears about the development of antibiotic resistance in some pathogens, can feed into the sentiments of paleo advocates like these – leading bloggers to advocate oregano oil, grape seed extract and apple cider vinegar as alternatives to medical practices that fail to care. The idea that there was once a golden age of natural medicine and eating, when mankind was at one with nature and did not face the difficulties and complications that humans do now in modern society, is a common thread running through many of these kinds of arguments.

Yet this idea is simply a romanticised fallacy, with the average life expectancy of a human in the paleolithic era at around 34 years and plenty of evidence showing the human genome has evolved over the past 10,000 and even 1,000 years. It is worth considering whether such a total rejection of modernity and its rationalism, science and technological developments, is linked to a discomfort with and desire to reject the wider political and social complexity which riddles modern society.

The big danger with this attitude comes when those increasingly disillusioned with mainstream health and nutritional advice turn to alternatives that result in serious problems for them. In 2015, Jessica Ainscough passed away from a rare form of soft-tissue cancer. With chemotherapy having failed to treat the cancer in her arm, and facing the prospect of amputation, Ainscough had turned to a method known as ‘Gerson therapy’ to attempt to cure her cancer.

She became known as a ‘wellness warrior’ as she turned to social media to document her self-medication through a strict regime of dietary supplements, daily coffee enemas, and an organic vegetarian diet – over two years, Ainscough reported her treatment included 8760 glasses of juice, 2920 coffee enemas, 1460 baked potatoes, 1460 bowls of Hippocrates soup, 33580 supplements, and 174 shots of castor oil. Surgical oncologist David Gorski had written that without treatment most succumb to the disease within 10 years – she died seven years after her diagnosis.

In a slightly different vein of alternative medicine, Doctor Robert O Young advocated the idea that disease is caused by eating acidic foods and can be cured by following an alkaline diet. He charged patients with serious, often terminal illnesses tens of thousands of dollars for his treatments, which took place at his ‘pH miracle’ ranch in the US. Young was prosecuted and convicted of charges including practising medicine without a license.

We must begin to recognise the ways in which certain restrictive diets tap into a wider culture of scientific scepticism and even plain-faced counter-factuality. People have begun to realise the mental dangers associated with so-called ‘clean eating’ movements. However, the new threat we face is that problems within the food and pharmaceutical industry may overwhelm the bank of reliable science backing up mainstream nutritional advice. Not only are there scandals like the bacon cancer scare, the horsemeat fiasco and the pesticide plagiarism threat breaking all the time, but choosing what to eat often comes with the pressure considering what is best for the environment as well as what is best for our bodies.

In order to protect ourselves from getting caught up in the counterfactual food trend, we need to balance curiosity and a desire for improvement with trust in science and a vigilant awareness of the evidence.

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