The current ancestral health movement is often thought to be on the verge of going mainstream, with many believing this will lead to positive health and financial outcomes for both individuals and society as a whole. However, the transition from a relatively small, highly-devoted group of adherents to a mass following will be far more difficult than commonly assumed. In fact, there are at least three main obstacles to the paleo movement becoming a mass phenomenon.
First, Neolithic foods are tightly woven into the fabric of our culture. More than anything else, grains, legumes, and dairy allowed for early populations to expand, and have sustained increasingly larger populations over the past 10,000 of years. It was the invention of agriculture, and the consumption of Neolithic foods, that directly led the development of civilization, including such things as the division labor, the accumulation of wealth, greater social hierarchy, and new forms of technology. It is no exaggeration to say that human civilization was literally founded on, and continues to be based on, Neolithic foods. Because of this important and undeniable link, it will be extremely difficult to remove grains, legumes, and dairy from our daily lives.
Second, Neolithic and industrially-processed foods – and simple carbohydrates in particular – appear to be addictive. As a result, giving up grains, legumes, and dairy represents a real physical or physiological challenge. These foods appear to be so potentially addictive because of three interrelated reasons. First, they taste good. Just think of the way a warm, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies smell and taste. Whether we like it or not, sweets are highly appealing, and we often crave them. For example, a study from 2006 shows that the main reward and pleasure center in the brain lights up more intensely for foods like chocolate cake and pizza than for blander foods like vegetables. Second, some individuals may also become addicted to Neolithic and processed foods because they tap into a real evolutionary need. Specifically, in the scarce environment of our ancestral past, having a preference for highly sweet and fatty foods had real survival and reproductive advantages. Third, food manufacturers today know all about these “pre-programmed” preferences, and do everything thing they can to exploit them. Multinational corporations literally spend billions of dollars to make foods hyper-palatable and to keep us coming back for more. The addictive nature of these foods is even more problematic when you consider that the typical American diet consists of 70% Neolithic or Industrial foods, which include: cereals, dairy products, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, and alcohol. This is a key point. When people are encouraged to switch to a paleo diet, they are really being asked to change or give up almost three quarters of their current diet, and the very three quarters that is potentially the most addictive.
The third main obstacle facing the ancestral health movement relates to societal values. Specifically, today we see a general sense of entitlement, which commonly privileges transitory “fun” over true mental and physical “flourishing,” or what the ancient Greeks called eudemonia. This sense of entitlement and desire to have fun manifests itself in several ways. First, there is the “I deserve it” syndrome. This is when a friend, co-worker, family member, or perhaps even we ourselves say: “I deserve that cookie.” Likewise, we simply do not like being told that we cannot eat certain foods, especially when those foods have high emotional or cultural significance. When it comes to food choices, we have also been told again and again: “everything in moderation.” But this approach is simply not compatible with the ancestral health model: some foods are better than others, and other foods are to be avoided altogether. Next, there is the issue of instant gratification. We all want things, and we want them now. This feeling is quite understandable, given we live in a world of instant communication, fast food, and video on demand. Finally, individuals – and society as a whole – typically value personal happiness as the primary goal in life. Society tells us all the time to just “be happy!” But, of course, “being happy” is not the only possible goal in life. Other societies at different places and at different times have prioritized a number of other values, including: social justice, artistic creation, the reduction of suffering, athletic performance, the production of knowledge, sexual ecstasy, and eudemonia. In many ways, that final goal appears to be closest to the true objective of the ancestral health movement.
In addition to these three main obstacles, previous research has also suggested that there are the two main types of individuals that typically go paleo: those who are sick (and for whom conventional medicine has failed) and those who are seeking performance. The key commonality between both groups is a very high level of intrinsic motivation. These individuals are highly motivated to get healthy or to improve their performance, or some combination of the two. In fact, it could be argued that it takes a “special kind of person” to transition from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to an ancestral health lifestyle because it often requires a significant amount of effort to make and to maintain the switch. More specifically, this “special kind of person” might be described as someone who is self-directed, willing to challenge authority and the conventional wisdom, and who has access to education and resources, which allows him or her to explore alternative health paradigms. However, these individuals may very well represent the exception, rather than the norm, in our society today.
My argument here is not intended to stand as a kind of “final judgment.” Instead, we need to question where the ancestral health movement currently is, and to think about where it is going. Many within the movement simply assume that “paleo” will continue to grow and expand. But that growth cannot be taken for granted. As we are often warned in a different context: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Rather than simply making assumptions about the future, the goal should be to identify the most significant challenges that lie ahead. At that point, perhaps then we will be able to develop the most effective strategies to overcome those challenges.
Read the full Evolutionary Mismatch series:
- Introduction: Evolutionary Mismatch and What To Do About It by David Sloan Wilson
- Functional Frivolity: The Evolution and Development of the Human Brain Through Play by Aaron Blaisdell
- A Mother’s Mismatch: Why Cancer Has Deep Evolutionary Roots by Amy M. Boddy
- It’s Time To See the Light (Another Example of Evolutionary Mismatch) by Dan Pardi
- Generating Testable Hypotheses of Evolutionary Mismatch by Sudhindra Rao
- (Mis-) Communication in Medicine: A Preventive Way for Doctors to Preserve Effective Communication in Technologically-Evolved Healthcare Environments by Brent C. Pottenger
- The Darwinian Causes of Mental Illness by Eirik Garnas
- Is Cancer a Disease of Civilization? by Athena Aktipis
- The Potential Evolutionary Mismatches of Germicidal Ambient Lighting by Marcel Harmon
- Do We Sleep Better Than Our Ancestors? How Natural Selection and Modern Life Have Shaped Human Sleep by Charles Nunn and David Samson
- The Future of the Ancestral Health Movement by Hamilton M. Stapell
- Humans: Smart Enough to Create Processed Foods, Daft Enough to Eat Them by Ian Spreadbury
 Beaver, J. D., et al. (2006). Individual Differences in Reward Drive Predict Neural Responses to Images of Food. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(19): 5160–5166.
 Armelagos G. J. (2014). Brain Evolution, the Determinates of Food Choice, and the Omnivore’s Dilemma. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 54(10): 1330–1341.
 Moss, M. (2013). Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Random House: New York.
 Schwartz, D. & Stapell, H. (2013). Modern Cavemen? Stereotypes and Reality of the Ancestral Health Movement. Journal of Evolution and Health, 1(1): Article 3.