What The Paleo Narrative Says About Our Relationship With Food
Lessons from Prehistory
The Paleo man has a compelling story to tell. A tale that begins somewhere between 2.5 million and 10000 years ago, when humans were healthy, happy and strong, when there was no burden of stress and chronic disease, and our cavemen ancestors lived like kings, whiling away their days hunting wild game and scavenging meat, covering miles on bare feet and living a euphoric primitive life. This caveman and his primal peers were tall, lean, robust, big-brained and rumour has it they were even somewhat smart. They were at the pinnacle of physical fitness and, with such a simple paradisiac existence, they’re rather enviable characters. Then came the agricultural revolution and, as humans abandoned this way of life to gorge on processed food, grains and refined sugar, so arrived all the problems of the modern world. Obesity, heart disease, feminism, the list goes on…
Of course, our Paleolithic ancestors aren’t here today to tell us their tale for themselves, and if they were, 10000 years worth of language development would probably create some communication barriers. But paleo nostalgia lives on within an emerging sub-genre of weight-loss manuals, using this story of paradise past to lend voice and embodiment to a prescriptive resolution for our declining health: ‘the Paleo diet.’
The paleo story isn’t novel by any means. In fact, it follows perhaps the most structured and canonical narrative framework we know1. It takes us on a journey through human evolution (or in this case, a lack thereof) with the ideal conclusion being that we should end where our story began, eating as hunter-gatherers, only wiser, richer and more civilised than our Neanderthal elders. But the fact that a narrative around a diet exists at all, especially one with an apparently flawless protagonist, says a lot about how we perceive food and what it represents in our culture.
Narratives are a verbal construction of reality. They selectively paint our identity and allow us to interpret and understand our life progression through our own words, making them a popular tool for gaining access to a person’s sense of self in cognitive psychology2. The very use of stories to promote diets therefore shows just how entrenched our identities are within our food choices. In them, we are the hero and food is the enemy. It’s only through a battle of control, restriction and weight loss that narrative conflict is resolved, that is, we escape the trials of illness, impurity and mainstream ideals of physical unattractiveness.
A Man’s World
But wait! Diets are a women’s world. Surely no respectable man should be at the mercy of a low-carb salad?! Well, if there’s one thing that’s clear from the paleo conversation, the reach of cultural diet pressures doesn’t discriminate.
The paleo narrative masculinises the diet by positioning itself instead as an innate, ancient and optimal way of life that long outlives the feminine concept of slimming world and beach bodies. Paleo principles are drawn from a stereotypically masculine era, with the caveman archetype embodying the most favourable of male traits. Sporting a ripped physique owed to primitive genetics, paleo males are superior even to the worshipped cover stars of Men’s Health and Olympian gold-medallists. They are no slave to the gym or meticulous meal prep and macronutrient counting. They are dominant and free, governed only by their natural, primal instinct to run, eat and mate… Basically the modern male dream.
Whilst the grain-free, gluten-demonising aspects of the paleo diet are reminiscent of traditional low-carb fads, it’s the protein-centric element that draws in paleo’s male following. Reflective of its function to support muscle growth and physical strength, protein is evangelised in the paleo diet, often taking an active and essential role in building a man3.
But seeing as legumes and dairy are off the menu (sorry guys, ice cream is way too Bridget Jones), it’s down to flesh to give men their macho properties. Meat, particularly red meat, holds strong symbolic ties to masculine identity4. The discourse of meat is profoundly hypermasculine. Phrases like ‘beef up,’ ‘feed the beast,’ and ‘strong as an ox’ regularly feature in male diet manuals to promote high protein consumption, falling under the mentality that ‘you are what you eat.’ After all, real men don’t eat celery sticks and reduced fat hummus. Real men order steak.
A Cavewoman’s World
That isn’t to say that women have escaped the draw of the paleo narrative. Though in the past the masculine discourse of meat played its part in female ‘fear of bulk,’ these days, a woman possessing stereotypical male characteristics gains extra rapport, especially when packaged in a hot body (cue ‘strong not skinny’ activists). Some may even argue that modern women adopting the paleo diet is an act of empowerment, fighting against the patriarchy, ditching low fat sorrow and subverting gender roles. But don’t set fire to your loincloth bra just yet…
Even in paleo literature, women still ascribe to a socially acceptable level of femininity. Across food blogs and books by female paleo authors, recipes using fish, poultry or vegetarian dishes are considerably more salient than from their male counterparts, and there is a much greater emphasis placed on consuming nature’s ‘real food,’ making emotionally charged ethical choices and being a plant-dominant paleo. ‘Fat loss’ and ‘detox’ programmes replace the aggressive meat terms, and the purity of paleo’s unpolluted past takes the spotlight to redeem women’s nutritional sins.
It’s possible to debate that this manifests from living out paleolithic women’s traditional role as plant-foragers with the occasional small kill as a token for their man. But a more realistic deduction? Women continue to face gender pressures to be compassionate and align with their intrinsic nature as earth mothers, all whilst fitting into a little leopard print dress, of course. It’s the same archaic law of femininity that exists in just about every fad diet out there. The paleo narrative is just a perfect veil to eat low carb, restrict food groups, lose weight and attain greater desirability, all whilst pretending that it is a lifestyle choice, not a diet.
With a narrative construct that necessarily problematises who we are because of the way we eat, and imagines a false ideal of ‘perfect’ health, it’s no wonder that diet discourses such as those used in the paleo movement give way to a disordered relationship with food. Ultimately, whether the benefits of eating paleo stand up in nutritional science is irrelevant. If the result is self-disparagement, shame and anxiety, it’s not healthy.
Maxine Ali is a journalist, writer and linguist. She is fascinated by the discourse of health, wellness and food and uses her love of words to explore how language reflects and reinforces our social attitudes and identities. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.