Food as religion?

When I first decided to give the paleo diet a try I asked on a popular message board what changes to expect. I explained that I was already eating a pretty healthy diet and that this was merely an experimental tweak.

Here are some of the things that people suggested would happen: that my skin would feel wonderful, that I would feel more energetic, that I would sleep better, that my body would be less inflamed, that I would have better digestion, no bloating, strong nails, less body odor, no toenail fungus, better mood, more focus, no headaches, faster recovery time, better teeth, less tartar, not getting sick, better healing, less greasy hair. Just short of the ability to walk on water, this was a pretty promising list.

Now, I’d say most the above actually turned out to be true; however it had already been true before I started on my two-year paleo experiment.

I once took part in a 30 day paleo challenge  (of the Whole30 variety) at my gym, where I followed the most restrictive form of paleo to the letter (no alcohol, no dairy) and it really didn’t make a difference.

There were also times when I ate a bunch of grain-y foods and ice cream and whatnot, like on vacation. And that really didn’t make a difference either. I didn’t suddenly turn into an inflamed, sweaty, bloated, fungal mess. There might, of course, be an impact much further down the road if I always ate like that , but that’s much harder to measure.

I would argue that there’s little difference in effect between eating a diet that follows a paleo or “primal” template and just eating a diet that’s got lots of fish, meat, vegetables, fruit and fermented dairy in it. The fine detail of whether quinoa or not, quantity and type of nuts, whether coconut oil or olive oil, rice or not, beans or not probably doesn’t matter, unless you have a specific issue or sensitivity.

The thing that depressed me most about the whole episode is how easy it is for any particular brand of healthy eating to become part of your self-definition, just like Crossfit, or even some kind of secular religion – something that gives meaning and purpose to your life, rather than being fuel, which you spend about 2% of your day consuming. It’s not that food isn’t important but other things are important too: friendship, pleasure, creativity, adventure, surprise, exploration, helping others, making mistakes, music, art, books – insert whatever you care about.

And while I absolutely believe that switching to a paleo diet will do lots of great things for people who come from a crappy diet, I think the specific benefits have been vastly oversold. And fueled borderline eating disorders in people like me.

Eat some meat and vegetables and then go on and do something interesting and useful with your life.

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2 thoughts on “Food as religion?

  1. Um, I love this. This really resonates with me! I was like that when I first started Paleo. I became a bit of a food snob. Then I moved country where it was ridiculously difficult to maintain that lifestyle and where eating people’s food is important. I had to learn to be flexible. I have to admit I’ve grown tired of narrow-mindedness… both in myself and others. Thank you for writing this. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this perspective. It is really interesting how a particular way of eating can become gospel and take over without our knowing. This is a great reminder to snap out of that and find our own balance.

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