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What cavemen can teach you about your health

Paleo Manifesto

John Durant wrote “The Paleo Manifesto” to find out what evolutionary psychology can teach us about healthier living today.

The Paleo Manifesto is not a preachy diet plan that will tell you to start eating like a caveman. Instead, it’s a fascinating look at how evolutionary psychology can contribute to a broader understanding of how humans can live longer, healthier, more vibrant lives amid modern challenges (i.e., desk jobs and Twinkies).

It’s about “how to live a better life based on evolution,” Harvard-educated author John Durant told us. Starting with, but not limited to, what you put in your mouth.

“I said right away that this is not a diet book and the word diet will not appear on the cover,” explains Durant, referencing the Paleo Diet. “More people are realizing that being healthy requires complete lifestyle changes and approaching life in a holistic way.”

So, in addition to food, Durant addresses things like movement, body temperature regulation, and our relationship with sunlight, all after first delving into the way our Paleolithic ancestors lived. We caught up with the oft-barefoot writer to find out more:

Arguments about diet typically rely on scientific studies; yours are more based on theories culled from evolutionary psychology and historical evidence. But don’t we need to see large studies that prove the Paleo approach works? The reality is that people don’t really understand how the human body works. Even the top scientists. And when you don’t understand, you need to use nature as a model, to get an approximation or some good hypotheses for what works. Evolutionary theory is wonderful for generating really smart hypotheses. If you want to make a really good educated guess, it’s the right way to do it. But it doesn’t prove that just because hunter-gatherers ate things in the Paleolithic [era] it follows that novel foods are unhealthy or that every food in the past can’t be improved upon. But it’s a pretty good guess as to what foods are probably good for us.

And there has been a lot of science, actually. I cite some studies—there are papers on the Paleo Diet and cardiovascular health, on blood-work improving, on it being more satiating than a Mediterranean Diet. There’s a great study on Australian Aborigines living in cities who were overweight and had Type 2 diabetes, and a group went back in the Bush and lived in their traditional way, and the Type 2 diabetes went away. And some of the studies are not necessarily about the Paleo Diet, they’re about gluten and schizophrenia, or gut health—that’s a cutting edge area. It’s all related.

Paleo ManifestoTell me about the distinction you make in the book between “surviving” and “thriving.” We’ve conquered survival. Pretty much everyone lives a very long time these days, even if you don’t exercise and eat Taco Bell three times a day. Surviving isn’t enough because now, surviving taking an average approach means being overweight, being pre-diabetic, being mildly depressed a lot of the time, and having some sort of autoimmune disorder. You might live a long time, but its not a high-quality life. Thriving is just a different challenge, and it requires a different approach.

One of the things you suggest people do to thrive is to “make food meaningful.” How is this part of the Paleo approach?  That theme is partly Michael Pollan’s influence, and he’s been very critical of what’s called nutritionism, basically reducing foods into their parts, like vitamin C and calories and fats. Deconstructing food like that takes away its meaning. Diets that depend on counting calories and macro-nutrients, they’re not the type that motivate people to stick to them in the long-term. I didn’t want this book to be a list of foods that you’re not allowed to eat and a list of beneficial micro- and macro-nutrients—that doesn’t motivate me in my daily life. What motivates me is actually making chicken stock for a friend who’s ill instead of heating up a can of soup on the stove. Traditional family recipes are more meaningful than ones that come out of a cookbook. The key to turning a diet into a lifestyle is making it meaningful, integrating it into your life, so that it doesn’t require discipline, it’s just what you do. —Lisa Elaine Held

For more information, check out the The Paleo Manifesto