The Paleo Manifesto
I have a last minute holiday gift idea for you if you’ve got anyone in your family or circle of friends who has decided to go Paleo. Or if you have started following the Paleo lifestyle, gift it to yourself. Grab a copy of John Durant’s The Paleo Manifesto and put it under the tree. Do it now, then read why below.
The start of the modern Paleo movement dates to the classic 1985 article by Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner, Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications, in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Within a couple of years, these same authors along with Marjorie Shostak wrote The Paleolithic Prescription, a popular book expanding on the ideas outlined in the NEJM article. Since this book was published during the height of the low-fat mania then sweeping the country, it took a decidedly restricted-fat approach to the Paleo diet. Which, as we all know now, was not the case with the real Paleolithic diet.
A few other books I’ll discuss later came along over the next 15 years but the real Paleo movement stayed pretty much limited to hardcore practitioners, who were immersed in the scientific literature, which was, and still is to an extent, pretty thin. During this time, the only book that really achieved bestseller status and served as an intro for many into the Paleo way of eating was, I’m proud to say, Protein Power, which had a chapter devoted to the scientific underpinnings of the ancestral or Paleo diet as an argument for low-carb dieting. After Protein Power, a few other books started appearing on the shelves but none really caught on. And since Protein Power was positioned as a diet book, it didn’t really get the Paleo ball rolling.
After showing pretty slow growth in the 1990s, the awareness of the Paleo, ancestral or caveman diet exploded in the early days of 2010 in large measure, I believe, because of John Durant. Now Paleo is everywhere and there are countless books on the subject with more being printed every day.
John Durant stumbled onto the Paleo lifestyle after a breakup with a girlfriend. He had been working hard in the consulting business in New York, had developed sinus problems, pimples, gained 20 extra pounds and felt like crap. He had studied evolutionary psychology with Steven Pinker at Harvard, so when his brother sent him info on the ancestral diet, John was primed.
He lost his excess weight, restored his health, and “discovered a small but growing group of people who were “eating Paleo,” when a chance encounter with a free lance journalist resulted in an article about John and his Paleo potluck group in the New York Times. A month later he was on The Colbert Report. He started a blog, and soon pulled down a book contract, which culminated in The Paleo Manifesto.
The New York Times piece and John’s appearance on Colbert gave a PR boost of inestimable proportions to the Paleo lifestyle, and, in my view, was a major impetus introducing Paleo to the masses.
And the masses have been eating it up. Why? Again, just my opinion, but humans are drawn to stories, and the whole Paleo movement is based on an easy-to-understand, back-to-nature story.
By contrast, most diet books are simply that: diet books touting a particular diet. Take Protein Power, for instance. The subtitle of the paperback says it all: The High-Protein/Low-Carbohydrate Way to Lose Weight, Feel Fit, and Boost Your Health–in Just Weeks! That’s a diet book, it isn’t a story. The hardcover is even worse. You Can Now Eat Your Way to Dynamic Weight Loss with the Clinically Proven breakthrough Plan That Defies the Food Myths. Say what?!?! Whoever wrote that should be shot. Who knows what that drivel means. Whatever it is, it isn’t a story. It’s a wonder the book sold five copies.
When John sent me a pre-publication review copy of The Paleo Manifesto, I assumed it was a rework of all the other Paleo nutrition books out there. I tossed it in a pile and intended to read it on my next plane trip, but it got moved around by my lovely wife, who gets tired of what she calls my GAP method of filing (GAP = great amorphous pile), so it was out of site, out of mind. Then the book got published, and John kindly had the publisher send me a final publication copy, which, sadly, ended up in another GAP.
I finally came across it again while looking for something else, and, since I had a plane trip coming up, I tossed it in my carry on to read in flight. I actually kind of dreaded reading the thing, because I almost couldn’t face another Paleo book going on about all the same stuff that has been covered numerous times in all the other Paleo books out there.
But, fortunately, I was in for a pleasant surprise.
The Paleo Manifesto isn’t at all similar to all the other Paleo books. It’s a different beast altogether. And I quickly found myself captivated.
The book breaks down into three basic parts: the past, the present, and the future. And all revolve around the theme of evolutionary health.
Were I writing about the past, I doubtless would have dived into the anthropological literature and emerged with stories about the teeth or cortical bone thickness or mummified remains of our ancient ancestors and tied it all into the supposed diet they consumed. Not so John. He somehow wangled his way into the gorilla enclosure at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, where he was able to observe the mismatch between gorilla physiology and the zoo diet. Gorilla physiology has been molded by the gorilla ancestral diet, and, it didn’t take too well to the diet of zoo-expert-designed gorilla biscuits. The gorillas looked forward to their biscuits and scarfed them down much the same way we humans love our junk food and go face down in it. And, as with us, gorilla health paid the price.
The story John describes of how zoos finally figured out how to keep their gorillas, along with the rest of their animals, happy and healthy by recreating their natural habitats and diet as closely as possible is an eye-opening one. One he uses as a metaphor for human health and happiness: Avoid the mismatch as much as possible.
An interesting side note to this story is that when the zoo switched it’s gorillas from a high-sugar gorilla biscuit diet to a more gorilla ancestral diet made of plants, the gorillas lost substantial weight. At their lower weights they were consuming about twice as many calories as they had been with their biscuit diets. When the news got out, the zoo team
received emails from complete strangers telling them with absolute certainty that they had to be mistaken, that their findings broke the laws of physics. Calories in and calories out is all that matters when it comes to weight gain or loss, right? But a gorilla metabolizes a hundred calories of lettuce differently than it metabolizes a hundred calories of gorilla biscuit.
Even zoos, it appears, are not immune from the ignorant outrage of the calories in vs calories outers.
John’s adventures at the zoo are just the first of many. Instead of reading about the science of the Paleo lifestyle, which he did a-plenty, John plunged himself into all of it. He took an experiential approach to Paleo and writes about it brilliantly.
If you want to know what it’s like to go to one of Erwin Le Corre’s MovNat fitness retreats, John can tell you because he went. He ended up bloody, bruised, tired, bug bitten, and exhilarated.
How about a three-day fast and a vow of silence at a Monastary? And not just any Monastary, but the very Trappist Monastery that was the home of Thomas Merton. You can read all about it from his firsthand experience.
Or what is it like to go on your first deer hunt? I found reading about the whole experience mildly hilarious because I’ve been hunting since I was a kid (remember, I grew up in Duck Dynasty country), so it never occurred to me what a virgin hunting experience might be like to an adult.
Want to learn what Crossfit is all about. It’s all in the book.
Unlike all the other Paleo books out there, The Paleo Manifesto doesn’t spend a lot of time laying out any specific regimen to follow. Instead of lashing himself to the mast of a particular diet program, John kind of covers it all in broad brush strokes. “Mimic a hunter-gather (or herder) diet.” “Eat the right food groups.” “Don’t be afraid of fat.” “Eat nose to tail.” That kind of stuff.
So if you want a book that gives you a specific menu, The Paleo Manifesto isn’t your book. Because it isn’t like any other Paleo book out there, but it is a worthy companion to every Paleo book out there. And if you’re contemplating the Paleo lifestyle, it’s probably the best overview and introduction there is.
Plus, if you, like me, are a writer or blogger, The Paleo Manifesto is a grand reservoir for wonderful quotes. And I don’t mean quotes from other people – I mean quotes from John’s own writing.
Here are a few of my favorites.
Talking about the typical low-fat diet…
It’s a meal fit for a serf, sold for a princely sum to slavish Whole Food shoppers.
Re the difference between plants and animals as food sources…
Killing an animal is hard; digestion one is easy. Killing a plant is easy; digesting one is hard.
Discussing the idea that maybe dietary fat is off-putting to many, especially females, because of the negative connotation of excess body fat…
Better terms for dietary fat would have been “lipids,” “triglycerides,” or “sexy” — as in, “Each spoonful of lard contains 13 grams of sexy.”
These just scratch the surface.
Between the covers of The Paleo Manifesto you can find a large vein of solid gold in terms of eye-opening statistics and intriguing studies and plain beguiling stories. It’s kind of like the I Ching. Just stick your finger in between some pages, start reading, and you’ll be rewarded with all kinds of insights.
I discovered a number of scientific studies I wasn’t aware of. My favorite has got to be the 2012 German study finding vegetarians to have a significantly greater likelihood of having mental problems than meat eaters. Knowing as many vegetarians as I do, and having been attacked by as many as I’ve been attacked by, I always figured this was the case. But I didn’t know it had been studied. I pulled the paper, and, sure enough, that was the conclusion. You can read the study Vegetarian diet and mental disorders: results from a representative community survey yourself.
This book has my five star rating. You’ll have many hours of rewarding, revelatory fun reading it.
It’s hard to believe a hirsute, hippy-oid kid from New Yawk City who had never hunted nor shot a gun could be responsible in great measure for popularizing the Paleo lifestyle. If you read this book, though, you’ll learn why.
Before I put paid to this post, though, I would be remiss not to mention some other more hardcore Paleo books you might want to read at some point. I’ve reviewed a few of the older ones in a earlier post. In addition, there is Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint, Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet and The Paleo Answer, Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution, and, in a shameless bit of self promotion, The Protein Power LifePlan (PPLP). When MD and I wrote PPLP, it was intended to be a Paleo lifestyle book but our publisher wanted to try to ride the coattails of the enormous bestsellerdom of Protein Power. So the execs at the book house decided to go with PPLP. We had no choice in the matter. What most people don’t realize is that the authors of books have complete 100 percent control over what’s between the covers, but no control whatsoever over what goes on the cover. The cover is the company’s marketing piece. So instead of having the first real modern day Paleo book in print (that honor went to Loren Cordain with The Paleo Diet, published almost two years later), we are still relegated to the lose-weight diet section. But PPLP is really a Paleo lifestyle book.
As always, if you have a favorite Paleo book or if I’ve forgotten one of the standard bearers, or if you disagree with my choices, please let me know in the comments. Feel free to post your own mini reviews.