“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nader

By now I’m quite sure you’ve run across, in some form or fashion, Marlene Zuk’s work, Paleofantasy.  Now, I can’t claim to have actually read the book, but I have read a few interviews with her (here, and here, for example), and I’ve listened to Carl Lanore’s extensive Super Human Radio interview with her.  I think that’s a reasonable cross-sectional exposure to get the gist of what she’s implying in Paleofantasy — essentially, that we ought not try to emulate  our paleolithic ancestors because (a) we’ll get it hopelessly wrong, (b) we have only sketchy evidence at best as to what these people did eat much less how they actually lived their day-to-day lives, and (c) hey!  We haven’t stopped evolving, by the way!

And on those points, she is, of course, absolutely right.

But here’s the thing:  it seems to me that Marlene is stuck in 2009.  This essay (and the points iterated above) were certainly relevant then, but the Paleo movement has since addressed and moved well beyond those tired arguments.  And smartly so.  The caveman re-enactment thing was an easy target a few years back, but the Paleo argument has since been refined to address the fact that this lifestyle and way of eating  is still the most optimal human diet based on nutrient density, nutrient bioavailability, and the exclusion of “questionable” foods, compounds and chemicals.

The fact that we are still evolving, and that some of these evolutionary changes occur in a cosmic blink-of-an-eye (lactose tolerance, for instance), has little bearing on what we, as individuals, are best suited to consume today.  That my 50-thousand-year-hence ancestors may be fully grain adapted has (or should have) absolutely no bearing on what my optimal food choices are in the here-and-now.  I’ve often said that I am, in fact, a humanist — but I’m sure as hell not going to take a needle for team human on this one.  It seems that there are plenty of willing souls capable of forwarding this charitable, evolutionary work 😉 

And look, I get it.  This book needed to be written — if for no other reason than to educate and prod those just now moving into the Paleo lifestyle to question authority; to think in a critical, non-compromising way.  And it’s not that Zuk’s science is wrong per se (it’s certainly not), it’s just that the practical application and direction of that science is a non-sequitur vis-a-vis the modern Paleo movement.  Those of us who have been entrenched in this movement from the get-go stress using the science of nutrient density, problematic proteins, inflammation and immune response rather than arguing the “caveman” theory.  What man ate prior to the rise of agriculture simply creates a basis from which to form testable hypotheses, noting more.  Novel foods are not evil, just suspect.  Guilty until proven innocent seems perfectly logical to me in this instance.

I certainly don’t begrudge Marlene Zuk’s making some descent money on this book, and I applaud her for forcing the masses to think critically.  Again, as far as the mainstream is concerned, it probably did need to be written.  I just wish that her arguments had been better directed.  And truth be told, Mat Lalonde already put this “Paleofantasy” argument to bed a few years back.  At Mat’s urging, we in the leading edge of the movement have since raised the bar.  Marlene is simply late to the game, taking haymakers at an opponent who’d already been deftly KO’d by the Kracken.  

Harnessing modern technology to advance ancestral wellbeing better describes the Paleo movement of 2013.  Finding the weak underbelly in this argument would have been a much better use of Ms. Zuk’s time.   

In health, fitness and ancestral wellness –




  1. Yes. Matt Stone’s 12 Paleo Myths is much more relevant work and adresses the diet itself as we see it today, and alll the problems one might face on his journey.
    Now many bloggers seem to leave Paleo or admit it caused them health problems. The development of the whole scene should be very interesting, I expect fall of public interest in Paleo and general return of far more relaxed approach to eating, where exercise takes the front seat.

  2. You give her too much of a free pass. She obviously did not do her homework on the movement. I think there are a variety of people who are trying to generate traffic (and/or profit) by engaging in sophistry. Cast the rest of us as extremists and then provide a reasonable ‘solution’. Yet none of her solutions are more reasonable. Our modern fruit, veg, and meat are still preferable than grains, legumes, and most dairy.
    You can see the difference: Lalonde brought us new info, Zuk has not. Zuk is wasting our bandwith, especially since everybody feels compelled to respond.

    • Agreed. I usually try to find the “silver lining” in everything. But I do see your point. I guess I’m just not so sure she went that route out of…naivete?…or malfeasance. As an academic, I suppose naivete still justifies no pass — she should have done her homework/due diligence.

  3. Gee, maybe you should read Zuk’s book before you argue against it!

    Oh, I forgot! Reading isn’t part of the Paleo LifeStyle! Reading a book is just so stuck in 2009.

    The reason why the PaleoLifestyle is still evolving is that its trying to maintain some profitable business opportunities despite being total BS! Keep one step ahead of scientific reality, and perserve your bandwidth for self congratulatory echos, and you will survive as a profitable cult!

  4. I wonder if you happen to have looked at Alan Aragon’s critique of the paleo diet? He gave a talk at NSCA on this topic, and the slides have been uploaded and made public. A few blogs in the paleo world have weighed in.

    I was paticularly intrigued by his reference to the “Blue Zones” diet. Seems like evidence worthy of consideration.

    For myself, I don’t feel the need to belong to a “movement” when it comes to deciding how to eat or exercise. I read a lot, pick up the bits and pieces that make sense to me, and try them out. It is an ongoing experiment.

    Currently, I am following “Craig’s” diet, and “Craig’s” exercise program.

    • I haven’t looked at Alan’s argument yet, but I do intend to. I think most of the arguments against Paleo attack the rather straw-man idea of “only eat what was available 10k years ago”, which is just simple-mined rubbish. Or, they cling to the EBD (evidence based medicine) route, which is also rubbish. If we have a modality that has no downside, and saves lives, it seems like malfeasance *not* to prescribe it. These arguments should boil down to “what’s the downside to giving up grains, legumes, and (in some instances) dairy?” Are these people really going through all this trouble to defend foodstuffs that are nutritionally defunct compared to those on the Paleo “safe” list? Seriously?

      And I’m totally down with the n=1 exercise and diet idea. I do the same! I take in a crap-ton of raw-unpasteurized dairy, and for this “sin” I ought to be forever banished from Paleo island. Yet, I am the owner/co-founder of Paleo f(x). This is a big-umbrella “movement”, and a “movement” only in the sense that it explores options that buck mainstream notions of what promotes health and wellness. A”movement” in the sense that we can more effectively affect change (policy, sustainability, etc) as a numbered, cohesive unit.

    • Ok, so I checked-out Alan’s presentation. To the extent that “blue zone” populations are longer-lived (and, by extension, healthier) is simply an indictment of the western/Standard American Diets and lifestyle habits. One would expect that these populations *would* be healthier, no? The real question ought to be this: are they as healthy as can be? If we were to further tweak these “blue zone” diets to make them full on Paleo (or, in my case, “primal”) would they in fact be healthier, more robust and even longer-lived? That’s the real question we should be asking. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know that answer. But I can speculate, and so I base my eating on *thriving* vs mere survival. Can man survive on a diet chock full of grains and legumes? Absolutely! Hell, human beings can (have before, and will in the future) *survive* on just about anything. Hell, we can even *survive* on a western/SA diet. That has never been the argument. The argument has always been about thriving, and avoidance of easily avoidable disease. That’s it.

      Personally, I’m not interested in mere survival, in merely being healthier, more fit and longer lived than the norm because, quite frankly, the norm is weak, diseased, and hanging on by a thread. I’m interested in being as healthy, fit and long-lived as my genomic potential is capable of being. I don’t have anything “against” grains, legumes, night shades etal; I get it — some cultures *have* to eat these potentially problematic foods in order to *survive*. By luck of birth, I don’t. I *can* act on the basic science of nutrient density, and choose foods that are both nutrient dense and pose a decreased possibility of being problematic. “Choice” being the key word, here. Last night I “chose” to have a couple of beers and some peanuts at a hockey game. The big shocker here ought to be that I was, in fact, at a *hockey* game deep in the heart of football country (Texas) — *not* that Mr. Primal/Paleo chose to swill a couple of beers and down some peanuts. All this talk of “Paleo Dogma” and “paleo-driven orthorexia” is just so much mindless blather. Hell, the same conditions manifest in exercise. This is a mental problem within an unstable individual, and in no way condemns the practice that is twisted into an extreme.

      • I’m not sure it is fair to say that folks in the Blue Zones are merely surviving as opposed to thriving. To quote the presentation:

        “The Blue Zones are populations with the longest life expectancies, highest centenarian rates, and lowest rates of chronic & degenerative disease [51].”

        That sounds a little better than just surviving. It sounds like they have achieved much of what you seek.

        As to the question of whether or not they could be even healthier or more robust by going “full paleo” or “full primal”, you say you don’t know; it is your speculation is that they could be. Fair enough! But isn’t that one of the main points of the critics: it is a way of eating based on a speculative theory, one for which the evidence isn’t clear.

        • Point taken. And I suspect that diet’s relationship with health will ultimately be found akin to the exercise/health relationship. That is, going over-and-above the “basics” may serve vanity (improved body comp, athletic performance), but do little-to-nothing to further improve health. And it may be that the “basics” vis-a-vis diet include the no-brainers of eliminating added sugar and franken-oils, and just eating “real food”. Also, I suspect that unless one has a metabolic condition that would require clamping down a bit tighter on the diet, better managing other lifestyle issues such as stress management, healthy relationships, sleep, etc. begin to provide more return on investment.

          But again, I believe the work of Cordain, Wolf, Jaminet, DeVany (and many others) provide a compelling argument that a JERF diet can, in fact, be made better via the elimination of close-to-the-earth — though potentially problematic — foods. The elimination of which, btw, comes at no cost, nutritionally speaking. Psychological and/or cultural attachment to these foods is another matter. I think people should be informed of the options they have, so as to make an intelligent n=1 choice that suits them.

  5. Shocking is that you visited a hockey game after Jágr left Dallas:-) I don’t understand why you accept the extreme complexity of exercise, talking about HIT vs CrossFit vs Periodisation vs. Schoenfeld vs Miller vs Norris ad nauseam. Yet for diet, you are a fan of “Triathlete with the six pack said so.” I am a fan of Alan Aragon’s approach for pros and Matt Stone’s Diet Recovery 2 for mortals, One offers the best results with no BS, the other the least amount of obsession. Paleo offers poor difficulty/results ratio.

    • When you say paleo offers poor results, what exactly do you mean? Do you mean you get better results eating wheat, garbanzo beans, and/or drinking canola oil?

      Or do you mean you include potatoes and/or dairy?

      Cause if you’re arguing in favor of wheat, then my guess is you like the taste and it’s not so much for nutritional purposes.

    • I’m not sure I follow your reasoning, Ondrej? I’m not sure anything *could* be simpler than following a Paleo diet. And there’s solid reasoning behind why suspect foods ought to be omitted — and not just because I, or anyone else, says they ought to be avoided. Again, if someone is adamant about not wanting to eat Paleo, or tweaking it to fit their n=1 needs, I say more power to them. I just know what works for me, and what works for my clients. Simple as that. To the extent that others can prove internal health and outward body comp with a Paleo level of success using other methods, again I say — more power to them. I’m mot out to change the minds of those don’t want to consider alternatives, whether in diet or exercise. For those who are open to alternatives, though, I’ll let them know what works for me.

  6. Thanks for a very interesting article and discussion in the comments.

    I’m very ignorant when it comes to these different diet choices.

    I’ve heard about Paleo and I’m starting to look into.

    This post has given me a lot to think about. Maybe too much 🙁

  7. Keith, maybe its the matter of branding then. I heard lot of people saying that Paleo is basically everything that works for them. But then the name becomes empty, it just eating mostly real food, which I think is different from Paleo.

    • Sure, “Paleo” (writ large) *is* a big-umbrella term, and is meant to be wide-ranging. Just as an effective exercise methodology covers lots of overlapping ground, so too does Paleo.

  8. One of my friends switched to Paleo and he claims he lost weight and feels a ton better than he did before. But I guess it’s not for everyone.

    • True enough! However, * interpretation* of science/natural phenomena can run askew. I guess my point boils down to: (1) these Blue Zone cultures have only been in existence a short period of time relative to modern man’s 200k-year existence. Can we say these people are healthier and more robust than man of say, 50k-years ago? Maybe, but I’d like to see a lot more on this. My hunch is they are not. They are certainly much slighter, owing to (conjecture on my part here) a less physically demanding life and the intake of less nutrient dense foods. They are, though, (no argument here) a boat-load healthier than modern societies as a whole. But the question (at least, in my mind) remains: is there room for improvement? I think that there is. I do think that the slight edge in health due to diet here may be offset by crappy, western lifestyle issues, namely high, chronic stress, lack of decent sleep, inadequate movement, etc…

  9. The main problem really might be that people dig too deep, including myself. I guess the diet efficiency curve would be U shaped as well. SAD=poor results. Mostly real food from the farmers markets without really knowing any strict rules, not limiting dairy, occasional grains if they don’t cause a problem, daily personal experiments=ideal ratio of mental insanity to benefits. (Even Alan Aragon agrees that grains for him personally lead to weight gain). Very low carb/ketosis= increased attention to diet and severe limitation of carbohydrates and foods in general lead to disaster for me.

    • Right on. I think “be attentive, but not obsessive” is the best tact no matter the endeavor — if health is the ultimate goal. Performance, of course, necessitates “obsessive”; another piece of the health/performance conundrum.

  10. I dig your interpretation of her book, it seems the main motivation here was to preach her message to the masses, and give people rationalization for not embracing the Paleo way of eating.

    It’s easy to re-hash old arguments for the sake of making a quick buck, great for her. But, using arguments that have already been shown to be false and not hold their own weight, c’mon.


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