Increasingly, the Paleo movement seems to be diverging into its own little cliques and tribes (which may be kind of fitting for a movement that harkens back to our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestry). Here John sets out not so much as to tell you how to live a Paleo life in modern times, but to argue why. Interestingly, for a book with the word paleo in the title, Durant spends much of his time talking about the other ages of man, too.
The book is divided into three sections; Origins, Here and Now, and Visions.
In Origins, Durant runs through the five ages of man; Animal, Paleolithic, Agricultural, Industrial and Information. Through the prism of animals in captivity and how their health declines when we subject them to modern human diets and poor facsimiles of their natural habit, Durant highlights our own plight at the hands of modernity. In short order he runs through not only the history of zoos, but of humanity and religion, too. Along the way he discusses such varied topics as the deformity of the modern human skull and how the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer-herder resulted in poorer health and decreased stature. He also puts forward, in quite some detail, how religion may have sprung forth partly from a ritualised code originally intended to keep us healthy and free from infectious diseases.
Looking at the Industrial Age Durant talks of how we discovered some of our physical limitations by entering environments we are not evolved to deal with and how industrialisation conjured up new scenarios that the human body simply was not adapted to; scurvy suffered by seafarers, beriberi with the advent of polished white rice in Japan, pellagra brought about by a B1 deficiency and how the move from fields to factories also gave rise to another disease never before seen by man; rickets. From this he segues into how the British diet changed with the introduction of refined sugar along with a rise in the consumption of bread, potatoes and alcohol. This change to a sweet and starchy diet gave rise to obesity, he suggests, and looks at one of the first attempts to deal with the issue by William Banting in 1863. Banting’s solution? A low carb diet. Durant rounds the section off in our present day, Information Age, looking at what’s known as biohacking; essentially a kind of n=1 experiment tinkering with the human body through diet, exercise and other techniques.
Here and Now looks at the issues we face today; the ‘conventional’ wisdom of food and its many flaws. He addresses the multitude of diets and the politics, ideologies and science behind them. He ranges deftly through the significance of a baby’s first meal, the poor eating habits we develop as children to a few tenets of the ‘healthy’ eating, ‘Eat Fewer Processed Foods’, ‘Eat More Whole Foods’, ‘Eat Organic’, ‘Eat Low Calorie/Low Fat’, teasing apart what these trite phrases mean and some of the inherent problems they have. The section goes on to outline the principles of a healthy diet as seen from an evolutionary/hunter-gatherer perspective; calories and not counting them, not fearing fat, eating the right food groups along with some perhaps more novel ideas like eating ‘nose to tail’, cooking with low heat and making use of traditionally prepared foods. Of course no book with Paleo in the title, even a manifesto, would be complete without suggesting a few do’s and don’ts relating to diet, and Durant doesn’t disappoint, but manages to provide a little context to the issue as he goes. In the chapter on fasting, Durant takes an interesting look at the practice in different cultures and its benefits, which range from general health boosting effects to fighting infections. Both movement and bipedalism get their own chapters in this section, too, and Durant covers both topics judiciously. Chapter 12 takes a look at thermoregulation and how cultural practices of exposing the human body to extremes of temperature can convey positive health benefits and how with modern technology seemingly making our lives easier/better they may have also left us weaker for it, too. The section is brought to a close with a chapter devoted to day and night touching on subjects such as sun exposure, vitamin D and skin cancer to our natural body clock, sleep patterns and the issues of sleep in modern society.
The final section, Visions, takes a more philosophical look at our current situation and where we might be headed. In a chapter titled Hunter he looks at modern hunting and suggests that we should replace the predatory species we have wiped out by hunting animals that have flourished in their absence. Not only would this benefit the environment he argues but it would give us that much needed connection with our food that we have lost through handing our food production over to corporations. Durant also takes time to talk about the phenomenon of invasive species and suggests perhaps that we should hunt and eat them, too. In a chapter titled Gatherer he addresses the issues of agriculture and sustainability, tackling propaganda put forward by the vegan and vegetarian movements with an interesting, and perhaps controversial, idea about the rise of vegetarianism and how it came about and the ways in which the movement tries to associate eating meat with disgust.
Durant intersperses the book with his own experiences, from his initial realisation that too few hours sleep will leave you feeling terrible and that mood can be can be heavily influenced by diet, the revelatory essay by Art De Vany he received in 2006 right on through his progression to Crossfit, fasting, swimming in ice-cold water and hunting and killing his own food. This approach and his writing style in general work together well and whilst there is plenty of supporting evidence here(so much so that it will perhaps deserve a second reading) Durant’s book speaks to you on an emotional level, which is no bad thing.
What appealed to me about the book is that Durant ties together a whole range of thought-provoking ideas not just about diet, but about the way we live our lives and the many ways we have changed our behaviour, culture and habitat and whilst we have achieved great thing there is much we have lost into the bargain. The issue is wider than any single book could hope to address adequately, yet Durant does more than a fair job of addressing how we arrived in our current malaise and offers some interesting possible solutions.
I have read only a smattering of what the publishing world has to offer on the subject of the Paleo diet, though I read widely enough about the subject on the internet and still find much in this book to commend it. All in all, a fun, informative and worthwhile read.