Counter to the stereotypical assumptions of kale-worshipping gym-junkies, many Australian Paleo dieters are sufferers of lingering, and at times chronic, disease.
In her new book, Illness, Identity, and Taboo among Australian Paleo Dieters, Dr Catie Gressier, a University of Melbourne anthropologist, recounts stories of people struggling with chronic illness and obesity who have embraced the Paleo diet, and in turn, connected with each other.
Paleo, also known as the caveman diet, involves eating meat, fish, eggs, nuts, vegetables and fruit, to emulate the diets of our pre-agricultural ancestors. It was the most frequently Googled diet in 2013 and 2014.
Its premise is that our bodies have not significantly evolved since the Palaeolithic period, resulting in a mismatch between our hunter-gatherer genetic inheritance and contemporary diets and lifestyles.
The Paleo diet has attracted criticism in the media and public health circles for its restrictive regime and association with controversial alternative health practices, yet its popularity continues unabated.
Dr Gressier spent two years conducting research with Paleo dieters in Melbourne’s inner north, Sydney’s Northern Beaches and online, to better understand who is taking up the diet, and why it has struck such a chord at this moment in time.
Using an ethnographic approach, Dr Gressier hung out, cooked, ate and talked at length with Paleo dieters. She attended numerous events and workshops, engaged with hundreds of Paleo dieters on social media, spent a month eating strictly Paleo, and conducted more than forty interviews with dieters, doctors, nutritionists and alternative health practitioners.
We don’t know exactly how many people partake in Paleo, but 13 per cent of Australians were on a diet in 2011-2012, and Australian Paleo web forums boast tens of thousands of members. While most of the Paleo dieters Dr Gressier met identify as middle-class Australians, they are far from a homogeneous group. In terms of age, they range from their late teens to early seventies, and come from a broad range of cultural groups. And they have a variety of occupations; from tertiary students to IT experts, prison guards to school counsellors, personal trainers to engineers.
Their motivations for pursuing the diet were not what she anticipated.
“Far from the ripped CrossFitters or nostalgic primitivists that media and celebrity representations of the diet had led me to expect, the majority of Paleos posting in online forums, and with whom I worked, had one thing in common: illness.
“Not only being physically sick – some were suffering with mental illness issues, others were struggling in the aftermath of traumatic life events, and some just felt disillusioned with society, particularly the industrial food system,” Dr Gressier, who is based in the Faculty of Arts, says.
Our frenetic lifestyle may play a part in the adoption of this pathway to Paleo.
Paleo dieters recognise that rates of obesity and chronic illness have increased in tandem with precarious working conditions, increasingly polluted, toxic environments, and the unregulated sale of junk foods.
“Paleo dieters believe we are in the midst of a public health crisis, which the government and medical authorities are failing to fix,” she says.
Many Paleo dieters suffer from gastrointestinal issues, ranging from Irritable Bowel Syndrome to Crohn’s disease and other auto-immune issues. These conditions can be difficult to diagnose and treat.
Others have battled all their lives with weight issues and obesity, and have been victims of stigmatisation, and even abuse, because of their body size. This is not helped by Australian public health discourse, which tends to construct individuals as solely responsible for their weight, despite evidence of the complex economic, political and physiological factors underpinning obesity’s prevalence.
“Feeling let down by the biomedical model, and a government they see as more supportive of private industry than human health, people are taking matters into their own hands,” says Dr Gressier.
“Much like disillusioned voters seeking radical political change, Paleo dieters are rejecting the advice of traditional authorities and embracing alternative health and dietary practices.”
This is part of a broader movement that Dr Gressier describes as ‘health populism’.
“The Paleo diet’s appeal is its firm and definitive boundaries (and, ideally, bodies) in a society characterised by excessive choice and ambiguity. Even while the diet’s detractors may find it hard to swallow on economic, evolutionary or nutritional grounds, the benefits I witnessed among adherents were considerable and moved far beyond those pertaining to physical health.”
‘Illness, Identity, and Taboo among Australian Paleo Dieters’ is published by Springer. More information is available here.
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