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What’s So Bad About the Paleo Diet?

Meet Arthur Haines, the neo-aboriginal Mainer who is turning paleo fantasy into optimistic reality.
The dietary practices of the Paleolithic period centered on hunted-and-gathered meat, seafood, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. (Photo: fir0002/Wikimedia Commons)

The dietary practices of the Paleolithic period centered on hunted-and-gathered meat, seafood, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. (Photo: fir0002/Wikimedia Commons)

Every diet is an aspiration to an ideal. Consequently, every diet is easy to criticize. Vegans aspire to avoid harming animals, but critics note that plant crops require the mass extermination of innumerable wild critters. Weight Watchers aspires to reduce body mass index with a calories-in/calories-out approach, but critics note that not all calories are equal. The macrobiotic diet aspires to balance the yin with the yang; critics note that they have absolutely no earthly idea what this might mean.

If every diet is open to criticism, the paleo diet—also called the “caveman diet”—is in a league of its own. The dietary practices of the Paleolithic period centered on hunted-and-gathered meat, seafood, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. It excluded grains, legumes, dairy, and refined sugar. Paleo advocates argue that cavemen thrived on these foods, growing tall and avoiding the lifestyle diseases that plague “the moderns,” as some paleos prefer to call the rest of us. But critics deem the quest to replicate the pre-agrarian diet not only delusional—primarily because equivalent foods no longer exist—but also ignorant of human evolution. Recently, as a sort of nail in the coffin of the diet’s besieged reputation, a much-anticipated book on raising paleo babies was pulled at the last minute for lack of scientific evidence.

I’ve been critical of the paleo diet in the past, primarily because of its heavy reliance on meat consumption. But recently I wondered: What would happen if I examined the diet differently? That is, what if I examined its aspirations rather than its failure to achieve an ideal? What if I watched the diet at work in the hands of a master, a true believer, a genuine beneficiary of what’s too easy to dismiss as a fad?

Any aspiration toward something different than our current food culture—something that comes with guidelines—should be seen as a move in the right direction.

To explore these questions I shelved my presuppositions and went to central Maine to visit Arthur Haines. Haines is an ethno-botanist and paleo advocate who runs the Delta Institute of Natural History, a program that organizes workshops on “neoaboriginal lifeways.” In an attempt to reach “everyone seeking an alternative to the current paradigm of living,” he instructs students on how eat an aboriginal diet, focusing on trapping, foraging, and hunting skills, as well as wild medicinal cures and the finer points of ancestral child rearing. For what it’s worth, Haines, who has developed a loyal YouTube following, is as sturdy as an ox, healthy as a horse, and has a gentle, understated presence.

But there’s nothing gentle or understated about what he eats for lunch. On the occasion of my visit, it’s a heap of pre-agrarian grub. Haines piles his plate with wild rice he recently harvested, gravy made from reduced bone broth, and venison shot and processed last autumn (before being canned for preservation). He leans over the table and eats with urgency. He scoops out seconds while his partner, Nicole Leavitt, and their 18-month-old daughter, Samara, work more deliberately through their first servings. Samara eats exactly what her parents eat—she always has (her parents chewed her meat for her before she teethed). Just as I was wondering to myself how Arthur and Nicole made it through Maine winters, in relative isolation, without so much as a warming drop of alcohol, Nicole plunked down a bottle of homemade mead on the table. Mead is a fermented honey drink that tastes something like Riesling. It was thus with a stomach full of wild rice and a head buzzing with mead that I finally saw what I came to see: Haines in action.

Haines’ demeanor changed the moment his bare feet hit the woods. He was now liberated, free to roam in his ethno-botanical element. The transformation showed in his almost childlike enthusiasm for the smorgasbord of edible plants that surrounded us, food growing naturally in a landscape that, to the untrained eye (mine), looked more like a Medieval deep wood, a place to avoid for fear of venomous snakes and poison ivy.

Haines scampered across a patch of grass and wandered into the forest—he has 70 acres—where a cold brook coursed downhill, forming eddies in which the family swims. Along the way he introduced me to edible plants with flavors that seemed primal in their intensity: Indian cucumber root, hemlock, milkweed, mustard, smartweed, sheep’s earl, purslane, basswood leaves (tastes like okra), nettle, evening primrose, hog peanuts, and so on. “Without place-based knowledge,” Haines said, as I chewed on a fiercely bitter medicinal root, “we are forced into wage slavery.”

He had a point. And while it would be absurd to think that any sort of mass transition to Haines’ diet was even remotely viable, I had to give him credit for expanding that point into a relatively authentic personal lifestyle, living his values off the grid, and sharing his esoteric expertise with others. I also had to acknowledge that, if meat consumption was kept to a minimum (and it would be if we only hunted and trapped it), processed foods were eliminated, and plant-based foods were optimized and expanded, then the paleo approach could be a tremendous improvement over the standard American diet.

Taking this optimistic logic a step further, if all consumers were even a fraction as diligent in making personal food choices as Haines is, our endless food-related problems—obesity, environmental degradation, animal exploitation—would be greatly ameliorated. It’s often said that the best diet is no diet at all, but maybe this is not so. Maybe, in a first-world food culture marked by an over-abundance of all-too-accessible, corporate-controlled, processed, and calorically dense food, we need rules. Any aspiration toward something different—something that comes with guidelines—should be seen as a move in the right direction. The future of food could do a lot worse than the paleo reality embraced by Arthur Haines.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.