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Diet as Dogma

Posted By Mark Sisson On November 24, 2009 @ 11:18 am In Health | 94 Comments

People are dogmatic. We’re territorial, stubborn, obstinate, and we cling to our ideologies even as accumulating evidence invalidates them. I sometimes wonder whether there’s evolutionary precedent for this apparent character flaw – did stubborn dogmatism confer some benefit to our ancestors? Did our tendency to cling to one another, to shy away from that which opposes or clashes with our current paradigm (whether it be a new tribe with different practices encroaching on your land, or a guy you meet at a cocktail party with completely different political views) make us safer? To a point, yes. Being wary of anything new promotes better survival than a tendency to rush headlong into foolhardy pursuits. There’s certainly that human legacy of fear of the unknown, and it normally manifests as dogmatic belief and cognitive dissonance. That much is obvious to anyone who watches the news or picks up a history book.

But there’s also that other legacy we’re irrevocably tied to: the continued expansion of our knowledge base. Grok [7] may have been suspicious of different things and circumstances, but he also conquered that fear and discovered new horizons. By and large humans are explorers and innovators. We refute dogma and blaze new trails even as we cling to fear and ideology. We’re pretty much a walking contradiction, just a big-brained upright problematic ape with existential issues that still manages to do pretty well for him or herself. They don’t call us the most adaptive species on Earth for nothing.

If we were more cold and logical – like the Vulcans of Star Trek – things might get a bit easier, ruled by reason and reason alone. Cognitive dissonance would disappear and ideology would mostly vanish, leaving only absolute fealty to pure data. We’d get a lot done and there’d be absolute scientific consensus, but how much fun would it really be?

No, we’re contradictory and confused. We’ll make the emotionally difficult but realistic decision to put our aging pet to sleep, and then we’ll break down and weep all night. We’ll hear powerful evidence that refutes a deeply held belief and we’ll internally acknowledge its significance, but then we’re somehow able to dismiss it and maintain our delusion. Religious and ethnic clashes dot our history, never ending blood feuds, based on this text or that political cartoon, that continue unabated and will probably do so forever. Futile battles rage across Internet message boards – Playstation versus Xbox, Apple versus PC, vegetarian versus omnivore, Democrat versus Republican, carbohydrate versus fat – and it hardly goes anywhere. Graphs are posted and ignored, studies are quoted and brushed aside. Willful ignorance is proudly displayed. You can almost hear the fingers going in the ears (most people can’t even stand to hear evidence that contradicts their belief – the always dependable “la la la la” defense!).

People have the tendency to cluster around ideas as if they were tangible things and hold on for dear life. When we find something we like, or something that makes sense, like religion or a political stance or a diet, roots are planted and – for most of us – they are permanent. They’re permanent mainly because it’s easier that way. It takes less work to blindly cling to dogma. It’s hard (and humbling) to reevaluate an entire belief system and start over. We prefer the path of least resistance, and we’d simply rather not think too hard. Once the roots of a dogmatic belief find purchase in the hard packed earth of the lazy mind, they’re staying put.

We’re not all like that, though. Some of us have fertile minds, brains that aren’t burdened by an ego that refuses to believe it might be wrong about something. Others are just genuinely curious and thirsty for more knowledge (from any source); these are the same type of minds that shaped our evolutionary progress and brought us tools, mastery of fire, and exploration of new lands. They don’t brush aside graphs or ignore studies that challenge their beliefs. They can’t, because to ignore the truth is to oppose their very nature, no matter the inconvenience.

We’ve all heard the supposedly universal protocol standards for polite company: don’t talk politics, religion, or sex. Not on a first date, and definitely not when you meet your future wife’s parents. It’s not so much that these are impossible topics to discuss calmly and rationally without insults, ad hominem, or physical violence entering the fray, because it can happen. Measured debate on controversial topics does take place, and it’s possible for two people to hold directly oppositional views, express those views, and still remain amicable. It’s just highly unlikely given our propensity to cling to dogma at all cost (and we’ve got untold wars and death and destruction to show for it) and the rarity of people with thinking, fertile, thirsty minds.

A new forbidden topic has emerged, though: diet. I’d even say a diet, for many, is the single most entrenched aspect of a their identity, more than religion (not everyone practices, but everyone has to eat) and more than politics (who isn’t fed up with politics nowadays?). We literally are what we eat, and what we eat isn’t just an isolated characteristic. It’s intertwined with politics (veganism is as much a declarative political statement as it is a nutritional one) and religion. For some, it even becomes a religion with its own set of morals and laws. Diet as absolute dogma can be far more problematic than religious or political dogmas in many ways. See, at least there’s separation of church and state in this country; with diet, though, there’s that looming institutional triangular standard literally ordained by government to inform and (essentially) coerce unwitting citizens into a certain way of eating. Maybe if the nutritional pyramid were built on the backs of rigorous science and evolutionary biology it wouldn’t be so bad, but its blueprints were drawn up by Big Agra and Big Pharma (or worse, terrible, bumbling, bad science).

You’re here, on this site, because you recognize that the official dietary dogma is misguided at best and murderous at worst. You realize that, whatever your religious (non)belief, humans are “designed” to eat a certain way – and that the evolutionary diet is totally incompatible with the reigning dogma. I’m here every day because I see a real chance to make a difference. I see people making positive changes, extending their lives and improving their health. Every day, there’s a different success story [8] in my inbox, but I never get sick of them. We have assumed the mantle of our innovating forebears, those Groks and Grokettes that dared to crack an auroch’s tibia and extract the strange delicious stuff inside, or follow the animals to new lands and new opportunities. We could have died out with the Neanderthal, but we were far too curious and capable to let that happen. Ours is a legacy of pursuing knowledge. It’s all we know.

But you know what? I’m starting to notice that old dogmatic view creep in to the Primal community. Those immovable roots are taking hold. On one hand, it’s understandable. When you’ve got the weight of the evidence in your favor, it’s easy to get cocky and dismissive of other views. I mean, don’t get me wrong; I believe the Primal Blueprint to be the path to health, strength, and energy (I wouldn’t have written a book called The Primal Blueprint [9] if I didn’t think that!). I just want to stress that the foundation of the PB and MDA is science – ignored, brushed aside, inconvenient-to-CW [10] science, but science all the same. And, like all good science, it’s constantly being challenged and refined. It needs to be challenged. When I started putting together the PB all those years ago, I was challenging the dietary wisdom I held near and dear to my heart for decades. Decades! And I didn’t stop there. Early readers might recall my prescribing “limited grains” way back when. I realized my error, took a closer look at the science on grains, and changed my stance accordingly. Now I’m just about as big an opponent of grains [11] as one can be.

That’s how you’ve got to do it. You have to welcome challenges and reevaluate your dietary dogmas as needed. I’m certainly of the opinion that we’ve got things pretty well covered with the PB, but it never hurts to refine your argument or gather new evidence. If someone questions the Primal stance on grains, don’t casually dismiss them – convince them! (Of course, if hard data doesn’t convince, don’t wear yourself out.) Even if you’re upset or frustrated and he or she is being clearly obstructionist, think of the debate as rust removal, as a way to bone up on the latest studies and clinical data in support of the high fat Primal Blueprint diet [12]. There’s a whole wide world of people who will actively challenge your evolutionary dietary views, usually with half-truths and CW nonsense, but there are formidable opponents who won’t be so easily swayed or dismissed. You’ve got to be on your game.

I honestly think we have the opportunity to reach more people. The Primal/paleo communities are growing and improving and spreading like wildfire. We have the chance to be at the forefront of a revolution of how we approach food in this country (and this world), but we run the risk of becoming what we rail against: dietary dogma. We should never let stagnation set in, and dogmas and ideologies stagnate as a rule, by definition. You don’t want to force people into accepting the Primal life. You just want to give them the tools to change their life and reevaluate everything they’ve ever been taught about nutrition and fitness.

The forum [13] is one such tool, and it’s a fantastic one for the most part. What we don’t want, though, is name calling or one-upping. No know-it-alls that patronize beginners. That’s beside the point. It’s supposed to be a community of like-minded individuals (sprinkled with a few skeptics and contrarians to keep us honest!) supporting one another in our effort to find truth and change our lives for the better. Support, of course, means challenging each other’s beliefs, but it should be done with real facts.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the heated debates that take place every day, as long as they remain actual debates with actual arguments. I love the fact that support systems and impromptu experts on various topics have sprung up. I like how forum members have a sort of Batcall for Tarlach when it’s a carnivore question or for Griff when it’s about lipid panels. I love almost everything about the forum, but I don’t like the creeping sense of dogma.

So, how about we watch out for that and nip it in the bud? I’ve been submerged in dietary and fitness dogma, and it ain’t pretty. Believe me: avoiding it will only make us stronger. Question your beliefs and challenge the Primal Blueprint eating strategy. Even if the PB doesn’t catch on and go mainstream, at least we’ll know we’re being honest with ourselves and consistent in our application of science to our diet.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so hit me up with a comment. Thanks, everyone.


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