John Durant is the author of The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health (Harmony), which tells the story of how he discovered his inner hunter-gatherer. He offers practical guidelines for making the transition to a meat-heavy, low-carb diet favored by humanity's paleolithic ancestors.
In December, New York Times science columnist John Tierney interviewed Durant at New York's Museum of Sex. They talked about the cultural and political history of today's industrial diets, why so many libertarians have gone paleo, and more.
Q: Give us an overview of The Paleo Manifesto.
A: A lot of the health conditions that people suffer from today-diabetes, obesity, auto-immune conditions-basically are mismatch conditions. By mismatch, I mean a mismatch between our primal genes and our primal biology, and how we evolved, and the lifestyles we lead today: our diet and sedentary activity patterns. The basic concept is by mimicking key aspects of our ancestral lifestyle or lifestyles you can prevent the onset of a lot of these chronic health conditions.
Q: Why are so many libertarians drawn to the paleo concept?
A: It's multifaceted. The first thing is that if you look at the organic movement and the existing food movement, it really sprang out of vegetarianism. If you look at the early organic movement, it's almost exclusively vegetarian. And there was a lot of political and ideological baggage that came along with that point of view. So there were a lot of people who were interested in optimal health, or simply just good health, who felt excluded from the food movement because it meant buying into all these other beliefs. So there was latent demand for a point of view like this.
Another factor is that libertarians tend to understand the power of spontaneous order-of how you can get very intelligent outcomes from decentralized solutions, like in an economy. You can have an emergent order. And you see the same thing in biological evolution. You have these intricate, incredible, well-coordinated life forms that have come about over millions of years of decentralized decision-making.
Libertarians tend to be a little bit less religious, and so are open to ideas about evolution. And when I'm talking to a libertarian and I make the point that the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] food pyramid is not God's truth, it doesn't require a lot of persuasion to convince libertarians that the official federal guidelines on diet are wrong.
Q: Could you tell me where the federal government, and maybe also where modern agricultural society, went wrong?
A: The big picture is that people started eating a lot of industrial food after the industrial revolution. Refined sugar, refined flour, hard alcohol became more common and were inexpensive. We know that humans are not adapted to industrial food.
The logical next step is to ask what we ate before we ate industrial food. Most people were farmers. Farmers grow grains and they have herds of cattle which they milk for dairy. So people think we should go back to that.
That's correct insofar as avoiding a heavily industrial diet is a probably good thing. But it's not correct in thinking that's the optimal human diet. We've only been eating agricultural foods for, at most, about 10,000 years.
In the 1970s, George McGovern chaired a Senate committee that established dietary goals for the United States. That's when a lot of the anti-fat orthodoxy got put into place officially, and when you started to see a greater push by the government to eat less fat-[which] usually meant fewer animal products-and eat more carbohydrates, which usually meant grains: wheat, corn, and legumes like soy. In our political history, that's when you start to see the shift to what I believe to be incorrect dietary guidelines.
Reason TV conducted a video interview with John Durant in December 2013.