Pure Genius

Q&A: John Durant, professional 'cave man,' on his new book

Q&A: John Durant, professional 'cave man,' on his new book

Posting in Food | From Issue 01 November 18, 2013

How did John Durant become the spokesperson for the resurgence in Palaeolithic living?

If you can't catch evolutionary psychologist John Durant running barefoot through Central Park, fear not. He just published The Paleo Manifesto, a contemporary take on a Paleolithic lifestyle.

Durant is a health entrepreneur who has become the informal spokesperson for the "Paleo" lifestyle. His goal is to popularize an evolutionary approach to health.

The Paleolithic diet avoids grains, legumes, dairy, refined salt and sugar, processed oils, and potatoes. The idea is, human genetics haven't changed enough to warrant a radical shift in diet since the dawn of agriculture. Paleos try to eat like our Paleo ancestors: grass-fed pasture-raised meats, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots and nuts.

While the ideas are not new, by examining ancient health and nutrition practices within a contemporary context, Durant tries to answer questions such as: How can Paleolithic skulls contain beautiful sets of teeth? Why is the Bible so obsessed with hygiene? And how are Silicon Valley techies hacking the human body?

SmartPlanet sat down with Durant to discuss the dangers of the diet industry and a functional approach to health that claims to move beyond body image. It's a tough claim, because articles like the Paleo 6-Pack Challenge litter the Internet. But there is something different about the diet: it attracts men.

Who are you and where do you come from?

I studied evolutionary psychology at Harvard so I learned about taking an evolutionary approach to biology. Health became an interest after graduating and I started eating Paleo seven years ago. I happen to look like a caveman, so I’ve been one of the people who has started to popularize this way of living and eating.

Let’s unpack the word “Paleo.” What are the key things we need to know?

The basic idea is that there’s a mismatch between our primal genes and our modern lifestyles. Many of the health conditions people suffer from are a result of that mismatch -- obesity, diabetes, depression, autoimmune problems, allergies, and bad eyesight for example.

I want to take about the idea of "natural." There seems to be an assumption that nature is natural and spaces connected to urbanity or technology are not. But our natural habitat is the habitat we exist in. Much of nature itself has been crafted by humans just like our sidewalks and subway systems. How does this relate to how we look at human evolution?

This isn’t about idealizing nature. Life wasn’t perfect living in the wild. However, we spent millions of years living as hunter-gatherers and foragers in Africa. That left an imprint on how our bodies work. Take food. Clearly we’re not adapted to eating Coca-Cola and Twinkies as the base of our food pyramid. Rampant cavities and diabetes is an indication that we’re not adapted to these types of food. There are also limits to how much we can change.

Could you speak more specifically about the Paleolithic age?

Everybody is a little bit of a caveman or a cavewomen. This is part of our heritage. The Paleolithic means “old stone age” and it begins about 2.6 million years ago with the discovery of the first stone tools in eastern Africa. For this few million years, we lived a nomadic existence in small bands of extended families. We hunted and gathered a wide variety of plants and animal species. There weren’t antibiotics, projectile weapons, or even clothes for much of this time. We were basically opportunistic scavengers and foragers. But we had sleep patterns, our lives were in sync with night and day. We weren’t staying up all the time looking at TV screens and computer monitors. And there was more temperature variation. We didn’t live a temperature-controlled existence. We knew everyone in our community. There were lots of differences between that lifestyle and today.

Could you tell me about your everyday life? What does it look like to be a caveman in Manhattan in 2013?

Everybody wants to think that my life is completely weird and inaccessible -- that I run around in a loincloth barefoot eating raw meat straight off the bone. But I want to make this accessible for people. I’m about integrating it into normal everyday life for as many people as possible.

So here’s some of the things I do. Michael Pollan recommended buying a freezer chest so that it’s easier to buy higher-quality meat or store fresh food in bulk. So I do have a freezer chest in my bedroom.

That’s only because you live in New York.

That’s right. Most people would have the space for it.

I also try to source my food from higher-quality suppliers -– particularly the animal products.

I’m standing up right now using a standing desk. I feel more assertive and confident and in the moment this way. I split my time throughout the work day between standing and sitting depending on the task.

This past weekend I went to the Russian baths here in Manhattan. Temperature variation is something a lot of people are missing from their lives. There are a lot of people who hate the cold. Those are the people that need to expose themselves to extreme hot and cold so that their bodies can adapt.

I try to get regular sun. To improve sleep I remove all LED and ambient light from my room as much as possible. When I’m looking at computer screens or my phone screen at night I wear sunglasses you can order online to block out blue light. This blue light can reduce how much melatonin is released in your body and can disrupt your sleep cycle.

There seems to be an undeniable connection between the Paleolithic lifestyle and a kind of nostalgia for a time when masculinity wasn’t in constant question or continually being redefined. Is this part of the appeal for you?

I certainly think that men are attracted to an approach where eating meat is accepted and there is a goal to be strong. That’s appealing to me as well. But it’s not as if this way of eating or living didn’t involve all of our female ancestors too. It’s more about taking a human approach.

Most other dietary approaches and vegetarianism tends to be heavily female -- anywhere from 60% to 80%. Paleo today is about 50/50 so that’s still relatively more male to other dietary approaches.

Does the Paleolithic lifestyle translate to men and women in the same way?

In the book I talk about ways in which men and women may want to take a different approach. With eating frequency and fasting, it seems women ate more consistently than men did. There is good reason to think that extended fasting will impede fertility. Basically a woman’s body will realize, “I’m not getting calories for 24 hours. This must not be a plentiful time. Maybe it’s a bad time to have kids.” It’s a difficult conversation to have because everyone starts getting upset when you talk about male and female differences.

You can’t separate popular writing about health and diet from the enormous industry that already exists and is mostly geared toward women -– and that this industry is connected to the proliferation of images of tall, white, slender women. With your background, how do you contextualize yourself within the health and diet industry?

I, thankfully -- probably in large part because I am a man -- was not exposed to the diet world growing up. I ate a conventional midwestern diet. I didn’t have body or weight issues. And so when I first stuck my toe into the diet world I thought, “Holy cow, what is going on here? Everyone is saying contradictory things.” Many of the approaches seem wacky. “Only eat foods that begin with the letter A today.” Who thought this was a good idea?

I think women have been damaged more than men by the bad dietary advice that has been pushed over the past 20 or 30 years. Two things in particular: low fat and counting calories. Those have been very damaging. If you take a low-fat approach where you’re counting calories, you’re hungry all the time but still trying to use discipline to restrict how much you eat. In my mind that seems like a recipe for an eating disorder. You’re trying to exert control on what you’re eating, but you’re finding that your body isn’t allowing you to exert control easily.

I have female friends and relatives who have had various eating disorders and there are a ton of women who have come to Paleo because it’s like, “Okay, I’m not counting calories or weighing the food I eat. I’m not vilifying fat. I can be satiated.”

One of the nice things about Crossfit -- and sometimes yoga -- compared to how a lot of people work out today, is there are no mirrors. People aren’t focused on whether you have a perfect six-pack or a bit of fat on your sides. When you focus on functional movement or having fun, a goal besides better body image, you get good results and it’s a lot healthier.

There’s a stigma around the word “diet” for both men and women. For women the word is often associated with failure and lack of discipline. For men it’s like, “Men don’t go on diets!” It’s a macho thing. Neither group is really happy with the diet world.

What do you recommend is the best way for someone to get involved with Paleo and not overwhelm themselves?

I recommend starting with a short period of time -- could be three weeks to two months -- where you really commit to going the whole hog. Try the diet strictly for a month or so, see what kind of results you get, and then start adding foods back in and see how your body treats them. A lot of people find gluten does a number on their digestive system so they need to be strict about it, but rice is fine. Or some people find traditional full-fat dairy is fine. For me a little bit of dairy is fine, but if I eat too much of it my complexion gets worse.

I give some general resources in the back of the book and recommend the website Mark’s Daily Apple as the best place for beginners. For people who really want to geek out on the science, I recommend a book called Perfect Health Diet.

If you combine better sleep with improved diet and movement, add some fermented food and probiotics for gut health, you are going to get more dramatic results. For many people changing their diet is enough to get excellent results. So that’s a great starting place.

Photo: Kevin Lin

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure