The Myth of Control in (Paleo) Health
control health paleo
The Evolutionary Mindset
What makes Paleo and Evolutionary theories of health so empowering is the belief that health and disease is not accidental. Disease does not strike by chance; it is the result of habits, inheritance, or environment that do not support natural healing processes.
This is in stark contrast to how most people view health and disease: degeneration is inevitable, disease unpredictable, and health a game of chance. Smoking, for example, is often justified by stories of chain-smoking great aunts who died at the age of 96 without a hint of lung cancer, suggesting that whether you get sick or not is pure luck and you might as well smoke. Modern healthcare, while based on principles of scientific cause and effect, behaves blissfully ignorant of the effects of modern lifestyle on individual health. That is the only way doctors can justify treating diabetes with drugs while society as a whole continues to encourage unhealthy eating.
On the other hand, the Paleo mindset is empowering because it gives us control over our own health. This also scares many people off; I believe that the biggest problem with Paleo isn't the fact that many of its tenets go against mainstream health advice, but rather that it implies we have responsibility for our own health. Many people take this to mean that, if they get sick, they are guilty of negligence.
The Straight and Narrow
A simplistic (perhaps dogmatic) interpretation of Paleo suggests that if we live 100% pure, perfect Paleo, eating well and being aware of environment, activity, sleep, stress, etc., we will be free of disease and will live out our fullest lifespan. The ideal is pretty much outside our reach, but in theory, if we could reach it, we would be paragons of human health, and the closer we get, the healthier we will be.
As followers of a Paleo/Primal/Evolutionary Health lifestyle, we have drawn connections between our health and practically every element in our environments. We embrace full Awareness of the implications of our habits, instead of avoiding it to protect ourselves. Everything has a cause, and even if we haven’t quite figured it out yet, we believe that there is/was/could be something we can change to influence it.
Thinking this way, we run the risk of believing all health issues are our fault, and we may blame others for their health problems. I have done this, feeling ashamed for getting sick and beating myself up:
- If I’d only been stricter on my diet, I wouldn't have gotten a cold
- If I'd done less distance running this week, I'd have avoided overtraining
- If I'd gotten more sun, I'd sleep better
- If I'd eaten more organ meats...
- If I'd slept more consistently...
- If you'd eaten more vegetables, more local food, less alcohol...
- ...you wouldn’t have gotten cancer or heart disease
Perhaps some of these are true, but how can we account for everything? Does it help to assign blame like this? Does it improve the situation?
I don’t have answers to offer or to comfort myself about this new diagnosis. Regardless, I don’t blame him for the state of his health, and I won’t try to change his lifestyle, since his life and health is, in the truest sense, his own business.
Paleo and Evolutionary Health only work because our lifestyle choices do have an effect on our health, but we don't have total control over our environment and we cannot change our past.
Furthermore, paleolithic humans made do with the best they could, accounting for emotional, mental, spiritual, and ecological needs as well as their health needs, just as people today have goals and needs that may not prioritize their personal health. Adaptation was a complex process that did not always allow for brilliant health and ripped musculature.
The promise of Paleo is that Paleolithic humans were 100% free of chronic degenerative diseases, and it makes sense to me that the human organism wasn’t designed to fall apart in its ideal environment. But personal health must serve some higher purpose, and we must accept that sickness and death play a necessary role in the world, otherwise, Paleo becomes a way to act out neuroses of control and a kind of desperate grasping for immortality.
Responsibility is Not Fault
We are not passive victims of a poor environment and stressful lives.
I do believe we are in control of our health to a large degree, and to that extent we are responsible for taking care of our bodies. But I also believe that everyone is doing what they can to make themselves happy and if their bodies develop problems, the problems weren’t sought out. Poor health doesn’t make someone morally deficient, stupid, or foolish. Nobody seeks out suffering for its own sake.
My girlfriend, A, reminded me of the Buddhist idea that judgement isn't built into the world. We add that. There is an extra step to go from Responsibility to Shame. We can accept that our state of health is caused in part by our actions, but we don't have to make the jump to passing judgement on ourselves or others.
Frequently, when I discuss health with people unfamiliar with the idea that there are ways to directly affect our well-being, and a principle for discerning what those ways are, they pick up on it and get defensive or antagonistic. They tend to focus on this one point, even if it wasn’t the topic under discussion. This is because to many people, it means if you are unhealthy, you did it to yourself, you failed in your responsibility to your body, you failed to honor the gift of your health.
Perhaps that needs to be addressed before Paleo and Evolutionary theories of health can reach much farther. While the idea that fat isn’t bad for you may seem revolutionary, the really revolutionary thing is that we are in control of our health. We are not passive victims of a poor environment and stressful lives. That is a far more threatening idea, and one that people must accept before they can move beyond a model of health and disease that has proven a failure.
I value you for your presence and the experiences we have shared. I judge you by the great good you have created in the lives of others and in the world, not by your health. If you want help or advice, you know I'll be there for you, but if not, I will be happy simply sharing life’s moments and adventures with you.
Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt on Flickr