The bespectacled woman at the grill drops a charred sausage amidst the slaws and condiments cluttering my paper plate at the casual summer barbeque.
“Do you want a bun?” she asks. “I’m toasting a few.”
Before I have the chance to answer, my friend Kate responds for me.
“No, he doesn’t want a bun,” she announces. “He’s Paleo.”
With those words, it’s as if I’ve just walked into the party and started pissing in a houseplant. All eyes are suddenly on me.
“You’re Paleo?!” someone asks.
“How much bacon do you eat?” wonders another. “Did cavemen drink almond milk? How can you live without cheese?”
My friends are open-minded people who wouldn’t blink if I revealed my deepest, darkest sexual kinks. They wouldn’t judge me for my laziness or disregard for Mother Earth — if, let’s say, I admitted to driving to the dry cleaner’s a block away. They would overlook my own vanity — and might actually encourage it through a “like” — if I posted a shirtless selfie on Instagram. They would seriously consider any number of pseudo-intellectual arguments about the importance of a potential date’s astrological sign, the ability of juice cleanses to expel toxins from the body or Kim Kardashian’s cultural significance as a performance artist.
“How much bacon do you eat? Did cavemen drink almond milk? How can you live without cheese?”
But since I decided to embrace the Paleo diet, I’ve found that the hardest part hasn’t been cutting out the dairy, grains, legumes and refined sugar. Rather, it’s been the barrage of criticism, perplexed questions and outright hostility whenever people find out, despite my best attempts to avoid proselytizing — or even mentioning it at all.
“Your almonds and apples are making me feel guilty about my chips,” a former co-worker once told me while walking past my cubicle toward the snack hutch.
“I heard Paleo makes you angry,” another friend warned, looking a bit worried. “And really horny.”
“It’s gross for me to think about kissing someone who eats that much meat,” my closest vegetarian friend confided, as she debated whether to call it off with a fuck buddy after realizing they were Paleo. (They ended up calling it off, but for reasons other than diet.)
“You’re one of them?” another friend exclaimed, upon discovering the grain-free menu at a dinner party I was throwing (which was also vegan, on her behalf).
I prefer not to argue. These skeptics are usually well-versed in the justifications behind the Paleo diet after a series of trend pieces, best-selling self-helps books and endorsements from well-known health nuts (Matthew McConaughey) or fad dieters (Jeb Bush) turned Paleo into the 2010s version of Atkins — a buzzy diet with a shared hatred of bread.
According to experts such as The Paleo Manifesto author John Durant, the diet is an attempt to recreate the food consumption of our caveman ancestors — swapping out processed foods and grains for meat, nuts and vegetables. While modern humans haven’t evolved significantly since the days of paleolithic man, our lifestyle (more sitting) and diets (the rise of grain and sugar) have devolved, which explains why so many people are overweight or diabetic.
But instead of justifying my diet through this historical mythology (which has been repeatedly questioned and criticized by biologists and others), I’ve found it easier to diffuse these barbecue moments with a response that’s far less technical: “Don’t worry,” I say, stabbing my fork into my bunless sausage. “It’s mostly to look good.”
Some of my onlookers will laugh. Others will scoff. And the rest will relate. But copping to health or vanity, rather than mounting an intellectual defense of my pseudo-paleolithic ways, usually accomplishes what I want — namely, the end of the conversation.
Avoiding a typically pro-paleo argument (“It’s the way we’re evolved to eat!”) denies skeptics the chance to prolong the conversation by reminding me of the absurdity of drinking a kale smoothie when our ancestors clearly didn’t have a Vitamix. Instead, I make it clear that I don’t care.
And while my strategy of “vanity is the best policy” originally was a snarky way to throw critics off their game, as I’ve used this counter-argument on more and more haters, I’ve noticed how it strangely subverts certain expectations about our food choices that I didn’t realize were there. Namely, that what we eat is seen as an expression of “who we are” or how we identify, as opposed to how we want to look or feel.
I first flirted with Paleo more than two years ago, as part of a renewed effort to recommit myself to my health after a breakup and a career change brought back, with a vengeance, the anxiety and insomnia I’ve struggled with for nearly a decade. The only thing that had ever worked (other than meds, which barely helped) was intense physical activity — the heavy labor I did while working on a farm or construction site. The long hours I spent in a dance studio during college. The 10-mile runs I went on as a member of the high school track team. A CrossFit gym had just opened in my neighborhood in L.A., so I figured I’d try it out, given its reputation for workouts that make you want to die.
It was a great decision: For the first time in my adult life I found an exercise regime that kept me coming back. My body was so exhausted that my sleeping issues soon subsided. Gaining muscle and burning fat flattered my sense of vanity, but I also found myself getting stronger and better at complicated gymnastics and weightlifting routines. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t enough to impress the coaches at the gym, who told me over and over that “things will really start to pop if you go Paleo.”
At first I was horrified — why would I want to give up so many things I love to eat? But I’m committed to trying new things and to go all in when I do. Compared to other fitness-oriented diets such as Zone, Paleo seemed practical in its minimalism. Here was a list of things that I could eat as much of as I wanted, whenever I wanted. (There was no financial benefit for the CrossFit gym if I went Paleo, so I knew that they weren’t just trying to sell me something.)
Soon, I was at Trader Joe’s filling my cart with almond milk, kale and chicken thighs. I began subsisting off of vegan smoothies, handfuls of nuts, big breakfasts of eggs, sausage and veggies, hearty salads with grilled meat, seeds and lots of avocado. I cut out beer, bread, cheese and yogurt — which was painful — but I soon found I was happy with just tequila and that it was easier to eliminate certain foods (especially breads, pastries and chips) than failed attempts at moderation. I was eating more leafy greens and vegetables than ever before, and though I felt strange about the prominence of meat in my diet, I wasn’t convinced it was much more than usual.
Paradoxically, friends would squeeze my thicker arm but then cringe when the “secret” behind the bulge was revealed.
The changes happened suddenly. Within weeks, I noticed I looked and felt different. My sleeping was better. My hair was shinier. And I was getting almost embarrassingly muscled, to the point where my body suddenly demanded an explanation. Paradoxically, friends would squeeze my thicker arm but then cringe when the “secret” behind the bulge was revealed.
“When I found out, I thought, ‘Hmm, Zak seems too smart for this?’” my friend Dan recently told me. In part, he questioned the accuracy of the Paleo worldview which he assumed I was buying into, but also, he added, “the ‘dumbness’ of it all certainly has ties to CrossFit and ‘meatheads’ — both their diets and low grey matter density.”
Others took issue with the choosiness of it all, at a time when it seems like more and more food options are off limits for group consumption. “I also judge gluten-free,” said my friend Molly. “And vegans. I judge anything that has a hint of extreme pickiness.”
Environmentalists bugged me about my meat consumption. Vegetarians worried about my health. But more than anything, what people seemed to take issue with most was that, in their experience, people who are Paleo just seemed to talk about it way too much, a habit that’s boring at best and obnoxious and judgmental at worst. (One friend told me that he can’t deal with anyone gluten-free because he’s been told too many times that giving it up would somehow magically heal his depression.)
Indeed, perhaps there’s such a strong reaction to the news that someone is Paleo because of the tendency of so many within the “community” to prosthelytize. It’s not enough for some to have figured out what works for them — they want to make sure everyone knows, via their Instagram account or showing off their salads to their pizza-eating coworkers. For some, it’s more than a diet; it’s a movement that extends to ideas about exercise, sleep, hygiene and sex based on how our ancestors may or may not have done those things. “It’s like taking the red pill or the blue pill in The Matrix; once you take the red pill, there’s no going back,” one modern cavewoman told the New York Times. “It’s a total rabbit hole.”
Which is why — increasingly — I try to stay silent about what I’m eating and why (except, of course, for everything I’ve confessed here). Though my early attempts at Paleo were stricter, these days I’ll say no when a dinner party host asks if I have dietary restrictions. If beer is the only thing to drink, I accept. I try as hard as possible to avoid making my eating conspicuous or a topic of conversation. And if it’s brought up, I still reduce it to the plane of surface, not identity. Because what is Paleo eating if not, simply, calorie reduction, a.k.a. the oldest trick in the dieting book? Margaritas swapped for tequila sodas. Hamburger buns exchanged for lettuce wraps. Shredded zucchini in place of pasta. After all, what could be more boring to talk about than calories?
But it seems that in a foodie culture that has turned coffee into a status symbol and “gluten-free” into a badge of cultural relevance, we’ve reinterpreted the expression “you are what you eat” not to mean that your health is the product of what foods you put into your body, but a cultural, political and social symbol as well.
The result? It’s nearly impossible to be Paleo in peace.