Is Paleo A Cult?

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Articles, Nutrition

The controversial thoughts below are written by John Durant, author of The Paleo Manifesto and mastermind behind the PaleoCon Summit (happening between now and February 14, in which I personally give a talk on “Raising Primal Kids”).


“Paleo is a cult.”

You’ve probably read that somewhere by now. It’s not a compliment.

A cult is a small group of people who holds strong beliefs that are outside of the mainstream.

Yet the mainstream is overweight, depressed, and sick – praising the false gods of low fat dieting, whole grains, and calorie counting. Being healthy almost requires being a member of a cult: it’s the only way to avoid the constant onslaught of sugar, junk food, and sedentary life. Perhaps treating our health regimen as a form of religious observance is exactly what the doctored ordered.

Healthy habits and religious rituals share a long history. Consider the origins of one of the most successful religions in history: Judaism.

In my recent book, The Paleo Manifesto, I examined the importance of hygiene in Judaism. Religious purification rituals such as bathing, avoiding contact with bodily fluids, and food inspection rules helped early urbanites avoid infectious disease.

Or consider the usefulness of hand washing:

“One of those purification rituals requires an unclean person to take both hands and rinse them in clean water (Exodus 30:17–21; Leviticus 15:11; Deuteronomy 21:6). The Nobel-worthy Commandment to wash your hands is called for in a few specific circumstances, but it was subsequently extended to mean that Jews should wash their hands after waking up, after going to the bathroom, before meals (eating bread), before worship, after being in a cemetery, after coming within a certain distance of a corpse, after touching private parts, and a Talmudic list of other situations. Today, hand washing is known to be one of the simplest and most effective ways to avoid infectious disease—and even washing without soap is better than nothing. Islam mandates hand washing at least five times a day (before prayer), and if clean water is unavailable, scrubbing the hands with clean earth or sand will do (Quran 5:6).”

We take modern hygiene for granted, but people back then didn’t know that germs existed. A religious “ritual” like hand washing would have seemed utterly pointless – yet anyone who washed their hands multiple times of day would have benefited enormously.

How many times did you wash your hands yesterday?

You probably have no idea. If you’re like most people, washing your hands is just a habit. It’s just something you do after going to the bathroom, before preparing food, before eating a meal, after working out, and any number of other circumstances. And you might not have been aware that for much of human history, the most sensible and widespread piece of health advice was a religious ritual – a little offering to God.

Judaism has always emphasized right action and right conduct, in part, since good hygiene requires daily attention. The same attitude can be applied to the daily actions required to be healthy today: standing, walking, running; growing, cooking, and eating our food; training and competing. The health challenges have changed; the challenge to be healthy still remains.

So is Paleo a cult?

Yes, of course it is.

And the world desperately needs more health cults, not fewer. We need more ways to inspire, cajole, and yes, threaten people to take the daily actions required to thrive.

The old religion was health – health is the new religion.


What do YOU think? Do you agree with John? Leave your questions, comments and feedback below.

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10 thoughts on “Is Paleo A Cult?

  1. Andrew M says:

    Firstly, I’m not paleo but eat a diet somewhat close to paleo which seems to work for me.

    I don’t think paleo (or it’s kin) are in anyway exclusive. The info is freely available, it doesn’t require membership or books or special food.

    With regards to it being complicated, I think that the ability to express the key concepts in 6 bullet points speaks to it’s lack of complexity.

    FWIW I love my heavy cream. Whatever works.

  2. Quoc says:

    Paleo is really just the latest diet marketing term used to sell books/guides/podcasts/online summits/etc. It is a lot sexier sounding than “real food/whole food” diet

  3. Terri says:

    Knee jerk reaction?! We don’t need any more cults and hard to adhere to diet and exercise regimes! We need simplicity, not exclusive cults! We need more mindfulness about what and why and when and where we eat, not complicated rules where even on the latest fad/craze, various ‘experts’ share different opinions!

    1. Nikola says:

      To Terri: 1.Paleo is not exclusive.
      2. The five “rules” of Paleo are listed above the article and one with basic reading and comprehension skills should not find them “complicated.”

      1. Buddy says:

        And, you have just utterly invalidated your comment with your needless personal attack in your point 2.

  4. Darcie says:

    I’d like to point out that I’m pretty sure John Durant drinks alcohol. :-)

    1. Oh really? Do tell! :)

      1. Brant2112 says:

        To religiously avoid the five things listed is often unpleasant (especially when it comes to imbibing — and the Jews hardly avoided that) and truly unnecessary for optimal health.

        Mark Sisson, for instance, doesn't totally diss alcohol. He has written that anyone ought to keep their imbibing down to one to three drinks per day. Given the fact that reasonable levels of alcohol consumption confer proven health benefits, this is the sensible thing. Sisson's blog has also featured a detailed write-in, complete with photographs, of a man who successfully (and gratefully) went Primal but still drinks beer every day.

        Sisson has also written that if, on occasion, you want to eat red potatoes (they were his specific example) it isn't going to harm you. And he certainly doesn't entirely avoid dairy. (Might I point out that raw milk is a bona fide superfood? And are we really to believe that non-sugared-up yogurt is not healthy for us, or that butter is somehow "unnatural"?)

        And "no beans"?! WTF? Black beans are one of the healthiest, and cheapest, foods out there. If Durant is talking about soybeans, we can understand. But not all beans.

        No grains at all, eh? That would be a weird concept to the Jews, too. Ever heard of "ancient grains" or the sprouted grains such as those found in Ezekiel Bread? No-one is saying that these grains are good for elevating athletic performance. But are they harmful or non-nutritious to people who aren't competitive athletes who simply want to be energized and fit? I don't see any evidence for their being so as long as they aren't the core of one's diet.

        Speaking of athletic performance, has anyone here heard of "super-starch"? It's derived from corn! I can't wait to try it. And you can find it being touted over at Dr. Peter Attia's Eating Academy:

        A life as a teetotaler. Lord have mercy! What's the point? :-)

        1. All good points, although I don't think Mark Sisson or Peter Attia claim to be Paleo…

  5. Brian_Beaven says:

    Its one of the good cults.

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