Research & Writing

On Diets and Black Swans

Figuring out what to eat is hard. And it’s getting harder. We have more chronic health conditions, more nutrition research, and more food options. The omnivore’s dilemma is real, and it lives in nearly everyone seeking to heal themselves through food.

A recent news story on NPR asserted that Paleolithic people were making flour as far back as 32000 years ago. This new fact disturbs our understanding of paleolithic diets. Reactions on social media include, “Wow! I can have oats on my paleo diet!,” “Yes! I can have flour again!!,” and similar expressions of relief.

Look: whatever dietary philosophy you may (or may not) follow, there are always these untidy facts that don’t fit into a neat worldview. These outliers contradict the nutritional paradigm you’ve been indoctrinated into following by a constellation of nutritionists, bloggers, and positive anecdotal reports and success stories. Paleo, AIP, vegan, raw vegan, South Beath, Atkins, macrobiotic, Zone diet: it’s all the same.

There are 2 things you can do with these inconvenient and untidy facts: use Occam’s broom and figuratively sweep them under the rug, or react to them as a black swan event and let them demolish your present paradigm of nutrition and health. Black swan events come as a surprise, have a major effect, and are often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. (This theory was devoloped by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe consequential and rare events in history. So I’m going out on a limb to apply the term here to describe world-view disruptive discoveries, but I think I can be forgiven.)

My advice? Don’t follow a diet. Let’s use me as an example. I’ve dealt with some serious health issues and have healed myself, largely from food and nutrition. Gut healing has been a significant part of that. When asked about my personal dietary philosophy, I say that I mostly eat a paleo-inspired diet, with some modifications. For example, I love legumes and a few grains (like rice, amaranth). I eat dairy and other offending foods on occasion, just to see if they’re still disagreeable and cause an inflammatory reaction. (Food sensitivities can change over time.)

Is my diet rigid? Definitely not. It’s an evolutionary work in progress, and yours should be too.

Diets are useful frameworks and starting points. But everyone is different (duh), and your diet will be individual to you. However, you can learn from new perspectives and approaches (i.e. ancestral nutrition). When you start a diet, don’t follow the herd and be surprised when the golden eggshell of nutritional righteousness starts to crack and fall away. Let your paradigm of nutrition be demolished, because it’s make-believe anyway.

About Author

Renée A. Davis MA RH is a designer and educator in botanical and mycological medicine. Her training began at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in New York City and concluded in biomedical sciences at the University of Washington. She currently directs research and development for a nutraceutical mushroom company in the Pacific Northwest.

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