Why has the Paleo Diet created so much controversy?


The Paleo Diet has had a vocal camp of die-hard fans and a burgeoning paleo food industry. While proponents believe it’s how we should all be eating there are many more sceptics, whose thoughtful assessment of the available scientific evidence, see no reasons to radically change current advice. That advice being to consume a diet where the majority of our energy comes from carbohydrate foods.

However, in the age of social media, a much-published scientist is no more, and at times less authoritative, than a well-known lifestyle guru. Popular personalities have always promoted worthy causes, but increasingly they are also regarded as trusted spokespeople on complex subjects they usually have no specific expertise in.

Media want good talent and the cautious voice of a traditional health professional or academic, is usually not a good talent. Even if many nutrition experts quietly question the wisdom of people eating more protein and fat at the expense of carbohydrates, Paleo Diet proponents respond with greater conviction and it’s that voice people hear above everything else. 

Proponents of new ideas are usually more entrepreneurial and are far better at engaging and motivating people, in ways many academics or health professionals may not. Legitimate experts, with decades of specialist experience, have day jobs that don’t include blogging or tweeting. Mainstream academics and health professionals don’t want to be criticised or attacked, as they have seen it happen to others, when they do decide to set the record straight.

The result is an environment where the views of self-appointed experts, often with big egos flourish.

While we will always applaud the right for people to seek out new views and information, when that information is from people whose appeal is personality rather than substance, it can have dangerous consequences. Pete Evans is one of the most well-known Paleo proponents, but when his advice moved to recipes for homemade infant formula he failed to see where his knowledge gap lay. He was strongly criticised by dietitians in NZ and Australia and blocked the views of trained experts on his Facebook page. It highlights that the most vocal or visible promoters of a particular cause or idea are not necessarily correct and may not hold the majority view.

In the absence of mechanisms that will show the unassuming person what the fact or fiction is, our genuine experts need to be given opportunities to speak out more. While we know that in the area of science things are not always black and white at the very least we want balanced and informed debate. Currently there are too many one-sided arguments where the vocal minority shout down alternative views. How can we better balance these debates and have the real experts more involved? 



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