Why The Paleo Diet Is Classist And Racist

I lived and breathed the Paleo lifestyle until the stench of its privilege turned me off.

Three years ago, I lost 5% of my body weight following the Paleo Diet. I slept better, I was less gassy, and I just felt happier. I decided to start a blog to track my progress, keep myself accountable, and promote overall health. I listened to numerous Paleo podcasts, while dreaming of possibly starting my own. I reviewed Paleo products, had a Paleo pen pal, and I even started my own Facebook page in the hopes of spreading more love via memes.

I was literally eating, listening, talking, cooking, and living a Paleo lifestyle. It was a difficult transition for me to be Paleo since it was very meat-centric, and I was raised not to eat the sacred cow. But I made it work, and it worked for me.

Today, I attempt to eat Paleo-ish the majority of the time. But, toward the end of 2013, I stopped regularly blogging, promoting, and being Paleo-happy because I started to see it as a classist and racist diet.

While I do believe, in theory, anyone can stick to Paleo, I determined that this was very unrealistic. And I’m not talking about being Paleo on an individual level. (Yes, one does not just do Paleo, one can be Paleo.) Systemically, it is basically impossible for most people in the world to eat Paleo, even if it is what everyone needs to do.

Ideally, the Paleo diet consists mostly of eating grass-fed beef or pasture-raised chicken, or wild-caught fish…basically meats that clearly need a hyphen to qualify them as healthy. Also, it encourages you to eat organic fruits and veggies. This reeks of high prices and, therefore, difficult access for poor communities.

Overpopulation is another factor (among many others) that makes it impossible to sustainably feed humanity with adequate nutrition. After intensively listening to all of those Paleo podcasts and watching various documentaries, I learned about the industrialization and processing of foods in this country. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to say that it is horrific.

However, as horrific as this is, what I started finding more horrific is that I had the privilege of buying these foods, while others live in food deserts, are completely unaware, and do not have access to healthy resources. I have the money to buy eggs for $5 a dozen. I can buy grass-fed beef for $10 a pound. Yes, I understand why these foods cost so much. But I don’t feel being idealistic and wishing markets and corporations didn’t drive the food system, as opposed to driving the well-being of the consumers from which they profit, is impractical. And no matter how many articles you see about being Paleo on a budget, it has no bearing for people living on food stamps or without access to or knowledge about fresh and healthy foods.

One blogger took a Paleo SNAP Challenge to prove it is possible to be Paleo while living on a SNAP budget of $4.80 a day. However, she did this while living her non-SNAP lifestyle. So maybe this is financially possible, but SNAP is more than money. It is as much of a lifestyle as Paleo, one that is much more difficult and much less glorified. Perhaps it makes more sense to attempt to reduce the need for SNAP instead of berating the eating habits of those who have to eat for less than $5 a day.

When people (mostly white, middle to upper class) can afford better food, they live healthier lives, increasing the demand for such foods. This demand affects food prices, ultimately resulting in excluding those who didn’t even have a chance.

While the Paleo movement doesn’t necessarily have political roots, it has political implications. Does it see the family whose parents have multiple jobs to make ends meet, rushing in between jobs and classes to help their own kids with homework, barely allowing for time to get groceries? Does it see the people without time or transportation who go to a convenient store to have junk food for dinner because it is just easier after a long day? This isn’t just a financial strain, but it is also an emotional one. I have physical and financial access to go to my local markets and buy high-end meats and veggies, and there are still times I am too lazy to go. I will order in Thai or whatever is close and cheap. Because I can.

And, of course, the lack of nutritional access also contributes to poor health outcomes requiring medical care. The lack of access and high prices of quality food exist because of systemic factors driven by capitalism. Ultimately, these systemic differences are not just classist, but they are racist.

A report collaborated between the New York Law School Racial Justice Project and the ACLU Racial Justice Program states, “The lack of supermarkets within low-income inner-city minority communities is not a demographic accident or a consequence of ‘natural’ settlement patterns. Rather, government policies and their resulting incentives have played a significant role in shaping the segregated landscape of American cities.” The existence of food deserts is greatly affected by communities shifting, gentrification, and the economic policies that greatly contribute to these changes.

So I’m starting to feel guilty here. I am a piece in this gentrification puzzle.

But this puzzle wasn’t created by you or me. Systemic injustices typically aren’t. We are merely players. That doesn’t mean we have no say. In fact, having a say is precisely the reason I stopped tweeting, blogging, and Facebooking the miracles of Paleo. I started to see that this wasn’t just about me losing weight or being healthy. Yes, individual changes and realizations are wonderful. But in a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps world, we tend to forget how we fit into the larger picture. Because, well, it’s hard. And it can feel depressing and you are marked as being negative. Who likes to feel that way? I definitely don’t.

But I also don’t like to feel ignorant. Because ignorance is also negative. Being unaware of our puzzle piece and living in a delusion that we are just where we need to be, ignoring how our choices affect the humanity around us, is a conscious choice that is not neutral.

Learning about the real food chain, how it affects people and institutions such as farm laborers, migrant workers, butchers, supermarkets, food giants, health “experts,” poor folks, rich folks, and everything else in between is just as important as the individual choices we make when we wake up craving a Cinnabon.

I will say that I am not an expert by any means in this subject area. There are much more qualified individuals who can provide more detail about the food system. However, a lot of this is common sense that just makes us feel uncomfortable. And this is good. Feeling uncomfortable is the first step to change. This feeling is the reason I can no longer blog about something that is fundamentally exclusive when I can continue to learn and inform others about why the exclusivity even exists.

Am I trying to have my gluten-free sugar-free cake and eat it too? Well, I didn’t say privilege was a bad thing. I am grateful for it. But not exposing the lack of privilege caused by systemic injustices is a bad thing. I cannot change the world alone, but a collective effort is an attempt to not only work against injustices but also bring a positive energy toward justice in every arena.

Nisha Mody is a writer living in Chicago. Her writing has been featured in Chicago Literati. She also works as a speech-language pathologist in a public school. When she isn’t writing or running after children, she is scrambling eggs, eating avocados, looking at bunny pictures, and reading. You can follow her on Twitter @cuttingthecheez and read more of her writing at http://cuttingthecheez.tumblr.com.

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