By: Ben Knight,
November 2 2016
The term ’Paleo’ has historically referring to a prehistoric era in human history. In more recent times, Paleo has taken on a new meaning through a social ‘health’ movement to emulate a diet consistent with food consumption patterns of cavemen. However, this has conflicted with conventional understandings about nutrition, and with great uncertainty as to its tangible benefits and harms, it is quite easy to see that Paleo is has become polarizing and controversial.
A three-way war is being fought between health professionals, scientists and paleo enthusiasts, which have become highly publicized through news media. Emerging from the contest is Pete Evans – celebrity chef and star of popular reality TV cooking show My Kitchen Rules, who has become, and is portrayed as the public advocate, spokesperson and expert consultant on Paleolithic eating in Australia. Evan’s media portrayal as the face of paleo and an overall negative portrayal of the diet itself indicate the likelihood of paleo becoming the next in a line fads chewed up and spat out by the media.
In order to illustrate media constructions of Paleo and Evans, the following opinion pieces were selected. The first is an article in the Herald Sun Cult diet gurus and food fad pushers need to pull their heads in, by Wendy Tuohy. The second is You should not trust Pete Evans’ opinion of calcium from the Sydney Morning Herald, written by Andrew Street. A further 2 journalistic style articles were selected for comparison: Why the Paleo Diet isn’t the answer for weightloss from Kathleen Alleaume published on news.com.au and Celebrity chef Pete Evans mocks study showing Paleo diet could make you fat, co written by Neelima Choahan, Marissa Calligeros from the Sydney Morning Herald. This sample set of opinion pieces and journalistic style news items elucidate common patterns of the portrayal of Paleo and Pete Evans in the media.
Tuohy’s opinion piece mounts a primary argument that Paleo is nothing more than a fad diet promoted by ill-informed ‘health’ enthusiasts whose claims of health are unsubstantiated by science. As we will come to see, Touhy’s claim is just a microcosm for an overarching worldview of contemporary media on Paleo.
Touhy utilizes appeals to negative consequences, and leverages scientifically backed appeals to an expert voice in order to discount Paleo as a legitimate health movement. This primary argument becomes obvious from the outset. The headline of the article compares the Paleo movement to be cultish in nature, taking veiled aim at Evans as a “cult diet guru.” These negatively loaded terms ‘cult’ and ‘guru’ immediately frame Paleo and its advocates to be without serious credentials, and thus lead Tuohy to recommend, “they pull their heads in”, chastising both Evans and supporters of the Paleo diet.
The opening line of the article clearly elucidates a presumed ‘given’ about Paleo: “WHAT a non-surprise to learn one more fad diet has been spectacularly busted, and how healthy to see the whole culture of cult-like food gurus take a serious hit.” The notion of a ‘non-surprise’ assumes that there is common understanding amongst those not trapped within the Paleo culture that it is, as she directly labels it, a ‘fad diet.’ It is clear here that Touhy is writing from a moral highpoint above the ‘food gurus.’ She suggests, ironically, that the only remnants of health within Paleo is when its followers and advocates ‘take a serious hit’ – that is, when they are discredited. Again, it becomes clear here that Touhy perceives Paleo to simply be a ‘fad diet’, and therefore devoid of any comprehensive health benefits, which she supports by claiming: “Science has declared the paleo diet can make you fat. Not fit, not immortal, not line-free and vital … actually unwell.” Furthered from this, Touhy introduces the expert voice, which she leverages for expert power – A Melbourne University Study. The implication here is that Paleo is not backed up sufficiently by science, and is in fact discounted as being the new standard for health when tested.
Touhy thus establishes the grounds to appeal to negatively consequences, and the evaluative tone of her article comes to fruition. She implies that Paleo preys on the vulnerable; that people ‘slavishly struggle’ on “detoxifying diets”, feel like failures and “doubt themselves or blame themselves” when they inevitably can’t see the promises of results. In particular, she uses quotation marks in “detoxifying diet” to sarcastically further discredit the legitimacy of Paleo. Calling for those spellbounded by Paleo to “wake up from the spell,” Touhy furthers her writing position as one with authority looking out for the helpless.
Touhy furthermore reinforces the negative consequences of what she calls a “holier than thou food regimen” by claiming it makes people miserable and anxious about every bite of food they put in their mouths. Here, Touhy counters any advocacy by tearing down the moral superiority she perceives of Paleo, despite writing from a position of moral superiority herself. The preposition of ‘worst’ positions paleo lowly in the eyes of the reader – that nothing could be unhealthier than the misery and anxiousness experienced through Paleo.
Furthering on from Touhy’s evaluation of Paleo, she embraces the moral high ground; providing a recommendation to the audience should they consider Paleo a viable option – public health initiatives with science-backed recommendations to protect health. The rationale here is again that Paleo is not backed by science, and therefore cannot be trusted to serve public health interests. Rather, she furthers an accusation of self-interest towards Evans, alluding to an unnamed self-styled food celebrity, “promoting a set of cook books and products with evangelical force.” Again, this perspective of Paleo being enforced like a cult is thrust upon the reader, with Evans portrayed as a vulture, using his influence to further his own interests.
This accusation of Evans enforcing his Paleo will and brainwashing the malleable, passive audience which Touhy assumes becomes clearer as she employs the expert voice of the University Professor conducting the research trials: “You need to speak to proper health professional…rather than listening to Pete Evans who says this is great,” said the Professor. Referring to the expert as his title discounts Evans as having any expert power of value. She furthers this by saying that the Professor is ”the type of diet expert we should be listening to,” which again portrays Evans as not informed enough on health matters, and thus his opinions on diet should be discounted.
Mainstream media itself is just as it suggests – mainstream. It is supposedly indicative of the most common of opinions, understandings and values in order to reflect the widest scope of society possible. Thus, commonality in opinions on Paleo may indicate common patterns of portrayal. Street’s article echoes the sentiments of Touhy’s, thus revealing a common, assumed understanding of Paleo held across a variety of contemporary media. However, unlike Touhy, he does not perceive the Paleo movement itself to be enforced upon a vulnerable audience. Rather, to Street, Paleo is simply a delusion: “If we need some comforting delusions to make that road more comfortable then who can possibly blame us?”
This isn’t to say that Street doesn’t take some exception to Paleo or Evans, at least to the scale that Touhy exhibits in her piece. Rather, Street claims that the problem lays not within Paleo itself, but what it conceptualizes – that “when people provide delusional beliefs as though they’re facts, because you can make stupid, harmful decisions if you base them on the incorrect premise.” He utilizes an appeal to comparison to demonstrate this concept of Paleo as an ill-informed enactment of delusion, on a similar level to, “for example, that climate change has nothing to do with human activity, or that same-sex parents are bad for children.” Here, Street places Paleo within a much wider context than Touhy, but nonetheless establishes the grounds for its similar portrayal as ridiculous and harmful.
Street places the brunt of his exception, as the title of his article suggests, upon Evans himself. Street further claims that Evans has parlayed his knowledge of cooking into a nonsensical, backward oriented cult, yearning for regression: “early humans had the right idea before all that annoying “civilization” nonsense turned us into the most successful species on Earth.” He further sarcastically refers to Evans himself as a ‘handsome television man and avid meathusiast,’ suggesting that Evans’ credentials on diet are limited to his physical appearance and celebrity status.
Thus, Street establishes the grounds to portray Evans as stepping beyond his station, claiming that he does not have the necessary expertise to provide medical advice beyond “guy that knows how to cook stuff.” He trivializes and chastises Evans, which is juxtaposed in scale to what he claims is the “genuinely dangerous nonsense” espoused, painting Evans as misguided and thus, with the scale of his influence, highly dangerous in a matter where health is at stake. He furthers this by saying that even the proposition of such questions being asked – “I’m told I need to take medicine, but can my problem be fixed with chops instead?” – is testament to the damage Evans has caused already.
Street further paints Evans as a danger, describing advice given by Evans in various negative ways, such as “inexplicable”, “utter rubbish” that is “incorrect” and “wildly irresponsible.” In turn, this reinforces the widespread media image of Evans as, what Touhy claimed earlier, a ‘food guru’, devoid of even the most basic level of knowledge and sensibility, as Street claims: Suggesting that dairy somehow leaches calcium out of your bones is not just incorrect – which, let’s be clear, it is. It’s also wildly irresponsible.
The silver lining for Street exists within a desire to adopt eating fresh and healthy foods; such is much of what comprises a Paleo diet. However, for Street, the delusion of Paleo – what he sarcastically terms a “magical regimen involving imaginary superhero caveman to justify eating fresh food” is the metaphor for silly deicison making based on even more foolish reasoning. This “woo-woo silliness” is the media representation of Paleo, unsubstantiated by “dull-but-accurate” scientific research. Thus, Paleo in is a representation of moral and not scientific debate within the media.
However, in a matter that so entrenched in public moral debate, it is important to briefly digress into portrayals of Paleo that exist hard news media. Kathleen Alleaume is a contributor to the health section for news.com.au, and as a nutritionist and exercise scientist, is afforded an expert voice on Paleo. She terms Paleo foods to be “caveman cuisine,” and the Paleolithic eating to be a “trend” where participants become a part of a “food tribe”, a more positive portrayal than what Touhy painted as a “cult” of misery and self-loathing.
Alleaume’s piece is scientific, and largely removed from heavy evaluation. It is however, advice heavy, perhaps due to her position as a nutrition expert who regularly provides diet advice. In turn, Alleaume portrays and critiques the Paleo diet on its merits as a selection of food, as opposed to criticized as movement. Thus, Paleo is given the platform to even be considered what it is in the first place – a method of eating food in a regulated fashion to manage body weight.
The methodology Alleaume employs in her article is as follows. She makes references to scientific research in order to provide support for the macronutrient composition of a Paleo diet, and elucidate its scientifically validated benefits pertaining to diet. However, she also makes a point of noting possible health consequences, without over emphasizing the former. She then leverages her experience as a nutrition expert to offer and make valid applications of Paleo pragmatic. This constructive assessment of Paleo diverges from negative portrayals of the opinion pieces, but is also hidden away in the lifestyle news archives.
The final hard news item is a news report based on the findings of the same University study the opinion piece of Touhy employs. Here, Evans is placed on the defensive, as he is claimed to have “hit out” against the negative health consequences uncovered from the University research. The article makes light of ‘Mr Evans’ employing a Facebook rant to question the veracity of University research, indirectly negatively positioning Evans. This is not overt, and the article balances this by adding that Evans employed an alternative study that favoured Paleo.
The media portrayal of Evans in this article indeed reflects the wider opinions of the Paleo diet. By framing Evans in opposition to a leading University study, contributes to a dominant decoding similar to the worldview espoused in the opinion pieces. This is not criticizing the article or its writers, as Evans has portrayed himself as such by claiming that the media is contributing to spin and that the study is inconclusive on the grounds that it was not conducted on humans, ulterior motives of professors, pharmaceutical funding and lack of credibility of heath organizations. Evan’s points are later countered in the article.
Indeed, Evans is newsworthy as a celebrity and the face of Paleo, which makes him an ideal candidate to report on, but the article clearly discounts his opinion as credible be referring to Paleo as a “fad diet.” In turn, by referencing the support numbers on Facebook, it makes light of the mass delusion Touhy hints at in her opinion piece, which this article is inevitably tied to having being composed on the same University research. This article again indirectly negatively evaluates Evans through the expert opinion employed, as the professor claims dieters should to seek “professional advice.” We can thus see a common negative worldview of Paleo being espoused across media.
Cult, delusion, trend and caveman diet are all terms used to describe Paleolithic. To Evans, it is clear that Paleo is a philosophy, underlined by the principle that food is medicine, and that paleo is the new measuring stick of health. This is a key assumption consistently dispelled – that the popularity of Evans and the Paleo diet does not mean it is working. This claim does not stand up to scrutiny in the scientific sense, and as such, he is targeted and framed in the media in a particularly negative light. Evan’s prominent position as a celebrity figure have led his media image to become synonymous with that of the Paleo diet, and vice versa.
However, the portrayal of Paleo in the media gives great prominence to the celebrity voice. Articles discuss the popularity of Paleo, or critique it, but for the most part, omit the inherent health benefits to criticize the movement. As such, public perception of the Paleo diet and its advocates like Pete Evans become figures of ridicule and targets of public outrage, especially as the stakes of human health become involved. Whilst other media topics of a more trivial nature aren’t going to make or break the world, reporting on matters of health have descended into opinion laded moral debates, rather than, as it arguably should, giving a prominent voice to science and factual based reporting. When the media reports on Paleo, regardless of its negative way, it nonetheless keeps Paleo relevant.
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