Interview with John Durant, author of The Paleo Manifesto

We here at Kettlebell Kitchen are so excited to present this in-depth Q&A with Paleo Manifesto author John Durant.

John has been a part of the New York paleo scene for years now with his popular blog, activities such as the NYC Barefoot Run, and media appearances in the New York Times, NPR, the New Yorker, and the Colbert Report, among others.


KBK: You’re on record as being not much of a cook yourself. Since Kettlebell Kitchen is a paleo meal delivery service, it’s probably the case for many of our readers as well. Give that limitation, what’s your best advice for eating paleo and eating well in NYC?

DURANT: Let me tell you about the Great Chicken Stock Disaster of 2010-11. I tried making chicken stock on the stove. I didn’t put a cover on the pot, then left it on the burner while I went out for the evening (apparently this is a really bad idea). I returned a few hours later to a smoke-filled apartment. The water had boiled off, and all that remained was a blackened chicken carcass that was hissing and smoking. I quickly grabbed the pot and put it outside on the porch. Overnight we got about a lot of snow, enough to cover up the pot. Out of sight, out of mind — and so it remained on the porch until spring. That’s just how a paleo bachelor rolls. So yes, prepared meals can help.

Many people think avoiding grains (or just gluten) is the hardest part about eating paleo, but not for me. Many NYC restaurants have gluten-free options and they know that a lot of folks can’t or don’t eat it.

One of my two biggest challenges is avoiding vegetable oils. Lots of restaurants, even high end ones, use canola or soybean oil because they’re so damn cheap and people think they’re heart healthy. I would eat more potatoes — even french fries or potato chips — if they were cooked in coconut oil, tallow, or lard.

So here’s what I do:
–Diners will often cook in butter if you ask them to
–Ask restaurants what they cook with just so they know people care about it
–Avoid unknown sauces, oily foods, and prepared dressings
–Cook for yourself
–Buy prepared meals

My other big challenge is alcohol. I’m always meeting up with someone for a drink — that’s just what people do in NYC. But that can be killer if it’s 5 nights a week. I’ve almost never gotten sick over the last 7 years…unless there’s way too much alcohol involved.

Here are my tips for drinking:
–College is over: avoid binge drinking
–Beware the nightcap: avoid drinking just before bed
–Avoid high sugar, gluten-full drinks (sweet mixers like Coke or tonic, pre-made margarita mixes, or beer)
–Go for wine, hard cider, hard alcohol

(Photo courtesy NPR)

KBK: Only 15% of your book touches on food. The rest touches on everything from movement to thermoregulation to sun exposure. What do you say to strict paleo eaters with 80-hour sedentary work weeks and a longstanding fear of sun exposure? Just how much are they missing out on? What advice would you give them?

DURANT: Have you ever gone camping and discovered how much easier it is to fall asleep at 9pm? And wake up soon after sunrise? That’s because you changed your entire habitat. Your circadian rhythm responds to multiple factors — not only light and darkness, but also temperature, movement, food availability, and social interactions. Similarly, when you get enough lifestyle factors clicking in your day-to-day life — not only diet, but also exercise, sleep, and sun — you can get significantly better results. So my book takes a habitat-based approach to health, and the whole of the habitat is greater than the sum of its parts.

KBK: In his review of your book, Chris Kresser said your book was more of a “why-to” than a “how-to.” Was that a conscious decision on your part, and if so, why?

When I don’t understand why I’m eating or exercising a certain way, it’s harder for me to stay motivated over the long run. Calories are meaningless to me, so are abstract motions at the gym. But eating a deer that I shot or completing a Hero WOD? Those are purposeful activities. So an important theme throughout the book is finding ways to make a healthy lifestyle more meaningful — and tying it to our human origins is one way to do that.

KBK: You’ve said that the intended audience for your book goes beyond the already-sizable paleo audience. Does that mean your book is a good holiday gift to loved ones who have yet to jump on the paleo bandwagon? What’s your position on folks trying to convert friends/family to paleo?

DURANT: Yes, I wrote it to be credible, intelligent, and entertaining — the one book you can hand to smart friends, skeptical co-workers, or critical family members. Despite having written a book on paleo, I don’t try to “convert” people in my personal life.

KBK:You’re part of the old guard of the paleosphere at this point. You’ve blogged about how slow book-publishing process is and how you did your best to predict where paleo movement was going so that your book wouldn’t be out of date. What if you had to make an equivalent prediction now (i.e., same time span)? What is the future of paleo, John?

DURANT: Here’s are three predictions for the next three years.

Microbes. Microbes are hot a topic right now — gut health, fermented foods, probiotics, chronic infections — and that will only continue as we learn how many more health conditions (cancer, mental disorders) are influenced by bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and other tiny critters. It will one day become commonplace for doctors to prescribe a course of probiotics after a course of antibiotics.

Habitats. People will shift away from trying to change their bad habits through willpower and discipline — like New Year’s resolutions — and increasingly focus on changing their physical habitats (bedrooms, kitchens, offices, and gyms) in ways that make it easier to be healthy without requiring discipline. That’s how they do it in zoos.

Habits. Biohacking will shift away from simply tracking our behaviors to actually motivating us to create new habits.

KBK: There’s been a lot of critiquing of the paleo movement going on (both from within and from without) lately. Does any of it strike you as legit? How much of it is simply a function of paleo being big enough to critique?

DURANT: I’m glad that there’s criticism, it means people are paying attention. But a lot of the criticisms are silly. OF COURSE life in the wild wasn’t perfect and idyllic. OF COURSE evolution didn’t stop 10,000 years ago. OF COURSE most foods in the grocery store are from domesticated species, and thus are not exact foods from the Paleolithic. OF COURSE people are different and may thrive on different diets. It astonishes me that Marlene Zuk, a professional evolutionary biologists, wrote an entire book (Paleofantasy) and cited anonymous blog commenters as representative of paleo instead of interviewing leaders who had written books on the subject. Just fire off an email!

The most valid criticisms, in my view, are ones that have added nuance to “Paleo 1.0”. Many used to be dogmatically low carb, now you see more flexibility. Many used to eat “lean meats” or avoid saturated fat, now many embrace high fat diets. How unhealthy, really, is white rice? Or dairy? And particularly for healthy and active people with no issues with their health and whose ancestors have eaten these foods for a very long time.

I don’t know. Hopefully, we’ll eventually find out!

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