Seven years ago, I embarked on a year in which I spent two months each on six different diets. The goal wasn’t to lose weight. At the time I was a 5’11”, 149-lb bicycle racer. Rather, it was to write a story about how good the diet industry was at getting people to be not just thin but healthy.
I was working as a senior editor at Outside magazine, and my yearlong stunt was for a package on nutrition and wellness. For my six diets, I wanted a mix of fads, historical habits, and cutting-edge science. I settled on “The Abs Diet;” paleo; the “Mediterranean Plan;” the “Okinawa Diet;” the advice on the USDA food pyramid website; and a professionally supervised personalized-nutrition approach that, in today’s terminology, we would just call “biohacking.”
Over the next 12 months, I kept a detailed diary of every bite of food or caloric drink that crossed my lips, along with my physical activity. I also compiled objective data—lipid levels, body fat percentage, weight, etc.—and subjective observations on things like sleep quality, energy levels, and hunger pains.
And that was it. The story ran in January 2010—before the cult of paleo had really taken off, before social media became the vehicle for promoting stories, and before Outside was really doing a whole lot with its website. The story didn’t cause much of a fuss. But late last year, Outside reposted it—in the wake of the New Yorker’s big paleo piece—and promoted it heavily on social media.
The story exploded, with tens of thousands of shares. But what I can’t get over are the comments, especially from the paleo set. I never passed judgment on any of the diets; I merely published the results of doctor’s visits and wrote about how I felt. I happened not to feel very good on paleo (nor to have my best bloodwork results). And for a very rabid group of paleo believers, that was inexcusable.
People ripped me as a fraud, suggested that I hadn’t actually even tried the diet, and accused me of having an anti-paleo agenda—all for presenting lab work and saying that I didn’t have a ton of energy during my two-month paleo run.
So what I learned—aside from the fact that wise biohacking can change your life—is that a lot of people wrap their very sense of self up in how they eat. They see support of their chosen diets as personal validation—and questions about those diets as personal attacks.
That’s the landscape for modern food producers. As this issue shows, it’s a landscape filled with both hazards and massive potential.