In 1931, a Cleveland dentist named Weston A. Price embarked on a tour to observe local diets and health across all corners of the world. Price’s globetrotting—more than a dozen countries in a handful of years—would exhaust all but the hardiest backpacker today, but it’s truly impressive in light of his age (nearly 60 when he started) and the fact that this all took place before the advent of commercial aviation. Traveling on ships, trains, and by foot, he swung from isolated Swiss valleys to Scotland’s Outer Hebrides to far-flung native reservations in Alaska and Canada, to numerous Central and East African nations, to eight South Pacific archipelagos and the distant reaches of Australia and New Zealand, all the way to the thin air of the Peruvian Andes.
When he was finished, he wrote a book about his findings. Published in 1939, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration earned mostly dismissive reviews and soon fell into obscurity, where it stayed for most of the rest of the 20th century.
But in the last decade or so, Price’s teachings on nutrition have experienced a strange and dramatic renaissance in the diet and nutrition community. Though the average person has probably never heard his name, his work lies behind one of the most popular diet trends today—the low-carb, meat-loving Paleolithic (“Paleo”) diet.
The Paleo diet, as its name implies, espouses the theory that we should attempt to eat like our cavemen ancestors because this is what our bodies are evolved to do. Though what cavemen actually ate is far from clear (recent research suggests they enjoyed porridge, for example), the Paleo interpretation means lots of meat and seafood proteins, nuts, animal fats, and some vegetable oils, and little to no grains, dairy, or sugars. Considered fringe just a few years ago, the Paleo movement now has conferences, vacation retreats, magazines, and innumerable blogs and cookbooks. You can buy Paleo snack bars at Walmart and Paleo beef jerky at the supermarket. Jeb Bush eats Paleo. So does Miley Cyrus. Paleo also overlaps with an ever-growing number of buzzword-y diet philosophies—“whole foods,” “nutrient-dense eating,” “ancestral nutrition,” and so on—that eschew processed carbs and sugars in favor of meats, seafood, and a healthy dose of fat.