Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Interview with Ray Audette - Author of Neanderthin

On Keith Thomas' EvFit site he has a page devoted to tracing the history of the current interest in the Paleo Lifestyle movement. It is interesting to track the growth of the movement and the current explosion of interest - the last few months things seem to have crept out of the shadows and the special interest and it is almost the latest fashion, the latest fad. Anyway, early on in Keith's analysis is the note:
1999 - Ray Audette's Neanderthin published
Back before Mark Sisson, before Art DeVany, before Loren Cordain, before EvFit, before MovNat, before Free the Animal, before mainstream newspapers were talking about the "Caveman Diet".....Ray Audette wrote a book about the paleo diet - Neanderthin.

I bought it 5 or 6 years ago when I was I was just starting to investigate low carb diets and enjoyed the simplicity of the concept and the quality of the approach.
(Keith has a good overview of the book).

It was at the time a unique book, breaking some new ground in terms of exercise and diet.
If you are interested in Paleo thinking then you really should read Ray's work.

I had interviewed Keith - who is, like me, a big admirer of Ray Audette - someone contacted me and suggested that I should also interview Ray. I eventually got hold of him and here is the resulting interview. I hope you enjoy it and get something from it.


Neanderthin relates how as a relatively young man you found yourself diagnosed with both diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Researching the diseases you traced the causes of both these autoimmune conditions to be a civilisation’s move away from a hunter gatherer diet. You restored your own health by returning to a proper, hunter gatherer diet. The book covers the development of your ideas in just a few sentences. How long did your thinking on the role of diet take to crystallise in reality?

A: Within two weeks of my diagnosis of diabetes, I began a Paleolithic diet. I knew that I had inherited this condition from my maternal grandfather who was part Native American and that those people had a very high incidence of diabetes. I also knew that these Native Canadians had few crops and depended on hunting for their subsistence. I knew that the ate a much more natural diet than one dependent on the domesticated crops that their latitude precluded. As I had studied philosophy for many years, I decided to begin by defining the term "nature". After much thought, I concluded that nature was the absence of technology. Absent technology, I would be naked with only a sharp stick or a rock to use as a weapon or tool.

The night before Troy and I began writing, I came up with the title and decided that I needed to have a statement that best defined the concept of my book in as as few words as possible. Genesis 2:17 summed up the theory best!

(Ed: Gen 2:17 is "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die", which Ray expresses (on the basis of the Hebrew) as "Do not eat the fruit of the technology that makes edible the inedible")

Were you influenced by any other writers or researchers?

A: Many other researchers and writers influenced my work and shared their sources with me. I read S Boyde Eaton's book "The Paleolithic Prescription" and met him at a medical convention. I also corresponded with Vaughn Bryant of Texas A&M University as well as Lauren Cordain of Colorado State University. Michaeal Eades and his wife Mary-Dan were also very helpful and sent my first Vilhajulmur Stefansson books (copies here) to me.

Troy Gilchrist was very influential and deserves great credit for "NeanderThin". I consider it very lucky that he got a Philosophy degree just before we began and as his band had quit him a few years before ( they're now called "The Dixie Chicks") he had nothing better to do than dedicate his time to help me write.

With Amazon currently advertising Neanderthin at between £31 and £124 and the current huge interest in the paleo diet, would you consider a new edition of the book?

A: There has been some talk of a Print On Demand edition but I haven't checked with my agent yet as to my publishing rights in that matter.

Was the book what you wanted it to be or did the publishers try to turn it into a “popular diet” book so they could market it better?

A: They changed the original subtitle and chapter titles and turned my favorite chapter into an Appendix ( too many big words).

The copy of Neanderthin that I have is from 1999. Have your ideas developed in the years since then? Do you still eat and exercise as the book describes?

A: I would, in future editions, put less emphasis of organic foods and more on the chemicals such as aflatoxins, acrylamides, GAGs, estrogen analogs, etc found naturally in technology-dependent foods These are a much greater hazard than the worst chemically contaminated produce found in the market. I also would strongly discourage attempts at a low-fat version of the diet.

I still eat the same way but I don't go hawking every day as once did (though I do try to walk every day).

In the book, you present the optimal nutrition and fitness program as one which emphasises “chaos”. You talk about the multiple factors that affect health and fitness and in this chaotic model health is derived not from imposing some ideal ordered life and routine of diet and exercise but from removing the factors that were not involved in the initial condition - the agricultural diet and the routine sedentary lifestyle – and then letting the chaos of nature have its way to create health. Have I understood this correctly? Can you expand a little more of what this means in practice for diet and exercise?

Chaotic exercise interests me. It is so easy to fall into a “routine” – that is even how we describe our workouts – routines. Do you have any ideas for preserving or promoting some natural chaos in our exercise?

A: Flying Harris Hawks always worked for me!

Can we look more broadly. The initial conditions would include all sorts of factors – social situation, different stressors, sunlight, adequate sleep, good posture. Is it enough to focus on diet / exercise or should we be thinking about restoring other aspects of the initial condition?

Do you see optimal health as dependent on restoring those other things – for example good social relationships (the tribe) or sufficient sleep? In terms of health and fitness we tend to focus on the physical - how we look and perform. Do you think "civilization" - poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, chronic stressors - has equally profound negative effects on our minds, our mental health, as it does on our physical health?

A: Personal relationships, work, stress etc. all play a part.

Dogs. You have a model in the book that sees man and dog developing closely and relying on each other in the hunt. This is a novel approach that I’ve not read elsewhere. Does this concept – the unique role of hunting with dogs - imply any specifics about our diet and exercise? Does it give hints about how we should eat or move?

A: Walking the dog is good for body and soul ( but not as good as hawking - praise Horus! ).

Reading in your book a couple of times the notion of “neotony” crops up. I must admit that this is not a concept that I understand well. Could you elaborate on this idea and maybe provide an example or two which illustrate why you find it so useful to explain or justify a paleo diet?

A: This is the topic of my next book " Neanderthal Neoteny; How Wolves Domesticated Mankind". It deals with symbiosis and the origins of cultures. Culture dictates what we consider a "normal" diet.

Another of your special interests is what you call in the book "alien proteins" – can you explain a little more of what you mean by that and how it influences your approach?

A: I took this term from a Scientific American article about auto-immune disorders. I would now include any organic compound that in Nature would not be found inside your body. The problems these substances cause include obesity, diabetes, cancer, etc.

Over the years you seem to have ducked in and out of public view. Are you aware of the growing interest in paleo diets, driven largely various writers on the internet? What do you think of the recent “fashionable” paleo diet movement?

A: I'm grateful for having played a part!

Unfortunately the palaeo way can be an expensive one…..those who promote it are often seem to be affluent professionals with big incomes, able to afford lots of meat and organic vegetables. Do you have anything to share in terms of eating a healthy, paleo diet on a budget? How would the unemployed or student cope? Can we avoid being forced onto cheap carbs to survive?

A: I am very poor. I shop at Walmart and other supermarkets. I often eat at McDonalds. I don't buy into the whole "organic" thing. I don't find my diet to be a financial burden.

Perhaps the key concept in Neanderthin is the elegantly simple metric - the Sharp Stick Test - that you provide for determining what we should eat: My definition of nature is the absence of technology. Technology dependent foods would never be ingested by a human being in nature. I determined therefore to eat only those foods that would be available to me if I were naked of all technology save that of a convenient sharp stick or stone. Again, how quickly did you develop that simplest of ideas? Is it an oversimplification or does it still adequately summarise your approach?

A: see above - the best sumary is still the oldest one! Genesis 2:17

Can we think a bit about politics in a broad sense? How does your particular set of premises inform your views of politics? How should we live? What is the “good life”? Should a consistent paleo approach seek to reconstruct a Paleolithic biosphere if we are to attain holistic health? Do we need to look after this planet more than we do? A related question I suppose. Do you see a paleo diet as possible given the changes to flora, fauna and environment in the last 2 millenia or are we simply trying to mimic the biochemistry - not the literal food and lifestyle - and gain the benefits from that?

A: Our paleo past is the key to our future survival. These are the kind of issues I will address in my next book.

Ray Audette

With thanks to Don Wiss for suggesting the interview and Keith for prompting some questions.


Craig B. said...

You didn't happen to ask Ray if he was a Thelemite, did you? The 'Praise Horus' bit makes me wonder.

Chris said...


Scott W said...

I, too, was greatly impacted by Ray. I've been kind of surprised that after this book he fell off the paleo radar, obviously by his own choice. One comment he made in his book I have had to embrace, after not wanting to believe it for years: No cheating...undoing the effects of cheating can take days or more for some people. Well, that's me - fall off the wagon on something like sweets and it can take a long time to climb back on.

Thanks for looking him up.

Scott W

.^ said...

That interview was so funny! (I mean that in a nice way) You asking two-paragraph questions and him answering with terse, single sentence answers.

Less is more I guess.

Anonymous said...

Thelemite = an adherent of occultist Aleister Crowley's system of Magick, Thelema.

Zach said...

Yes, wow.

"Do not eat the fruit of the technology that makes edible the inedible"

I heard an interview of Richard Manning last year when he said that (paraphrasing here) if aliens (a la The Simpsons) were to have flown above the Earth ~10k years ago and watched the first humans making edible what was inedible (e.g., grains) they would have predicted that it was unsustainable at that moment. In other words, the downside of grain consumption (metabolic syndrome, environmental damage, overpopulation, etc.) could not NOT have happened.

That citation from Genesis using the modern vernacular is simply awesome. Please do allow me to cite it. Great interview, Chris.

Best Regards,

drew said...

Geez, he must have had a train to catch. You had great questions, as usual, but he really didn't give you much back.

Thanks for these interviews, they're great reads.

Unknown said...

From Witchita Falls, Tx. It has been a great pleasure to have met Ray this past Summer (2010). I have followed his Neanderthin Diet since then. I have fallen off the wagon several times. Type II Diabetes has its drawbacks. But, when on the Neatherthin Diet, Blood Sugar stays normal 120 or lower without medication. Energy level is up and life is great. A 2 mile is easy, lifting weights is just as easy and enjoyable. For a 65 year old, I'd say, "Get with the Neanderthin Diet and exercise". Meeting Ray has changed by life in a positive way.
I'm looking forward to his next book.

Susan said...

I treasure Ray's book too. I'm curious, though, and apologize if I missed it, did he say anything about his current health? I wonder if he was able to turn away the rheumatoid arthritis for life - which has been my goal since going paleo a year ago.