Magical Pill Syndrome (MPS)

A quick programming note before I dive in here.

Last week, Kurt Harris, he of the Archevore/PaNu/Paleo 2.0-ness, dropped a bit of a bomb on the Paleosphere. Before you click over, I must warn you—it’s a complete time suck. You have to read every comment, and it’s still being added to as of today. It is the thread that never ends, it just goes on and on my friends. And do you think you’ll have any conclusions when you get to the end of it? No. You’ll only have more questions. Warning over.

The discussion caused several (what I thought were) disparate ideas that had been rattling around in my brain to constellate together. This is a feeling I’ve had a few times in my life and it has thrown my train of thought off the rails, so to speak, into uncharted territory. One of those things where suddenly everything you’re looking at and thinking about are being interpreted through another filter.

Next week, I’m hoping to post several posts on what congealed in my thoughts around this. I’m not sure how many there will be, maybe 3-5, so there will probably be one each day next week. That is, IF I can pull it off. Stay tuned.

Yeah, yeah. What about this week?

Geez, tough crowd. Less is more. Simple enough, right?

There are a few folks in my life who I love dearly. Not naming names, but a conversation with them sparked some thoughts that are important to this post. None of the criticism in this post is aimed at them personally. Rather, I’m taking aim at an idea that is so pervasive in our culture and is, I believe, incredibly damaging.

They asked me if I use coconut oil, and of course, my answer was “yes”. They said that a friend of theirs sent them a video expounding its health benefits and how it’s supposed to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Now, coming from a couple of SAD-eaters, this should be good news, but I can’t get excited about it. Why?

Because this idea that there is a magical substance anywhere on this planet is bunk. That’s right, I said it. There is no super-food, no pill, no powdered unicorn horn that will save you.

A Certain Kind of Madness

Believing that you can add one magical ingredient is a distraction from not having to address what’s really going on. We all wish a magic pill existed to cure all of our woes, because if you add a magical thing, it means you don’t have to actually change anything else. And as we all know, true, real, lasting, authentic change is scary business. This is the illusion that folks who eat crap and try to exercise it off are under: “I can eat all the pizza, chips, candy, cake, and triple-caramel-pumpkin-soy-macchiattos with whipped cream I want as long as I run 10 miles a day.”

It prevents you from having to look long and hard at yourself, your life, addictions, and perceived inadequacies.

The magic pill approach is a salve because it’s simple compared to the complexity of changing your life. Of clearing out your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Of having to explain yourself to your friends, family, and every freaking restaurant server you’ll ever have for the rest of your life. Instead, you can chew a chocolate calcium supplement (yes, these exist) and feel really good about yourself. You just did something great for your health today, right?

So why is this a bad thing? Why am I being so critical?

Because at some point, if you’re either paying attention or you’re unlucky enough, you’ll figure out that it isn’t working. And when that happens, so much time will have passed—maybe too much—that getting to the true root of the problem will be impossible.

No amount of coconut oil is going to save you from Alzheimer’s disease. Or blueberries, salmon, or flax seeds. In the interest of being honest, I should say that nobody knows with 100% certainty why Alzheimer’s disease happens. But we do know that it doesn’t occur in hunter-gatherer groups, it is most certainly a disease of civilization, and it seems to be a groupie of Syndrome X.

So what’s the alternative?

Ha! Trick question! If more isn’t more, then what is?


I know there are lots of folks out there working on a positive message for Paleo instead of the negative approach of what we don’t eat. Meaning that instead of focusing on what we exclude (grains, legumes, unhealthy oils/fats, dairy, etc.), we focus on all the amazing things we do eat (pastured meat, eggs, fish, veggies, fruits, nuts). A great marketing strategy, but in order to get into this “less” thing, we actually have to tear off some layers. It’s inherently a subtractive approach.

Wouldn't that be nice?

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a sensitive introvert and my view of the world is thus informed. But we’re living in a particularly loud time in history. Never before have we been so bombarded by messages, information, advice, and manipulation. There’s a constant stream via TV, smart phones, iPads, computers, radio, magazines, and newspapers. Advertisements abound on billboards, the sides of buses, subway tunnels, on trash cans, above the gas pump, even on stickers adorning our fruit—all hoping to convince us of something. It’s impossible to tease out where the motivation for our own decisions even comes from anymore. People are confusing facts with marketing-speak all the time: “But whole grains are good for you,” “This running shoe will help prevent injury,” “I should use antibacterial hand gel to prevent colds.”

I’ve said it before, but the more you can shut off the noise-makers, the better off you’ll be. And then, just keep peeling the layers off. Question everything, even your own assumptions and expectations.

Are Paleo folks immune to MPS?

Hell no. Have you seen the questions at Paleo Hacks? Paleo folks are almost worse because we’ve forgotten that not everything has to do with diet or a supplement. We’ve cured so much in ourselves, and that’s commendable, but where does it end? What perfection are we after? Because I’m pretty sure Paleo folks didn’t have it easy either, what with botflies and tapeworms.

That being said, we do live in a remarkable time. While I can rail against what’s wrong with the world today, there is much that is right. I remember a story my grandmother told me about how back during the Great Depression, her younger sister fell ill. They didn’t know what it was, but my grandmother consulted a forbidden medical book they had on the shelf and figured out she had scarlet fever, now known to be caused by exotoxins given off by Streptococcus pyogenes. My grandmother risked a beating at the hands of her father to tell him that her little sister needed medicine. Due to gasoline rations, their truck wasn’t running, so they had to borrow a neighbor’s to get to the doctor. My great-aunt Betty got some sulfonamides and her life was spared, though she suffered some lingering heart issues. My grandmother also went on to get a nursing degree in her 50s.

Hmm...I see your past and present. And in your future...a bacon burger.

My point with all that is: What if we could harness the best of today with the best of yesterday? It’s possible for us now, but we have to play it smart. This is easier said than done, given the scope of the problem here.

Humans are born seekers. We’re constantly unhappy and uncomfortable, and we won’t stand for it. This time we live in is one of unprecedented control over our surroundings and it’s given us a false sense of control over our own destinies. We forget that medicine is in the dark ages, preferring to believe that it can fix our every problem and whim. We forget that nutrition is not hard science, and even if it were, your great-grandmother probably knew more about it instinctually than any food scientist. We’ve dialed everything in to meet our standards, from climatizing our houses, enslaving our meat sources in CAFOs, prolonging life past the point of usefulness or enjoyability, and having everything we want when we want it shipped from China for cheap. At what point does the seeking become the suffering?

It’s important to remember that we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. I like to imagine what history will think of us in 100, 200, 500, 1000, 1 million years from now. And I laugh. Our own language may not be recognizable in another 400 years. And yet we hold so tightly to these things.

This drive is borne of something deeply human. It’s sad really, because it’s all ultimately futile. The result is always the same. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t fight for quality in every minute of what we have left. We should, but we should do so by getting rid of what doesn’t serve us and we should be extremely critical of what we add on because whatever it is, good or bad, it will require our full attention and take up space that something else could have occupied.

So choose wisely.


4 Responses to “Magical Pill Syndrome (MPS)”

  1. Brilliant.

  2. “This is the illusion that folks who eat crap and try to exercise it off are under: “I can eat all the pizza, chips, candy, cake, and triple-caramel-pumpkin-soy-macchiattos with whipped cream I want as long as I run 10 miles a day.”

    This really struck me, especially now as I try to discard the things that I had to work so g’damn hard for in favour of what seems natural and almost effortless. It should make more people wonder about the purpose behind the things that they do. Would nature/God or whomever you believe in really have made a species that absolutely had to eat every 3 hours in order to thrive? No. Would that entity have made a species that had to carve hours out of their day specifically to run around in circles in order to maintain their health? No. So why should we be proud of ourselves when we use an insanely high output to fix a damaged input? Seems counterproductive to me!

    You say that the magic pill approach is simple compared to the complexity of actually making lasting change. And that’s true because that’s how people perceive going towards what is still an ‘alternative’ manner of living. But those of us who have done it, who have removed the blinders and choose to listen to our bodies instead of our governments and medical practitioners (who are all funded and fund each other so not exactly unbiased in their recommendations) know how simple it really is. There are difficult aspects of choosing to go against the grain (pun intended) but everything slows right down from the constant clatter that most of us live with and the choices present themselves as rather obvious.

    Sorry for the long comment…’s just that I posted on this sort of topic today (not quite as beautifully as you have done here) and it’s been swirling around in my mind.

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful comment!

      I agree with all of your observations. It really is like the Matrix red pill/blue pill, isn’t it? Once you take it, everything changes, and yet everything is the same save our perception of it.

      I agree with you when you said that once you’re over here, it’s easy. For some reason, getting over that fence is the hardest part for most people. That’s why the magic pill is so attractive, because you don’t have to jump any fences and you can continue to ignore what’s on the other side.


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