Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

Practising Reflexivity in Researching Nutrition

Practising Reflexivity in Researching Nutrition

The following is an attempt to explain the reflexive aspect of studying a nutrition community from an ethnographic perspective. It contains discussion of my own diet and perceptions of what is healthy and good to consume, as well as struggles with attempting to maintain detachment from the influence of a school of thought whilst studying it in-depth with few countervailing narratives.

One of the more challenging aspects of researching health and nutrition communities is modulating and attenuating the effects it can have on my own mentality and behaviour. Since I began working through the Paleo literature, I have been making changes to my diet and fitness regimes. Making changes is a regular part of my life, as I learn over time what works for me and attempt to rectify habits that I think may be deleterious. However, attempting to make changes at the same time as reading a large amount of literature on Paleo, all of which takes a broadly similar viewpoint, gives fairly rhetorically compelling arguments and is backed up with too much scientific literature to possibly wade through, makes it more difficult to remain a detached observer. I have noticed that in my daily life, I have made an effort to cut out some of the foods that Paleo gurus consider to be unhealthy, particularly bread and other kinds of grains.

I came in to this project from a fairly sceptical perspective, not giving a huge amount of credence to a lot of the claims made by Paleo gurus and community members. To find myself in a position where I feel compelled to make changes to my own diet based on what I have been reading has been difficult, because it feels as though I am making these changes based on logical conclusions I have derived from the literature and empirical evidence I have garnered from trying things for myself. At the same time, however, I am acutely conscious of the potential for creating personal bias in the way that I deal with the knowledge claims made by community members. I am uncertain as to whether there is an easy, completely effective solution to this problem; however, simply being aware of it and noting it in my writing is likely a good way to temper any potential harms. Moreover, given that I am working from a position of epistemic relativism, it seems reasonable to simply frame the claims I make within my writing in the form “Paleo adherents appear to ascribe authority based on x metric”, divorcing those claims from any form of value judgement. Whilst this cannot be completely effective (all statements within discourse are, after all, thick statements to some degree), it should be a sufficient remedy for the short and medium-term.

Further obstacles: extrinsic factors

Significantly, it is difficult to separate out the changes in mentality and habits inculcated by a familiarity with the Paleo literature and those caused by external factors. I wrote the previous two paragraphs in the week of the 17th-21st April, at a time when I had quite recently begun what is referred to in fitness and bodybuilding circles as a "cut". This entails trying to manipulate one's food intake and training regime so as to effectively "burn off" fat tissue whilst leaving muscle untouched. In my case, I weighed in at 91.3kg at the end of March, and wanted to get down to 85kg. At the time of writing, 14th May 2017, I weigh 87.4kg (or rather, I did when I got out of bed this morning and did my daily weigh-in on a set of bathroom scales). One of the particularly difficult parts of a cut is that they can be periods of significant mental exertion, because it is necessary to maintain a consistent caloric deficit. This entails not only resisting the urge to consume food in too large a quantity, or foods that are calorically dense; it also requires the adherent not to consume too little, because doing so may result in muscle and strength loss, as well as extreme fatigue and emotional and mental exhaustion.

A graph of my weight from March-April 2017

A graph of my weight from March-April 2017


Paleo offered me - as it has many other would-be Adonis’s - a solution. A significant proportion of Paleo texts (both those that advertise themselves within the genre and those which are regularly read by enthusiasts) spent a large amount of time outlining a model of human weight-gain. This system promotes insulin as a keystone: a hormone that promotes the sequestration of fatty acids in cells, which shifts a person's metabolism towards burning primarily glucose, and the regulation of which through a strict diet can yield almost miraculous dividends (Taubes, 2008). Stories abound of individuals who have begun on Paleo, or its close cousin the ketogenic diet, and who have not only lost large quantities of fat through carbohydrate manipulation, but have managed to do so in an extremely short time, sustainably, and with minimal difficulty.

In his talk "The Weight of Things Lost", Kaiton Williams, a PhD researcher who focusses on the Quantified Self movement, explains that he entered his current field of study in part because '"All I Wanted Was a Flat Stomach and Six-Pack Abs". It was this, more than any high-minded investigation into technology, or a community, or our practices, that got me started and kept me going' (Ramirez, 2014). In contrast, my own decision to research nutrition was motivated in part by a recognition that I already casually engaged in fitness practices, and had at least a passing interest in the science that underpins metabolism and the process of athletic (and aesthetic) improvement. The fact that my research into Paleo would then circle back around and change my practices did not occur to me at the beginning of this project, but it has become significant in the months since.

Specifically, I found within the Paleo texts I was reading what appeared to be solid scientific evidence for the idea that consuming fewer carbohydrates and more fats, whilst maintaining an adequate level of protein intake, might be a short-cut to my goals. Given that cutting as a process is not always pleasant, this seemed an excellent prospect. The idea was that I would cut down my carbohydrate intake to under a hundred grams per day - a ballpark figure given by Mark Sisson in "The Primal Blueprint" - and in doing so speed up weight loss by reducing the level of insulin in my system, thereby resulting in a lowered level of sequestration of fatty acids and hence a greater propensity to burn these as fuel in the absence of available blood glucose (Sisson, 2012). In addition, conventional wisdom within the Paleo community is that fats aid satiety[1] and so replacing a greater proportion of one's calories with fats as opposed to carbohydrates should result in a lessening of the pangs of hunger often associated with the calorie restriction endured whilst cutting[2].

The resulting effects were profound. I lost several kilos within two weeks, but there was no way to tell whether this was actual fat loss, brought on by the caloric deficit and carbohydrate depletion I was experiencing, or whether it was "water weight", fluid excretions freed up by metabolic processes hinging on carbohydrate consumption. In addition, I found that I could go without food for significant periods of time without feeling overly hungry, and meals left me feeling full and satisfied. However, I also experienced extreme fatigue, "brain fog" and mental and emotional exhaustion. There was a brief period where I was asleep for more hours of the day than I was awake, and I was still tired even then. It became incredibly difficult to maintain my regular schedule of work, let alone attempt to maintain some semblance of a social life. It became too much to maintain, and on the advice of loved ones I began to increase my consumption of carbohydrates, even breaking with my pseudo-Paleo lifestyle and once again consuming grains avidly as a form of sustenance. The results were almost immediate: I was able to function physically again, and I was no longer miserable for the majority of the time.

Why does this matter?

There are three things that merit this rather lengthy exposition of my own dietary habits. First, it's important to understand what kinds of explanations I find myself to be persuaded by, both as a matter of bias-attenuation - by knowing our susceptibilities, we can seek to keep account of them - and in order to better understand the mechanisms by which different explanations can push us to delegate our authority to an institution like Paleo. Second, it seems increasingly likely that it is impossible to completely mitigate reflexivity in an ethnographic study of a community based on nutrition. Third, the effects I experienced whilst attempting to adhere to a diet that was (in part) Paleo and low-carb are extremely common amongst those trying out these kinds of diets, but my response was not necessarily typical. This, then, is worth examining in order to understand how the Paleo community manages to retain its acolyte members past the stage at which I found myself unable to continue.

The kinds of explanations I myself found appealing within these books were not those that appealed to genetic determinism, or to a utopian conception of a hunter-gatherer past; rather, they were the explanations that hinged on biochemical jargon and required at least a moderate amount of knowledge of human physiology in order to be able to conceptualise. It is notable that Paleo texts and communities - particularly those that are based online, due to the pseudo-public nature of most internet discourse - are often attempting to appeal to more than one audience at a time (even if they are geared primarily toward, say, a popular science or self-help demographic) (Baym, 2015: 71). Consequently, it is advantageous to the would-be guru to appeal to multiple forms of explanation: evolutionary, scientific, common-sense, experience-based, and so on. Those who are indifferent towards one kind of explanation may be swayed decisively by another[3].

For my own benefit, and the integrity of my research, it is worth bearing in mind that I am likely to be somewhat credulous towards explanations that have the hallmarks of the scientific: those that are backed up by citations (even if I do not have the time or inclination to read them, or even check what the numbers correspond to in the bibliography); that incorporate a modicum of scepticism, circumspection and nuance into their claims; and that make appeals to biochemical phenomena rather than relying upon more common-sense understandings of human health and the natural world.

It also appears from my own experience (though I would be deeply wary of generalising to all researchers) that it may not be particularly easy for the social researcher to detach themselves from their subject matter in the context of nutrition in particular. One might respond, with mild incredulity, "What's so special about nutrition?" On face, they would be correct to do so - there doesn't appear to be anything unique to this field that means that the social scientist must pay extra caution. I would posit that the primary difference is that food intake - and the choices that go along with it - is near universal. It is impossible to move through the world without being confronted daily by the necessity of making choices of consumption.

It would be odd for a student of environmental consumption practices not to consider how their research might change the way they negotiated, say, recycling. Likewise, it seems naïve in retrospect to have thought that in undertaking a three-year project which necessitated a deep immersion in the life and language of one community, with no strong countervailing narrative to theirs, I would be immune or at least impervious to the influence of the arguments made. The budding ethnographer of nutrition communities may wish to bear this in mind, as they too will likely feel the mental (and potentially physical) effects of their subject choice, and this in turn will bleed into their analysis of the form-of-life they are supposed to be impartially analysing.

Finally, it's worth noting that the symptoms I experienced when cutting out carbs were far from unique to me: instead, they're endemic enough within low-carb diets (or diets that are often low-carb) that they have a name. In the ketogenic diet, the symptoms are collectively known as the "keto flu"[4] and in Paleo the "low-carb flu”[5]. Switching from one kind of diet to another and immediately experiencing a crash in energy levels and various other symptoms could be considered off-putting, and it certainly was to me. It is notable, then, that there are often articles directed at newcomers that explain that "this is normal" (but also that "you may also feel awesome right away; that's normal too"). The articles often promise that the symptoms will be temporary and that the dieter will find themselves feeling healthier and more energetic than ever after a couple of weeks, and that they just need to persist in order to reap the rewards. Articles directed at more technically or scientifically-minded audiences will detail the process of switching the body's primary metabolic reaction from glycolysis (burning carbohydrates) to beta oxidation (burning fatty acids)[6].

There are numerous practical tips for dealing with problems encountered in switching: "a gradual reduction in carbohydrates can be easier on your thyroid than going cold turkey" (suggesting an alternative if the all-in approach doesn't work); "If the foggy/cranky/exhausted feeling goes on longer than 2 weeks, check out the “Food and Nutrition” section below to make sure you’re not making a rookie mistake like starving yourself of fat" (because the solution to the diet not working correctly is to continue to adhere to it and alter the details, rather than to switch away); and so on. The point here is that the solution given by Paleo forums and books is invariably to alter one's approach to Paleo: there is never any credence given to the idea that Paleo itself might be at fault. The paradigm is set, and problems are solved within it.


[1] https://paleoleap.com/dietary-fat-and-satiety/

[2] This is, notably, a factor in many people's attempts to experiment with and adhere to diets. Quite often a "crash" dieter will lose several kilograms within a matter of days or weeks, and this may cause them to persist with the diet for longer, even if progress later on is slow. Alternately, they may find that they cannot keep going after the initial loss, either because of the state of fatigue it can render them into, or because the plateau after the first week or two means that they feel that it is "not working" anymore. Which outcome is more likely is undoubtedly multifactorial in its desiderata.

[3] This does not account for cases in which individuals might be put off by the use of one kind of explanation, though there are linguistic frames which can be used to hedge one's bets as an author in order to minimise the chances of this happening. For example, one might write, after an explanation that appealed to evolution or genetic determinism, "But even if you don't subscribe to all that evolution stuff, the fact is that this diet just works".

[4] http://elowcarbfoodlist.org/the-keto-flu-symptoms-and-relief/

[5] https://www.reddit.com/r/Paleo/comments/1u11cc/sticky_newbies_start_here/

[6] http://www.gnolls.org/1984/the-science-behind-the-low-carb-flu-and-how-to-regain-your-metabolic-flexibility/


Baym, N.K., 2015. Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 2 edition. ed. Polity, Malden, MA.

Ramirez, E., 2014. Kaiton Williams on the Weight of Things Lost. Quantified Self.

Sisson, M., 2012. The Primal Blueprint: Reprogramme your genes for effortless weight loss, vibrant health and boundless energy. Vermilion, London.

Taubes, G., 2008. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, Reprint edition. ed. Anchor Books, New York.

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