3. I gave it a go for one month. 30 days.
There are entire books on this, so please bear with me as I try to thoroughly (yet briefly as possible!) explain the diet, my own experience, and my thoughts going forward.
What is the paleo diet?
The "paleo diet", aka "caveman diet", is essentially eating meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fresh fruits, and nature's fats (nuts, seeds, healthful oils). What you reduce or eliminate is: grains, legumes, and (depending on who you ask) dairy. It's fairly simple, until you go to the supermarket and learn that these items are in every processed item out there, even when it seems like it should be grain-free. The focus with paleo is mostly on proteins (lots of meat, say) and vegetables. A few nuts, a few fruits. Also, note that beef should be grass-fed and poultry free-range and organic, as they would be if we didn't domesticate them and mess with their diets and hormones.
Really, it's about sticking to the basics. Fine by me; the more real food, the better!
Why would I eat this way?
The paleo lifestyle is meant to imitate the diet, fitness, and sleep regimens that our ancestors in the paleolithic era followed, before the advent of agriculture. Because our DNA has changed so little (1%) in these millions of years over which our food systems were drastically modified, the main idea is that our body is genetically designed to process certain types of foods--those most natural, nature-given foods. Thus, our bodies thrive on paleolithic-era foods. Paleo followers consume those foods available to hunter-gatherer societies to prevent and reverse diseases that have arisen, arguably, from the modern, Western diet. These foods, brought about by man during the neolithic era and beyond, are seen as gut irritants, allergens... generally harmful to our bodies. Paleo eating has been reported to have many benefits, such easing chronic disease symptoms, aiding digestion, reducing risk for heart disease and metabolic syndrome (diabetes), boosting energy, and improving athletic performance.
Whether you believe that is reason enough to go back to ancient ways, the research does show that the human condition can vastly improve by following a so-called "paleo" eating style. See Loren Cordain's research, or refer to Robb Wolf's compilation for many more studies and links. They both also have books available for purchase. (Or borrow them from the library like I did!)
(I'm also about to start the book Wheat Belly, which probably has even more on this, particularly the wheat/gluten issue. I'm excited.) (...I'm a nutrition dork.)
How do I go about this?
There are many guides and resources on the web to help you figure out what to eat, but if you stick to meat, fish, eggs, vegetables (not including legumes--beans, peanuts, etc), fruit, oils, nuts, seeds... then you should be on track. Check out Robb Wolf's meal plans based on personal goals for an idea of what you should be eating. His shopping list is also helpful, as are many, many books. Browse Amazon or B&N and you'll see all the Paleo guides and cookbooks. You can also google "Paleo Recipes" and a zillion hits will come up. Try Cave Girl Eats, Nom Nom Paleo, Caveman Strong, and Paleo Food for starters. Balanced Bites also offers several free downloadable paleo guides.
SO that's a very, very brief rundown of what this is all about, in its simplest form. Now, onto...
My Personal Experience:
It all started when I was in Aruba and decided my eats for the week would not include wheat. I immediately noticed an improvement in both my digestion and my hand eczema! Traveling and abrupt weather changes usually irritate these two things, so I attributed the positive change to ditching wheat/gluten. You can read that report here.
Taking it a step further, I decided to try out the Paleo way of eating I'd been reading up on. It would be a month-long experiment to see if I noticed any of the other benefits touted by Paleo-followers. After clearing all grains and legumes out of the kitchen, the month began. At first, it was pretty easy. We all know I love vegetables and fish, and I kept my daily Greek yogurt in the mix as breakfast or dessert. It wasn't very tough living off of foods I already ate and loved.
The real challenge lay in preparation. Plus, it was pretty expensive. Recall that I'm a pescetarian, so I eat fish but no meat. I did, however, buy grass-fed beef and organic chicken for my family, and it's not cheap. Plus, eating this way meant little to no processed foods, and so everything had to be prepared ahead of time. I came to rely heavily on nuts and fruit as my snacks, because it was easy to just eat raw, as is, with peeling as the maximum effort exerted. I did a lot of almond-flour baking, experimenting with muffins, cookies, and sandwich bread. Overall, the food wasn't bad; it just took time, thought, and effort to make balanced meals happen. If I kept this up longer, I'd probably adjust and it would get easier. Plus, there are SO MANY SHOPPING AND RECIPE RESOURCES out there that I did not take enough advantage of.
For on-the-go snacks (since processed stuff was out), I often packed an apple, baby carrots, or almonds. A few times while traveling I brought along a Nakd Bar or LaraBar, which are technically paleo-approved, even though paleolithic gatherers never picked from a LaraBar Tree.
Check out what I ate in some throwback WIAW posts from March: Greens and Paleo. A few more examples:
|plenty of colorful salads|
|almond-flour pumpkin muffins|
|baked salmon with veggies|
(most of my meals looked like this!)
Really, just balanced meals consisting of a protein, lotsa veggies, occasional starch, and olive oil.
Plus desserts... another teaser for the apple crisp:
I want to cook it again before I post the recipe. Ya know, just to make sure I got all the steps down pat... Because it can be really complicated to slice apples, mix them in gooey cinnamony goodness, and bake them...
I did eat out on two or three occasions, and in those cases I ordered things I knew would have nothing off-plan except maybe being cooked in corn oil or something. Generally I stuck to salads, fish, eggs. Or, when I dined at Westville...
Note that this is not carb-free. It may be starch-free, with the exception of a few starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, butternut squash?), but there are plenty of carbohydrates in vegetables, fruit, and nuts.
- Digestion stayed smooth, as noticed in the beginning. This was GREAT. This remains my main motivation to keep it up.
- 2 weeks in, I started to really miss sandwiches, quinoa, pasta, etc., even though I was eating plenty of delicious foods. But you get used to it, really. Now I don't crave these items very much at all.
- Energy was up in the beginning, and dipped about 3 weeks in. I felt sluggish and cranky for about a week before that feeling went away.
- Although many followers do lose weight, I did not. However, I don't really need to lose more than 5 or 10 lbs--weight that probably stayed on because I was eating so many fruits and nuts. (Fruit can be high in sugar and calories, and nuts are high in healthy fats, so also very calorie-dense.) I also already ate tons of vegetables and fish and so didn't change my diet THAT drastically.
- However, some of my bread-eating companions who joined me in the 30-day challenge DID lose significant weight (along with hundreds of other Paleo dieters), so if you're looking to lose weight, it is probably/definitely worth trying.
- Still, the impetus behind the paleo lifestyle is HEALTH. If you're at an unhealthy weight, this may help, but paleo is meant to not only make you look better, but also feel and perform your best.
- Hand eczema stayed away the entire month! After I re-introduced glutenous foods after the month was up, I started noticing the bumps and cracks again, so I think the connection is there. I'm going to eliminate gluten (but not all grains) for the next week or two or confirm my suspicion that gluten is the cause.
Overall: success. This was the first time I ever committed to eating a particular way for a set amount of time. It helped that I had the support of family and friends.
Now... I'm not sure. At this time, I do believe and agree with a lot of what I'm reading and learning about the paleo lifestyle, and I'm pleased with its effects on my digestion and skin. Really, whether or not grains and dairy are evil, I can't imagine anything being wrong about a diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, oil, and nuts. (What could be healthier??). Plus, all my listening (podcasts 1 and 2) and reading (books, blogs) is convincing me that grains, legumes, and most forms of dairy really might be anti-nutritious. Along with the research (biochemistry, lectins, receptor-inhibitors, gut permeability, blahblahblah), there are also hundreds, if not thousands, of positive (and borderline miraculous) testimonials.
Going forward, I'll aim to eat mostly this way at home, integrating a few other grains (quinoa, rice) into the mix, but avoiding the real dangers like gluten and processed Western-diet foods. When dining at restaurants or at someone's guest, I'll loosen up and enjoy what's served. I think that sounds like a fair balance for now. (Even Cordain in The Paleo Answer supports the 85/15 rule! This means 85% compliance, allowing 3 non-paleo meals per week.)
My Recommendation? What any paleo-pro will tell you is to give it a try: do an elimination diet, an then re-integrate foods one at a time to see if they irritate your body at all. The key is to really be sensitive and conscious of changes in your body in connection with foods you eat. When you learn how your body reacts, you can make more informed choices about what you consume.
NOTE: Paleo is to be seen as a lifestyle (as it was the human lifestyle for thousands of years) rather than a "quick fix." The benefits seen from this diet will fade quickly if you treat it as a fad. Since reintroducing grains, I've already noticed a digestion slowdown! Guess I'd better get back on the wagon...
FYI: There are deeper levels of paleo living that I didn't really go into, involving the ratios of certain nutrients and foods, having certain foods like starches (sweet potatoes) and fruit only after working out, stress reduction, and a greater emphasis on quality sleep in a pitch-dark room. It's also linked to CrossFit, but I stuck to my regular workouts because I don't belong to a 'box.' In March, I focused only on safe vs. harmful foods. Perhaps I'd see even greater benefits or changes in body composition if I explored these other dimensions. I'll keep collecting information and maybe give it another go. For now, I'm keeping these lessons in mind when making food choices.
COMING UP: If you're interested in talking more about Paleo eating, there happens to be a Twitter Chat this Wednesday 4/18 at 9pm EST: #PaleoChat hosted by Kerri O Fitviews. She also has her own FAQ page about the paleo diet.
Have you ever tried paleo eating? Do you continue to stick with it? What inspired you to take on that lifestyle? What are your thoughts? Suggestions? I'd love to hear (and share!) your story!
If not, would you consider it now? This is a big one, but if you're up for it, I dare you to consider trying a week or 30 days to see how it affects you. Or maybe pick just one food to start with and see if you notice a difference. At the very least, keep your eyes on "paleo," because this rising star is likely to stick around a long time.