I “went Paleo” on Oct. 7, 2011.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about that date. I think it was a Friday, and my first Paleo meal was baked chicken breasts, black coffee, and nothing else. (Typical newbie mistake, from what I hear.)
I didn’t know much about the diet when I first dove in. A friend of mine had wanted to use Paleo to lose weight, but she was afraid of trying it alone. I agreed to join her for moral support for one week. At the time I was firmly entrenched in the Jenny Craig program, which, like Weight Watchers before it, had helped me drop a few pounds. I fully intended on going back to my frozen meals and weekly weigh-ins.
My friend lasted four days before reverting to old habits. I, on the other hand, canceled my Jenny membership and can count the past year’s “cheats” on my right hand. (Or left, they’ve both got five fingers.)
WHAT IS PALEO?
Meat, vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, nuts and seeds. That short list pretty much sums up the diet and for months, that was the prescription I used. It seemed so clear-cut. So simple.
I cut out grains (bye-bye whole wheat pasta) and dairy (so long lactose-free skim milk), legumes (sayonara peanut butter) and processed foods (so long, beloved frozen meals), as well as added sugar, alcohol and vegetable oils.
I was eating like a
caveman cavegirl, so to speak, and feeling pretty great.
Except, the more I learned about Paleo, the more I realized there is nothing clear-cut and simple about it. The generally accepted definition didn’t account for all the Paleo subsets* I was encountering online on a near-daily basis.
As I have come to learn, there are “Primal” eaters, who include raw/full-fat dairy in their diets. There are “Ancestral” eaters, who sing the praises of organ meats and fermented foods. There are “Low-Carbers” (and “Very Low-Carbers”), strict “Whole 30-ers” and those who make amazing Paleo-fied versions of non-Paleo foods. Some Paleos follow an autoimmune protocol, and others fast between meals.There are “80/20” Paleo eaters, those who eat Paleo but drink protein shakes, and others who eat Paleo only at lunch and dinner. (Oatmeal is one of the hardest foods to give up.)
The Paleo possibilities are endless, and for many people, the various “versions” of the lifestyle overlap.
Not only did I find all these different kinds of Paleos, I discovered a lot of debate over which is the best way — thereby making it the “Only Way.” But the arguments were more than my small, Neolithic brain could process. Call me dumb, but they just taught me three things:
– There is no best way for everybody.
— The way to find the best way for me is through trial-and-error.
— The best way for me today might not be the best way for me tomorrow, or next year.
In the past year, I’ve done the newbie Paleo thing (lots of chicken breasts, baby carrots, and almonds) and I’ve toyed with IF (6-hour eating window) and low-carb (50g carbs daily).
I’m currently doing a nut-free, coffee-free Whole30, which has evolved into a Whole52 (and counting). I am seriously considering the AI protocol, but not before enjoying some tasty Paleo treats over the holidays. I supplement with organ meats, grassfed ghee, raw sauerkraut and kombucha, and fermented cod liver oil/butter oil. And that’s just food — it doesn’t even touch on the lifestyle changes I’ve made.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that Paleo, for me, is about choice.
Choices that are dictated by nutrient-density and awareness of how certain foods impact me physically and emotionally. My choices don’t necessarily correlate to someone else’s. And if someone’s choices include a weekly cupcake, who am I to judge?
The reason I stuck with Paleo beyond that first week, even after my friend bailed, is because I felt better almost immediately.
I used to get headaches nearly every day and blinding migraines at least twice a month. I used to get stomachaches after nearly every meal. I had terrible seasonal allergies, felt very low energy in the afternoons, and I was hungry. Always. Hungry. Hunger that, if left unchecked, made me feel angry and annoyed and out of control and very Tazmanian devil-like.
This sounds like a laundry list of serious problems, but I never would have classified them as such.
Aches, fatique and hanger were my “normal” because I’d never known any other way. I only realized how much these things had been bothering me when they went away. The alleviation of these symptoms was so sudden, and made me so, so happy, I couldn’t bring myself to go back to eating any other way. (I still have dozens of uneaten Jenny Craig meals in my freezer.)
I am not one of those people who experienced dramatic weight loss or any particular health miracle. As far as doctors were concerned, I was already healthy. I actually gained weight when I started eating Paleo. About 10 lbs. that I attribute to all the nuts I ate in an attempt to maintain my snacky, 6-meals-a-day lifestyle. But once my hunger evened out and I stopped craving snacks, my weight came back down as well.**
People routinely ask me how I keep up the willpower, what my secret is to not feeling deprived given the list of restricted foods. I can’t help but look at them with confusion.
In addition to improving my health, Paleo has given me permission to unabashedly enjoy food and cooking again. I eat more variety now than I ever did before, and I’m so grateful to cook real food from scratch instead of heating up artificial ingredients in the microwave. Good meals aren’t saved for special occasions; if I want a steak, I don’t have to wait for my birthday. I have a choice among delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day. Health and enjoyment — what better motivation is there?
It took me a year to get here, to this point, and I can’t say my “Paleo” transition is complete. I’m still learning about the real food movement and about myself. I can’t wait to see where I am — and what my version of Paleo looks like — one year from now.
* Each and every approach is valid because it works for the person practicing it. Remember: There is no “one and only” way.
** I’m not always happy about my weight (especially considering how much easier pull-ups would be if I just. dropped. 20 lbs), but it is what it is. What it’s not is the ultimate marker of my health.