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I recently tried the Paleo diet. It didn’t work out for me and I'm going to tell you why. But first: a little background.
I was once a “professional dieter”: back in my late teens and twenties, I completely messed up my health because I desperately wanted to be thin. After I got better by following a holistic protocol featuring nourishing whole foods, I became passionate about the power of proper nutrition. I went on to pursue a degree in naturopathic medicine.
Because of my personal experience, I always advocate a balanced-and never restrictive-approach to eating well for myself (and others). For a number of years, I've been writing a blog devoted to fad-free nutrition and recipes featuring real, whole foods, and I just finished writing a book that’s jam-packed with information about how to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s worth noting that the first (and perhaps the most important!) chapter in my book is about NOT dieting.
I started to get interested in Paleo when I was writing my book. I was doing a ton of research into different dietary approaches and Paleo really made a lot of sense to me. (After all, Paleo is described as a lifestyle, not a diet.) Though I was already eating very little sugar and gluten (and had been eating this way for some time), I wondered if I’d be better off if I gave them up altogether. After reading Rob Wolf’s book The Paleo Solution, I decided to give a strictly Paleo diet a try. (This meant I’d be eating no sugar, and grains, but and also no legumes, or dairy).
I did not last long.
Shortly after “going Paleo,” my appetite pretty much disappeared. I wasn’t hungry for meals and I didn’t really look forward to eating. I usually love cooking, but cooking on Paleo, it wasn’t fun for me. (It felt like work.) For all these reasons, I was not eating enough food.
I didn’t sleep well when I was eating Paleo, and I didn’t have my typical high energy level when I was working out. (I do Crossfit 4 to 5 times per week). I was compelled to weigh myself a lot more than usual (meaning: more than never).
I felt anxious and depressed.
I wasn’t restricting calories or fat, but the Paleo way of eating is by nature very restrictive, simply because so many foods are no-no’s. Paleo proponents are, of course, free to call it a lifestyle, but I felt like I was on a diet and that is all that matters.
It took less than a week for me to decide that Paleo and I did not make a good team. To “celebrate” the decision not to eat Paleo anymore, I baked a gluten-and-sugar-filled cake and I ate a big slice. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier or felt healthier than after I ate that cake.
When I discussed my “Paleo fail” with several friends who are experienced with that style of eating, they all told me I simply didn’t stick with it for long enough. They said it was common to have period of feeling “bad” before you start feeling “good” when you go Paleo, similar to if you embarked on any sort of “detox.” They said my body just needed to adjust to eating fewer carbohydrates and less sugar but that I’d have come out better for it if I’d kept going.
But I don’t buy it. I know my body well enough to know that Paleo wasn’t right for me.
It's not at all my intention to bash those of you who are Paleo. If it works for you, then I think that's great. I understand it can be quite beneficial for people with autoimmune problems and other inflammatory conditions. I love the emphasis on eating whole, nutrient-dense foods. I follow many Paleo blogs and have some Paleo cookbooks whose recipes I love. (I do worry about people who use Paleo to maintain their weight, though, because if they’re doing that, then they're on a diet. And I hate diets.)
But being Paleo doesn’t work for me; I don’t have any health issues. And I don’t have any food allergies or sensitivities (at least none that I am aware of) so completely avoiding whole food groups really makes no sense in my case. I appreciate there are probably many people out there who say they eat Paleo, but just don’t follow it 100%.
Yeah, I could do that, but why would I? I cannot currently think of one compelling reason to go through my life categorizing foods as “good” or “bad” simply because somebody decided our ancestors may have eaten them or not. I don’t eat a ton of them, but I do enjoy legumes. And I love my raw milk. I simply do not believe avoiding these would make me healthier. And you know what? There are actually some really compelling reasons to include plenty of carbs and some sugar in your diet: not doing so can negatively affect your metabolism.
I will always encourage people to eat a high quality diet replete with real, whole foods and I am all for dietary experimentation if it helps you figure out what foods are best for you. If you have celiac disease or a life-threatening food allergy, then you absolutely must stay away from the gluten (or whatever food you are allergic to).
And by all means, if you find that you react negatively to one or more foods, then it can be helpful to stay away from them while you heal your digestion (so that you may someday eat them again).
But I don’t believe you need to permanently adopt any form of dietary extremism to be healthy. (And I also believe there’s much more to good health than diet: lots of sleep, proper management of stress, and moving your body enough are all important, as are many other lifestyle habits).
Your body needs a wide variety of foods to function optimally. When you restrict things such as calories, carbs, gluten, cooked foods, fats, animal foods, sugar, or something else in the name of your health (or in order to lose weight) for a long time, it’s quite possible you will end up in a less healthy place than where you were when you started.
And even if practicing some form of dietary extremism does make your body “healthier,” it may mess with your mind, and that’s not healthy. If you frequently experience anxiety or guilt because you're always worrying about whether or not your food is healthy enough (or if your diet is socially isolating), then I strongly suggest you find a more inclusive way to eat.
With the explosion of information about diet and health in books and on the web in recent years, it’s really easy to feel like maybe you’re eating the “wrong” way…that the perfect diet is out there and you just need to find it. But if you are like me—you eat real food and you are free of health issues—I urge you to steer clear of any particular dietary ideology. For every piece of writing (popular or scientific) that praises an approach such as Paleo or veganism, or any other way to eat for that matter, I promise you there’s one or more that refutes its benefits. I know this because I read about this stuff every single day.
Since my problematic dabble in Paleo, I’ve come to a realization: I want more—not fewer—foods on my plate and in my life! And I want to enjoy my food, not stress out about it!
So I am back more or less where I started before I went down the Paleo rabbit hole. I am back to a varied, balanced diet of real food, one that includes all sorts of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Eating for health is all well and good, but I want more than health, don’t you?
I want happiness. And a little more gluten-and-sugar-filled cake.