A Nutrition Coach Tries the Paleo Diet (and Why You Should, Too!)
In June of 2020, I decided to go paleo.
I remember my friend asking me, "Why are you doing this, exactly?"
My reasons were many. I'll get into those later. But, now that it's been nine months since I made this change, I thought I'd share a little about my paleo journey.
What Is the Paleo Diet, Anyway?
First things first - the paleo diet is not really a diet. It's what I like to call a food lifestyle.
Of course the term "diet" *can* refer broadly to one's eating habits, whether or not one
is consciously "dieting," so in that sense, yes, paleo is a diet. What I mean, though is that paleo has nothing to do with weight loss, calorie- or macro-counting, or quick fixes, and, unlike many fad diets, it's an eating style that can be sustained long-term. You *might* lose weight on the paleo diet, but that's not its primary focus.
Sometimes referred to as a primal or ancestral diet, the paleo diet is so-called because some people believe it to be similar to what our paleolithic ancestors probably ate - lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and animal protein.
People have a wide variety of reasons and motivations for going paleo, but the basic tenets of the diet are as follows:
Humans should eat whole foods that are easily recognized and processed by the body. Many of the "foods" on supermarket shelves today are highly processed, synthetic, and laden with chemicals (yes, it's true). The human body - whether we're talking about that of our paleolithic ancestors or our own - does not know how to process this stuff. On the paleo diet, you consume foods that honor your millennia-old human biology.
Foods that are rich in nutrients, especially proteins and healthy fats.
Stability of blood sugar.
Thus, the paleo diet generally excludes:
Grains. Yes, even whole grains.
Legumes, including peanuts, soybeans, and any soy-derived products.
Refined or highly-processed sugars. That means cane sugar, agave, and high fructose corn syrup are out, as well as artificial sweeteners like Splenda, etc.
The paleo diet is NOT:
A low-calorie diet. You eat plenty of fats and protein, which are both calorie-dense.
A low-carb diet - or at least, it doesn't have to be. Just because you've cut grains and refined sugars doesn't mean their aren't other (read: healthier) carb options available to you.
Why I Did It
When I first heard of the paleo diet over a decade ago, it seemed to be something very
cultish and overly-restrictive that only CrossFit-ers and other elite athletes did.
Over the years, however, I heard story after story about people with health conditions - autoimmune disorders, digestive issues, autism and ADHD, and many others - that were either eliminated, significantly mitigated, or sent into remission with the help of a paleo diet. Danielle Walker is just one example - you can read her story here. The more I studied nutrition - particularly the effects of sugar on the body - and the more I read about the paleo diet, the more I was convinced of its principles.
As for myself, I'd been (unintentionally) inching my way toward this food lifestyle for years. I adopted a "clean eating" diet in my mid-twenties, eliminating things like soda and many packaged foods and limiting carb-heavy grains like bread and pasta; in the spring of 2017, I cut sugar and lactose due to acid reflux and other digestive issues. In the fall of 2019, I gave up gluten; and in December of 2019, my husband and I went low-FODMAP, a tricky elimination diet designed to help heal the gut.
Initially, I felt better on the low-FODMAP diet - probably for the first two months. After a while, though, I started to notice issues every time I ate "gluten-free" grains, including
rice and oats. By spring of 2020, I wasn't feeling all that great. I felt I finally needed to make the leap and cut grains altogether, at least for a while. In June 2020, I finally took the plunge.
What I Experienced
I began to notice changes within days of starting a paleo diet. One of the first things I noticed?
Carb flu is real. I hadn't even been eating many starchy carbs to begin with (remember, I was already eating gluten- and sugar-free), but my body still went into sugar withdrawal a day or two after cutting them! For about 24 hours, I legit felt like I'd come down with a mild flu. This goes to show just how addictive sugar and carbs are.
After that passed, however, it didn't take long for the positive changes to manifest. The most immediate ones were:
My brain fog went away. I didn't even realize how much brain fog I had until it was gone.
I had waaaaay more energy. Like, tons more.
I had more muscle tone, without changing a thing about my workouts.
I lost some body fat, at least initially.
My skin became clearer.
I stopped getting frequent, random headaches.
My stomach no longer felt randomly irritated and my digestion gradually became more regular.
Because I'd cut all those carb-y fillers, I had to eat more of the good stuff to make up for it. I was hungry a lot at first, because I wasn't used to eating soooo many vegetables or larger servings of protein. But after I made that mental adjustment, I ate lots of the good stuff - freely, and without worrying about calorie counts.
Nine months later, here are some additional observations:
I no longer worry about what's in my food. There is almost no need to read labels anymore. Rather than restrictive, I find it freeing.
I've gained *some* weight - probably 5-7 pounds or so. Like I said, paleo is NOT a low-calorie diet. If anything, though, I feel like I've filled out to an even healthier weight now.
I really and truly believe that, for most people, nutritionally-deficient carbs and sugars - not fats - are the true cause of weight gain (not to mention a whole host of other issues). If eating fats caused weight gain, I'd have put on a gazillion pounds in the past nine months. And I haven't.
I've become more attuned to my body's true hunger signals. By eliminating addictive foods that we tend to crave when we're stressed, sad, bored, or whatever (hiiiii, pandemic life), I was able to learn what it felt like when I was *actually* hungry, and eat accordingly.
Will I Do This Forever?
The short answer? I don't know yet.
But I suspect that, even if I choose to deviate from this lifestyle from time to time, it's a baseline I will always return to.
Because of the pandemic, I haven't vacationed, eaten out, or gone to any social gatherings with food since making the switch to paleo. I'm no stranger to navigating dietary restrictions in these settings, but I've never done it trying to avoid grains or dairy altogether. If I end up having to ease my restrictions a bit when I'm next travelling or in a restaurant, I'm okay with that. Since I know how my body might react, I also know the measures to take to help it reset, if need be.
For now, though, I'm content to keep on with my dairy-free, grain-free, sugar-free lifestyle. I feel good.
How Do I Know if Paleo Is for Me?
No one diet is for everyone. However, I think that most people have nothing to lose by trying a diet similar to this one, even if just temporarily. Does that mean you have to go full-on paleo, or eat this way for the rest of your life? Not necessarily. But if you:
Want to ditch the processed, sugary foods in your diet;
Increase your consumption of whole foods;
Lower inflammation in your body;
Increase your energy and decrease brain fog;
Improve your digestion;
Balance your hormones;
Support your immune and nervous systems;
Eat more intuitively, listening to and honoring your body's signals;
Say goodbye to fad diets forever and maintain a healthy weight without calorie-counting;
...a paleo diet can help with all of that. I'm not saying it will cure every issue that you have - wellness is holistic, after all, which means addressing more than just your diet - but how you fuel your body has a huge impact on your quality of life.
"But Ellen," you say, "you're a nutrition coach and have studied this stuff! I've never tried anything like this before. How the heck am *I* supposed to get started?!"
That's where I can help you, friend. We wellness coaches are here to support and guide you through hard things - including food lifestyle changes.
In my Food Lifestyle Program, we address diet holistically, in a way that fosters an empowerment mindset about food - not one of deprivation, guilt, or confusion. I do not thrust a specific "diet" on anyone - it's all about what finding what works for YOU. No matter what that is, I have the experience, the know-how, and the resources to help you get started, and will offer support, guidance, and accountability along the way.
If you're ready, I encourage you to book your free Discovery Call today! Let's get you on the path to better, total wellness.