Sunday marked month 3 of my Paleo(ish) diet experiment. If you want to know more about what the Paleo template is, I highly recommend reading this excellent article on Fitbomb. I would put a ton of Paleo links on my post, but he’s got them all on his. It really is a very well written article. Why Paleo? Very simple. I took up Paleo because my body happens to say NO to the same foods that Paleo says no to. Giving my dietary “choices” a catchy name makes it easier to explain to people and strangely seems to make it more acceptable to them. Why Paleo(ish)? Two reasons. First, because I’m hoping to modify the diet in the next year to include foods that are not technically allowed on the Paleo diet. The second reason is a big one—I do not believe in all the tenets of the Paleo diet.
Is it nutritionally sound? Yes, it absolutely can be if you eat a variety of nutritious whole foods and not just meat (as some people think you’re supposed to). Is it scientifically sound? Sometimes. Depends on what author you read. I’ve read some great, balanced and well researched articles and books, and I’ve also read some works where the author clearly has no understanding of human physiology. It’s important to keep your critical thinking cap on when reading diet information. There’s a lot of BS out there. Is it historically sound? No, I seriously doubt it. Paleo is based on the belief (note, I didn’t say knowledge) that we are genetically adapted to eat a certain way because for millennia our Paleolithic ancestors did so. Proponents believe that humans have not been able to evolve over the last 10,000 years (the Neolithic period after the advent of agriculture) to eat other types of foods such as grains and dairy. Here are a few reasons why I take issue with these ideas:
1. People ate the food that was available in their geographic location. As you can imagine, this would lead to incredibly variable diets all over the world. There cannot be one perfect way to eat for everybody. Also, seasonal diets would require people to eat a diet which potentially varied widely in its macronutrient balance from season to season—sometimes being very protein or fat heavy, and sometimes very starch, veg, and carb heavy. Humans, we’re adaptable.
2. People who know about Paleolithic man, ie anthropologists and archeologists, widely dispute the idea that Paleolithic man didn’t eat grains or starches. There is evidence that goes back well before the 10,000 year mark of Neolithic man. So that kind of chucks that whole grain-free, starch-free theory out the window…
3. If Paleolithic man didn’t eat grain, then why on earth, when people settled down and started farming, did they say, “Hey, I know what we should grow—this stuff that we’ve never eaten before!” That just doesn’t make any kind of sense. Of course they would grow something that was at least somewhat familiar in their diet.
4. Some Paleo diet proponents say that salt should not be used in the diet either, because Paleolithic man most likely did not harvest or mine salt. This might be true, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad for you. There are a lot of studies done to show that it’s not that big a deal if your eating moderate amounts of good salts. Chris Kresser has a great write-up on this.
5. While we can derive some amount of data from looking to the past to see what Paleolithic man ate, we cannot assume that this diet would be our optimal diet. Yes, there are all kinds of lifespan charts and such being used to prove that Paleo man was healthier than the peoples that came in the following agricultural societies, but there are SO MANY factors at play that make oversimplifying this data dangerous—-the effects of living in massively larger population groups, living with animals, more sedentary lifestyles, diet limited by growing conditions… you see my point. Do I think that eating a grain-based diet changed the health of people? Yes. But not necessarily as much initially as in the last 100 years—new research is showing that the grains we’re growing now bear little resemblance to the grains grown even 100 years ago—they now contain more gluten proteins than ever before. Some scientists think this may be the reason for the increasing rates of Celiacs disease and people with gluten intolerances and autoimmune related diseases. The point is, unless someone can prove that Paleolithic man had perfect health, free from disease, and that this can be chiefly attributed to their diet only, I’m not going to romanticize the way people ate 30,000 years ago. They ate that way because that’s what there was to eat. That does not translate into “we’re designed to eat that way”.
I don’t need my dietary lifestyle to have an agenda, and I certainly don’t need it to take on any dogmatic religious zealotry. It’s food. It’s fuel. It should make us feel better, not worse. It would be nice if it were simple, but interaction with other living organisms (ie, eating food) is complex. While it’s tempting to get all earth goddess on this and think that all of Mother Nature’s bounty is wholesome and nourishing, it’s just not true. Just about everything that you eat has both nutrients and toxins. We have livers for a reason. We cook, ferment, cure, and sprout foods for a reason. No food is 100% perfect for us all the time.
So enough of the downside. Here’s why I think Paleo(ish) is a good way to eat:
1. It emphasizes eating fresh, whole, unprocessed foods. On Paleo, there are no junk foods. Not even pretend-healthy junk foods. But a healthy diet is not just taking out the bad stuff. In fact, I would argue that what is added into the diet is even more important that what is taken out of it. There is a lot of evidence to show that many health issues are due to nutrient deficits. Western diets are full of empty calories. On Paleo, you eat very nutrient dense foods. You give your body vitamins and minerals that are often severely lacking in a typical Western diet. Of course you’re going to feel better eating this way!
2. Paleo done right is not a diet. It is a template for a lifelong way to eat healthy.
That’s it! We could go into the whole need for healthy fats, and we could go round and round in circles about animal proteins, but I don’t want to. The reason why I talk about the Paleo template (rather than diet) is because it is incredibly adaptable to your needs. It can be higher protein or higher carb. It can be mostly meat-based or mostly veg-based. There is a lot of room for variations and tweaking to find what makes you feel best. And while a lot of people have done a great job to make it super trendy, complicated, and to make money off of it, at it’s core it is pretty simple. What it really is, is a springboard to better health. At least that’s how I’m choosing to look at it.
The results? I believe that it takes a few months to really start feeling the difference dietary changes can make, good or bad. You can’t know in just a couple weeks if something is working for you or not. Your body needs time to adjust. Here’s my 3 month Paleo low-down:
For the first 2 months on Paleo, I felt mostly better, but I had a lot of digestive issues. It was… disconcerting. I mean, I hadn’t actually changed my diet that much. So I thought. My gut disagreed with this notion. Also, my skin and sinuses got really, really dry. Aside from these two issues, I felt great, so I decided to start reading up on trouble-shooting Paleo issues. Turns out, I was dehydrated and in need of some probiotics.
I’m horrible at drinking enough water. Horrible at it. On my own, I might drink a couple glasses a day. I just rarely feel thirsty. What I’ve learned is that feeling thirsty in your mouth is one of the last signs of thirst that the body has. When I ate a normal diet, my symptoms of dehydration were masked by all my other crappy diet symptoms. Dry skin, dry sinuses, wheeziness and other bronchial symptoms, headaches, stiff muscles, sluggish digestion—all have to do with hydration. On Paleo, I felt good enough to realize that something else was going on. My water intake was too low. As soon as I bumped it up, those symptoms went away. But I really have to drink a lot—a minimum of 2 liters a day (which is a lot to me) to feel good.
The gut issues were related both to the water intake and to a need for beneficial bacteria. I started eating kimchee and sauerkraut and drinking the occasional Good Belly juice, kombucha or KeVita, and all became right in the world. Gut flora, it’s important. Fermented foods are your friend.
I’ve continued dropping weight—I’m down to around 133 lbs now. It’s important to note that I am not restricting my calories at all. I don’t count them, I don’t think about it. I just eat until I’m satisfied. One of the great things about eating Paleo is that the foods you eat tend to be very filling and very satisfying.
Most importantly, I feel great. My energy levels are very stable throughout the day. I feel balanced. I have very few cravings. My autoimmune symptoms are super under control, and I’ve had only 2 mild migraines this whole time, both due to not drinking enough water. This is a big huge deal and goes a long, long way to confirm my suspicions about the links between food intolerances and my health issues. I am still avoiding caffeine almost entirely (a bit of chocolate being the only exception). I’m also avoiding foods high in tyramines, although my worst offenders are knocked off the list by virtue of being Paleo(ish)—aged cheeses, aged and cured meats, soy products, breads, and red wine. Some fruits and vegetables contain tyramine (olives, avocado, pineapple) but they haven’t caused any problems yet. Caffeine and tyramines are major triggers for me.
What’s the plan now? Well, I’ve been hardcore Paleo for 3 months now, and I want to give this another 3 months to establish a firm baseline before I start introducing any foods back into my diet. Based on what I now know of gluten issues and autoimmune disease, I will never eat wheat again. I’m cool with that. But I’d like to be able to reintroduce occasional rice, buckwheat, and oats back into my diet. I’m hesitant, however, because my blood sugar gets all jacked up when I eat grains. Like a rollercoaster. We’ll see. I’d also like to add butter and eventually homemade raw milk yogurt or kefir back into my diet. I think raw milk is good for a body. We’ll wait and see if my body agrees. Finally, I’d like to find out if I really have any issues with lectins or not. It will be interesting to see what happens when I try lentils or chickpeas again. It’s all a big experiment. As long as it keeps working, I’ll keep eating this way. If it stops working, I’ll reassess and tweak.
Another thing I’ve been reading up on is the GAPS diet, and think that this might be in my future at some point, specifically because of my autoimmune issues. The GAPS diet is a very specific temporary diet that is based on the premise that many illnesses stem from gut issues resulting in poor nutrient absorption, leaky gut syndrome, autoimmune issues, and food allergies and intolerances. The point of the diet then is to heal the gut so that eventually a normal healthy diet can be resumed. This is done primarily by removing foods that digest into disaccharides which then feed harmful gut flora. By starving the bad gut flora and also bolstering the good gut flora by taking serious probiotics, you create an environment which allows the gut lining to heal. When the gut lining is healed (which takes a period of 1-2 years), then slowly foods can be reintroduced and digested properly. A lot about this diet makes sense to me. I love that it focuses on nutrient-dense foods. But it is very labor intensive and expensive. We’ll see where I am at the 6 month Paleo mark. If GAPS still seems right then, I think I’ll give it a go.