This past Sunday marked the 1 year point for my paleo experiment. I would say “Woot!”, but since I see this as my new norm and plan on eating this way forever, it would be a little silly. Like giving a cheer after brushing your teeth or making your bed. Well, if I ever made my bed, I might actually give a cheer, so that’s a bad example. Lol. My mother would weep if she read that. She did teach me better, but I rebel. And digress.
Clearly I like this Paleo thing a whole lot. It’s pretty amazing and has been instrumental in turning my health around. Today I just want to hit on the key points I’ve learned while eating Paleo this last year:
1. The cleaner your diet, the stronger your body’s reactions when you stray. It seems a little counter-intuitive. You’d think that by giving your body a break from highly processed, sugar-laden, additive-filled, inflammation causing, gut destroying foods, you would help strengthen your system so that it could better tolerate the occasional powdered donut or bag of peanut M & Ms. But it doesn’t work that way. Turns out your body likes feeling good, and when you put bad fuel into the tank, it is more than happy to let you know you done wrong. And punish you for it. With joint pain, edema, bloating, headaches, breakouts, hives, sinus congestion, wheezing, diarrhea, constipation, and all manner of gassiness. The body is fantastically creative with the myriad ways it can hate a bagel. If you’re going to stray from the path, better make sure it’s for the best meal of your life. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.
2. Sugar. If this year taught me anything, it is to pay attention to one’s sugar intake. It effects everything from energy levels to immune functioning to gut flora. It seems so innocent, but sugar really, really, really is completely and utterly responsible for so very much of ALL THE BAD happening in your body. Did you see how many unnecessary modifiers I used to emphasize this? Here’s the thing: I have a monster sweet tooth. This sweet tooth, unlike what many Paleo gurus promised, has not gone away in my year of very strict Paleo eating. So learning to live with this whole sugar issue is important to me (and to the happiness of everyone around me). I have to find a balance. What I’ve learned through many much reading is that fructose in particular is the form that is harmful. And although sugar intake should be moderated no matter what kind you’re ingesting, some forms are better than others. But always, always in moderation. If you read point #1 above, you’ve probably guessed already that the cleaner you’re diet, the more moderate your body’s idea of moderation. So, what was a moderate amount of sugar intake in the first few months of my Paleo diet is now too much, and I’m wrestling with tapering off my sweet binges even more. Wish me luck.
3. Legumes. They really do mess with the gut. Lectin. Who knew? When I started Paleo, this was the one category that I had a hard time believing was actually causing any problems. I was skeptical. I grew up eating rice and beans like most people in the States grow up eating mac n’ cheese. But I was good, and I cut out legumes completely for the first 6 months. Then I reintroduced peanuts back into my diet. And then chickpeas (in the form of hummus). I had my mom’s rice and beans once as a treat, and I ate some Korean gochujang (soy based) a handful of times in the last month or so. And you know what? Although legumes are delicious, they are hell on my system. I never would have suspected any of this if I hadn’t tested it on myself. And so we refer back to point #1 yet again. I’m not saying I’ll never eat them again, but it will be a rare treat for sure.
4. Macronutrient needs are changeable. Fat especially was incredibly important in helping maintain my body temperature in cold weather—-and as a person with hypothyroidism, this can be so hard to do. In recent years, I’ve worn long johns under my clothes from October to May. But this year, I was really happy to have made it through winter with more cold tolerance than I’ve had in years. I stayed warm, which is really saying a lot. And I learned at the 6 month mark that unlike the rest of the dairy food group, butter causes no problems for me whatsoever. That is reason for a WOOT! if ever there was one. I have a good understanding now that protein is the core food for giving the body long-lasting, stable energy. It’s common knowledge, I know. But it’s one thing to read it and another thing entirely to experience it. But what was most interesting to me was finding the right balance of carb intake. No matter what anybody says, Paleo is not meant to be another low-carb Atkins diet. Carbs are important. Sweet potatoes are great for boosting carb intake—just be careful not to base your diet entirely on carbs rather than greens, veg, and protein. Your waistline will tell you quickly if you’re overdoing it. Lol.
5. Water. I’m going to state the bleeding obvious now: The body doesn’t work right when it’s not properly hydrated. What is not bleeding obvious is exactly how much water intake is necessary to be properly hydrated and just how quickly the body gives signals that it needs water when intake has been inadequate. Signals that have nothing to do with thirst. You have to pay attention. Again, as mentioned in point #1, the ways that this translates in the body are many and varied. The subtle symptoms of low-level dehydration are much more noticeable after you’ve started to feel better in general. After all, when you ache all the time, what’s one more discomfort? But when you feel good, it’s much easier to pinpoint the cause of dis-ease. There was a time when I would have considered being so sensitive to everything as a weakness, but now I see it as a really amazing, fine-tuned diagnostic skill. It’s very cool to be that in tune with your own body. It is useful—but only if you listen to it.
6. Exercise. Bring the ass, and the mind will follow. My mantra. Moving around is crucial to health and well-being—both physical and mental. It is absolutely one of the most fundamental aspects of the Paleo template. You can eat the cleanest diet ever, but if you don’t use your body—-if you don’t move it and lift heavy things and run and play—-you will never achieve true wellness. I also learned that if you don’t maintain regular exercise, the body reverts back to it’s old ways very, very quickly. If you take a week off, prepare to hurt a little when you get back to it. If you do like I did, and get all anxious and depressed and don’t exercise for, oh, 4 months, prepare to basically start over from scratch. Especially if you are on the far end of your 30’s. Ahem.
7. Greens. You need ’em. By the bale. Paleo diets can vary a lot—some people eat tons of meat, some only eat fish, some are near vegetarian. But the one thing that needs to be a dietary focus no matter how you eat Paleo is the intake of a wide variety of dark, leafy greens. Greens are nutritionally dense and supply vitamins, minerals, and fiber that you’re just not going to get with any other foods. I crave them. I daydream about grazing on kale. It’s a little (or a lot) weird, but I think it’s my body’s way of making sure I get all my micronutrients. Clever brain. Which brings us to…
8. The gut is the second brain. If it doesn’t work right, not much else in your body will work at it’s best either. And it absolutely effects mood and thought patterns. So, if you want to be healthy and happy, you gotta have a healthy gut. Everything I’ve been reading points to the fact that excess sugar in the diet feeds harmful bacteria in the gut. This negative balance of intestinal flora not only messes with basic digestive habits, but it often leads to inflammation of the intestinal lining, and therefore an inability to properly absorb nutrients and to uptake serotonin. It can also lead to leaky gut syndrome which is a big deal if you have any autoimmune issues like I do, because it causes further negative autoimmune responses and inflammation in the body. I think the importance of this point cannot be stressed enough. The gut is the key.
9. Keeping it simple. The further I go on this journey, the simpler I want my food. Fresh ingredients prepared with as little fuss as possible. That’s what I crave. I don’t know if it’s a psychological thing or a physical thing or both. But it has been a persistent theme this year. With the exception of the occasional paleo brownies, I’m not interested in recreating “normal” food with Paleo versions. First of all, I don’t like cooking that much. Second of all, a lot of those recipes (much like in the raw food diet) are really nut-heavy, and it’s just not very good for you to eat that many nuts. I do think, in part, that it’s helpful to eat simply when having to weed out food intolerances—not only from a practical standpoint, but also because it is tiring to spend so much time thinking about what you can or can’t eat. Keeping things simple in the kitchen allow you to get on with your life outside of your food allergy/intolerance issues. It feels really good to just get on with it.
10. Fine tuning. Your body’s needs change frequently, and it’s important to listen and respond accordingly to those needs. What works in the winter probably won’t be good in the summer. You might find yourself craving foods as they naturally come into season, but not want them otherwise. That was me with apples this fall. Normally, they make me feel sick, but this fall I couldn’t get enough of them. I figure it might have had more than a little to do with the fact that they were in season locally. As long as you listen to your body and respond accordingly, it all balances out. Most importantly, let your body—not a dietary dogma—be your guide.
Future plans? I still hope to experiment with some raw, cultured dairy. I miss yogurt. Strangely enough, I also miss oats. A lot. I’ve been reading about raw, sprouted oats, and I wonder how I’d respond… Worth an experiment, yes? Aside from these two things, I’m pretty happy. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything at all. My main goal now is to lower my sugar (by which I mean honey) intake, eat simpler, more nutrient dense foods, make my own fermented/probiotic foods, drink more water, and buy a kettlebell. A good plan.
Here’s to health, healing, and having the guts to heal your guts. :D It is so worth it.