By Telisha Bryan, May 2015
Women’s Health reprint
I’d had a severe case of the blahs for a few months. My insomnia was getting worse, every month I got a pimple in the same spot smack-dab in the middle of my left cheek, and those last five pounds I wanted to lose had slowly turned into those last 10 pounds I wanted to lose. Overall, I felt gross, and I needed to do something drastic to break out of my slump. But what?
In search of inspiration, I turned to the source of all my recent life decisions: Pinterest. I scrolled past the myriad “ways to be a thrifty country bride” pins and found a link to a 30-day Paleo challenge.
I’d heard that Paleo meant eating like a T-Rex or something, but that was the extent of my knowledge. The blog included recipes and exercise videos, though, and seemed fairly easy to follow. I knew that I would slack if I tried to do the challenge on my own—because TV and snacks—so I asked my friend/boss Anne if she would like to try it with me (how could I possibly cheat on my diet if I had to check in every day with the person responsible for my paychecks?). She did, but she suggested that we turn things up a notch by going Paleo for Lent, the solemn 40-day period before Easter when many Christians make sacrifices, often food-based ones in the form of fasting—you know, when your normally burger-loving Catholic friends eat fast-food fish sandwiches on Fridays because they gave up red meat.
Though there are many approaches to going Paleo (often called the caveman diet) and not all experts agree on the same guidelines, typically it means cutting out some carbohydrates and all refined sugars, grains, legumes, and dairy, as well as meats containing added hormones and antibiotics and processed foods containing preservatives. Instead, you chow down on the nutrient-dense foods our primitive ancestors would have hunted and gathered back in the day. While it may sound fairly straightforward, there are a few things I wish I had known before I started the journey.
1. Lots of Meals and Snacks You Used to Think of as Healthy Are Off-Limits
I used to regularly eat peanut butter and jelly on whole-wheat bread as a quick, nutritious breakfast. After I started Paleo, though, every part of that sandwich was verboten—yes, even the peanut butter since peanuts are technically legumes. Soy (also a legume!) was out, too, so I had to forget about stopping for a coffee in the morning and patting myself on the back for requesting soymilk instead of regular (not to mention that coffee minus sugar equals a thumbs-down emoji for me). And I definitely couldn’t have edamame appetizers at my favorite sushi place—as a matter of fact, I had to skip sushi altogether because eating only sashimi with no soy sauce seemed kind of sad (rice is banned). No more corn (a starchy grain) meant no more tortilla chips—which, okay, I shouldn’t have been surprised about, but it’s my favorite food, and I had told myself certain lies about their healthiness. I decided that if I had to go through life without chips, I’d at least need a drink, so I kept wine on my menu (in moderation, of course).
2. You Might Feel Sick at the Beginning
By my third day of eating Paleo, I had a headache that would not go away. I felt super nauseated, and I didn’t want to eat or drink anything.
“Whenever you drastically change your diet, your body’s going to react,” says Alexandra Caspero, R.D., a dietitian in Sacramento. “Your body has to get used to a new way of eating.” Anne, who had previously completed the Whole30 program, told me that because I’d abruptly slashed my intake of carbohydrates, I probably had “the low-carb flu.” Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, says a lack of the good-for-you glucose that carbs provide can cause nausea and headaches. “It’s a little bit of a shock to the system because you’re taking away the fuel that you’re used to,” she says. Caspero adds that people can feel similar withdrawal-type symptoms after cutting back on caffeine or refined sugar in general. I had to snap out of my no-carb-zone mentality to get my swagger back. Then, in walked the sweet potato…
3. Sweet Potatoes Will Become Your BFFL
Like many people, I had been led to believe that all carbs were evil. So when I decided to cut them from my diet, I showed no mercy. Fact is, humans actually need carbs for energy. “All carbohydrates are converted into sugar in the body,” says Kirkpatrick. “You need that fuel, but you want to get it from the right sources.” The difference between the carbs you should be filling up on and the ones you should minimize your intake of is that the former contain fiber, which aides in their digestion, keeps your insulin from spiking, and helps you feel full. An unpeeled apple, for example, is a carb filled with soluble fiber, says Kirkpatrick, while a treat like ice cream is a carb, yes, but one that’s lacking in the fiber department. “The less carbohydrates have been processed, the better,” says Caspero, adding that fruits and vegetables are healthful carbs, while we should nix “concentrated sources of sweetness,” like soda, cookies, and cake. In my opinion, the yummiest “good carb” by far is the sweet potato—even Oprah loves them.
So to get over my “flu,” I tried out a bunch of delicious sweet potato recipes and gradually realized I’d been wasting my time dating rice and pasta when I could have settled down with sweet potatoes years ago. If this root vegetable just isn’t your jam, maybe you can get all turnt over butternut squash or something. But finding a go-to carb filled with fiber will make Paleo a lot easier on you (and your poor stomach!).
4. You Might Have to Stop Tracking Calories
I’ve been tracking my calories on My Fitness Pal on and off for about two years. When I started to do Paleo, I logged back on as an additional way to keep an eye on my nutrition. Once I really got the hang of the diet, my meals became more filling and more satisfying. A lunch of half an avocado cut up and wrapped in slices of nitrate-free roasted turkey breast kept me full hours longer than my typical leftover-pasta lunches ever did. As a result, I didn’t need to eat as much or as often to get through the day. There were a few times when My Fitness Pal warned me that I wasn’t consuming enough calories.
The thing is, I felt great, not hungry. Kirkpatrick speculates that this lack of hunger was probably a symptom of ketosis, when the body burns fat for energy instead of carbs. And Caspero explains, “The benefit of eating less-processed, nutrient-dense foods is that the calories in them aren’t going to be that high.” (Side note: MFP also regularly warned me that I was eating way too much fat, but Paleo’s increased protein consumption often comes with a side of fat. Besides, “fat is not the enemy,” says Caspero.) It made me rethink our national obsession with counting calories over what exactly we’re putting in our mouths. “It’s more important to get quality calories than to focus on one specific number,” says Kirkpatrick.
5. It’s Super Time-Consuming
Most people go into Paleo well aware that their grocery bills will jump at least a little bit since organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed, antibiotic-free meats typically cost more. But I wish I had known that Paleo would take up so much of my time. This lifestyle is not for those addicted to grab-and-go foods. Since takeout is usually not an option for people strictly sticking to the plan (even if you find a restaurant that claims to use only organic ingredients, you can’t be sure they cook everything in Paleo-friendly oils, like olive oil), there’s a lot of meal prep involved, especially for dinner. Not gonna lie: I wasn’t always excited to start roasting a chicken after a long day of work.
On my darkest days, I wondered if the staff at my favorite Chinese carryout place were worried by my disappearance. (If you’re reading this, Jade Garden guys, I’m okay—promise.) Along those lines…
6. You’ll Start Eating Before You Meet Friends for Dinner
March Madness was in full swing right in the thick of my Paleo journey, and my team was (briefly) in the mix. Group game watches at a local bar required me to pretend to be unfazed as pulled pork sandwiches, fried pickles, and beer after delicious-smelling beer crossed the table.
But I didn’t just struggle at game watches. As I mentioned above, it’s hard to vet a Paleo-friendly restaurant. So not wanting to be That Girl, I always went along with whatever place my dinner companions wanted, then tried to pick something from the general menu. More than once, I forgot before ordering that most restaurants drown their house salad in cheese, even if cheese isn’t mentioned on the menu. More than once, I endured a bland burger suffering from a serious lack of oomph without ketchup and a bun. One (not the brightest) waitress even told me she could not “accommodate” my request for a lettuce “bun”…despite the fact that I had also ordered a side salad, so they clearly had lettuce in the kitchen. To avoid disappointment, I’d often eat before meeting friends and then act like I was fine nursing just a glass of white wine as they stuffed their stupid, annoying faces. (If any of my friends out there are reading this, I’m of course just kidding. Kind of).
7. You Won’t Be Able to Shut Up About It
I’d love to tell you that the entire time I was on my cavewoman journey, I was bright-eyed and enthusiastic. I’d love to tell you that, more in tune with nature, I did yoga on some sun-soaked rooftop every morning and handed strangers daisies on the street. But there were times when I was downright crankypants. I vividly remember texting Anne that I was so beyond over it when the Paleo chocolate cake I whipped up from a recipe I found on Pinterest turned out to be an insult to both chocolate and cake. At first, I would vent to anyone who would listen about how difficult my new eating plan was. But as I started feeling better physically, I couldn’t stop singing Paleo’s praises. Even with the annoying parts, Paleo is still the best decision I’ve made in a long time. I’d fall asleep within five minutes of my head hitting the pillow, that pesky pimple stayed gone, and I dropped six pounds. I no longer felt sluggish the way I did when most of my meals included processed carbs, dairy, or packaged foods. And I wanted my friends to know, too—whether they asked or not. Most said they were worried Paleo was too restrictive and boring to try themselves. “I could never live without cheese” is something I heard over and over. It was nice to help dispel some of the myths. For example, I love cheese, too, but it wasn’t making me feel good at all, so I broke up with it—and it really wasn’t even that hard.
Now that Lent is over, I’ve decided to eat Paleo at least 75 percent of the time. It would be awesome to still be hardcore about it, but it’s too difficult to maintain in social situations, and I am (#humblebrag) quite the social butterfly. Plus, I have to believe that our ancestors would have washed down their brontosaurus steaks with beer if they could have, so I’m totally honoring their memory by hoisting a few on their behalf now.
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