My Paleo Experience: Magical
It seems that almost daily some new story or study is released that touts the benefit of this or that new ‘magic bullet’ diet. Whether it’s low-carb, low-fat, no-fat, no meat, gluten free, wheat free, grain free, sugar free, caffeine free, or horse free, someone is always promoting the latest and greatest diet that promises to restore health, clear skin, eliminate fat, and improve your sense of humor. In an effort to better understand one such diet, I spent a week living and breathing a strictly Paleo lifestyle and thought it would be fun to share my experience.
But, before we get to the good stuff, it may be beneficial for us to define Paleo and identify a few things that it tries to accomplish. Paleo, short for Paleolithic and synonymous with Ancestral and Primal, emphasizes eating only the highest quality whole, organic, real foods that were available to our ancestors while eliminating the processed and fortified ‘food-like’ items that now form the foundation of the Standard American Diet. It is believed that eating like our forefathers will improve the digestion, assimilation and integration of food nutrients to improve vital immune function (and avoid leaky gut) while helping to maintain ideal blood sugar levels and eliminating the risk associated with consuming ‘toxic’ foods, a.k.a. gastric distress and lifestyle diseases (diabetes, cancer, heart disease). The Paleo diet then builds upon these foundational tenets to take into consideration the unique needs of each individual and provides some guidance on building a nutritional plan that will help us all reach our health and wellness goals.
Paleo means eating foods in the form which nature provides (organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats and wild-caught seafood, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats) in order to better support health, healing and immunity. Also, we must avoid modern, processed, and refined foods (refined and whole grains, packaged snacks, dairy, sugar and sweetened beverages) that may compromise health. For most (including myself) this means eating significantly more animal protein (and the fat that accompanies it) and reducing grains and grain products.
However, the Paleo lifestyle isn’t limited to the food we eat, but also tries to promote healthy eating habits aimed at improving digestion and nutrient assimilation. First, the environment in which we take our meals and ‘preparing’ the body for nourishment is of paramount importance in helping the brain properly promote the digestive process. If we are hurried, physically active or in the midst of some stressful personal or professional event while trying to eat, our sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, is in full swing and will hamper the digestive process. Next, thoroughly chewing our food is important in the mechanical breakdown of our food, which eases the chemical breakdown that takes place in the stomach and small intestines. The chewing motion also initiates the production of digestive enzymes further down the line.
I found that the most reasonable way to observe the first suggestion was to develop a settling in ritual in which I quietly sat in front of my meal for a minute or so to absorb all the sights and smells that it provided. If I tried to sit any longer, I quickly lost focus, became anxious and then hurried through my meal, which opposes the second suggestion to slow down and chew more thoroughly. Speaking of which, during my Paleo experience I discovered that I am simply incapable of slowing down to better chew my food when I am holding my utensils and found it absolutely necessary to set them down in order to prevent myself from mindlessly shoveling more food into my mouth.
Of course eating whole foods and eliminating those that are processed sounds healthy, but is going Paleo a reasonable and sustainable way to improve health? Here’s are a couple of the considerations I had to make when assessing Paleo feasibility:
Cost is often cited as the most limiting factor is adopting this type of lifestyle on a long-term basis. Although, organic, grass-fed, free-range, hormone-free, wild, etc. produce and animal foods are more expensive than the more conventionally raised variety, I have found that the flavor, morality and reported health benefit far outweigh the cost. Also, since the Paleo diet is essentially limited to these supposedly more expensive foods, any price increase is more than offset by what is saved by not purchasing processed foods, dairy, and sugary treats. Also, abstaining or limiting the amount of alcohol and caffeine while eating the majority of our meals at home (which we will discuss shortly) will further improve the cost advantage of living Paleo.
Eating and living Paleo also suggests that the majority of our meals be prepared at home and does require a time commitment that may be an adjustment for most (most being what I would guess to be 90% of the population). Personally, an hour each day was all that was required to make all of my meals and I believe that this amount of time will trend downward as more time is spent on the diet and I became more proficient in planning and preparing Paleo meals. The amount of time spent planning and preparing may be further reduced if cooking is done in batches and leftovers are kept in the freezer until they are ready for consumption.
Now that healthfulness, cost and commitment have been touched upon, lets look at my experience with Paleo.
My Paleo Experience
My personal experience on the Paleo diet was nothing short of magical. But, for those of you who prefer more ‘tangible’ reasons for the reasons why I would suggest Paleo, a review of the advantages and disadvantages may be beneficial.
The gastric distress (gas, bloating and cramping) I typically experience was, for the most part, absent. There were a few periods of bloating, but I discovered that this typically meant my body was ready for a bowel movement and not something that I must accept as a normal occurrence, as was the case with my former diet that had a very heavy grain component. The improvement was most evident after breakfast when I switched from a large bowl of oatmeal with dried fruit to eggs, vegetables and lean sources of protein. Also, my energy level and mood remained fairly consistent throughout the day and I was not as prone to bouts of lethargy, fatigue or irritability. I can only attribute this to a more stabilized blood sugar when I my diet began to emphasize protein and fat over carbs. This improved ability to maintain my energy levels also generated better workouts. I felt that my body was able to maintain higher levels of intensity for longer periods of time and I was better able to recover for the next activity. Finally, on an emotional level, I felt more grounded and engaged with my environment and the people I interact with on a daily basis. I felt more centered in my daily activities and found myself more satisfied by my performance and was more resilient when personal or professional difficulties arose.
The dietary analysis of my Paleo experience was also very promising. First, the quantity and frequency with which I ate dropped fairly significantly as the composition of my meals changed. Increasing my consumption of healthy fats and protein and decreasing my carbohydrate intake proved to improve meal satisfaction and satiety. Next, I was better able to spread my total daily intake across the day by only having to focus on 3 or 4 meals as opposed to the 5 or 6 I ate previously. Also, eating a significant amount of vegetables and animal protein allowed me to far exceed the recommended daily intake of all the essential micronutrients without having to depend upon supplementation, which may lead to vitamin toxicity when observed over an extended period of time. Finally, although this may be a little too much information for some, the quantity and quality of my bowel movements became more consistent and I felt significantly more satisfied with the performance of my digestion and elimination.
Further, breaking my reliance upon canned soups and beans, crackers and breakfast cereals (which I would eat multiple times throughout the day) proved to be the most rewarding outcome of my experiment with Paleo. Overcoming the processed food habit also coincides with the initial adjustment that was required to cook fresh meals, change my eating environment, and slow down to chew more thoroughly. However, once I was able to develop a better ability to plan, prepare and enjoy my meals, the nourishment I received far outweighs any initial inconvenience that was felt.
My Paleo experience proved physically, emotionally and spiritually beneficial. I performed better both at work and in play. I felt more connected to my environment and my peers. And, I developed a stronger bond with my food and my body’s unique needs.
If you have any additional sites, blogs, or people of interest, please post in the comments below. I would love your suggestions!