That’s me on the left in September of 2010, deadlifting 145 pounds (about 65kg). And there’s me on the right just a few days ago, pulling 320 pounds (145kg). A lot can change in five years.
That’s how long it’s been since I started this Paleo way of eating. In that time, my career and sport of choice have changed, I launched this website, I wrote two books about Paleo nutrition (one comes out next week), and I’ve learned a ton about life. I’ve made a boatload of mistakes, but I’ve had a lot of successes, too.
Probably the most profound thing I’ve experienced is how Paleo’s morphed from a very strict yes / no list to something that’s 100% sustainable as a way of life. It’s how I live my every day, and it’s something I plan to keep doing…no end date in sight. No quick fix. No “lose seven pounds in seven days” mentality. No.
Instead, my goals are to be healthy, happy and harder to kill. (Not necessarily in that order.)
I “went Paleo” on January 10, 2010, a full year and a half before this blog existed. (Fun fact: I was writing and sharing recipes on my old blog far before that. Friends told me I should just make a food blog. True story.) I used to race mountain bikes, and two good friends of mine were talking about Paleo. It sounded crazy to me, but I read about it and decided to give it a try. So, I had my holiday fun and on 01-10-10, I started.
How I eat today has definitely evolved. The lessons I’ve learned from five years of experimentation and tweaking are innumerable, so I’ve picked just the top five things to share with you. They’re nuggets I wish to pass along to you and to anyone getting started with—or veteran to—Paleo.
You could also call this post, “Don’t Make the Same Silly Mistakes I Did,” but even with the most sage advice, there’s nothing like experiential learning. To paraphrase 37 Signals in their book Rework, “Mistakes are feedback.” They’re like data that we can use to adjust course. How freaking cool is that?
Anyhow, here are a few of the top 5 paleo lessons I’ve learned in the past five years.
Lesson #1: Perfection is NOT the name of the game.
I get it. When you first get started, there’s a delicate balance to be struck between staying true to the plan versus backstroking across an endless sea of donuts. And for some of us, the line between those seems about a millimeter wide.
Maybe you’re worried that you’ll slip up forever and end up in some Twilight Zone version of a Betty Crocker nightmare, unable to escape a vortex of treats sucking you in. Maybe you’re trying really hard to exercise willpower instead of changing the mental framework you have around nutrition and adjusting your habits correspondingly. Eventually it peters out and leaves you exhausted, reaching for the phone to order takeout again.
So in order to “stay on track” you pour every ounce of energy into being perfect. You try to stick stringently to a yes / no list of food for a very long period of time. You berate yourself or feel guilty when you deviate from the list. You judge your self-worth on how perfectly you’re eating. [Note: I am not referring to folks like Celiacs who need to avoid gluten at all costs, people doing short-term plans like Whole30, or those trying to manage autoimmune conditions through dietary intervention.]
How do I know what this is like? It used to be me.
I was really concerned with sticking to the yes / no list of foods I found in a book. What resulted was me not eating the foods I needed to support my goals. Specifically, I was too low carb as an athlete who was training upwards of 20 hours a week. I wasn’t eating enough protein. I could ride for hours, but I was weak as a baby. The only thing that saved me from messed up menstrual cycles was being on birth control pills. While my health was a lot better compared to when I wasn’t eating Paleo, I was missing out on my body’s own signals and what I needed to be healthier because I was so hell-bent on sticking to a list.
Don’t be like me.
Use a yes / no list as a basic framework to get started, but realize it’s a guideline. You will have to tweak that framework as your health and goals change. You will go off-plan at some point. You are not a bad, stupid, weak person because of it. You are a human living life in the real world, not in a bubble. Being stressed about your diet is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
If you root the vast majority of what you’re eating in meat, seafood, eggs; veggies and fruits; and healthy fats and do that long-term, that’s where the magic happens. Discipline and perfection are not the same thing. Make sense?
Take-away action: Change your mindset from, “I’m on a diet where I’m restricted and have to give up all the foods I liked,” to, “I’m choosing delicious foods that are nourishing me from the inside out.” Create new habits to support your mindset change, such as devoting time on Sunday to prep food for the week ahead. Learn how foods actually affect you personally and adjust your framework from there. (For more on that, see Lesson #2.)
Lesson #2: Learn how foods actually affect YOU.
Taking the first lesson a bit further, sticking strictly to a list of yes / no foods you read in a book or on a website without peeking under your own “hood” first is like driving a car with your eyes closed. For that reason, I highly recommend doing a Whole30 or other elimination protocol, like the one listed in The Paleo Solution, before you really dive in.
You’ll get a pretty accurate picture of how different foods affect you—for the better or worse—and decide which, if any foods, to avoid for the long-term.
My mistake was not doing an elimination protocol until a full 18 months after I went Paleo. Turns out, I don’t do so well with things like gluten-free oats and most dairy, things I had suspected but didn’t really confirm until after my Whole30 was over. I also had a raging sweet tooth. It was only after Whole30 that I began to break the vicious cycle of sugar addiction that still had a hold on me. (I could eat a whole bag of Trader Joe’s dried mango in about 3 minutes flat. Some of you know what I’m talking about.)
More importantly, you’ll find out how your body is supposed to feel—stable energy, good moods, healthy digestion, better sleep, etc.—when you take out all the processed, overly sugary, nutrient poor, inflammatory foods that are abundant in the Standard American Diet. You’ll give yourself time for annoyances to begin healing as you remove the foods that kept them around.
Often, feeling better is the best motivation to keep going.
The thing is, you have to follow these protocols as written. When you modify them to suit your whims, you can’t expect to get the full benefit. When you don’t really change behaviors in order to form new habits, you set yourself up for regression and “falling off the wagon.”
Nobody wants to be stuck in an endless cycle of unrestricted indulgence followed by the ever-present challenge or detox. It’s a binge-and-restrict dressed up in a different package, and it’s really common in this community.
On the contrary, when you truly make mindful change, learn about how foods affect you and nourish yourself with nutrient-dense food, you set yourself up long-term success. It’s easier to navigate a world full of cakes and sweets when you know that 1) though they may taste good, they make you feel terrible or 2) you’ll have it every once in a great while as a real “treat” then be back to your regularly scheduled program of nutritious food.
Also, you may be stuffing your face with tomatoes and peppers only to find that they make your autoimmune condition worse. Or, perhaps a snack of jerky and kombucha puts your histamine levels over the top and you break out in a skin rash. For some people, foods widely encouraged in a Paleo way of eating just don’t work.
It’s an even greater argument for paying attention to the biofeedback our own bodies give us.
Take-away action: Schedule a 30-day elimination program toward the beginning of when you “go Paleo.” Write brief notes about what you eliminated and how it made you feel. At first you may feel terrible. But if you stick with it for a week or two, you should start to feel so. much. better. Then, reintroduce any foods you want (following the program rules) and note your reactions, both physical and mental. Use this information to make adjustments to your basic Paleo framework.
Lesson #3: Paleo crap food is still crap food, just less crappy.
I’m gonna come out and say the unpopular thing: Paleo junk food is still junk food.
Remember when I said I was addicted to sugar even after going Paleo? I was baking a lot, making cookies and other sweets on a pretty regular basis (usually a few times a week). Like a positive feedback loop from hell, my cravings for it only got worse. “But it’s made from Paleo ingredients,” I told myself. “I’m not even eating it every day!”
It may not be made with the same gluten-containing flour or the devil of all sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, but even if it’s made if your kitchen, it’s still dessert. These treats are usually very high in fat and even with “natural” sweeteners, still spike blood sugar.
Should you be expected to never have another piece of birthday cake for the rest of your life? No. Is a gluten-free, homemade, HFCS-free treat a better choice? Probably. Are these foods good choices for regular consumption? No.
And sometimes, I think you should just eat the damn donut / cookie / cake / bread instead of the (let’s be honest) often unsatisfying recreation. I wrote an article all about that last year that ruffled some feathers. It’s worth a read.
We eat, on average, 21 meals a week. That’s almost two dozen opportunities to fill our bellies with nutrient-dense foods that energize us at the cellular level and influence virtually every aspect of our health status. What we choose a majority of the time over a long period of time is what matters most.
One last thing: The ingredients for Paleo-fied junk foods are often quite expensive and really don’t provide the same nutrient density as the staples. If you’re on a budget for time and / or money, skip the baking and treats.
Take-away action: Save treats for special occasions. (Just because it’s a day that ends in “y” doesn’t qualify.) That way, they don’t become a regular feature of your diet. If you crave junk food because of stress, create new habits and responses to the situations that set you off. Jerkface boss giving you a hard time? Bills got you constantly worried? Instead of going to the kitchen, meditate for 10 minutes, take a walk or go take a warm shower. Be honest with yourself about your junk food intake (Paleo or otherwise).
Look for Part 2—and some thoughts about where I’m going from here—soon!