As some of you who have been following me for a while know, I used to be "the paleo girl".
Not title-wise but I offered heaps of different paleo programs, went to all the paleo seminars and loved paleo food. I banished beans, I criminalised grains and I loathed legumes. Peanut butter, a once favourite food was then on the "do not eat" list along with other favourites such as oats, bread and pasta.
When I look back at the time when I was paleo, I realise a couple things.
1. Paleo food is delicious and I felt great physically.
2. Paleo was too restrictive for me and triggered a cycle of problematic eating from my past.
I may not make friends in the paleo community with this post but I want you to know that it is not an attack of the paleo diet. There are so many pros for so many people and I want to share those with you. But for some of us, paleo, while a fantastic template, can become obsessive, restrictive and not so great for our overall health depending on how consuming and restrictive we allow it to become.
I can still remember the first time I came across a 30 day paleo type diet. It was encouraging fresh whole foods, quality proteins, fermented foods, nutrient dense foods etc. YES! I kept reading and scrolled over the "Do Not Eat" list, which included legumes, beans, grains, and dairy. I remember being appalled and found it all laughable! Really?! These are the cornerstones of many healthy diets! I dismissed it for a couple months and I am really not sure at one point it started to "all make sense" but eventually it became the one and only route to health for me.
So, I gave up all those nasty non-paleo foods and shouted to the rooftop about how it was "real food only" and how grains, beans dairy and the likes were the opposite. I preached how I was eating ancestrally by eating the foods my ancestors ate and yes, I felt very very good physically. But my mental health was an entirely different story altogether. It was also never enough, the bar kept getting set higher and my health started to worsen.
SO, what are the pros of going paleo? As I said earlier – there really are heaps and I still follow a predominantly paleo diet. Let me explain.
Pros: 1. Firstly the mantra of the paleo diet is to eat only real food. This means whole, nourishing foods from the earth. plants, animals and some seeds. (though this to me is where it gets a bit murky). This idea of eating as our ancestors did and loading up on nutrient dense, plant-based foods is phenomenal and I believe a framework that will suit us all. As I said, it's one that I follow myself! I eat seasonally as often as possible, I eat loads of veggies and fresh eggs and love adding fermented foods such as sauerkraut and coconut water kefir to my diet. Also contrary to popular belief, Paleo is about heaps of veggies – not heaps of meat, which could mean swapping grains for cauliflower or kumara toast, which is absolutely delicious, and a win in my books.
2. Another great thing about the paleo diet is that it will naturally reduce a number of processed carbs from our diet. We would no longer have boxed cereals, crappy muesli bars and budget bread. This in itself will limit sugars and help people to enjoy more balanced blood sugar levels so - great!
3. For those people who have serious food intolerances or allergies – paleo can be great as there is no dairy or wheat (two common allergens). Also for some people with health concerns, a paleo way of eating which encourages heaps of fresh veggies can help to minimise the symptoms of many conditions and make you feel a whole lot better. Just check in with a trusted doctor or nutritionist before doing so!
4. Most people who follow a paleo protocol advocate buying meat that has bean allowed to live and eat its natural diet. They encourage ethical meats, pasture raised meat and are generally against factory farming and battery cages. I LOVE this about paleo, but as we know we don't have to be paleo to advocate for these things, it's just one of its appealing features. It advocates eating traditional style and encourages us to become more connected to the earth and the beings on it. Yay!
5. Lastly, paleo food is DELICIOUS!! I love Paleo food, it's fresh and energising and paleo brownies are freaking amazing. It encourages fresh herbs and spices and abundant flavours.
Because of all these reasons I continue to follow a lot of these guidelines and believe wholeheartedly in them. But for many of us, there is a dark side and a grey area that may not always be ideal.
Cons: 1. No matter what anyone tells you about the Paleo Diet. It is still that. A diet. They will try to tell you it is just eating healthy and eating real food, but anything that tells you, that you can never have your favourite foods is a diet. Research tells us that many of us struggle with diets (that's why the diet industry makes over 60 billion a year) and we often gain back the weight we lost once we decide it no longer suits us for whatever reason. I advocate a non-diet approach to health because if it is not sustainable, enjoyable or satisfying it is not something we will be able to enjoy long-term and more times than not we gain more weight than we initially lost.
2. I don't like rules. I used to. I used to love people telling me what to eat "Just tell me what to eat!" I would say. I immersed myself in diet books looking for the holy grail of health. I realise now that rules ruined my relationship with food. It ruined my natural ability to truly listen to my body. Also, when we set rules around food (or anything for that matter) and we break the rule – we generally follow a eat- repent – repeat cycle, which can lead to long-term problematic eating. I've been there, you follow a diet to the T then one day the cravings become unbearable and you "give in". Following this, you feel incredibly guilty and repent – by swearing you'll get back to it the next day. Or, on the other end, you might say screw it, I blew it, I might as well just keep eating crap. Does this serve you? I'm going to say no, it certainly didn't serve me.
3. Another negative of the paleo diet is that it encourages black and white thinking about food and health. It labels certain foods as good and others as bad. This includes processed foods but also adds in foods that might have once been really good for us and are now labelled otherwise. A couple months ago, I had a lovely lady come to my office who was extremely stressed. She confided in me that she had forgotten how to eat. She used to love a bowl of porridge in the mornings but had read that it was bad and was so confused that she now resorted to toast Because she was so conflicted, she had given up completely. For me, an older woman telling me she had forgotten how to eat was one of several "Ah-ha" moments for me and was one of many catalysts that led me to where I am now.
4. There are far too many grey areas for me. Paleo advocates eating only real food. But there lies the confusion – people's definitions of real food vary from culture to culture and person to person. Imagine telling someone in Japan that white rice is not real food. Another example of a grey area to me is that paleo states that grains are bad because they are grass seeds and seeds have phytic acid. They will then tell you that nuts are great, even though they are seeds and to soak them to remove the phytic acid. Wait what? Can't we just soak all seeds and see how we feel? Can't we ferment and prepare our foods traditionally as our ancestors used to do? Why is one seed better than the other when they contain equal amounts of anti-nutrients and sometimes more?
The other grey area in the paleo world is that of processed foods. A lot of bread is out for paleo people, but Paleo bread is just fine. You can't have brownies – but you can have paleo brownies. No pancakes but paleo pancakes are ok. Is one processed food any better than the other? Is one any less processed than the other? In some cases, yes, but I hope you can see how this can create confusion (at least it does for me!).
5. It doesn't consider Bio-Individuality: One of the key concepts during my nutrition training was that of Bio-Individuality that essentially means that one diet does not work for everyone. If for example you eat a bowl of oats in the morning and feel amazing. It satiates you, it gives you energy, and you enjoy it, why are we letting someone tell us that it is bad?
6. It robs us of our natural intuitive ability to listen to your body. This is probably the biggest tragedy of all. I feel really sad when I look back at myself and realise how incredibly mixed up I had become. I overate, I ate when I wasn't hungry, I ate for emotional reasons and I relied on someone else to tell me what I should eat for my own unique body - but it was ok! It was Paleo! When we are born we know when we're hungry and when we're not. We don't eat if our bellies are full. We would continue this into childhood if our parents allow us to. Many are able to continue this as an adult (most men I know can) but I also believe that many have lost this innate ability to listen to our own hunger cues and know which foods serve us and which don't. We are eating for so many reasons other than hunger and letting people we don't even know tell us what's right for us. Being able to eat intuitively is the ultimate 'cave-man diet'. You are the only person who knows what's right for your unique body. Experiment, try new things, enjoy variety. If you eat paleo and feel amazing physically, emotionally, harmoniously then there is no harm. But if every other day you're craving a few oats or a slice of homemade bread… then you may need some modifications. And that is OK.