For a few years, I ate a very “strict paleo” diet.
It consisted of fish, eggs, meats, vegetables, and coconut oil.
I rarely ate fruits or starches. I never ate out at restaurants or at friends’ homes. I never touched a processed snack like a handful of potato chips. I never drank alcohol.
I most certainly never ate bread.
Now, it isn’t to say that that was entirely a bad thing. My diet was perfectly healthy…. in a way.
Nowadays, however, I eat much more flexibly. I’ll have a handful of chips. I’ll drink a glass of wine. I’ll have a Halloween candy or two. If a particularly tasty looking cake is being served in the dining hall, I’ll have a bite of my friend’s. I don’t go overboard and I certainly don’t stock my pantry with these sorts of foods, but when they come my way, I let them.
And it works for me.
Back when I ate strict paleo, I wasn’t doing particularly well, physically or mentally. If only I knew some things I do now, I might have saved myself a lot heartache and pain. Here’s a list of 5 crucial things I wish I knew when I ate strict paleo:
1. You don’t have to be paleo 100% of the time to get the nutrients you need
Paleo is an incredibly nutrient-dense diet. If you eat the awesome paleo staples like pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed beef, organ meats, wild-caught fish, leafy greens, a rainbow of other vegetables, and starches and fruits on a regular basis, you are most likely supremely well-nourished.
Having a meal that is less densely-packed with nutrients, such as some sort of mac-n-cheese or chicken-fried rice, will not make you nutrient deficient, I promise. Most nutrients last in the body for quite some time, and the most important ones, like vitamin A and D, can be stored in the liver for several months.
2. If you don’t have leaky gut or an autoimmune disease, you can eat grains occassionally without the world ending
The whole paleo diet world is a bit doomsday-esque about grains.
One experience of mine demonstrates this quite vividly: I was at a “famous” paleo person’s house during a paleo event, and the home was full of big-time paleo names. Just about everyone there was drinking tequila and “paleo margarita’s”, and some were even smoking cigars. During the after-dinner conversation I casually mentioned that I had had a bowl of Raisin Bran cereal the week before. Everyone gasped in horror.
Grains I believe need to be handled with care. For people who struggle with gut issues, who have an autoimmune disease, or who are trying to manage systemc inflammation, I think avoiding grains 100% is a must. I really, truly do. Many people need to eliminate grains altogether.
For the rest of us, I think it may be wise to err on the side of caution. I personally am not sure how I feel about the “toxicity” level of grains. To that end, I like to play is safe, and to generally avoid grains.
I also know that grains are not high quality food. They don’t really have all that much nutrition in them, and the nutrients that they do have can quite easily be cancelled out by their high phytonutrient content. Phytonutrients bind with “real” nutrients and flush them out of the body, such that they can actually be said to “steal” your nutrients from you.
However: grains can also be eaten by people without particular grain-sensitive issues without the world ending. If you don’t have an autoimmune disease, a cracker here or there, or a piece of cake at your friend’s wedding, probably won’t destroy your health. Grains are not optimal but they are not poison.
(For most people.)
If I had recognized this back in the day, I wouldn’t have been so fearful about food. I lived in fear so much of the time, because I thought any food that I hadn’t personally prepared might poison me and cause all these extreme gut and health disasters.
Turns out, they probably won’t, and I personally at least am not burdened with having to avoid grains 100% of the time in order to feel healthy and good.
3. Following diet “rules” can make you eat even worse
When I ate strict paleo, I followed strict diet rules: no booze, no carbs, no grains, no sweets, no treats.
Following these rules made me feel like I was deprived. I couldn’t help it: try as I might, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the foods I couldn’t have. I obsessed over them. I dreamt about sweet foods like it was my job.
Feeling so deprived and obsessive in the end was terrible for me, because it not only made me feel unhappy in the moment, but it also made me go off the rails in the long run. Then all of my “perfect paleo” would come crumbling down. I would eat a whole dessert tray full of pastries in an evening, for example. Or, on one particularly unhappy occasion, I ate several full loaves of dessert cake by myself.
Then I would feel terrible about myself and starve myself back in feeling moral, perfect, and “paleo” again.
Then I would feel deprived, and the whole cycle would start all over again.
If I had known then that it was the diet rules that were the problem in the first place, I would have been liberated. I would have been free. I would have been able to relax my grip on my life, and no longer swing between these violent extremes of perfect and disastrous eating.
The way that I now manage my eating is by thinking of paleo as a guideline. I eat paleo because I choose to. It isn’t a rule I have shackled around my diet. It is a healthy, life-giving and life-enhancing choice I make. I don’t have to eat paleo all of the time in order to be physically healthy and fit. I only have to choose it most of the time.
And choose it I can and I do, because now I have the power over food, instead of food having the power over me.
4. Wellness is about both physical and mental health
Sure, a handful (or, screw it, a whole bag) of potato chips isn’t the most awesome choice for my health.
But true wellness is about combining physical and mental health to make a happy whole.
Sometimes after a particularly rough day, some dessert really does hit the spot in a way that makes me feel better.
Or, if I am feeling homesick, I may be able to sooth my longing by baking that Irish soda bread my mother used to always make.
Back when I was strict paleo I never allowed my mental needs to weigh in with my physical needs. That was a mistake. It only ever made my emotional state worse, and never let me relax into myself.
If I had allowed myself to let my emotional self make some decisions around food, I wouldn’t have drowned in self-condemnation and harsh judgment. I wouldn’t have had to feel like I was at war. I would have been able to feel at peace with food, and to be able to eat more intuitively and lovingly.
5. Eating paleo won’t make you immortal
This is an important point that I still need help with.
Somewhere, deep inside of me, I am terrified of eating the wrong foods, because I am terrified of dying.
Some part of me thinks that if I eat the perfet foods all of the time, I won’t die.
Or I at least won’t have to die as soon.
Now of course there is some truth to this. Eating well is an important factor in a healthy life. Eating well can save you from Alzheimer’s disease, from autoimmune disease, from heart disease, and perhaps even from cancer.
But it will never make you live forever.
And it will never make you invincible against the invariable forces of chance and fate.
My terror around death drives a lot of my decisions. It drives a lot of the fear I sit with on a daily basis. It drives the choices I make, both big and small.
Fortunately, it is no longer such a big part of my relationship with food. I no longer obsessively control my diet. I no longer fear every tiny morsel of food because of the effect it may have on me. I am always careful to be good, but I am no longer a strict perfectionist about it.
And to be honest with you, in the long run, I think this is even better for me, because being purposeful and happy is just as much a part of a rich, long life as eating well, if not even more so.
Paleo won’t make me immortal. It may help me life well and happy, but I have to remember that it is only one of many factorss, and perfectionism about it – at least for me – does more harm than good.
And with dying, I bring my list of the 5 most important things I wish I knew back when I was so strict paleo. Now I am curious about your experience. How strict are you with your diet? Why? Why not? What has your relationship with paleo been like, and are you happy with it?