What’s the Deal with Paleo?

Tips for Success

Written by Erin Cummins
Paleo SaladA few years ago, I had a meeting with my college’s nutritionist where she suggested I go carb-free. (I imagined a police scene: “Step away from the bagels and no one gets hurt!”) So I valiantly embarked alone on a new way of eating, trying to eliminate carbs from my life entirely. It ended, as these things always do, in a wild scuffle for a half-eaten cannoli.

My dreams of making a change were over until a few months ago, when I joined a new gym and was introduced to the Paleo diet: a more “official” version of what I had tried to do before the day of the fateful Cannoli Battle. I have subsequently thrown myself into this lifestyle with the abandon of Honey Boo Boo hopped up on go-go-juice. If you are considering going paleo, here’s what you should know:

What it is (and importantly, what it isn’t).

With the paleo diet, the focus is ostensibly on “eating what our ancestors ate”—and by ancestors, I mean people who actually used their wisdom teeth and for whom a fun Saturday night meant fingerpainting the cave walls. In actuality, the name “Paleo” is just a trendy name for a fairly simple way of eating. The focus is NOT to go out into the wild, battle a dinosaur, and finish it all off with some (hopefully not poisonous) berries—the point is to eat real food, food that hasn’t been overly processed and pumped full of salt, sugar, and fat. The point is to get back to the basics.

There are some other arguments about evolution and our bodies’ capability to handle certain types of foods (namely, grains) but the most salient argument for me is that it’s about putting the “food” back into, and removing the “stuffs” from, our foodstuffs.

What you eat.

Eat what is good for you. Look not at the calorie count, but at the nutritional content of that which you eat. For example, many paleo-eaters will only eat grass-fed beef: they argue that while you can get protein from regular beef, you’re probably not helping yourself out by ingesting pink slime. (Personally, I am not the Lehman Bros, so I eat non-organic/grain-fed meat. That is a sacrifice I’m ok with).

Also, fear not the fat. Healthy fats are good for you! As I understand it, they allow you to store up nutrients in case you get sick, so your body has something to fall back on. Let me put it this way: if you are up against a wall, and have to choose between eating something that’s sugar-free or something that’s fat-free, eat Sugar-Free. Sugar-free foods are supplemented with fats (to make them taste good), and vice versa for fat-free foods. It’s way, way worse to eat sugar than fat. At least fat has something to offer.

How to succeed

1) Do your research. There are a lot of detractors out there (link and link). Not everyone is sold on this lifestyle—and that’s fine. If you are considering switching over, you should read what they have to say (the good as well as the bad), and find out if this is for you.

The other research you need to do is internal: find out how different foods affect you. For me, I discovered that my gross adult acne was tied to eating dairy. If I had never tried cutting it out, I would never have known how nice my skin could be! So try going a few weeks without different food groups and see how your body responds. This is the best way to find the right combinations of foods for yourself. You may find that a strictly paleo diet won’t work for you, but certain modifications are extremely helpful.

2) Get a buddy. If nothing else, you need someone to commiserate with—someone who won’t think you’re insane if you start having dreams of chocolate bars and pasta.

3) Forgive yourself; don’t give up. My Nana likes to tell me that attitude is 90% of life; this is definitely true when it comes to changing your habits. There are many moments where I have to stop and remind myself why I do paleo in the first place (especially going out to dinner; I hate to be that person who has so many specifications to her order!), but in the end I have found that forgiving myself for making mistakes and keeping myself excited about trying new recipes has made this process more “real.” Concurrently, it’s easy to quit something if it feels like a temporary fix; by changing my attitude to realize that this is a permanent change, it’s easier to come back after making a mistake.

4) Use tools: recipes, blogs, cookbooks. The quickest way to lose steam is to eat the same thing every day. When I first started, I got so bored of eating salad every day for lunch, I wanted to stray to sandwiches just to mix things up. The only way to pull myself back in was to find new recipes- eating leftovers became much more satisfying! Creativity doesn’t hurt either; instead of sandwich bread, use lettuce and create mini wraps. Instead of fries, make your own sweet potato fries. There are a lot of great blogs and resources out there. I will be honest though- some of them are not that great because they require you to have fancy food implements, like food processors and stuff. Some people who are really into paleo are also really rich; I have had to modify a lot because (as I may have mentioned before) my last name is not Rockefeller.

5) Listen to great music and read awesome books. This is more general “life-success” advice, but I can’t say enough how Serena Ryder’s Stompa has been able to pull me out of a bad mood. And when I’m happy, I have the energy and desire to take care of myself. So find an anthem. Memorize a poem. Learn about the Peloponnesian War.

Personally, there are a lot of good things that have resulted from my switching over to paleo. For one, I’m no longer feeling guilty that I’m not following “doctor’s orders” (and I’m also not clawing for Italian baked goods… most days!). Another great thing is all the experimentation that I’ve been able to do; having a limited set of ingredients often forces me to find creative ways to mix things up. I’ve also lost weight (which is nice) and gotten stronger (which is nicer). Ultimately, though, for me, the best part of eating this way is connecting to ancient peoples. I don’t mean cavepeople when I say this, by the way- I mean the Ancient Romans (those of you who know me should not be surprised that I brought it all back to Rome). Romans had a common Latin expression, ab ovo usque ad malum, “from the egg to the apple”, essentially meaning from start to finish. Typical Roman dinner parties would have eggs to start off the meal, and apples for a sort of dessert. Since switching to paleo, I have started most days with eggs, and finished each night with a nice snack of an apple- literally living out a proverb from 2000 years ago. This hasn’t been the easiest change in my life, from the egg to the apple I have seen a lot of great results.