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Paleo diet: does being healthy have to be so strict?

The VITL Nutrition Team / Apr 7, 2016

The *Paleo ‘diet’ was the most googled diet in 2013 and for a while, no matter what publication or fitness blog you read, there would be an article somewhere hotly discussing whether this ancient way of eating was worth all the hype.

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Recently, however, it has all gone a little quiet. Are people giving up on Paleo? Was it just another fad? Has every pro-fat-anti-grains/anti-fat-pro-grains argument been had? Or are people simply tired of hearing the often mispronounced (pay-leo or pa-leo?) click bait buzzword?

I was a relatively early caveman convert. Ok, not that early, I’m 25, not 2.5m, years old. I discovered Paleo when I was told at 21, much to my dismay, to avoid lactose and gluten. Fearing the gloom of a macaroni cheese-free existence (horror), I set about finding interesting recipes, which could make my fate more bearable. The Paleo recipes I stumbled across showed me that there is life after bread and food could be so much more than beans on toast. I’ve not met a single person who hasn’t felt the benefits of going gluten-free, but how I felt moving away from a carbohydrate heavy diet was revolutionary. Goodbye puffy eyes, 3pm slumps and bloated bellies! I joined the ever-growing chorus of Paleo ravers and read every book and blog I could find on the science behind good fats, bone broth and fermented foods. It became part of my identity, and like vegetarians and vegans, instead of saying ‘I follow Paleo’ I would proudly announce, “I am Paleo”. Lately, however, I’ve noticed myself becoming more reluctant to throw the ‘P’ word around. What’s changed?

Forming new habits isn’t easy; it takes time and dedication and, given all this nutritional advice was completely novel to me at the time, I couldn’t pick and choose which facets of the Paleo diet I would and wouldn’t adhere to. I jumped in the deep end and followed it by the book. Over time, however, this became quite tiring. When I started deviating from ‘the rules’ now and then, friends would jab fun at me, “ummm! Those crisps aren’t very paaaaleo’ and, like an indignant teenager, I started resenting the dogma and rebelled from all the nutritional changes I had previously been so blindly committed to. Of course, it wasn’t long before all the old health problems started cropping up again so I decided to adopt a more ‘flexitarian’ attitude to what I ate. I shifted from “I am Paleo” to “I more or less follow a Paleo diet except I have pulses sometimes and I do also quite like hummus, gluten free brownies and whiskey sours”.

It took the initial strict adherence in order to comprehend the Paleo approach fully enough to adapt it to my own preferences and lifestyle. I’m not going to start eating lentils every day but now and then won’t hurt, especially when prepared right. Other things, like hydrogenated fats and sugary cereals are still certain no-nos to be avoided at all costs. Here are some other adaptations I’ve made and lessons I’ve learnt on the way:

● Pulses are not the enemy, but they do need be soaked sufficiently so they can be better digested and the nutrients better absorbed. Although they’re pretty high in carbohydrates and are not the most vitamin dense foods, dhal and other pulse recipes can be a great way to get more nutritious bone broth into your meals, reduce the shopping bill, and make meat-free days more interesting.

● Meat free days on a Paleo diet?! Contrary to popular belief, Paleo isn’t all steaks and bacon. Paleo has taught me a lot about eating meat and the take home lesson essentially boils down to this; if you’re going to eat meat, make sure it is organic, locally sourced, well reared, eat it from nose-to-tail and eat it sparingly. Eating meat can be sustainable, but it requires us all to be less squeamish, more economical and more considerate.

● Everybody’s ideal carbohydrate intake is different. Granted, it is a lot less than what most people are consuming in a standard western diet, but I found that my body and my hormones prefer good, whole food sources of carbohydrate at lunch or dinner, but not for breakfast. Finding my ‘happy carb level’ makes sustaining my ‘happy weight’ a whole lot easier. 

● Not all fruit and vegetables are my friends. Creating my own Paleo protocol meant listening carefully to my own body. Personally, my sweet cravings are best combatted with some quality chocolate over any high fructose tropical fruits, which can trigger bloating or indigestion.

● Dare I dairy? This is one I am still experimenting with. When I introduced cheese back into my diet I had to tread caerphilly (sorry) and so far I seem to be fine with a high quality, extra mature goat or sheep cheese, which will be lower in lactose and casein than cow cheese. Aside from being delicious, these cheeses are a great source of probiotic and CLA which can protect against osteoporosis and reduce bad LDL cholesterol. Too much, though, and I’ll be dealing with a break out.

● No matter how similar we can make our diets now to that of a hunter-gatherer, we still need to be careful of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Due to thousands of years of intense farming causing soil and water mineral degradation, along with our modern, sedentary and indoor lifestyles, supplementing those essential lost nutrients is imperative for optimal health. Luckily, VITL means I have all the bases covered.

● There are many more things to consider than just diet when living a healthy lifestyle. The Paleo approach taught me to be mindful of being too sedentary, to prioritise sleep, to meditate, and that finding balance is the ultimate goal so worrying about being ‘perfectly Paleo’ 100% of the time is a waste of energy.

Developing your own healthy eating style is like a right of passage most of us inevitably have to go through at some point in our lives. Sometimes it takes adopting a new ‘diet’ in order to kick start the process but in order for it to become a healthy lifestyle instead of a faddy diet, it is important to adapt external advice to your own internal instincts. In this day and age with so much conflicting health and wellness advice it is difficult, but imperative, to listen to your own body’s needs. Making healthy choices is easier now that I can recontextualise everything back to the hunter-gatherer model. Now I have created my own personal Paleo protocol, I no longer fear ‘falling off the wagon’ because it removes the wagon. Instead, I’m free to decide my own route to wellness.