Tag Archives: Paleo

The Grand Finale

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And here it is, my final post of this entire project.  What a year it’s been!  I recently read back on the “About” and “The Beginning” posts that I wrote over a year ago in order to re-familiarize myself with the reasons why I embarked on this journey to begin with.  What I learned from reading those posts is that my posts have gotten A LOT longer over the year (sorry about that) and that most of my goals for the year were achieved.  I had wanted to learn what it was like to follow a regimented diet, to learn new cooking techniques, to be able to answer questions about popular diets, and to improve my will power.  I would say I wasn’t a total success on the will power portion, but I also realized, through a year of “failing” on the will power game, that it’s not a battle that should even be fought.  More on that in a minute, but first, my “awards” for this year.

The Dow Diet Awards
These are obviously just based on my opinion, except the “Most Expensive” award.  That one is based on cold hard facts as witnessed by depletion of my bank account.

  • Most Hated: Winner – Fast Metabolism Diet. Runner Up – Paleo
  • Most Forgettable: Low Fat
  • Best for Weight Loss: Although I didn’t really lose any weight on any of those (remember: that was my goal), the ones I would recommend would be 1) Volumetrics Diet and 2) Weight Watchers
  • Most Expensive: Sustainability
  • Enhancing the Culinary Prowess: Mediterranean, Vegan
  • I Can’t Wait to Quit You: Paleo, Low Fat, Fast Metabolism Diet
  • Favorite: Too tough to choose just one. Three-way tie between Vegan, Mediterranean, and Mindful Eating.

My Dietary Recommendations for Health and Happiness, in a very specific order

  1. Eat mindfully- Taste your food, free from distraction.  Cook it and savor it with all of your senses.  It will work miracles on your relationship with food, and is by far the best thing you can do for yourself.
  2. Cook your food – Here is a video narrated by Michael Pollan, which really hammers home the importance of cooking your own food.  This doesn’t mean “preparing” a meal, i.e. a box of macaroni and cheese. It means actually cooking from scratch.  When you do that, you don’t have to worry so much about the fat, carb, and protein content of your food. It’s just nourishment at that point, and it will balance itself out over time.
  3. Don’t be a dick about it – It’s hard to put this at #3 because I want to put it at #1, but the other ones are probably more important.  I’ve always just rolled my eyes and been annoyed when people are super pretentious about their food, but these feelings were strengthened this year by trying all these different eating approaches and also by moving to Boulder, CO (the most uppity place I’ve ever experienced).  My friends back in Tucson have something called the “In-N-Out and Casa Molina” test for people.  If you aren’t willing to ever eat a tasty cheeseburger and some delicious, greasy, unhealthy Mexican food, there may be a larger underlying issue.  If you disagree with this statement, you’re probably that pretentious person I’m referring to.  Stop being a dick about it.

regular donuts

  1. Eat more produce – Everyone could stand to eat more fruits and vegetables.  Incorporate them into more and more of your meals until you eat them constantly and start to crave them.  Then, get creative, try new ones, and try preparing them in different ways.  The possibilities are endless.
  2. Whatever approach you use if you’re trying to lose weight, choose one that can be maintained long term – At the end of the day, all of the diet trials and myriad of studies that have been performed ultimately lead to the same conclusion: the diet that works best for weight loss is the one that you can maintain.  Try out different ones to see what works for you, and don’t get discouraged when the first thing you try doesn’t work for you, but it worked for your cooler, hotter, sister who everyone likes more and who has never struggled with anything. It’s so unfair! We’re all individuals.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss.
  3. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid – Literally, but also figuratively.  If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
  4. Stop freaking out about it – It’s not nearly as complicated as the media and all the snake oil salesmen want to convince you it is.

What I Learned

As I previously mentioned, I really struggled this year with will power, until I realized that there is no point to will power if there isn’t a larger goal in mind.  One of the most important lessons I learned this year is that curiosity is only a good short-term motivator.  I struggled nearly every month to stay on track with the allotted dietary pattern because I would either lose sight of why I was doing this or, when I would remind myself of the goals listed above, they didn’t seem like good enough reasons.  This was particularly true in months like Paleo and Fast Metabolism Diet when I had never felt hungrier and that transcended into some mental and emotional imbalance.  Those months were the only time that I ever got a glimpse into what it’s like to be on a diet.  One of my goals was to attempt to understand the psyche of a person undergoing a diet (thanks to those two aforementioned diets, I succeeded in that goal), but also to understand why people put themselves through the torture of a diet.  I never got to the place where I understood that, and that comes back to the curiosity thing.  Curiosity was my motivator, but the need to feel normal when you feel terrible trumps curiosity.  I imagine a person with a dire health concern or a need for weight loss has a different motivation, and that’s something that I can’t relate to at this point in my life.  Maybe if I ever need to change something about my lifestyle I’ll be able to relate to that issue more, and I’ll see the need for will power.  But right now, I think will power is a silly thing to get caught up on, and I think it’s an issue that prevents people from reaching their health goals.

So here is a larger spiel on will power, and I realize as I’m writing this, that these ideas are not something I’ve ever been taught in any nutrition or health class. They go against many of the recommendations that students are taught regarding diet counseling.  But here it goes.

The most important lesson I learned this year involves the concept of moderation.  I know, you’ve heard it a million times before – everything in moderation.  And maybe you’ve decided that moderation doesn’t work for you because you haven’t found that grasp on it – it’s either gorge yourself or go without, and if you are working on losing weight, the “correct” option is to go without.  I really REALLY learned the fault in that kind of logic this year (the caveat to this, of course, is people with addictive behaviors or personalities, which I can’t really comment on because I don’t have any kind of extensive knowledge or training in that area).  I’ll use the example again of FMD.  That was truly a “go without” month for me, and I HATED it.  Not only did I feel physically unhealthy, but I felt mentally unhealthy.  And there’s the crux of it all.  Physical and mental health are so intertwined that they can’t and shouldn’t be separated, though our current system attempts and is often successful at convincing us that they should be.  Typically things that are good for your mental health are good for your physical health, so focus on that.  You will never see the full benefit of a healthy lifestyle approach if you only focus on the physical health aspect of it.  This whole time I’ve thought that my will power issues could be rectified by taking away the stimulus.  This is the basis of nearly every fad diet and every dietary recommendation.  “Don’t keep chocolate in the house so you won’t be tempted.”  “Snack on fruits – it will feed your sweet tooth.” I call bullshit on all of that.  While this may lead to weight loss, it doesn’t do a whole lot for your mental health because you a) feel deprived and b) never learn how to have a healthy relationship with these foods that you consider unhealthy/evil.  And what is the point of physical health if mental health isn’t riding shotgun?  I don’t know what the meaning or goal of life is, but for me it has something to do with finding peace in the midst of a hurricane.  Removing a stimulus doesn’t improve will power – it weakens it.  We need to find ways to achieve balance, and we do this by being in the midst of a room full of crispy French fries, the most decadent chocolate, a succulent cheeseburger, the deepest of deep dish pizzas, the creamiest ice creams, with a littering of fruits and vegetables and other health foods… and then we choose to have a few tastes of each of those things.  We really savor them and appreciate them, and then we carry on with our day, never feeling deprived or engorged.  It’s being able to control a situation instead of letting a situation control you.  This clearly isn’t just about food.  It can be applied to nearly every situation you will ever face in life, but your relationship with your body and your body’s fuel is a foundation that needs to be built, strengthened, and continuously re-patched in order to live a long, healthy life.

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I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes that taps into the issues with how we eat in America.  Eating a diet that supports the beautiful vehicle that is your body needs to be a priority if we want to prosper and see progress on both individual and societal levels.  The path to get there isn’t as difficult as it seems.  It’s just straight into the kitchen.

“…it turns out we don’t need to declare our allegiance to any one of these schools of thought in order to figure out how best to eat.  In the end, they are only theories, scientific explanations for an empirical phenomenon that is not itself in doubt: people eating a Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets.”
-Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

Thank you to everyone who followed this project over the past year.  There’s no way I could have done this on my own – I would have quit so many times if I didn’t have followers. Thank you for your attention, your comments, your questions.  

Live Beautiful!
Caitlin

P.S. If you’re looking for another health blog to follow with posts that will take a lot less time to read than mine, check out my friends Dezi and Matt’s blog: Simple Fitness Blog.

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Done Being Hangry

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Hangry = angry + hungry, which is what I felt for about a month straight.  Paleo got a little easier the last week and a half, mostly because I wasn’t really following it too strictly.  Instead of the 85/15 rule, I was eating more along the lines of a 60/40 rule.

There were a few observations/beneficial things that I learned whilst following the Paleo diet.

  1. Grass fed beef tastes way better than conventionally grown beef.  It also smells WAY better while cooking it.  Since I don’t really like beef (a very important thing I learned this month), I think I’ll only cook grass-fed beef on the rare occasion that I ever actually eat it.
  2. I don’t need to eat as many grains as I thought I did.  Like most Americans, my grain intake was pretty high.  While I am in no way ready to swear them off, I learned that I can make do with less of them and find more creative ways to cook that don’t involve grains.  Not only is this probably good for my health, it’s a good way to stick it to the man and big agri-business like Monsanto.  And I always like to stick it to the man.
  3. I ate so much more protein this month than before, so I decided to start working out (might as well put the protein somewhere).  Once I figured out my carb intake, working out became a lot easier, and I put on a bit of muscle, which is cool.
  4. I learned how to make mayonnaise.  If you ever find yourself with a mayo shortage, but you have eggs and oil, here’s what you do: in a blender, mix together 1 cup oil (I used ½ olive and ½ walnut), 1 egg, ~1 tbsp lemon juice, ~1/2 tbsp Dijon mustard.  This will keep for about a week in the fridge.  You can also get pretty creative with what you add to your mayo to make it more interesting.

Tricks

Here are a couple of tricks that got me through my Paleo month.  I learned after about a week that I needed to do a bunch of prep on the weekends to make my weeks easier.  One thing I did was make my quinoa “oatmeal” for the week (see previous post for more info).

I also roasted a bunch of root vegetables (potato, sweet potato, butternut squash, rutabaga) on the weekend.  Throughout the week, I would use those veggies in other meals, sometimes as a side.  A couple times I ate the veggies with sautéed kale and turkey bacon to make a tasty meal.  Another time I made some turkey meatballs and made a soup using chicken broth, the meatballs, and the veggies.

Treats

I love dessert and I don’t like to bake.  Since ice cream, frozen yogurt, and all other processed frozen treats were off the menu, I had to come up with something new.  I had seen a few recipes for banana ice cream made by blending frozen bananas, almond butter, and cocoa powder.  I tried that, but they weren’t really blending, so I added just a little coconut milk.  This worked, but of course you can’t freeze that and then eat it again because it will be solid as a rock (trust me, I tried, despite my better judgment that told me not to).  Instead this made more of a pudding (once thawed), but it was still really good, and definitely fulfilled by sweet tooth cravings.

Paleosagna

I only made one meal that I really LOVED this month, which was this “lasagna,”  made with eggplant, zucchini, and parsnips as the “noodles.”  I would actually call it more of a casserole because the sauce made with red wine made it smell and taste more like a stroganoff and the layers didn’t really stay together very well.  But man was it tasty.  Instead of using ricotta, I made cashew ricotta.

Blend 1 cup cashews (unsalted) with 1 cup water, ~1 T lemon juice, ~1 T minced garlic, ~3 T nutritional yeast flakes (these aren’t necessary, I just had them on hand and they add a really nice flavor).

Parmesan: Nutritional yeast flakes + almond meal.  I actually have no idea how much…maybe equal parts…?

With both of these “cheeses,” there isn’t really a right or wrong way. Just play with them until they taste right. This is also nice for me because I rarely have ricotta on hand, but I almost always have a wide array of nuts in the pantry.  Thanks, veganism!

Stats

Goal/Normal

Baseline Data

Jan-Vegan

February-Paleo

Anthros

Weight

121-60

127.5

127.5

128.5

BMI

18.5-24.9

20

20

20.1

PBF

21-32

21.4

21.2

20.6

WC

<35

27.5

27.5

27.5

HC

38.5

37.5

38

W:H Ratio

<0.8

0.71

0.73

0.72

Blood Pressure

<120/80

113/77

101/69

105/72

Diet

Total kcal

2000-2200

1975

1809

1965

Protein (g)

77.5

57

100

Protein (%)

10-35

16

12

20

CHO (%)

45-65

51

39-50

39

Fiber (g)

at least 25

26

42

32

Fat (%)

20-35

29.5

44-54

47

Sat Fat (%)

<10

7

8

8

Sodium (mg)

2300

2587

2138-2527

2132

Potassium (mg)

4700

3479

3959-4109

3742

Fruit/Veg (servings)

5-9

3-7

8-12

6-8

Cost

192.59

206.38

I lost about ½ a percent of body fat and put on about a pound of muscle.  My hip circumference also went up (slightly). In light of this, let’s make a documentary entitled “How Caitlin Got Her Butt Back.”  I bet it’ll be a top seller.

The only real noticeable difference in nutrient intake compared to veganism was my protein intake (way up) and my fiber/fruit and veggie intake (down).

This was obviously a very expensive month for me, mainly because meat and eggs grown the responsible, healthy way comes with a heftier price tag.  It looks like I spent close to the same amount as I did on veganism, but don’t be fooled.  I had a lot of food left over from that month.  I had absolutely nothing left over this month, and I wasn’t even eating very “paleo” by the end.  I imagine this wouldn’t be the case every month, and as I got a better handle on what I liked/needed, that cost would go down.

It’s also really hard to test out this diet in a month.  It took almost that long for me to start to feel even close to normal.  I’m not sure that everyone goes through that.  A lot of people who go on Paleo say that they’ve never felt better.  I think a lot of those people are coming off of a Western diet, high in refined carbs, processed fats, and low in fruits and veggies, so they’re bound to feel pretty great.  That obviously wasn’t the case for me.  The bottom line for me was that I felt insanely restricted the whole month and thoughts of food were constantly riddled with “I can’t have that/I want that.” I don’t do well with restriction – I never have.  I don’t consider myself an extremely rebellious person, but I felt like a petulant teenager this whole month, wanting to throw a tantrum in the form of eating bread the entire time.  But I guess this is what I signed up for – I wanted to know what people go through when they go on a diet. Now I know.

I’m also not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with Paleo.  I don’t know how much science there is to back it up, but from a health standpoint, I can’t fault it too much.  You can get all of your macro and micronutrients by following the diet, though you might have to get creative in some ways.  The biggest issue with food in American today is how little food there actually is because everything has been refined so much with chemicals and additives that very little of our food is actually “food.”  Paleo takes people back to basics and completely eliminates processed foods, for which I certainly cannot fault the diet.  I very much support it.

However, it just isn’t the diet for me.  A person’s approach to food (and life) should always be individualized.  Just because Dr. Oz swears that he’s found the miracle food, doesn’t mean he has or that it will do anything for you.  Likewise, just because Paleo sucked for me doesn’t mean it will suck for you.  It could be a great fit, particularly if you are someone who responds well to structure.  I’m not one of those people.  I think a lot of people like black and white, especially when it comes to health.  I live my life happily in the vast expanses of grey area, and my approach to almost all things in life is grey.  It’s not right or wrong; it’s just what works for me.  If you want to be healthy, try different things.  Some will fit, some won’t.  But most importantly, if a certain diet or regimen is too hard, don’t just give up and eat Doritos and assume you can never make a healthy lifestyle work for you.  Make small changes gradually.  Take what fits and incorporate those into your life and discard the other stuff.  Eventually, you’ll become a healthier, happier version of yourself.  Health doesn’t equal misery.

And with that, I say farewell to Paleo.  It’s been an interesting experience, and I’m all about trying new things, if for no other reason than to understand something better.  But now, I move on to Weight Watchers, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about the prospects of all the food I get to enjoy again! Bread! Pasta! Yogurt! Ah, sweet relief 🙂

Pale-ish

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I started this month by following Paleo as Cordain has spelled it out.  That lasted all of two days.  Everything I ate was bland, I was hungry, and I wasn’t being a very nice person.  Then, I decided to modify it in the ways that other people have or in ways that made it tolerable for me.

Here are the things I eat that don’t qualify as Paleo:

Potatoes – I don’t see any legitimate reason not to eat them, though I’ve only eaten them twice in the last two weeks.
Quinoa- This is frowned upon in the Paleo Diet community, but I need carbohydrates, and eating yams and yucca are just not going to cut it. If you didn’t see Matt the Archaeologist’s comment on my last post, here’s what he has to say about quinoa and amaranth:

“Ok so addmitedly this subject gets me a bit riled up, but when I read that this diet does not allow amaranth or quinoa I think I may have burst a few blood vessels. Here’s the reason: in the southwestern united states the remains of cheno-ams are found in many preagricultural archaeological sites, in fact they are one of the few types of plants that nearly all theses sites across an area covering almost a half of the united states share in common. Amaranth and quinoa are both members of this family and while now days we generally eat larger domesticated varieties they are essentially the same as their smaller wild relatives. Also why forbid honey which Is known to be eaten (albeit sparingly) in modern nonagricultural societies and at the same time allow any kind of processed oils which most nonagricultural societies both past and present had/have no acces to? I would like to propose a revision to the paleo diet that reflects what I beleive to be the views of the archaeological and ethnobotanical communities concerning nonagricultural subsistence, and it goes something like this: eat everything in your environment that is in any way edible except those things which are forbidden by your cultural or spiritual beliefs.
If you want to know LOTS more about what people have been eating throughout history in the wester half of north America (spoiler: it’s lots of things the paleo diet doesn’t allow) check out ‘People and Plants in Ancient Western North America’ edited by Paul Minnis, or for a bit of lighter reading check out ‘gathering the desert’ by Gary Paul Nabhan.”

Honey- I read a paper about pre-agricultural diets (Eaton SB. The ancestral human diet: what was it and should it be used as a paradigm for contemporary nutrition? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 2006. Let me know if you’d like to read this, and I’ll email you a PDF version), and Eaton says that honey was likely consumed in small quantities (evidence based claim), much like Matt the Archaeologist said, so I add just a smidge to my coffee every day.
Coffee and alcohol- Can’t stop, won’t stop.  I actually don’t see anyone on Paleo cutting these out, but coffee is a bean, which means it shouldn’t be included in Paleo.  Either no one seems to care or there’s some reason I don’t know about that allows coffee consumption. I am a coffee addict, and I used to drink it in the morning (always) and in the afternoon (~3-4x/week).  I’ve switched the afternoon habit to green tea, which is probably for the best. And I still love the occasional glass of wine or a pint of beer.
Salt- I don’t use much salt, but food is BORING without it.  Plus, every nerve impulse and muscular contraction in your body requires sodium, so I’m eating it…in very small quantities.
Dried fruit- This isn’t completely restricted on Paleo, but recommended in small quantities.  I eat a lot of it.

The Paleo rules I follow:

Grass fed beef; free range, organic poultry; fresh caught fish. This is not cheap.
Organic eggs from free range chickens. Also not cheap.
No dairy
No legumes (you have no idea how hard this is for me)
No soy, soy products, etc.  This includes most chocolate, as most of it contains soy lecithin
Lots of fresh fruits and veggies
No grains
No processed foods

A Paleo Caitlin is a Crappy Caitlin
It’s sort of difficult to describe how following the Paleo Diet makes me feel.  The best way to say it, in short, is that I hate it. Yes, I mean I hate it.  Most days, I’d like to trade lives with this little girl, though that would be extremely unfair to her:

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The first week was the hardest.  I felt depleted and like I was running on fumes.  My stomach hurt, I couldn’t become and/or remain full, and everything I ate felt boring and like a chore.  Everything I eat, with the exception of fruit and nuts, has to be prepared in some way.  No more hummus and crackers.  No freshly made tortillas with peanut butter and a banana. No Greek yogurt.  No Babybel cheese. But, instead, so so so so much cooking…and for a result that I don’t really even like that much. I always thought that I didn’t like meat that much for a few reasons.

1) Meat requires planning. It’s usually frozen because I don’t eat it often enough to keep it fresh, so I have to remember to take it out in the morning and thaw it.

2) Cross-contamination.  You have to pay attention more when you prepare meat. Don’t touch stuff after you’ve touched meat without washing your hands, cut your vegetables first or you’ll have to wash the knife/cutting board or use two knives/cutting boards, and then you have to wash both of them.

3) Cooking to the appropriate level of done-ness. Undercook –> food poisoning. Overcook –> jerky. I haven’t mastered this not so fine line that other people don’t seem to struggle with.  I understand vegetables and beans much better in this way.

These may seem like silly reasons to not cook meat, but they have always been very real barriers for me.  Now that I cook meat ALL THE TIME, I have been reminded that these things still bug me, but more importantly, I just really don’t like to eat meat that much. I’m also not very good at cooking animals, with the exception of chicken and salmon.

Breakfast and the Carbohydrate Conundrum
I realized my main problem is not enough carbs (go figure).  Before this month, my breakfast every morning was toasted cinnamon swirl bread (Trader Joe’s. Check it out. It’s awesome.) with a nut butter of sorts and a piece of fruit: carb heavy.  When I switched to Paleo, I sautéed a bunch of veggies (shaved sweet potato, kale, broccoli, bell pepper) and baked it with some eggs.  Every morning I would just cut out a piece of that egg bake for breakfast.  I think part of the reason my stomach hurt so much was all the eggs, not meat. It’s recommended to eat no more than 7 eggs/wk, and I ate over a dozen in week one.  I’ve cooled it on the eggs, and my stomach feels better…maybe I have a minor digestive allergy to eggs. Maybe I’m just not supposed to eat that many.

This week I made a week’s worth of quinoa “oatmeal” on Sunday.  I cooked it with almond milk instead of water, added pumpkin pie spice, pumpkin puree, a little maple syrup, and a diced apple to the mix.  I eat some of that every morning, and it’s incredible how much better I feel… because your body needs carbs to function.

Exercising and the Carbohydrate Conundrum
I decided to go for a run last Saturday. I haven’t been going much, and I want to get back into it because it’s a good way for me to clear my mind.  I felt fine during my run, but about an hour later, I crashed, and I crashed hard.  I felt exhausted, like I hadn’t slept in about 40 hours.   All of my muscles ached.  I would eat something (like fruit, because I was too tired to cook anything) and feel better for about an hour until I crashed again.  I wrote in my journal “Feeling tired, frustrated, irritable, confused, can’t focus…” My roommate told me I was “off,” which is probably a nice way of saying that I was acting crazy.  It’s clear that my glycogen stores were completely depleted, and running was a bad idea.  How do people follow Paleo and exercise? What are the secrets? Because I honestly have no idea how anyone could do it.

My Mood and the Carbohydrate Conundrum
This is a pretty personal thing to write about – to expose the inner workings of my now crazy brain is a sensitive subject, but maybe other people have experienced it too.  If there are people who see me regularly and think that I haven’t been myself lately, maybe this will explain some of it.  So, let’s talk about it.

Like I said, I feel exhausted, irritable, and frustrated a lot of the time.  My thinking isn’t as methodical as usual, and I find that I speak/text/write without considering what I’m actually saying.  I’m more reactionary than I usually am, and I have a very short fuse.  I also feel like I don’t have much control over my emotions.  On Saturday, the hellish day, I started crying for no reason.  Maybe some reason – I was trying to work on my dissertation and I kept writing sentences that didn’t make sense.  Then I’d lose track of what I was doing.  Then I’d stare at my computer screen for 5 minutes without forming complete thoughts, and I just started crying.  Crying is not the right response to that situation.  Eating a snack is. Tried it, didn’t work.  Exercising is a solution. Oh wait. That caused the problem.  Doing something else is a solution, but I was too tired to think of anything to do and the TV was boring me.  Then I just gave up and took a nap…like a child.

Granted, my life is stressful right now (developing a scientific manuscript, writing a dissertation, preparing for an out-of-state move for the first time in my life, amongst the normal day-to-day responsibilities), so maybe it’s not fair to blame it all on the diet.  But all of that stuff was going on in January too, and there hasn’t been a point in my life for the last 4 years that would be considered less stressful than what I’m doing now.  I have just always been pretty good at dealing with it.  Now, it seems that my ability to cope with stress is significantly diminished.  I blame this on my lack of carbohydrate intake (remember: the brain’s metabolic substrate of choice is glucose).  The days that I focus on eating more carbs (usually quinoa “oatmeal” for breakfast, 3-4 servings of fruit for snacks, starchy vegetables like squash at dinner), I feel a lot better and I’m focused and productive throughout the day.  But seriously, I hate having to plan my food intake so much to just feel OK.

In Summary

I get headaches ~5x/week.  I used to get them maybe once a month.  I’m tired. I’m tired of having to cook everything I eat. I don’t like eating meat this much. I haven’t cooked one meal yet that, afterwards, I thought to myself, “mmm mmmm, that was delicious.” I had that with almost every single meal I ate as a vegan. I really only look forward to the 3 non-Paleo meals/week that I can eat. But I’m not going to give up on Paleo yet.  As long as I focus on carbs (particularly on the days I work out), I’m fine and not nearly as crazy as the days that I don’t.

I genuinely have so much respect for anyone who can successfully and happily follow this diet.  Are we built differently in that I inherently need more carbohydrates to function? Are you just better at this than me? Are you less of a cry baby than me? It’s all very difficult to tease out.

Extreme Diets: Paleo Edition

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I’ve been dreading writing this post since I came up with the idea for this whole year long experiment.  I have so much to say. Once upon a time, a friend asked me my opinion, and I said, in a tone dripping with condescension, “I’m about as on board with Paleo as I am with being vegan.”  ….oh, snap. Who knows.  Maybe February 2013 will show me the error of my ways, and my comment, originally designed with sarcasm, will actually ring true, and I’ll be way into Paleo. I doubt it, but weirder things have happened.

First, some background on Paleo.  The Paleo Diet was created by Loren Cordain, PhD, and the premise of it is to revert back to the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors (from 2.3 million to 10,000 years ago), before agrarian societies were developed.

The Paleo Diet focuses on eating the following foods:

  • lean, naturally raised meats (i.e. grass fed beef, free range poultry, wild fish)
  • fresh fruits (not dried) and vegetables
  • nuts (not peanuts, which are actually legumes) and seeds
  • and minimally processed oils (namely, extra virgin olive, avocado, walnut, macadamia nut, flaxseed, and almond oils)

One great thing about Paleo is the “85/15” rule, which means that 85% of the time you follow the diet, and 15% of the time you get to cheat.  I actually think this is something that should be practiced with all diets as it reduces psychological burnout and allows you to have those little splurges without feeling like you’ve totally fallen off the diet wagon.

But back to the rules.  When I first visited ThePaleoDiet.com, my initial reaction was something along the lines of, “You’ve got to be ****ing kidding me.”  But the more I started looking at Paleo blogs and recipes, I opened up to it a bit more.  Then, my brother gave me The Paleo Diet Cookbook, and I went back to my original mindset because I realized that nearly all the recipes I was seeing aren’t truly “Paleo,” according to the way Cordain has defined it.
Here’s a sampling of things you can’t eat if you were going to do all-out Paleo:

  • Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, butter
  • Cereal grains: wheat, corn, rice, rye, barley, oats
  • Cereal-grainlike seeds: amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa
  • Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, all beans, peanuts, soy products (edamame, miso, tofu, etc)
  • Starchy tubers: Potatoes and all potato products
  • Vinegar and all vinegar containing products
  • Salt: essentially everything processed including most condiments, salad dressings, deli meats, bacon, pickles, virtually all canned meat/fish, and no adding salt to any foods
  • Fatty meats: pork ribs, bacon, sausage, beef ribs, poultry legs, T-bone steaks, etc.
  • Soft drinks and fruit juices
  • Sweets: candy, sugar, honey, maple syrup

Cordain states that the pattern of Western eating, characterized by refined carbohydrates, fats, and sugars; high in salt; and high in fatty meats and processed foods has led to the epidemics of obesity and metabolic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Yes. Absolutely.  There is no denying that.  However, these are diseases of the 20th and 21st centuries, not the last 10,000 years, and are really a result of our current highly-palatable, nutrient depleted food landscape compounded by a marked reduction in physical activity.

Now, I’ll go into my issues with Paleo.  I’m a hyper-analytical person, often to a fault.  This makes it borderline exhausting to be inside my brain (and I would know. I’m there most of the time).  On the plus side, it makes a life in the sciences extremely appealing.  Some may say that I’m missing the point of Paleo and I’m being too nit-picky.  That may be true, but I believe that if people are going to follow a diet, there should be evidence to back up said diet.

  • Cordain claims that if we follow Paleo, we will be eating the way Mother Nature intended us to eat.  This is a HUGE issue for me because we just simply do not have sound evidence that everything Paleo eliminates is bad for us.  Yes, our processed food intake is way too high in this country, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that foods like whole grains and lentils are going to hurt you, provided you don’t have an allergy/sensitivity/intolerance to them.
  • My approach to science and nutrition is that you need both epidemiological AND mechanistic evidence to back up any theory.  If legumes, whole grains, potatoes, etc. were so “poisonous” (as many blogs claim they are), how has mankind survived this long? Shouldn’t we have died off thousands of years ago if all these foods were causing such irreparable harm?
  • Also, mankind began to thrive with the advent of agriculture.  Agriculture allows us to get lots of calories and nutrients by growing our own food without expending so many calories on searching for food.  (We have since abused that skill, but that’s not the point of this discussion.
  • Paleolithic people were eating for survival, not for proper nutrition or joy, which is why I eat food.
  • We do not know exactly what the Paleolithic peoples were eating.  This is a huge point of contention for evolutionary biologists and archaeologists.  My friend Matt, an archaeologist, gets pretty heated when we talk about Paleo.  He was telling me that Paleolithic people living in the Andes mountains were eating all types of potatoes, while there is evidence that an important staple in the Middle Eastern Paleolithic people’s diets were chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans).  I haven’t cross-referenced his information, but I really haven’t had time because I’ve been busy looking up too many other Paleo claims.  And, you know, writing a dissertation.
  • Why sweet potatoes, but not white potatoes? Cordain justifies this by saying that white potatoes have a high glycemic index, and thus aren’t allowed.  Two things:
    1) This seems completely arbitrary as to what we are allowing and not allowing. Are we eating like Paleolithic man? Then we should be able to eat potatoes, particularly because very few other starches are allowed.
    2) Gram for gram, sweet potatoes and white potatoes are extremely similar, regarding macronutrient content. Here is a breakdown of the differences (I didn’t double check this, but I’m pretty sure it’s reasonably close.  However, “inflammatory factor” isn’t a scientific term.  You’ll find lots of info on the inflammatory factor index on Google, but plug that search term into PubMed, and you won’t find any peer-reviewed science to support it. Pseudoscience!)
  • I wanted to know more about why legumes and potatoes aren’t allowed in Paleo.  I wish I had just accepted this fact, but instead, I went on a wild goose chase.  I have yet to find anything that says that Paleolithic man wasn’t eating these foods, but instead that these foods contain “anti-nutrients.” I had to look up what anti-nutrients are, because despite being 3.5 years into a PhD in Nutritional Science, I had never heard the term.  Apparently anti-nutrients include compounds such as lectins and saponins.

    –> Lectins are glucose-binding proteins that are in essentially every plant and animal but particularly high in grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and nightshade plants (tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, bell peppers).  They can bind to any sugar moiety (pattern) they recognize, and cause agglutination (clumping) of proteins.  In fact, one of the most important immune responses we have, the complement system, utilizes lectins produced by our own bodies.  The theory behind avoiding foods high in lectin content is that lectins bind to the lining of our intestines, resulting in leaky gut syndrome, which would allow a whole host of foreign matter into our bodies to wreak havoc. I did search for some data to support this theory in humans, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t exist.  Leaky gut syndrome is also more of a hypothesis than a true pathological disorder, and is not well recognized in either the medical or scientific communities.  Of course, it takes time to conduct good science and develop legitimate evidence to support or refute an idea.  So, I’m not saying that this isn’t true.  Perhaps we just haven’t found the link yet… though a person stating that these compounds are deleterious to our health is an issue since the science doesn’t exist to support it.  If you are concerned about lectins, soaking or cooking the food (as most of us do with grains, legumes, and potatoes), and/or allowing the products to sprout will reduce the lectin content.–> Saponins are also found in many plants, particularly desert plants, legumes, potatoes, and quinoa, and they act as antimicrobial agents to fend off disease.  Cordain and other Paleo-goers state that saponins are also anti-nutrients and impair digestion of food.  Once again, I did another search to see if and what the evidence was.  I found lots of really good things. The The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University states that saponins have a role in reducing cholesterol and secondary bile acid formation (bile acids are linked to colon cancer development) and are considered a natural remedy for hypercholesterolemia.  There is some evidence from animal sciences that saponins could be toxic if ingested in large enough amounts, but I really couldn’t find anything in human research. So, I’m not sure what the problem is with these things, but I think I’ll keep eating them.

I’m sorry for the rant.  And I’m sorry if I offended anyone with my rant because I certainly don’t think that people who follow Paleo are fools.  I hope no one thinks that.  I think that Paleo is one of many healthy diet options simply because it greatly reduces processed food intake and focuses on eating whole foods.  However, I want answers to my questions, and I think what bothers me most is that I haven’t found a good, reputable, scientific source with these answers.  That’s a red flag for me.  Maybe I’m using the wrong search terms.  I certainly haven’t read all the information out there, but it just seems like I shouldn’t have to spend so much time trying to find the evidence behind these claims.  I’m willing to take the time to look all this up, but I imagine that not everyone is willing or able to invest this much thought/time.  If anyone can provide me with SOUND evidence to answer my questions, I would be grateful, and more than willing to read it.

But for now, I will step off my soapbox, move past my scientific issues with Paleo, and follow the diet for the rest of February (it’s not an accident that I chose the shortest month to practice Paleo-ism).