Two years ago, I gave birth to my first daughter. My brother, an amazing cook, came over to meet her and brought Chicken Provençal. I peeled the skin away and dug into the chicken thighs.
“You know,” he said, “You can eat the chicken skin if you like it.” I said something politely noncommittal, because I had 50 lbs. of baby (and pregnancy-related breakfast cereal) weight to lose, and everybody knows chicken skin is all fat! He continued, “Saturated animal fat is good for you. It’s the polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oils you have to watch out for.”
Then he told me about the paleo diet. Let me explain this brother to you: there isn’t anything he doesn’t know. In my experience, he is right 100% of the time. So when he started talking about paleo, I listened–even though it sounded totally crazy and contrary to everything I (thought I) knew.
My brother gave me “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. It doesn’t take much to convince me that the government gets things wrong sometimes, but this book provided a careful, scholarly analysis of the ideas that dietary cholesterol causes heart disease and that whole grains are “heart-healthy.” Let’s just say that Taubes’ analysis was more careful and scholarly than that of the USDA, who basically made it up. (Read that book–but you can additionally read more on the diet-heart hypothesis here.)
The other book my brother gave me was “The Paleo Solution” by Robb Wolf. This book laid out the basic rules of what it means to eat like a caveman, what impact your diet has on your hormones, and what results you can expect from giving up grains, legumes, and dairy. Wolf made it sound like Paleo was a magical cure-all–and I was extremely skeptical. But over and over, Wolf pointed out that I would never know for sure unless I tried it for 30 days.
I gave it a shot out of curiosity and vanity. I wanted to lose weight, and I felt like I had nothing to lose by trying something new for 30 days. Plus, it was supposed to be healthy, and it came with the seal of approval from my local neighborhood Renaissance Man and health guru, my brother. And I really love butter.
I won’t pretend those first 30 days weren’t a challenge! Giving up breakfast cereal was a life change of embarrassing consequence to me. But 30 days later, I had more energy overall, my energy was more stable throughout the day, I stopped feeling sick with hunger if I didn’t eat breakfast the moment I woke up, my skin cleared up, my knee pain went away, and I even lost more than the baby weight! All while eating as much as I wanted (probably more than I was eating before) and never feeling deprived. I have officially drunk the Paleo Kool-Aid (made with grass-fed gelatin and natural juices, of course. That’s a joke. Please take this opportunity to reflect on how hilarious I am).
Everything is a tradeoff
Frankly, I’m not even that strict about paleo. I still eat dairy, including regular ice cream, sometimes. I sometimes eat peanut butter and don’t feel guilty about it (because I weigh how PB tastes against how it makes me feel). I don’t buy grass-fed beef or organic produce all the time, because I have two kids and I live in Minnesota, where daycare costs more than college. And I haven’t set foot in a gym since 2009, when I tried to lose weight for my other brother’s wedding via the old standbys of Calories-In-Calories-Out (the idea that a calorie is a calorie and all I have to do to lose weight is eat less of them, no matter what I’m eating) and Chronic Cardio (my friend, the elliptical machine).
(For the record, I did lose some weight, but I gained it all back before the wedding because that kind of lifestyle turns out not to be sustainable for me. Turns out I don’t like counting calories, feeling deprived, or thinking about what I look like all the time. Live and learn.)
Back to Basics
I’ve seen firsthand in my own life how a little bit of effort can drive a huge payoff. Basically, all I had to do was give up grains, legumes, and processed foods, and eat more fat. That’s only about 70% of what it takes to truly be “paleo” (the other 30% comprises things like sleep, sun, exercise, and food quality). But just picking that low-hanging fruit was enough to make my quality of life skyrocket.
I initially thought of Paleo as a weight-loss diet. Now, two years in, I think of it as a diet whose point is to make me feel good–the weight loss is not even on the first page of things I like about this approach. This isn’t a “diet” for me anymore. It’s just one of those things I do to feel good: I take warm baths; I play outside in the summer; I eat real, nutrient-dense foods. I eat as much as I want, whenever I want. And I don’t obsess about it.
The Paleo Police are already out there, and this blog is not a contribution to that genre. What I hope to offer are some thoughts on how to feel really good with the least possible amount of effort. I don’t strive to eat “best”–I’m just shooting for “better,” because that’s what fits into my lifestyle as a busy, working mom who’s careful with her money. And I’ll point you to interesting things I learn as I continue to do research on easy ways to improve my quality of life.
I encourage you to give the paleo diet a shot for 30 days and see how you feel. Get Robb Wolf’s book from the library and try it. No amount of reading about it will be anything close to as persuasive as how you feel once you make it past the first 30 days.
What do you have to lose?