I was an unlikely candidate for a paleo diet. I had been a vegetarian for about a decade. Now granted, I had rough start as a vegetarian, initially subsisting on cereal and frozen burritos. And during that decade I struggled with many health issues. But in that time I also did a lot of research and experimenting with health and nutrition. By the end of that decade I had reclaimed my health and felt pretty secure in my dietary choices.
It was these experiences that led me to quit my job as a school teacher and go to graduate school to study health education. I opted to specialize in nutrition, even though it would cost me a whole extra year, because I was just that passionate about the power of food to heal.
Yet, I also chose not to become a registered dietitian. I considered it for a bit, but I didn’t want to be a part of the same western medical system that had failed to help me with any of my health issues. I’ve since come to know many awesome dietitians who have gone against the system, so maybe it wasn’t as dismal of a path as it seemed, but I don’t regret my decision.
So there I was, entering my graduate program, ready to become an legit expert in nutrition. I had been told that the program would emphasize “functional nutrition,” and the way it was explained to me was very compelling. It totally appealed to my skepticism and, let’s be honest, my tendency to get a little fanatical.
But I soon came to learn that functional nutrition is tied up with “paleo,” “primal,” and related dietary theories. The theory is that grains, legumes, and dairy all contain harmful substances that should be avoided. Most fruit has too much sugar. Meats and eggs should all be local/pastured/organic. Vegetables are essential, but not too many starchy ones, and perhaps not even nightshades.
So I, the veteran vegetarian, had basically signed myself up to be taught why my diet was all wrong. I was persuaded to add more protein to my diet, eggs in particular, and noticed that higher protein meals did keep me full longer, so that I didn’t have to constantly eat all day long.
But I was increasingly exhausted and often felt like I was walking around in a fog. After a few months of paleo propaganda I had become insecure about my choice not to eat meat. When we were assigned to try out a therapeutic dietary change, I chose to go paleo, curious to see if it would really give me the energy and mental clarity that was being promised.
Well, I’ll just tell you upfront that no, it did not. In addition to the diet, I also followed a gut healing protocol and took special supplements that were supposed to improve my brain function. Zero improvement was seen.
Not only did things not get better, they actually got worse. I never felt full after a meal. I ate, and ate, taking seconds and thirds at dinner, but never, ever felt full. I have a history of getting hangry, and after prolonged hunger, I get seriously depressed. I started to see warning signs of depression that I had not seen for years. I knew from experience that ignoring these signs would be a very bad idea.
So, I talked to my instructor. She suggested that I perhaps I needed to add back in some carbs, at least temporarily. I added in legumes (beans, lentils), more sweet potatoes, and occasional white rice. Results were clear. More carbs: more energy, better mood, and actually feeling full.
It would have been easy for me to conclude that paleo was all wrong, if I hadn’t gone paleo with my partner, who was having very different results. In fact, complete opposite results. A paleo meal was totally filling for him, and he was feeling awesome.
I presented the results of my self-study in my nutrition class, and nobody was impressed. Clearly, I had been doing it wrong. Everyone knows that carbs (in particular, gluten containing carbs) are evil, and totally responsible for the poor health of Americans. I joked that perhaps I was tired and foggy brained because I was both a new mother and a graduate student. But no, that couldn’t really be the problem, now could it?
I went through three years of nutrition classes, and kept experimenting. I became very conflicted. There was what I felt in my body, and there was what I was learning in my classes, and they didn’t agree. Could I trust my body? I wasn’t sure.
Then came my “Holistic Approaches to Weight Management” class. It was mostly about hating on fad diets, but we also learned a little about Intuitive Eating (phew! hurray! yes!). It was such a relief, and it immediately made so much sense to me.
But my instructor cautioned us not to go too far with this intuitive eating approach. In class, we walked through yet another case study of a stereotypical American: overweight, addicted to processed food, slowly eating his way to premature death. We couldn’t just tell him to eat intuitively, she said. Surely, he would need us experts to push our expensive supplements and paleo diet on him. But it was too late for me. The spell was broken.
I began practicing intuitive eating and reversing my orthorexia. Getting rid of my internal food police was not easy. Learning to trust my body was not easy. It took time, patience, curiosity, and experimentation. But the more I saw it working, the easier it was to keep going.
I ended up doing my masters thesis on an intuitive eating approach to managing type 2 diabetes. After graduating I began coaching others on intuitive eating, and did formal training with the authors of the Intuitive Eating book. Still, it took time to get the paleo rhetoric out of my head.
So, it’s not that I learned that the paleo diet is bad or doesn’t work. I learned that there is no one-size-fits-all diet. We all have different dietary needs, and even our individual needs vary from day to day. I learned that even if you are trying to follow the right diet for you, restrictive eating is not sustainable, and causes more problems than it solves. Most importantly, I learned that I could trust my body, and that body trust is the foundation for a healthy relationship with food.
Thanks, paleo diet, and goodbye.