Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My uncensored thoughts on the Paleo Diet

I constantly get questioned from friends about "how did you do it," in reference to my dramatic and sustained weight loss in the last year and half. I attribute a lot of it to changing my diet and adhering to the Paleo diet starting last May 2012 when I participated in my first Whole 30 (adhering strictly to the Paleo diet for 30+1 days for the entirety of May) with Crossfit Palo Alto. Now that I'm two weeks into my second Whole 30 this May, I thought it would be timely to reflect on my thoughts about the Paleo Diet and why I still do it.

Let's start off by addressing the elephant in the room: do I buy into the anthropological philosophy behind the Paleo diet? Absolutely not. If you've heard about the Paleo diet before, you've probably heard that it's a diet where we only eat foods our ancestors ate because that's what our bodies are evolutionarily designed to eat. As such, the Paleo diet does not allow any processed foods (including processed cooking oils), no grains (pre-agriculture), no dairy (pre-domesticated cows), and no sugar. I can buy that... but then, the Paleo diet throws in other rules that I find a bit arbitrary, such as no legumes (including soy or peanuts) or white potatoes. Most critics tend to question the validity of our knowledge of the actual Paleolithic-era diet. In this regard, I tend to agree with the critics. I know nothing about how Paleolithic-era people ate, and frankly, I don't think anyone can legitimately say for sure that they do, so I'm not sure we can accurately reflect a paleolithic-era diet. Then, it begs the question, if I don't believe in the basic idea of the Paleo diet that gives it the namesake, why am I still Paleo?

I've stayed with the Paleo diet, because for me, the point of the Paleo diet isn't to eat what we're evolutionarily adapted to eat, but instead, self-empowerment to make healthy decisions regarding what we eat. That's the real reason I do Paleo. I originally did Whole 30 just because I felt like I had nothing to lose in trying it. I didn't know when I embarked on it last year that it would entirely change my life by changing my relationship with food.

Being strict Paleo for a month changed my eating habits dramatically. In order to adhere to the diet's strict and seemingly odd rules, I had to do several things: 1) Plan my meals so I always had compliant foods available, 2) Prepare my own meals using fresh ingredients, 3) Be extremely conscious of what was in the foods I was purchasing to ensure there were no forbidden ingredients/chemicals, and 4) Exercise self-control. For me, I think these were the benefits of doing a Whole 30. By adhering to these rules for a month, I learned how to be an active participant when choosing what to eat in order to stick to the diet. It was no longer about eating what was around, but eating what I wanted to eat. This meant turning away food and alcohol all the time, not being shy at restaurants to control what I was eating, and checking everything I buy at a supermarket to make sure the ingredients I was using were Paleo compliant. I had gotten so used to these habits, that even after my Whole 30, it became common place for me to try and make smart decisions. At restaurants, I still customize dishes so they are as healthy as possible, such as switching out french fries for a side of vegetables. I still say no to random junk food sitting around and don't eat it just because it is available. I still plan and prepare my meals. The Paleo diet provided me a structure to develop these healthy habits.

You'll see lots of claims on the web about the Paleo diet leading to better sleep, more energy, more normalized insulin levels, less inflammation, and other health claims. I'll get back to you on that. At this point, I don't know if the composition of the Paleo diet is what makes it healthy, and I'm trying to do some reading to make my own informed opinion. However, I do know that I still believe in the Paleo diet because it is what I used to become an active participant in my diet that resulted in jump starting and sustaining my journey towards a healthy lifestyle.


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