I wouldn’t describe myself as unhealthy except to say that pasta is my favorite food and I certainly don’t shy away from it. Although rigatoni, farfalle and spaghetti compose my main food group, fruits, vegetables and meat still grace my plate. I am constantly tagged in yummy videos of chefs tossing linguine in a cheese wheel. You get the point. As an understatement, I eat 5 pasta meals a week. I always used my slim figure – bless my young metabolism – as an excuse for my eating habits when my dad would implore me to try his vegan superfood powder shake – gross. Why would I want to eat healthier?
Originally, I wanted to research the paleo lifestyle out of curiosity, articles that mainly consisted of paleo fanatics ranting, “I am so healthy, here’s why you need to be more like me” – I’m not buying it. My father, who is quite close to paleo, is extremely healthy, and frankly, I thought his eating habits were insane. I’ll ask him why there is a huge jar of liquefied chia seeds on our counter and regret doing so immediately when the lecture begins: “Kate, the chia have changed my life.” He freaks out when he tries a new roasted cauliflower dish and forces me to taste – not as good as this chocolate cupcake I’m eating.
Working at a health and wellness company for the summer has inspired me to read studies about well-being and nutrition. From this, I gained perspective and evaluated my own well-being. Wanting to eat better doesn’t have to be about losing weight – it is about promoting nutrition and longevity. Why is the paleo lifestyle so great? It’s rather simply put. Evolution. It's how humans ate during 99.99% of their more than 15 million years of evolution (including primates). Our homosapien body, which is one very complex piece of machinery, evolved eating green leafy plants, root vegetables, seeds, nuts, fruit and meat (including eggs). This is the paleo diet and it's what built us into the most intelligent form of life on earth, and maybe in the universe. Not surprisingly, when we eat Paleo, we are healthier, leaner, sleep better and live longer. But, when we eat grains, dairy products, high sugar and other processed foods, we gain weight, develop inflammation and illnesses and we don't live as long. Feeling less skeptical, I decided to sustain off nature’s bounty for the week to see if I could discover for myself what the paleo hype is all about.
Is chocolate paleo? Is popcorn paleo? Yummy paleo snacks. My first day, I was constantly thinking about food – what could I pull together that I wanted to eat. I wasn’t hungry, but because I had embarked on this challenge, food was on my mind. Eggs for breakfast in the morning was my routine anyways, and daytime wasn’t difficult, a simple salad for lunch – a mixture of leafy greens, vegetables and walnuts, olive oil and lemon juice as dressing. I usually have a peach Snapple to drink throughout the day, but goodbye refined sugar! I substituted this with water and a slice of lemon. As the sky grew dark, nighttime cravings crept in – the ice cream in the freezer, the wonder woman cookies my cousins made sitting right before me on the counter as I ate chicken and broccoli for dinner with frozen grapes for dessert. I’m embarrassed to admit I thought of grapes as a dessert. I wanted to eat the mac and cheese I knew was hiding in the fridge even though I was full, yet still not completely satisfied with anything I had eaten that day.
Tuesday: The Grocery Store
The nice part about the paleo diet is that I don’t feel guilty about overeating. Who would feel badly about sitting down to watch the Bachelorette while eating 3 cups of brussel sprouts? On my way to restorative yoga, the pizza place across the street called to me in smells. I found myself ravenously looking for snacks after work to satisfy myself, still googling. Tainted by the long list of foods I cannot have, being paleo is difficult. It felt bland. But I began to realize that being paleo is certainly not impossible.
The long list of forbidden foods was never more apparent than when I went to the grocery store on my way home. Yet, as I picked up each item I thought I could eat, and set it down on the shelf after reading the ingredients, the list started to become less of a forbidden world and more of a reflection of our species. It is shocking to see the length, so many items, processed, infected with words I cannot pronounce. Even half of the meat in the store was prohibited – grass fed only.
Wednesday: Exhaustion and Envy
I felt so tired. I assume this is due to my diet change. The science behind my fatigue summarized: my body is used to having all this unhealthy crap in it, and now that’s changed, and my body is detoxing, figuring out how to function on different ingredients. Daily, I walk on the treadmill desk in our office, which I thought might uplift me, but still I feel drained, my shoulders heavy as I type away at my keyboard. That night, a challenge: dinner with friends at an Italian restaurant – my first time eating out following the paleo lifestyle nonetheless in a vortex of bread and cheese.
My first observation from eating out was the confused expression from the Italian waiter when I asked him what dishes on the menu were paleo-friendly. It was easy to find something that was regulation. My steak salad was delicious, but in comparison to my friends’ pappardelle carbonara and penne arrabbiata, it fell short. I found my eyes eating my friends’ food as my mouth crushed arugula leaves. Claustrophobia of pasta dishes, it appeared everyone was holding their delectable meals in my face, coercing me, just to have a bite. Although I was full from dinner, I couldn’t help but feel envious. I wanted to order to my heart’s desire, but rather, I adhered to my head’s.
Day 4: Bikram Yoga
The morning went by, and I still felt a little drained. After a lunch of spinach, asparagus and turkey, I booked a Bikram Yoga class and was feeling a bit anxious — how could my new diet could possibly give me the energy to survive 60 minutes of movement in 105-degree room? I haven’t done yoga in a while, let alone in such heat. I thought for sure I would pass out. By no means did a paleo super strength take over during that hour. The class was hard. And yet, I far exceeded my expectations for myself. A day of healthy eating and working out, I didn’t even recognize myself. That night, I began to regain my energy — the paleo me.
Day 5: Reflection
I wondered if it was the yoga that revitalized me because I felt lighter, cleaner, and simply healthier in general. Although I wasn’t back to my original energy level, I felt much better than I had. Most of my reading indicates that it may be 2 weeks even before I will feel fully restored. But I was not nearly as tempted by snacks or processed foods today. I still do not yet get excited about super yummy vegetables. The paleo diet is rather bland, but there are tons of yummy recipes online, that I have, honestly, been too lazy to make. If I were to continue the paleo lifestyle, I would learn to cook. The last night of my paleo test drive, I fell asleep easily after a week of clean eating.
Most of this week, for me, was a mental challenge. My biggest self-criticism is that I never follow through for myself. I’d like to think I am a loyal friend and somehow I always find the time to finish that term paper or do a favor for someone else, and yet rarely achieve personal goals I set. This week I took the time and effort to do something I knew would benefit my well-being. I feel proud and happy to accomplish this micro-step towards a healthier self.
Will I continue the paleo diet? To my surprise, yes. Is it true that nothing tastes as good as healthy feels? Again, yes. That being said, there are many variations of being healthy, and from research, I have learned that it is best to pick an approach that works for you. Sometimes, you've got to treat yourself, and that is okay! Many people choose to incorporate a once-a-month cheat day or go 85:15. I know myself and personally, I want to be able to indulge just a little when my sister eats pizza in front of my face or when my Grandma bakes her candy cane cookies at Christmas.
If you aren’t convinced by the telling of my short experience, or any other opinion articles online, there are too many studies to ignore. Here are three important takeaways from a ton of research:
1. Paleo is a low-carb diet. The large sugar intake from processed foods and carbohydrates cause our blood sugar to rise and fall too quickly, thus causing our insulin levels to be unstable and often overshoot their ideal levels. This is the cause for the drastic increase in Type II Diabetes over the last century. Erratic insulin responses and the resulting stress on blood vessels have been shown to be a leading cause of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease as well as being implicated in Alzheimer's and strokes.
2. The Paleo Diet avoids other inflammation causing foods (besides sugar) like gluten (from processed grains), dairy products and certain oils, especially those high in Omega 6. Inflammation of blood vessels is associated with hardening of arteries and the other health complications stated above.
3. Once you cut out all of the processed junk, you are filling yourself up with nutrient dense foods, which in turn makes you feel more full and results in less cravings. Healthy fats and proteins take much longer to digest. People are becoming addicted to processed foods, which are easy to digest, and thus can eat a full bag of potato chips before feeling full and then become hungry again very quickly.
Whether paleo is the healthiest diet for human beings is debated, but eating this way is certainly healthier than most people’s current diet. There are foods that do not adhere to paleo rules but are totally healthy for you as well. Regardless of whether you chose to join the paleo community or a version of it, I truly believe everyone should proactively attempt to eat less processed junk and more of what mother earth has to offer. It is difficult, I know. But I promise, healthy feels pretty damn good.
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