Ed note: folks, meet my dear friend Whitney. She recently took on a feat I struggle to imagine: 30 days on the Paleo diet! She’s kindly agreed to share with us the why, what and how of her experience. Now, in the immortal words of Jen Friel, hit it Whitney!
Why I went Paleo
About a year ago, I started having horrible back and sciatica pain. Thus began my ongoing journey to mitigate the pain while trying to locate the source. I began physical therapy, practiced yoga, and enlisted a chiropractor. The latter recommended I try eating Paleo.
According to my chiro, eating Paleo would eliminate “inflammatory” foods (like gluten-based food) from my diet and could alleviate pain. I figured it was worth a shot.
Detour: thoughts on dieting
So, I publicized my Paleo decision on social media, documenting the 30-day challenge on Instagram and Facebook. This immediately elicited judgment from friends and strangers alike: “Why are you going on a diet? You’re already too skinny,” they’d say. I’m 26 years old, 5’6, and fluctuate between 125-135 pounds—so sure, I’m societally slender, but that doesn’t mean I’m as healthy as I could be.
The word “diet” never existed in my vocabulary. I’m of the opinion that I eat whatever I want without any concern, so long as I maintain a workout schedule. Honesty moment: I haven’t stuck to a workout schedule since high school. I’ve always been thin, so I suppose I never felt the need to (not to say I don’t have body issues, because I do, but that’s a different story).
“Diet” has a negative connotation, especially coming from a young woman like myself. But the truth is, Paleo is nicknamed “The Caveman Diet” – so negative connotation or not, diet is what I did.
The how’s of Paleo
“The Caveman Diet” has a very simple formula – meats, vegetables, nuts and fruits. Basically, if a caveman couldn’t eat it, neither can you (recommended hilarious reading). I was used to grabbing a bag of chips or a granola bar on my way—late—to school, and I work at a restaurant, meaning I have limited food choices and odd meal hours. Going Paleo was a difficult task.
However, there’s a plus side. Paleo can be tailored to fit your needs, personal preferences, and dietary goals. I have a horrible sweet tooth, and an unhealthy addiction to coffee, so I refused to give up was the milk and unhealthy amount of sugar in my morning coffee…and my occasional white mocha from Starbucks (yes, this is a habit I should break, but one thing at a time). On Paleo, there are no portion restrictions or meal times. You eat when you’re hungry so long as it’s caveman-approved.
How Paleo affected my eating
Thankfully, I had unconsciously given up fast food and soda already. Replacing my snack foods with healthier options was harder. Coworkers were used to seeing me walk around with Sour Patch Kids almost on a daily basis. I started carrying almonds, carrots, and cucumbers in my purse to snack on throughout the day.
Another change I made was breakfast. Not just coffee, but actually eating food in the mornings. An easy Paleo breakfast is eggs, except I was inexperienced when it came to making them. I totally admit to looking up how to fry an egg on YouTube, and went on to experiment with omelets, scrambled eggs, eggs over medium. It’s cliché, but breakfast really did boost my metabolism and give me more energy.
Lunch was typically a salad, and for dinner I again returned to the kitchen and focused on a protein (most often chicken), vegetables (such as kale, bell peppers, and broccoli), and a starch replacement (cauliflower) because…seriously…starches are hard to leave behind. If you want to get fancy, there are recipes out there for cauliflower rice and cauliflower mashed potatoes, but I was only cooking for myself, so simply steaming the cauliflower was fine.
Dinner at the restaurant was more of a challenge. Finding acceptable foods was not easy. On the menu of the restaurant I work at, there are only three gluten free options. Almost everything is made with butter or some other seasoning. This is another area where my leniency kicked in – and also where getting inspiration elsewhere worked wonders.
See, thanks to Pinterest, I was able to find a variety of Paleo recipes. While at work I would ask the chefs for modifications based on those recipes. I would eat hamburgers with no bun and a salad as a side, or a salad with grilled chicken, or ribeye sliders in lettuce cups instead of buns.
Cheats, workarounds and challenges
Full disclosure: I would still use a small amount of ranch dressing for taste on the sliders, but opted for balsamic vinaigrette for my salads (leniency, see). At home, my mom made cookies…and brownies. While I helped myself to them, I did so in moderation. Instead of three cookies, it was one. Instead of a huge palm-sized brownie, it was a third of that. To curb the sweet tooth, I went to my local farmer’s market and bought white nectarines, and I also started making fruit protein shakes because I didn’t feel as though I was getting enough protein in my meals.
One Sunday I went wedding dress shopping with a friend of mine, and I knew we would be having lunch out. Not wanting to be to the person who had to have specific, I had my first cheat day. I ate bread for the first time in two and a half weeks—and my stomach was in knots later that evening. It’s amazing how fast your body adapts to change.
TMI alert: within the first four days of changing my diet, my digestion went into overdrive. I’ve had constipation issues for a long time and have never been regular, and going onto a once-a-day (sometimes more!) schedule was a huge change, and a welcome one at that.
The biggest challenge with Paleo was not the no bread…it was keeping down cost and making time for the food prep (fine, and the clean-up – who likes dealing with dirty dishes?). Had I been strict on the parameters of the diet, organic, grass fed, and cage free foods were the way to go. But grad-student my budget couldn’t accommodate the expense. The simple fact that I was eating vegetables instead of candy was a big improvement, so I wasn’t going to be that hard on myself for not sticking to organic foods.
Results are in
Weighing in at the start of my 30 days, I was 130 pounds and wore a pair of size 6/7 jeans.
On day 30, I was 121.8 pounds and wore a size 2. More than numbers on a scale though, I noticed changes in my body and how my clothes really fit: ab definition, noticeable hipbones, a way smaller muffin top and smaller thighs. I hadn’t much hit the gym, opting for two mile walks with a dog I was watching each day.
I’ve never believed in diets, and I still don’t. People get crazy with their detoxes, juice cleanses, and portion control. I don’t believe that Paleo is a diet – I believe that it’s a lifestyle change. It’s a conscious choice to be aware of what you’re fueling your body with. I’m now a believer in the saying “Abs are made in the kitchen and carved in the gym.”
Though the change in diet didn’t decrease my back pain, it made me feel better about myself. I was happy that I was making healthier choices, and I enjoyed seeing the way my body changed for the better. The regulation in my digestion was also a positive benefit.
It’s been over a month since my 30 day challenge ended, and I while I have fallen off the wagon a bit, I still stick to some of what I learned while Paleo. When I cook for myself, I only make vegetables and protein. It’s the snacking and eating after work that remain problematic, especially with all the Halloween candy in the house.
A lack of income and an increase in bills has made it difficult to continue buying groceries and that was a big part of how I managed to stick to the Paleo guidelines – by cooking for myself. Once I catch up financially, I know I’ll have an easier time falling back into the parameters of Paleo. For now, it’s up to me to make better choices. I will give in to cravings again, I will have cheat days, and I’ll have wine with a friend, but I’m not going to beat myself up over one cookie or a slice of bread. Consistency is key, and I know I have it in me to get there.