Fad Diet Challenge Pt 1: The Paleo Diet

For the past month, I have been following the Paleo Diet – also known as the ‘Caveman Diet’, all in the name of getting more clued up on fad diets.  If you haven’t heard of it, it is based on the premise our bodies should be eating foods of that of our Paleolithic ancestors. In essence, only foods a Caveman could acquire. Initially, I found it difficult to find consensus on what the Paleo Diet was. Some versions included dairy, but only if full fat. Some included additional fats and oils. Some included legumes and some tea and coffee. If you are interested in the views of some of the advocates for Paleo Style Diets you might like to check out Nora Gedgauda’s site or Loren Cordain’s.

Please note, this blog post is not intended to advise if the Paleo Diet is scientifically correct or even to provide a nutritional analysis. It is solely intended to document my journey in following the diet and some of the more day-to-day or practical aspects of the diet.  The Scoop on Nutrition recently did a review of the nutritional qualities of the Paleo Diet which you can read about here.

What I Ate
Seeing as there was no clear consensus on what a Paleo Diet was, I decided to keep it as simple as I could based on what I thought a Caveman would most likely be able to gather: meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables. I did include root vegetables like potato and yam.  I didn’t include legumes and I ate no additional fats like oil, margarine or butter, no additional sugars, no ‘treat’ foods, no dairy products and no grains (breakfast cereals, ancient grains like quinoa, pasta, rice or bread). I obviously had nothing out of a packet or tin.

Also, bear in mind I am not a meat lover. In following this Paleo Diet, I included meat, chicken or fish in my diet twice each day. I ate about 100-150g for each serving . I didn’t trim the fat off any meats.

paleo dietHow I Measured My Progress
I checked my weight, fasting blood sugars and blood pressure prior to commencing and on completion of the diet. I didn’t check my cholesterol levels (as it can often take longer than 4 weeks for changes in blood cholesterol to occur following diet changes). I also kept my shopping receipts to track changes in spending.  I kept a reflective thoughts diary throughout the process as well.

The Results
Day 1:
I did not get off to a good start. I had aimed to cut out caffeine as part of this diet. I figured a caveman would be unlikely to be cultivating tea and coffee!  Well, this was an epic fail on my behalf. I lasted to 4pm, got a crackin’ headache and threw up for hours (a wee bit addicted me thinks!). So I had two options. I could tough it out for a couple of days to accustom to life without caffeine or keep it in and continue with the diet with caffeine included. I chose to keep it in (with the mantra that this was a wake-up call to change my addiction in the future).  If I had been on holidays I might have chosen the no caffeine approach.  However, the thought of struggling feeling sick whilst at work was not appealing!

fresh mintWeeks 1-2: It took me a couple of days to readjust to the new eating approach. A lot of planning was required – particularly for my lunchtime meals. Without bread and other grains (often which I used to take a sandwich for work), I needed to ensure I had enough leftovers from the night before or cook my lunch before I went to work.

I also needed to re-think my cooking approach and stay creative. For example, I love oil and/or vinegar for salad dressings.  Strictly speaking, these are ‘not allowed’ on a Paleo Diet.  So I adapted by using lemon juice, herbs and salt. For dinners, without my mainstays of pasta and rice, I needed to utilise varying methods of cooking potatoes. One interesting thing I noted was the diet didn’t really lend itself to bulk cooking, freezing meals and then re-heating when required. If you are going to cook simply with few condiments and sauces, food tastes better cooked fresh. I found this particularly difficult to manage with a busy job and lifestyle.

Soon I settled into a routine with food. As long as life wasn’t too busy I seemed to manage.

After a few days, I noticed one important implication for the Paleo Diet for me and this involved exercise. I usually run 4 or 5 mornings/week. I have always found exercise easier first thing. I am more likely to do it, I feel less tired later in the day and it makes me feel energised and ready to tackle the day ahead.  After running I usually have a breakfast consisting of a bowl of muesli or porridge with chopped fruit and milk.

On the Paleo Diet I swapped this to either eating fruit and nuts or spinach and eggs. I found after going for a run and eating this style of breakfast, I generally felt quite tired, lacking in energy and sometimes a little nauseous. I kept running for the first 5 days of this diet but then switched to walking and felt much better.

During these first couple of weeks I noticed my weight had started to drop. I was probbaly eating less calories than normal. Although my protein intake probably stayed fairly similar (just more meat sources rather than vegetarian sources) and my intake of vegetables was the same, I was having no additional fats and sugars, no grains and more fruit (= less calories or energy than my usual diet).

By about day 14, I noticed a change in my mood.  I was getting a bit bored with the removal of grains. I was sick of having to think so much about what I was eating so I ended up eating the same foods most days. In short …..I started to resent food. (arrgh).

Weeks 3-4: The last 1 - 2 weeks were probably the hardest for me. This was the lead-up to Christmas. There were more social occasions I couldn’t be ‘excused from’.  Interestingly, I can see why many dieters or people with food-related health conditions would avoid social outings. It’s difficult and sometimes a little more trouble than it’s worth!

In my last week of the diet I undertook quite a bit of travel and stayed with a variety of family and friends – all who were quite encouraging in helping me to stay on track.

My Dad did find this diet trial highly amusing.  He was keen to ask airline staff and cafe staff at every opportunity if they had caveman diet options!

It was also during this time I had a get-together with fellow Northern Rivers Dietitians and friends: Anna from Create Nutrition, Adelle from Body Balance Nutrition and Skye from Lighthouse Nutrition.  Although it was a little tortuous watching them consume a delicious Pizza from Milk and Honey Mullumbimby, the girls were very supportive and it was good to be able to discuss my progress with other people who work in Nutrition. Our discussions also highlighted one particular lesson in life this diet has taught me….I hate my eating to be controlled! I don’t think I have ever said ‘no‘ to food before. I do try mindful eating. I eat slowly, I really taste food and I appreciate the eating process. However, if someone offers me something tasty to eat, I usually say ‘yes‘.

Towards the end of the diet, I caved in once (excuse the pun), and ate a Non-Paleo meal. I had a Christmas Party with my lovely work colleagues at Bullinah Aboriginal Health Service. We had pre-booked our dinner a few weeks prior and I had forgotten about my impending diet challenge. The up-side of this was I could have a night of eating Non-Paleo Food including a delicious dessert. The down-side was I actually felt quite guilty I wasn’t following the diet to a ‘T’. The guilt resolved and I got back onto it the next day.

The Body Weight, Health Measurements and Other Impacts
My weight dropped 2.5kg on this diet and my blood sugars and blood pressure remained the same.  As discussed earlier, I would guess the weight loss was due to me taking in less calories.  My capacity to undertake my usual exercise routine dropped. Although I don’t have health concerns where I need to maintain large amounts of cardiovascular activities, I do find it fun. I definitely felt a bit flat or ‘low’ with the reduction in exercise.

On the financial side, my food bill went up about $15/week – I had to buy more nuts and meat and less grains than I would normally.  (I usually make my own bread and use a lot of pasta, rice and cous cous – all of which go a long way for $ spent).

On the social and emotional side, the interaction I have with food and others was a downside to this diet. Any eating approach that requires removal of more than one food group has got to have an impact.  Our food culture has evolved so much since Paleo times, that eating out and sharing food is integral to our interaction with others. Unless there is a world-wide push for the majority of people to change to the Paleo way of eating, you might find it hard to stick to this diet religiously.

I also bake my own bread. I really enjoy it and find it quite therapeutic..so I really missed that weekly ritual.

fruit and nuts

The Verdict…
Well, like all healthy “lifestyle” approaches (aka “diets”), it’s all about making you feel bad for not sticking “with the program”. Now it is over I would sum up this diet as only useful for people who want to get back to basics with food that’s less processed.

I would definitely not recommend this diet for athletes – whether professional or not. If you are undertaking a significant amount of cardiovascular activity, I doubt you will go well with the Paleo approach. Similarly, if you are on a tight budget and want to follow a strict Paleo regimen, you may also struggle.

I didn’t find this style of diet suited me.  However, as always I am very open to hearing the thoughts of others who have tried it and what practicalities you noticed. If you are thinking of trying it, maybe my experience will help provide further information.

For now, I am dreaming of breakfast.  “All I want for Christmas is….. Muesli”

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