7 days on the Paleo diet, or how I learned to live without cheese

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This is what Paleo looked like thousands of years ago. It was a time before cheese and delicious garbage food. Getty Images/iStockphoto

I used to be a major skeptic of any wellness trend. I also used to take cabs through the Taco Bell drive-through, so maybe I just didn’t care that much about my health. Then, this year my family went through a handful of health crises, and it occurred to me that eating boxed mac’n’cheese for dinner probably wasn’t going to help me avoid the same problems. That’s why I’m game to try the latest trends in wellness, and see if they’re worth the hype.

Experiment One: The Paleo Diet

When it comes to the Paleo diet, you may think of buff jocks who scale rocks for exercise and eat out of ominous freezers full of meat. That's what I used to think. Publications as credible as The New York Times have portrayed it that way, after all.

For those unfamiliar, the paleo diet involves cutting out several food groups, including dairy, grains, processed foods, added sugar, and legumes.

So, what do you get to eat?

It turns out the options aren’t as limited as you might think: vegetables, fruits, grass-fed meat, organic poultry, wild-caught fish, nuts, and seeds. Considering that we live in a culture whose diet is referred to as the SAD (Standard American Diet) by nutritionists, we could all stand to rebuild our eating habits around vegetables and fruits. (Where you fall on how much -- if any -- meat we should be eating is another topic.)

So, what are the benefits of eating Paleo? Turns out there are many, but the most frequently touted is its ability to lessen the glycemic load by reducing the blood-sugar crashes that come with high-carbohydrate foods. These foods trigger an “insulin rollercoaster” that can cause everything from mood swings to diabetes.

The diet also maps closely to Dr. Amy Myers’ The Autoimmune Solution, where she claims people who suffer from autoimmune conditions ranging from lupus to Crohn’s disease can benefit from removing certain foods from consumption. Myers’ system is reflected in the Whole30 diet, which is basically a 30-day paleo reset that also bans alcohol. The program aims to help people understand how certain foods trigger symptoms of inflammation that range from nausea to acne to headaches.

The Paleo diet also has haters. The U.S. News and World Report’s main criticisms are that the diet is hard to follow, it’s expensive, and that cutting out grains, legumes, and dairy may mean missing out on key nutrients.

 

Seven days later, here’s what I learned:

This diet is tasty
The food on a paleo diet is more delicious than most other I’ve tried. Adding a lot of fat (olive oil, nuts, avocados) back into meals and snacks feels like a treat after years being told fat is bad. Cooking dinners that feature a quality cut of meat and a well-seasoned side felt like eating at a restaurant. I also ate a whole jar of almond butter in a week, which was fun.

You have to get off Pinterest to find good recipes
Most of what turned up was either junk food recipes made with paleo ingredients (paleo muffins, brownies, pizza, etc.) or just piles of meat on sad-looking vegetables. I would suggest getting creative instead of resorting to a week of burgers sans bun. There are endless varieties of vegetables in the world — this is a great time to get to know them.

Food tastes more intense without grainy carbs
If you think about it, bread, crackers, and rice are pretty bland. They’re like white pillows on which we put foods to calm them down. Without bread, I tasted the marinades on meat more, as well as the quality of produce. I found this unexpected, and grew to like it.

Overall, I experienced a pleasant sense of wellbeing
This may be the feeling of empowerment I got from saying no to Coke Zero, beer, and doughnuts, but I felt much better than I had during December’s buffet of holiday gluttony. I had plenty of energy, rarely felt the craving for sugary foods of any kind, slept well, and was in a very positive mood.

My mouth tasted better
I no longer got that sugar sweater that usually directs me to gum and mints all day. (Also, I read once that crackers turn into a sugar paste between our teeth. Ever since then, I’ve wondered if they also turn into a sugar paste in our bodies, too. If so, that is scary.)

Paleo is expensive
I did put down a pretty penny on produce and fancy organic meats. If you’re going paleo, Trader Joe’s is your friend. Their produce and meat aren’t excellent, but organic meat is affordable there and you can get a lot of pre-cut, ready-to-eat produce.

Drinking is not that fun while on Paleo
I found that drinks went right to my head, and were more likely to irritate my stomach. This makes me wonder if America’s binge-drinking culture is aided by our carby drunk foods (like my favorite, the Gordita). Like I said, carbs are like big, bland pillows, so they’re great at soaking up booze. Despite all this, it’s still totally bearable to enjoy wine while Paleo. (Beer is out though!)

Losing weight is easy
I lost 2.5 pounds just in one week, which is a lot for me. I’m only 5’3”, so I usually need to suffer to lose any weight. I didn’t restrict myself at all, and never felt overly hungry.

Sometimes, I was the meat machine
At one brunch, the only thing I could order was an “all meat omelet.” I also found myself ordering meat-related appetizers before a meat-centric entrée twice.

There’s a transition period
People call this “detoxing” from sugar, but that term sounds fake and buzzy. I’ve read that the detox is more about adapting your gut bacteria to a different variety of foods, and allowing your body to convert to burning fat instead of mostly glucose. Once that kicks in, you’ll feel better.

You can’t just quit Paleo in one day
To truly experience the diet, reintroducing non-Paleo foods should be done mindfully. As I add back in dairy, garbage food, and Coke Zero, I’ll pay attention to whether or not they make me feel awful.

There’s something to the whole caveman thing
At first I thought the caveman conceit was designed to appeal to some kind of regressive male fantasy. But after a week, I found the “would a caveman do this” filter quite useful. If I were to remain paleo in the long-term, I might consider moving away from things like protein powder and almond milk just to see if I felt better with exclusively whole food ingredients.

VERDICT:
If you can stomach meat (digestively or morally), the Paleo diet may be worth a shot. I never felt deprived -- and I didn’t even miss cheese, which is my favorite food. I felt great, lost weight, and enjoyed lots of delicious meals. It also forced me to get creative in the kitchen. I won’t swear off gouda or beer forever just yet though, but it’s great to know I can go back to Paleo basics if I start to feel crappy again.

Pros:
Tasty food
Sense of wellbeing
Makes you better at cooking
Satiating
No calorie counting

Cons:
Ugly recipes
Hard to explain while eating out with friends
Family thinks you’re crazy
Expensive
No cheese 


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