Hi. My name is Heather. I'm a dietitian. You might remember me from a post I wrote bashing the Paleo diet and my ode to it dying a miserable death in a world already overfilled above capacity in terms of diets.
Then, like some sick form of karma, all the ailments that a Paleo diet is said to cure starting falling upon me. My brain was in a fog. My stomach ached. I slept enough but felt like I'd been awake for days upon end. My nails had telltale little white spots indicating a nutritional deficiency despite my well-balanced diet. My joints were sore, I couldn't put on muscle, and forgot every piece of information that entered my brain.
This all happened when my son stopped breastfeeding. That means my diet was finally unrestricted due to his allergies. I was once again free to indulge in whatever I felt like whenever I wanted. It was like I was a relapsing drug addict. I ate cheese. And bread. And more cheese. Oh did I mention cheese? I shoved forkfuls of melty-gooey pasta in my mouth over and over again. I shoveled hot cheesy dips into my mouth like they were a main entrée, not a pre-meal snack meant to accompany some chips or veggies. I stopped by the bagel shop after dropping my son off at school every morning for a sugar-laden bagel and cream cheese. I don't even like cream cheese. But I could eat it -- so I did.
And then everything fell apart. While I should have felt great, getting to keep all those calories for myself instead of sharing them with my son, I felt awful. Much against my will, I returned to my former way of eating: no dairy, no soy, no gluten. I put my tail between my legs and cut myself off cold-turkey. And then I had to admit it. I, Heather, former hater of the Paleo diet, was practically a paleo-ite. The dairy tore up my stomach. The wheat fogged my brain. As I hunted and searched and foraged for new recipes, I constantly found myself landing on the ones labeled Paleo or primal. It's easy to find a gluten-free recipe. It's easy to find a dairy-free recipe, too. But both? That was harder. Add in being soy-free, and it was almost nearly impossible. Aside from the beans I still love and eat, my diet was looking more and more Paleo everyday.
For starters, a Paleo diet is not new by any means -- we've just been hearing a lot about it lately. First emerging around the 1970s, the Paleo diet takes a cue from our ancestors, advocating we follow their hunter-gatherer eating habits. This includes meat and fish that hasn't been subject to our revolutionized food production methods, such as the use of hormones and antibiotics, fruits and vegetables that haven't morphed into toxin-laden plants, and ditching anything highly processed and packaged for an extended life of on a shelf. Paleo diet experts and enthusiasts claim following this primal-based diet can prevent or help treat ailments like digestive disease, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more. It can help with less profound (but important) issues as well, like poor skin quality, lack of energy, and improved sleep.
So, is Paleo really as awful as I made it out to be in my head? Is it really the panacea for seemingly all ailments like advocates make it out to be? I think I probably still fall somewhere in the middle. I think the Paleo diet is a great way to get people to open up their minds to a new way of eating, especially if they had utterly disastrous eating habits to start with. You can't argue with someone who changes their diet, and feels leaps and bounds better. (If that diet they change to is Paleo, then so be it -- it doesn't really matter what the diet was, it matters what the end result is.) But I'm not entirely convinced we can yet say it's the absolute best diet for everyone. It's a good starting block to get people to pay attention to how certain foods make them feel, but the end responsibility falls into the individual's lap to decide which foods pump them up and which drag them down. I have a hard time thinking I'll ever eliminate beans from my diet because I don't notice ill effects from them. But maybe I'm not healthy enough to notice the minute differences right now, and as I continue to heal I'll change my tune. I also continue to stand by my main point of the first piece I wrote: that the general population isn't following the Paleo diet the way it was intended. You need to be educated to do this nutritionally right, and many people skip that step. This is not the diet you follow because you love bacon and get to eat it endlessly. If the bulk of your diet is meat, meat, and more meat, you're still going to run into health problems. If you follow the principles the way they're intended, you'll be eating lots, and lots, and lots of vegetables. And that I can get on board with for everyone. Also in my humble opinion, I think we should focus less on whether or not our cavemen ancestors ate something and more on what it does to our health currently.
Bottom line in my book, I think it comes down to both education and individuality. As NYC-based nutritionist Jennifer Andrus states, "There's a lot of space between Paleo and a crappy diet of Pop-Tarts and McDonald's."
-Photo Credit: Heather Neal
-By: Heather Neal
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