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An Honest Look At Paleo: What Worked, What Didn't

Posted by Madie McKay on

With loads of information available on the internet and social media regarding health and wellness, how do you sort through it all to know if you’re eating right? Health fads and trends never cease—conflicting research, tangible results, and claims that “this diet really works” adds to the layers of confusion. Vegan, Raw, Whole30, Macro, Paleo, Plant-Based, High-Carb/Low-Fat, High-Fat/Low-Carb? They all claim to help you lose weight, feel better and live a healthier lifestyle. So, I had to try.

How I Found Paleo

I’m a senior at Point Loma Nazarene University and I still live in a dorm room. That means communal showers, mini fridges and communal kitchens…without a stove top. With a slew of dietary restrictions and a not-so-great cafeteria, I prefer to cook for myself for both health and taste. You can imagine my surprise when I was diagnosed with a parasite that accompanied me back from a semester in Ecuador that apparently thrives on grains and carbs, aka sugars! Discussions with my healthcare providers led me to try the Paleo way of eating. But Paleo without a stove in a dorm room? That’s hilarious.

I have to admit, Paleo grew on me. Plantains and coconut became my best friend, Almond Butter Perfect Bar became my go-to on-the-go snack; I learned to be generous with spices and that cauliflower rice works wonders as a rice substitute. While Paleo was not a piece of cake, the benefits proved to outweigh the extra effort: I was less bloated, had more energy, my skin was clear, my system finally felt in balance and I was stronger than ever in my workouts!

And after two years, two very long years, I am finally parasite free! It was time to celebrate, but instead of reaching for a carton of ice cream, I found myself indulging in a coconut sugar, Paleo-friendly chocolate bar. Why? Because I tasted what my body could feel like when I stripped away all of the known inflammatory foods and replaced them with lots of hearty greens and clean protein.

What is Paleo Anyway?

Paleo is the abbreviated term referring to the Paleolithic Age, which was when our ancestors would hunt, fish and gather for their food. The basis of the diet is meat, fish, eggs, lots of veggies and some fruits and nuts. The diet is well regarded for people with G.I. issues, autoimmune diseases, and athletes because of its anti-inflammatory and make-you-feel-great results.

Because I loved the Paleo way of eating so much during my battle with Pari the Parasite, I decided to incorporate aspects of the diet in my now “normal” life. I made slight modifications in order to compensate for other dietary restrictions but found the basis of the lifestyle to be incredibly doable, even for an on-the-go, busy, college cave girl herself.

Here’s what worked, and what didn’t work as a Paleonista:

What worked

No Sugar: I’m an all-or-nothing type person. When I commit, I commit. But that also means, if I loosen the reigns, all hell breaks loose. While I greatly admire people who can eat certain foods in moderation, I’m not there on my journey with food yet. I especially noticed a “binge” tendency with sugar. It’s either no chocolate or the entire chocolate bar. Maybe even more interesting, though, is the more sugar I eat, the more I crave it, and the less sugar I eat, the less I need it. Don’t get me wrong, sugar is a vital part of nutrition, but is processed, refined sugar what our bodies really need? The Paleo diet takes a strict stance on this type of sugar: don’t touch it. Not only does it rank high on the Glycemic Index, it has no nutritional value, especially considering the process it takes to go from the cane to your table.

Other Sugar: But what about “natural sweeteners” like honey, agave, and maple syrup? Paleo people differ in opinion, but I find the benefits of honey to outweigh the caloric intake. Raw honey, in particular, is unprocessed, can help with local allergies and does not spike your blood sugar like refined sugars. While I quit cold turkey on the refined sugar, and feel way better because of it, I still incorporate some “natural” sweetness into my diet in moderation.

No Legumes: Legumes are a no-go on the paleo diet. Surprising to some, peanuts are considered a legume. Unfortunately for me, I love peanut butter. Peanut butter with apples, in my smoothies, in oatmeal, with carrots, on my salad… I would go through an entire jar of peanut butter a week! While those who stick to a plant-based diet or no diet at all, can tolerate peanut butter (I envy you), I found that once I cut the peanuts, I felt significantly better. In fact, once I cut all legumes (lentils, beans, peas) I noticed a difference. Most notably, the G.I. trouble subsided and I wasn’t bloated or running to the bathroom all the time. This, in part, is due to the tummy-troubling lectins and phytic acid found in legumes.

No Corn: Corn is a real kicker. I had a reoccurring rash on my cheeks that would come and go. I couldn’t figure out the cause and tirelessly searched for months. Until one evening I ate too many corn chips soaked in oil. The next morning, I woke up to find the rash spread all over my face. And it makes sense. Corn is in everything. Corn creeps into meat products, salad dressings and even alcohol! Considered a grain, corn is very rarely organic and is highly genetically modified. This means for the Paleo-follower, check your labels! It sneaks in where you least expect it.

What didn’t work

Red Meat: I haven’t touched red meat since I was eight. While I initially stayed away because of the way it made me feel, I eventually learned about its environmental impact. Yes, opting for organic, grass-fed beef is always the better alternative, but I still found it hard to convince myself to eat red meat. Because Paleo is a protein-rich, meat-heavy diet, it can be difficult and expensive, for those who are also environmentally aware. In no way am I saying that Paleo people are anti-environment, but it is courteous to assume the economic situations of those also wanting to be sustainably minded. Local, free-range chicken, sustainable fish and grass-fed beef can be extremely expensive and therefore was difficult for me to maintain as a college student.

Eggs: Amidst my parasite battle, I also had an allergy test done. While nothing glaring emerged, egg white and egg yolk came up as a moderate allergen. Paleo people live on eggs. This made breakfast in particular very difficult. While I still cut the grains like rice, oats, and white potatoes most of the time, I opted to incorporate good, hearty sourdough bread (with only three ingredients) back into the equation. Add some avocado and lemon pepper, and my breakfast dilemma was solved!

While my modified Paleo diet works well for me, I have come to recognize that our diets are highly individualized; what works for me may not work for you, and what works for you may not work for me. In actuality, we should not be “dieting,” but rather doing what makes our bodies feel good and function well. Eventually the “can’t’s” and the “don’t’s” are replaced with the “can’s” and the do’s.” Our food becomes a part of a lifestyle that ultimately leads to healthy living.