So I went Paleo...

There are few dietary movements more controversial at the moment than the Paleo movement. It has definitely gained a great deal of traction in Australia in the last few years, largely thanks to Pete Evans (and his program The Paleo Way) and others who have worked to raise awareness about this way of life. However, this increased popularity has not been without its fair share of controversy and outright mud slinging between the Paleo promoters and converts and other groups, including dieticians, doctors, nutritionists and the vegan/vegetarians of this nation. Despite all of this debate surrounding the Paleo movement, I have felt an intuitive pull toward this lifestyle for about a year now. I have read and researched on the scientific and evolutionary basis for this ‘diet’ (I use the word loosely, in the context of being the habitual way of eating of an individual), including reading the incredible book Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas. I have experimented with a Paleolithic style of eating, but I have never fully committed to it. Partially, this was simply due to the fact that I was not ready to commit, I was still working with other aspects of my health and lifestyle, fine-tuning and tweaking to find out what makes me feel the best. Another thing that held me back was a fear of what would happen if I too adopted the Paleo label, due to the aforementioned controversy and stereotypical opinions that are associated with this movement.

However, having researched it deeply, I made the conscious choice on January 1st to go Paleo. I decided to start with committing to 10 weeks, as the classic program run by Pete Evans is the “10 Week Paleo Way Program”. Also, I felt that 10 weeks was a significant enough amount of time to notice the changes, if any that resulted from this dietary change. It was also far less daunting to set myself the goal of 10 weeks sticking to it, rather than trying to commit to this as a lifestyle, before I had even properly trialled it. Furthermore, in giving myself 10 weeks to try the Paleo way of life I also decided that once I reached that milestone I would stop and reflect on how it was working for me.

I passed that 10-week mark sometime last week (by my count), and so here are my reflections on my 10 weeks of Paleo life. Firstly, a disclaimer: I am only human and so I was not 100% perfectly Paleo for the entire 10 weeks. In fact, because I am human I gave myself three “exceptions” I would allow during this period, to avoid any orthorexic-style obsessiveness. These three exceptions were peanut butter (peanuts are a legume and hence not Paleo), red wine (no explanation needed) and dark, organic chocolate. On the odd occasion I would also have a little bit of quinoa or some kind of legume, mostly when other people made salads containing these ingredients. Oh, and over this Easter weekend I even had a few regular chocolate treats (it's all about balance).

So without any further ado, here is my experience of going Paleo…

When I first went Paleo I joked that all I really had to stop eating was rice crackers, dip and cheese, which is essentially a daily staple during our summers on the river. In essence, however, this little joke did highlight the fact that for me, transitioning to a Paleo diet was no great challenge, as I already ate a fairly Paleolithic diet. I did have to eliminate all remaining grains and legumes, dairy and any last traces of sugars that weren’t in whole fruits and vegetables – bye, bye rice malt syrup, maple syrup, dried fruit and honey.

My typical weekly Paleo haul from the Farmer's Market

One of the very first and most rapid changes that I noticed was a complete lack of bloating and other gastrointestinal discomfort that I used to battle daily. I have been aware for some time that I am of a sensitive disposition when it comes to my gut, but I have never been able to complete eliminate all problem foods. Because the Paleo lifestyle eliminates all grains (even gluten-free ones), legumes and reduces sugars down to minimal, low-sugar whole fruits and starchy vegetables, I had little to no digestive discomfort. Within one week of going Paleo my stomach was noticeably flatter and stayed flat throughout the day, where previously it would bloat as soon as I ate (and more so if I ate a lot of fruit, grains or legumes). To put it simply, being Paleo I just felt lighter and way more comfortable in my body. Furthermore, on the occasions that I did eat some kind of grain or legume, such as quinoa, lentils, chickpeas or even peanut butter, I noticed the bloating immediately returned. As such, after about five weeks I decided to remove one of my exceptions, swapping peanut butter for almond butter, ABC (almonds, brazil nuts and cashews) spread and tahini (ground sesame seeds).

Spicy Sweet Potato Soup

Another change I observed was the absence of sugar and carb cravings and a more stable appetite. I have written in the past about my battle with over-eating and binge eating, some of which I believe to be emotional, but also due to the fact that I used to constantly crave food. It rarely, if ever, felt satiated and I was always looking for the next snack. I would eat and then be hungry an hour later. After going Paleo I pretty quickly found that my appetite was much more manageable, I would eat intuitively, when I felt hungry and find myself satiated and able to go for hours without needing snacks. I think this is likely due to the high fat content of the Paleo diet, which allows you to feel truly full and satisfied without needing to eat large quantities of food, as you generally do with high carbohydrate foods. Having said that, when I have days of greater hunger I simply go with it and eat a little more, because I also have days where my appetite is much lower and I may eat less or decided to fast intermittently by skipping one meal. Let me be clear, I am in no way depriving myself of food, but simply going Paleo has allowed me to clear all the “static” of my cravings and listen attentively to my own appetite. Once again, on the occasions where I deviated from my Paleolithic diet I found myself craving foods and feeling unsatisfied. Coincidence? I think not.

Paleo Bircher Muesli

As I progressed further into my Paleo experiment I started to notice some other cool changes in my body. Firstly, my skin cleared up. Whilst it is still not perfectly clear and I am still experimenting with what works for me in terms of natural skincare, there has been a definite improvement in the past few months and it has more of an even ‘glow’ than I can ever remember having. Additionally, I did lose just a little bit of weight and I feel leaner. In fact, maybe I didn’t lose any weight, but simply lost the bloating around my stomach. I don’t weigh myself, so I couldn’t give a figure, but I certainly can see the changes in my own body, as can my family. Again, I want to emphasise that weight loss was not on the agenda, nor was it the reason that I wanted to go Paleo, but it does happen to be a pretty common side benefit of adopting this way of life. My hair is also thick, glossy and strong, a welcome change after the rapid and prolonged hair loss I experienced last year (resulting from the stress of moving cities and my whole new life in Melbourne).

A lazy Paleo meal: free-range steak, sweet potato fries and guac/salsa combo.

I also have very consistent and reliable energy levels throughout the day. This was not something I struggled with much prior to going Paleo, since I value my sleep and I am a pretty energetic person anyway. But now I find that instead of having blood sugar peaks and dips throughout the day, as happens when you burn carbohydrates for energy, I have steady energy throughout the day, which is associated with being in a state of fat-burning (also known as ketosis). Not only do I not crave foods, but also I do not find myself needing energetic pick-me-ups in the mid-afternoon. What’s more, about five weeks into this experiment I realised I had not craved or eaten chocolate, even the dark kind, since the beginning. Thus, my third exception of dark chocolate was eliminated and subsequent chocolate cravings satisfied with homemade treats containing organic raw cacao (chocolate in its natural, raw form).

Some Paleo treats - Raw Tahini Slice + Sweet Potato Brownies

Finally, throughout this process I was committed to really experimenting with all aspects of the Paleo lifestyle. This included a few new foods, such as bone broth, organ meats and gelatine. I had read about the health benefits of these Paleo ‘super foods’ many times, but I had always been kind of hesitant to try them because I was freaked out by the idea of these forms of animal protein. This soon changed, as I purchased Gut Lovin’ Gelatin from Sarah Wilson and began incorporating it into my smoothies and fatty lattes. My first batch of bone broth was a highlight of this whole experience, as I produced a whole slow cooker full of nutrient-rich and delicious broth. In addition, I had managed to extract the gelatine from the bones so well that this broth literally set into a jelly in the fridge – so cool! Both of these foods are known to be particularly good for gut healing and skin health, two things I am definitely all about maximising. As for the organ meats I have only tried making pâté so far (chicken livers), but I am keen to try a few other cuts in my slow cooker in the near future.

My favourite Indian Spiced Slow-Cooked Lamb Shoulder with Cauliflower Leaf Chips

The verdict? Paleo definitely works, for me. I just feel better, I love the food and it has given me the best overall, daily health that I have had in years. Having said that, I am not going to be so dogmatic and strict that I will never deviate from the Paleo guidelines. I am all about balance, so my second exception – red wine – is here to stay. I’ll just choose organic and sulphate-free, and stick to a glass or two on the occasion. At the end of the day, however, every single person and hence every single body is different. What may work wonders for me could make another person feel sick and lethargic. The message in all of this is to simply experiment as much as you can to find out what works for you. Don’t let yourself be convinced by someone else’s story of success; you have to try it for yourself. If it works, that’s great, but if not just keep searching.

And with that, I wish you the happiest of experimenting with your diet and lifestyle, because it should be a fun and enjoyable process! Life is too short to be taken so seriously. And on that note, I hope you have had a wonderful Easter and enjoyed all your chocolatey treats!

Love Erica x