What I Learned by Trying the Paleo Diet

An update: This post was originally written in 2013. Since that time, I tried Paleo a heck of a lot more and began to completely love the way it made me feel. I did some tweaking, of course (I’m convinced I didn’t eat enough carbs in my first 30-day trial, thus making me feel like crap).

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So, yeah.

These days, I eat about a mostly Whole Foods (or “paleo”, as per popular lexicon) diet now, and have for a couple years. That said, I still love me a cheat treat. Favorites include: pizza, macaroni and cheese, and ice cream from a dairy-filled cow.

This is, obviously, a pretty different conclusion than what you might imagine happened after the end of this blog post. But, well, life is like that, and sometimes you are 100% wrong about something. In this case, this way of eating is for me, and my 2013 self just didn’t know it yet;)

 

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Last month, I did a long-planned thirty day experiment on the Paleo diet (also known as the “Whole 30” diet) – meaning I eliminated all grains, dairy, sugar and legumes from my diet for one month in order to cleanse and improve my overall health. It was a huge challenge for me, one of my goals for 2013, and something I’m just plain thrilled to have behind me. As with all challenges, it didn’t come without some lessons learned.

In thinking about the process of radically changing one area of my life (in this case my diet), I thought about the key things that the month taught me.

Here are a few of the key things I learned about myself in the process.

1. I am disciplined when I went to be 

This wasn’t the first time I learned this, of course, but it was a nice reminder. Not having run a marathon in over four years, I sometimes wonder how much I can really challenge myself physically when push comes to shove. Doing such a difficult (for me) food diet was a great reminder of what I can do. Every time my husband commented on how impressed he was that I wasn’t eating nachos/ice cream/milk in my tea, I grinned. Wide.

2. Hard things can be worth it 

The experience taught me, like other challenges before have taught me, that hard things can be worth it when you are doing them for a particular aim. For me, I had great hopes of health improvement on the diet, and that fact alone kept me singularly focused on completing the month of challenging food choices.

3. Sometimes everyone is wrong 

It’s hard for me to say this, but I didn’t become swayed by the Paleo diet. And boy, did I want to be. I had read so many books extolling its virtues to the high heavens that I was already envisioning the ways I would shout its name from the rooftops. One month later, that’s not what I’m doing. Yes, I lost weight (no, I wasn’t trying to, but yes, they say most people do). Yes, I experienced some alleviation of digestive issues.

Unfortunately, though, I can also hands-down say that I have never been more exhausted and irritable in my life. I read the forums about why that might be so (some people eating Paleo just need more carbs like sweet potatoes in their lives, for example), but ultimately the overwhelming sense of how I felt (not great) made me come away from the whole experience exhausted at a) how much I had to think about about food all month, and b) being exhausted. I wanted to love it, I really did. But I didn’t. Although I’m sure my eating habits will be altered going forward as a result, I’m not quite sure how that will play out over time just yet.

Overwhelmingly, it was a tough month, and not a very fun month. I didn’t like constantly having to plan each and every meal, constantly fretting about eating out at friend’s houses or restaurants and what on earth I would be able to eat while there, and constantly eating only hard boiled eggs and cut veggies when traveling. (Yes, I know seasoned Paleos do this far better than I did, but I’m just sharing how it was for me.) So now, with a tough month behind me, it’s time to eat some nachos.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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29 thoughts on “What I Learned by Trying the Paleo Diet

  1. After two weeks on Paleo, I feel dizzy, have no energy, and am short of breath. When should I start feeling better?

    • If I were you, I would quit before you do your self harm, that may be difficult to reverse. Take it from someone who thought they should stick with it and allowed the diet to really mess me up. Find a balance and eat what works for you.

  2. About two years ago, I took it upon myself to begin eating a Paleo diet. I had been experiencing lower left abdominal pain, which I still maintain is being caused by three Fibroids in and around my uterus. But since I was being passed back and forth like a football between the Gastroenterologist and Gynaecologist , neither owning that my symptoms were pertaining to either specialty, I was desperate to help cure myself of this pain. What I ended up with is far worse than anything I was experiencing pre-Paleo. My health deteriorated, but I convinced myself that I just needed to do it better, stick with it and healing would begin. I am now trying to reclaim my health with a more balanced approach, that includes grains and legumes. The Paleo diet has really messed up my digestive system. I used to have regular bowel movements with no issues passing them. My stool has not looked normal since shortly after beginning this diet. Undigested fat, mucous and varying consistency. We are not a one-size-fits-all, and I really resent the advocators of this diet insinuating that this is the best diet for everyone. I have read the countless reviews of people who have really improved their health on this diet, and I believe them to be true. But for me, this is not the case, my body type needs the carbohydrates that grains supply, and I simply feel better with them back in my diet. I will continue to eat clean, unprocessed food, but I will listen to what my body wants, rather than forcing three eggs down my throat, when what I really feel like is a piece of bread and butter. I have posted this rather lengthy comment for others who may be struggling with the Paleo diet, wondering why it’s not working for them, to know they are not alone. Listen to your body, do what works for you.

  3. Same here! I tried Paleo for 2 weeks and felt so sluggish and miserable that I stopped. Then I tried again for 30 days (like you, I really wanted to see it work!), but the second time I added potatoes and all other tubers. That time I felt MUCH better and started to notice the benefits everyone was talking about.

    So my gutter theory is… a rare percentage of people would not have survived during caveman times. I don’t even think my body type existed in caveman times! I am naturally thin and have a VERY high metabolism. I’m designed for feast times, not famine times, as I cannot store fat very well and therefore wouldn’t have made it past skipping lunch back in that era.

  4. I have been on paleo for 3 weeks now and I have never felt better! I don’t have much weight to lose but I have patella femoral syndrome which I have been going to physio for 3 years for and have never recovered so it is impossible for me to do any intense cardio. For this reason, I chose this diet.

    This has been the best diet I have ever done! I haven’t once felt rubbish. In fact, the total opposite. I’ve never had so much energy and love being in control! Previously I’d binge like mad on carbs and sugar. Now, for the first time in my life I just eat when hungry. This is no longer about losing weight its a way of life! I do however drink almond milk and say 3 muiller lights a week. Occasionally I use full fat mayo, cows milk. I just do what works for me!

    My friend has tried it and can’t cope as she feels lethargic and ill.

    Everyone is different.

  5. I too have gone Paleo for over 30 days. I am 58 and just went to a doctor for some hormone balance. I was feeling fine except for hot flashes. The doctor put me on the diet because she thinks everyone should be on it. After some blood tests I was told that my blood sugar is a little high so I was restricted from any type of sugar. I was told I could have one fruit every other day but that was it. So I cut out wheat, corn, sugar. Cold turkey. I feel horrible. My stomach hurts, I have dizzy spells, and I feel weak. My family and friends think I am crazy to follow this diet since I have always been thin and am now losing weight. Nothing tastes good to me anymore. I don’t like what I eat so I just don’t eat much. I think that there are good points to this diet but it is just too restrictive and too much work. I plan to gradually have some grains or maybe fruit. I feel better hearing that someone else did not “feel wonderful” after the 30 days.

    • Hi Anon

      Thank you for posting this for others to see.

      I have been on this Paleo diet for about 8 months now and have lost 25 kilos, that is the great part of it, but I too am feeling disinterested in food, I cannot eat a lot especially in the morning I struggle as I have gone off eggs and avo, which is too rich for me, so this then affects how I feel during the day (weak and exhausted, no energy, nauseous, and was recently ill with gastro, this seems to be taking forever to get well again after a month.

      I would welcome any comments as I am sure my body is needing a balance to start the day off so that I am not starving myself to death.

      Kind regards
      PS I am 54

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  7. I have re-shaped the diet to better suit my lifestyle (no longer paleo). But for a single guy its impossible to eat that many veggies and no legumes. I basically just eliminate gluten and dairy. I love it and my immune system seems to have benefited. I also have packed on muscle. There is an occasional slip day, where a cookie accidentally slips into my mouth. Oooops.

    Great job making it a month.

    Chris

  8. How awesome! I weighed 300lbs last year (midjune) but with paleo eating and working out I managed to drop down to 240lbs. I’m still on the same track and hope to weigh as close to 200lbs as possible by graduation this year. People constantly criticize my funny eating habits and the workouts I do, but HEYYYYY it’s all good. The doctor says I’m healthy and I feel great, so really I don’t care what these “haters” have to say. Keep on Claire. You are doing great!

  9. How much fat were you eating? Hard boiled eggs and veggies with no dressing for lunch is not enough calories to sustain anyone. If you did Paleo while trying to keep low fat, I’m not shocked that you felt miserable all month long.

    If you’re ever game to try again, make sure there’s enough fat in the house – lard, butter, coconut oil and milk to both stretch/dilute the protein and fully satisfy you. Have some coconut milk with your coffee. Make your own mayo if necessary and turn that egg into an egg salad. Go to a fast food place and order fatty hamburgers while ditching the bun with a nice side salad (and dressing!) I never had to plan every traveling meal or have lunch be hard boiled eggs for a whole month. 🙁

  10. Claire,

    Thanks for your openness. I don’t know much about the Paleo diet. What’s the elevator pitch for it? Why were you hoping that you would love it? What did you want to change about yourself through your diet?

    A few years ago I became vegetarian. It was an unexpected thing. Not motivated by a need to lose weight or a love of animals, or a call to help the environment, or trend. Something switched in me – a reaction to some other things.

    I’ve found that friends are happy to make me something meat free, and happy to eat meat free when they visit. The best meals I’ve had were at restaurants that just made what the chef came up with, since there wasn’t a vegetarian special. I did struggle with lack of protein for a while, until I figured it out ( I run long distance too – so protein feels a concern for me ). I’m always on the lookout for a new recipe to try.

    Not sure if it’ll last forever, but it feels right – most of the time I just don’t notice.

    I like the three things you reflected from your experiment.

  11. I tried the Paleo diet in support of my friends at Crossfit. However, I too have moved on. I had too. I was feeling weak, looking sick and losing too much weight. But in moving on, I kept some of the wonderful things about Paleo like the emphasis on cleaner eating and some of the great veggie recipes we discovered. What I have added back are grains such as oatmeal and baked fresh whole wheat bread and some legumes. I feel better now and stronger than I did on the diet.

  12. Comparing 30 days of disciplined eating and the subsequent mental side effects to a lifetime of eating anything one desires…sounds like your intention was simply to inconvenience yourself rather than actually improve your health by closely scrutinizing your fuel intake?

    You gained some insight into what your body really needs! You discovered that refined sugar and white flour have a drug like effect on your body (surely the physical cause of your crankiness while eating a more “unrefined” diet during the short term, withdrawal symptoms no doubt). More to the point, you learned what a stigma it is in society to be a contrarian…this is priceless. I applaud your effort, however, it looks like you have not fully committed to improving your health by governing your nutritional in take…that saddens me 🙁

  13. Claire
    I have also been “trying” the Paleo diet for a year. Sometimes it went well – sometimes not. Cravings hit around mid-afternoon and I’m into the nut butters and chocolate!
    I suspect I need more carbs, but what kind? I’ve checked out some of the women’s weight training magazines and they follow a somewhat Paleo diet, but eat oatmeal and some milk products – yogurt and protein mixes. They focus on “clean” eating.
    When you look at all the diets and lifestyles (paleo, vegetarian, vegan, clean eating, etc) what is in common – NOT eating the junk – sugar, processed grains, fried food, etc. It is eating the best possible, least processed food for your body.
    So, I’m going to focus on choosing healthy foods. I know by now what to avoid – they make me feel crappy.
    Ash – love your food choices!

  14. I sometimes think these diets should be used to bend you to the middle path. The other thing I am learning is that the better I understand my body the better I eat. Having an older body makes it a better laboratory than a young one that rejuvenates itself. I think that a lot of these diets help a subset of the population that share a certain set of dietary/digestive/lifestyle/genetic characteristics and if you are one of them, good luck to you. All I know is that the core of My steady diet (that I will not change include: eggs, beef, basmati rice, cod liver oil, oats, spinach, blood oranges, papaya, pears, red apples, psyllium fibre, salmon, sardines, rye bread) + eliminate (fructose not found in the above) and so it goes …

  15. On this diet, or Atkins, or any where you lose a ton of water, you must take a potasium supplement. Once you lose potassium, all the symptoms you mention kick-in- irritability, super tiredness, and even sharp pains in your kidneys. Sometimes, when I start one of these again, I forget, those symptoms start to hit aftre a day or two, and I think about giving up. Then I remember the potassium. Once I get regulated anyway, I feel tons of energy, clarity of mind, sinuses clear, its an amazing feeling.

    • Super helpful Gigi. I’ll totally remember that next time for sure. I’d love to do it again, but need it to be a better experience;)

  16. Thank you for addressing this. MANY of my friends, specifically the ones I work out with, did the Whole30 and/or have gone Paleo. It was nice to hear a balanced review. I fully respect their choice and haev supported them in their goals but it’s not for me. It reminds me a lot of Atkins and South Beach in previous decades — it’s just hard for me to believe something like “all the bacon you could want” but no grains for example is a balanced approach.

    • Totally — with Paleo I was bummed I coudn’t have more bacon! (I guess grass-fed with low fat content is OK…)

      • With this comment I don’t understand when you say “I couldn’t have more bacon and low fat content is OK?” This to me doesn’t sound like the Paleo mindset. The body’s primary fuel souce is fat so if you were trying to do this diet with cutting out saturated fats and healthy fats will definitaly make you want to stop doing it. You will be lethargic and depressed if your body doesn’t get enough fat. I eat sausage with my eggs in the morning, full fat salad dressings, full fat mayo, full fat dairy and I get fatty cuts of meat on purpose because it makes me feel better adding fat in my diet. I’ve have a lot more energy eating this way and I don’t have carb crashes like I used to or crave sugar. I also think giving up artificial sweeners is key as well. I think articles like this give this diet a bad name becuase in my opinion people either aren’t doing the diet correclty or they don’t do it long enough to reap the benefits. Sounds like you tried for 30 days which is good but with that last comment and leaving a lot of what you ate out of your post I’m skeptical you were following the diet correclty. I’m intersted in what you were in fact eating on a daily basis to warrant your opintion. Just my two cents.

        • I’ve just finished my first Whole 30, and I have to say that the evangelical followers who have no problem shaming people who are making drastic efforts to find a healthier lifestyle were one of the worst parts of the program for me. The fact is that not all bodies are the same, and not everyone benefits from the same kind of diet. Whole 30 helped me (and it sounds like Claire as well)develop a better relationship to food, and taught me to pay attention to what I put in my body. I will keep many of those habits. But I was also sick the entire month, even “following all of the rules” and working with experts on the forum. I developed awful digestive issues I never had before, got sick frequently, and had awful mood swings. (Oh I know how many people would simply contribute this to my prior eating habits and the ever-so-creepy “sugar dragon”!) I also cleared my chronic sinus problems to a large degree. I’ve added in some crabs, taken off a little fat, and started to include yogurt and things are getting back on track. Tons of healthy fats may indeed be beneficial, but switching full force is a shock to the system. I’ll keep working my way there, but gradually.

          • I have been doing Paleo for three mo. Eat tons, but still sicker than I have been in my life, I started with whole 30 then, I really think adding all food groups to your diet is much more reasonable. Even if you keep a some of the Paleo approach. Tired of being sick, my moods all over the place and was never about weight and all about trying to eat healthier.

  17. I don’t know if it was supposed to, but this made me laugh! I’ve heard quite a bit about Paleo and Raw diets lately – some of my friends are on one or the other. Just the thought of all the deliciousness that I’d have to give up for these diets makes me irritable, so I understand. But well done on sticking to it for the whole month!