Why I'll Never Go Paleo

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01_Gluten_8_RockieNolanPhotographed by Rockie Nolan.
All my life, bread and I have had a very close, loving relationship — fraught with complex emotions and politics. When I was a kid, my grandmother baked about once a week. Every time, I would loiter around that golden ball of starch like a dog waiting for a scrap of bacon, asking every few minutes if it was ready to eat yet. Eventually, she would give in and cut me a thick slice, its inside downy-soft and still steaming. There was something about that bread that held me transfixed.

This resulted, unsurprisingly, in both a lifelong love affair with carbs and a weight problem. So, I did what many of us have done at some point: I replaced the word “white” in my diet with “whole wheat.” And, whether it was due to the absence of processed flour or the fact that I was consuming less bread overall (Udi’s has nothing on my grandmother), I lost weight — and I felt better, too.

Later, as I reached a plateau in my fitness goals — and as the Paleo and gluten-free crazes began to gain steam in wellness circles — I began to look more critically at my carb intake. I ended up cutting out whole grains to try a (mostly) gluten-free approach. Though it was very difficult and went against everything I held dear, I have to admit that cutting out gluten made me feel lighter, stronger, sharper, and more productive. I figured I might as well go all the way: I decided to give Paleo a try.
04_Gluten_11_RockieNolan-(1)Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
The so-called Paleo diet was popularized by Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor and researcher at Colorado State who has a Ph.D in exercise physiology — although researchers have been singing the praises of similar plans since at least the 1970s. For the uninitiated, the “paleolithic diet” is based on the concept that the human body has not evolved to handle many modern, American foods — and, thus, the idea that we can maximize our health by approximating the diets of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This means no cereal grains, no legumes, no potatoes, no refined sugar or salt, no dairy, and, obviously, no processed foods. As with any fad diet worth its salt, Paleo’s official website offers a laundry list of alluring claims, from weight loss to better sleep to increased libido to improved acne symptoms.

Paleo devotees (and there are many) are correct to point out that underpinning the caveman gimmick is some pretty solid science. By cutting out starchy carbs and sugar, you’re eliminating most foods with a high glycemic index. These foods cause a spike in blood sugar, so instead of keeping you full, they result in an inevitable crash as your body releases insulin to compensate for the rise in blood glucose levels. This messes with your body’s ability to tell whether it’s hungry or not. Instead, Paleo prioritizes foods that are high in both protein and fiber in order to maximize satiety without having to load up on carbs. From a nutritional standpoint, there’s really a lot to like about the diet. And, while I knew it would be hard to give up all carbs (plus dairy, beans, salt and sugar), I figured the outcome would make the effort more than worthwhile.

So, I tried it. I said goodbye to brown rice and sweet potatoes, as well as my beloved fiber-filled black beans and chickpeas, replacing them with nuts, fruits, and veggies — and a hell of a lot of meat. I even shunned quinoa, which is technically not a grain but is still not really super Paleo, according to Dr. Cordain. I did everything right; I made well-rounded salads in gargantuan batches to serve as my weekday lunches, ate a good breakfast, and chowed down on caveman-nish quantities of chicken, lean ground beef, and salmon steaks.
03_Gluten_7_RockieNolanPhotographed by Rockie Nolan.
As it turned out, going Paleo was a revelatory experience — but not in the way I expected. I found that cutting out all carbs while keeping my (pretty vigorous) activity level constant created a thoroughly unpleasant and unsustainable metabolic situation. As expected, the first two weeks were a blur of almost constant carb cravings. I was hungry all the time — a kind of hunger that couldn’t be quenched by carrot sticks and chicken. I felt none of the clearheadedness and mental acuity I had felt on my merely gluten-free regime. To the contrary, I felt cloudy, lightheaded, and never fully present. To make matters worse, I noticed a significant negative impact on my physical performance during exercise. I wasn’t able to push myself nearly as much as I usually did; I was frustrated to find my body giving out after 30 minutes on the treadmill. I felt profoundly weak, as if the increased strength and endurance I had worked so hard for over the years had been stolen in the night.

In light of my experience, I spoke with Shira Lenchewski, registered dietitian and nationally recognized nutrition expert, about her thoughts on paleo. Her response will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever tried any type of diet plan. “While there are certainly benefits to eating this type of stripped down, back-to-basics diet, I don’t believe uber-restrictive diets are sustainable; [they] lend themselves to binging.” For a more realistic approach, she suggests focusing on cutting out foods that cause inflammation, including added sugar, gluten, and processed carbs. But, she says, “I don’t, on the other hand, recommend giving up legumes, greek yogurt and yogurt cheese, or gluten-free whole grains like certified gluten-free oats, quinoa, and brown rice.”

Interestingly, while many athletes and otherwise active people have found success with Paleo, fitness experts seem to be divided on the importance of carbs for physically active folks. The American College of Sports Medicine provides a vigorous defense of carbs as the body’s ideal source of calories for production of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP — the fuel it needs for daily activities. Moreover, carbs serve numerous important roles, including enabling the body to oxidize (burn) fat and store energy for efficient use during physical activity later on. However, Lenchewski points out that there’s a difference between the carbs you need during exercise (the simple ones, such as coconut water) versus those that are useful throughout the day (complex carbs such as brown rice or sweet potatoes, which have fiber to help control blood-sugar levels).
02_Gluten_2_RockieNolanPhotographed by Rockie Nolan.
Perhaps the most important thing I realized from my experiment was that, believe it or not, my inability to sustain the paleo lifestyle actually had nothing to do with my love of bread. I simply found I wasn’t ok with the way my body worked without carbs, compared with my balanced baseline diet of meat, veggies, fruits, dairy, complex carbs, and legumes. After listening to my body and paying attention to what it really needed (given the activity I was putting it through on a daily basis) I found that it wasn’t just that I wanted carbs — though, of course, I did. The reality was that I needed them.

I’d like to note that I have absolutely nothing against the many people who make the choice to live a paleo-compliant life. If it makes a positive impact on the way your body functions, then go for it. For those looking for a blanket manifesto that definitively supports or tears down the Paleo diet (or any other diet, for that matter) well, there are other places on the Internet for that. Because, honestly, who the hell am I to tell you how your body works? Instead of looking to others to tell us how to feed ourselves, we might want to pay a little more attention to what our own bodies actually need. Yes, this requires us to go against everything we’ve been taught, to actually trust the signals we’re getting from our bodies — from our skin to our muscles to our tummies to our number-twos.

Sure, this sort of intuitive approach to eating is way, way easier said than done. It’s a never-ending, endlessly frustrating process of trial, error, discipline, and conscious effort. But, ultimately, it’s your body, and your health. No one’s going to take care of it for you. Those who claim to know the best way to do that? They’re probably the ones you should be tuning out first.