Happy New Year, y'all!
January is a time to both reflect back on the past year and to also set goals and intentions for the coming year. These last few months I've actually been doing a lot of reflecting about this amazing and crazy journey that I've been on ever since I first heard the word "paleo" almost 5 years ago.
There's no two ways about it, going paleo saved my life. I was in a very scary place before I changed my diet, and conventional MDs and their advice were making me worse, not better.
Photos are worth 1000 words, right? I'll let the ones above speak for me. The photos of me on the top left is how I looked the last New Year's Eve before I went paleo, ringing in 2010. Bottom left is a few months before that. The right photos are from a recent photo shoot. The physical change speaks for itself, but the stuff you can't see in the photos is that I no longer suffer from a scary laundry list of ailments, like depression, diabetes, anxiety, IBS, leaky gut, food intolerances, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and hidradenitis suppurativa.
My health is not perfect now, but it is soooo much better than it was before. I've achieved huge milestones and overcome health problems that conventional doctors told me would never go away.
I have been following this lifestyle for 4 and a half years now, and I want to share some things I've learned. Surprisingly, some of the most important lessons that I've learned actually have nothing to do with food. The most important lesson I've learned is related to food, but probably not in the way you think:
1. Food is not a silver bullet. Paleo is not enough to solve all your health problems.
I see this attitude far too often, both from other bloggers and in the comments on their sites and social media: "if I can just make myself do ________, then I will finally _________." You can fill in that first blank with "a Whole30" or "a 21-Day Sugar Detox" or "strict paleo for 6 months" or "the autoimmune protocol". The second blank? Whatever issue you're trying to overcome....could be weight loss, psoriasis, an autoimmune condition, depression, etc.
Look, I can be the first to admit that I used to subscribe to that way of thinking. I can remember thinking that the reason I still had a sensitive stomach at my 2 year paleo-versary was because I let myself eat non-paleo foods sometimes, like rice or raw cheese. I developed a way of thinking about food and my health that I now recognize as being an eating disorder: orthorexia. What is it? A "fixation on righteous eating", literally. In the context of paleo, it can mean feeling guilty if every bite of food that passes your lips isn't strict paleo and from a local farmer who raised the vegetables organically and the livestock on pasture.
It's dangerous to believe that food alone is The One Thing that will cure you.
I'm not saying food isn't important. It is incredibly important and one of the necessary pieces of the puzzle. Most people (myself included) see huge changes in their bodies and health-wise just from food. But there are other things that deserve just as much weight and importance as food.
It's comments like this that illustrate the issue I'm talking about (paraphrased): "I've been following the AIP for over a year now, yet I haven't been able to reintroduce any new foods. I just need to stick with the diet and eventually I'll be able to." Or, paraphrasing my own story "I've been strict paleo for the better part of 2 years, but I still suffer random bouts of diarrhea. I just need to not let myself have any cheat meals and it will get better."
In my case, I was ignoring:
- stress management (solved that with qigong practice)
- sleep hygiene
- appropriate exercise and activity
- interpersonal relationships (I let paleo drive a wedge between myself and many of my friends in the first 2-3 years.)
- my need for medical treatments (I've had major improvements with Chinese Medicine herbs and acupuncture and functional medicine supplements)
- structural issues with my body (the need for chiropractic care and massage body work)
- lesson #3 in this list...
Food is amazing, but sometimes you just really need to go to a good doctor to address your health concerns.
2. You still need to go to the doctor.
This is another attitude that I see way too often among paleo adherents: "I don't need to go to the doctor anymore. They don't know what they're talking about, anyway. I can figure this out on my own."
Yep, I'm guilty of this one, too. I was so defiant and stubborn after feeling so betrayed by the conventional Western medical establishment, so I just stopped going to the doctor - any doctor. Looking back, I see that I desperately needed to be seeing someone from day 1 of my transition. I went nearly 3 years without seeing any doctors at all. I was SO dumb to wait that long to find a holistic doctor who would actually work to heal me, not just throw pharmaceuticals at me.
Don't make the same mistake I did. Find a doctor (I prefer Chinese Medicine!), a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, and/or a chiropractor to work with you. Get blood work done regularly. I even think it's a great idea to get genetic testing done from 23 and Me so that you can optimize your supplements and diet according to your own unique genetic makeup.
Many of us who came to paleo for better health need appropriate medical treatment to overcome certain issues. Take the MTHFR genetic mutation, for example. I am heterozygous for the C677T mutation, which means I have to supplement with a specific kind of vitamin B12 and folate to ensure my body has enough of both to use. This is just one example, but there are many other health and genetic concerns that warrant doing more than just eating a nutrient-dense paleo diet.
3. Sometimes you really need to nourish your psyche, and you shouldn't feel guilty about it.
If there is a food that you really miss from your pre-paleo days, you need to just find a recipe for a paleo version and eat it, without guilt. Yes, I'm saying that sometimes you just need to eat a paleo pizza, or cookies, or bread, or fried chicken. Should these be staples in your diet? No. But you should also never feel guilty for having a craving for something that used to be a staple food for you. Or for a food that you simply love eating.
Many of us who came to the paleo diet used to eat the Standard American Diet (SAD) and have a lifetime of believing that it's OK to eat biscuits or bagels for breakfast every day, a sandwich for lunch, have pasta several nights a week, and enjoy treats like cakes and cookies.
It's hard to break away from that "normal" and retrain your brain (and stomach).
Of course you are going to miss the foods you used to eat all the time. So, live a little. Nourish your soul. Eat something because it makes you excited to eat it, not because it's exceptionally nutrient-dense. And be sure to relish every bite - take time and energy to truly enjoy the food your eating. Just make sure you are still eating a balanced paleo diet otherwise. I harp on this often, but it's true: you gotta eat the whole animal! Not just the flesh. Offal is your friend. Learn how to eat more of it here.
4. Don't be a perfectionist
Setting goals is a great thing. If you want to do a 3 or 4 week strict paleo challenge and follow a particular set of eating rules for that time, go for it! It can be really fun, especially if you do it with friends or family at the same time, or just with a group online.
But, if life gets in the way and you have to deviate from the path you thought you'd be following, don't beat yourself up about it. Achieving perfection is impossible and you will only make yourself miserable in process of trying to attain it. Believe me, I know. I have been battling my inborn tendency towards perfectionism since I was a teenager.
That doesn't mean it's OK to be sloppy and lazy; I'm still super conscientious and pay attention to rules and details, but I'm also learning to be OK with myself when things don't go as planned. And I've also learned to overcome my orthorexic tendencies when it comes to food. I'm OK eating a steak that's not grass-fed when I'm dining at a nice restaurant with my husband.
Bottom line: nobody likes a paleo perfectionist or the paleo police. Do the best that you can with the resources that you have, and be happy knowing that you are doing something wonderful for your body by choosing the best foods for YOU. Aim high, but don't feel bad if things don't go 100% as planned.
Why Paleo is Not Enough
You may have seen me mention the eBook that I am currently writing with my Chinese Medicine/Functional Medicine doctor and a Crossfit gym owner/amazing paleo chef/massage therapist. It's called Why Paleo is Not Enough and it goes deep to uncover all the reasons why you may be stuck in your healing journey. The final product will be over 150 pages and will have worksheets and other resources to help you. We are still finishing up the writing and editing, but if you are interested in learning more about this incredibly helpful resource, please sign up below to receive email updates PLUS get an exclusive pre-launch discount.