Paleo is supposed to be life-changing, not quality-of-life-threatening.I want you to repeat after me:
“Paleo is not a punishment.”
One more time!
“Paleo is NOT a punishment!”
The more I hang out in the “Paleo-sphere,” the more I hear nitpicking over macros and micronutrients, squabbles over HiiT vs. ultra marathoning, discussions about health miracles drowned out by sales pitches for losing “the last 10 pounds.”
But Paleo is not eat less and exercise more. Paleo is not weight loss at any cost. Paleo is not stressing about a splash of canola oil or being afraid to go to a restaurant with friends or family because the meeting time is outside of your feeding window and everything on the menu is “off-plan.”
And if any of the above sentences resonate with you, it may be time to do a little course-correction.
You see, those of us who come to Paleo without a life-threatening illness—those of us who have spent our lives waiting to fail at the next diet fad—often fall into the trap of using “Paleo principles” the same way we have used everything from “clean eating” to HCG: we end up bastardizing the term “health” by conflating it with “rapid weight loss.”
And when it starts to work, many of us develop quality-of-life-threatening diseases.
The number one problem I see in adopting and adapting an ancestral health template for health is that “the modern stone age family” has been conditioned by 20th and 21st century marketing tactics and food/fitness fallacies:
- Calories are tangible: Food is calories in. Exercise is calories out. Progress is a negative calorie balance.
- You must eat so many times in a day to rev your metabolism/instigate fat burning/manipulate your hormones, whether or not you are hungry.
- Weight loss is health is weight loss.
- You must buy these very expensive superfoods. You MUST. All of them. And eat them every day. And then buy more of them.
- What’s your excuse?
We’re so emotionally, mentally, and spiritually separated from the concept of hunger that we’re completely unprepared to conceptualize “healthy food” in a healthy way.
So how can we stop making “Paleo” into another punishing diet?
1. Ditch the Calculator, Ditch the Scale
I know. I know: measuring is fun. Measuring feels good. Measuring is accountability.
But I challenge you to ask yourself: why are you really measuring? Whether you’re weighing your sweet potatoes or your own body, what does that measurement tell you about how much you’re enjoying your own life?
Does your fear of the scale keep you from maintaining friendships? Does it turn every meal time into a mechanized system and/or does it instill a feeling of dread, compulsion, or deprivation?
I challenge you to spend just one week without a calculator of any kind: no calorie counts, no scales, no measuring tape. See if you can learn to trust your body and yourself without having to pay fealty to some arbitrary number passed down to you by the health gurus, magazines or your own disordered expectations.
If nothing bad happens, rinse and repeat for another week. You may, in time, learn to hear your hunger cues and trust your body to honor them, even though you don’t have a calorie log or a scale to tell you the same thing.
2. Ask: HOW Not WHAT Would Your Great-Grandmother Have Eaten?
It’s so funny to me: the ancestral health community is mostly on-board with the concept of “don’t eat things your great-grandmother wouldn’t have eaten,” but have you ever stopped to ask how your great-grandmother would have eaten it?
I’m not talking about food prep; I’m talking about dieting. People didn’t even know what calories were until 1918, and I can guarantee that great-grandma had better things to worry about during World War I than whether or not she was properly fueling her high intensity workout or posting progress photos of her abs to Facebook.
We are so disconnected from our own intuition that we have had to build up an on-the-wagon/off-the-wagon world where everything can be contained within a binary yes/no list. When people “go Paleo,” they immediately ask, “Can I eat this?”
But great-grandma’s world wasn’t about lists of yes and no. It was about what (real) foods were available and in season and affordable and tasty. It was about her level of cooking prowess or her willingness to experiment. It was about sometimes having treats and sometimes not. It was about nourishment, not punishment.
So, the next time you rationalize your strict food challenge* by asking if great-grandma would have eaten that, make sure to ask if great-grandma would have done a strict food challenge in the first place.
3. Don’t Go Paleo
Some of us shouldn’t go Paleo. There. I said it.
At least, some of us shouldn’t go Paleo…yet.
Unfortunately, many dieters and disordered eaters are attracted to food plans, diets, and reasons to cover up their restriction under the guise of healthy eating.
Yes, there are people who need that strict, 30-day, give-Robb-Wolf-a-chance challenge to help them realize that their devil-may-care approach to food-like products is the root cause of their illnesses. But there are also people who don’t need more permission to restrict. (Because, if this is you, then you know that you’ll find a way to make “Paleo” fit into your own definition of dieting, just as you have with every other diet you’ve tried during your adult life.)
In those cases, I say, do the dirty work of getting in touch with and exorcising your body image demons, and then start working on introducing elements of an ancestral health template into your life.
Find a health coach, a therapist, a psychologist—someone who can help you restrict your restrictions and permit your permissions—and then, with their support, start changing your diet.
In other words, do a reverse n=1: un-diet. Eat well, but don’t intermittent fast. Go to the farmer’s market, but don’t cook all of your meals at home. Learn how to let go of some of the controls so that you can discover that giving yourself permission to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full won’t hurt you.
BONUS TIP: Gain a little bit of weight. Lose the abs. Find out that maintaining a healthy level of body fat does not devalue you as a person.** Use ancestral health principles to continue eating high quality food, sure, but learn that health does not equal aesthetics does not equal mental health.
Just as it takes time to reverse a life-threatening illness, so it also takes time to reverse a quality-of-life-threatening illness like restriction, orthorexia, or disordered eating.
It can be overcome, and you can recover using the principles of ancestral health—so long as you keep repeating and repeating and repeating:
“Paleo is NOT a punishment.”
*Obviously, if you’re doing this for medical reasons, I’m not talking to you.
**I’m not talking about gaining massive amounts of weight, ditching all attempts to exercise, and taking out stock in Oreo cookies. I’m suggesting, however, that your barometer of “health” can shift to include a physical body that doesn’t necessarily look like it belongs on the cover of Muscle & Fitness.
Unsure of how to let go of the diet dogma and just enjoy the journey? Come unpack your bags with us on the Finding Our Hunger podcast!