My decision to stop being a vegan was based on a gut feeling–literally and figuratively: the blog post(s) that I’m about to provide you with are simply based on all of the research I’ve done since making the decision to stop being a vegan.
I’m writing it all here not to promote any kind of orthorexia or nutritionism or restrictive eating or dogma–I’m writing it here because there are people who want to understand the potential health implications of a low-fat plant-based diet.
I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist–just a girl who is sick and tired of being sick and tired–and sick and tired of watching so many people make decisions based on half-truths, emotional appeals, and ingrained biases that ultimately leave them sick and tired too.
Is Paleo the Only Answer?
If you’ve listened to my podcast or followed the blog for any length of time, you know that my journey to recovery started with the decision to “go Paleo,” and that the Paleo community has been instrumental in helping me come to terms with the various health (physical, mental, and emotional) challenges that stemmed from years of restrictive eating and overtraining.
That said, I don’t think that “Paleo” is the answer.
Not exactly, anyway. Here’s why:
“Paleo” is a label. A marketing message. In the eyes of the public, it goes before the word “diet.”
I know people who eat Paleo who also have eating disorders. Who binge on chocolate and fruit. Who suffer from orthorexia so paralyzing that they can’t leave the house without pemmican and won’t eat anything if it isn’t on their day’s meal plan.
There is no miracle pill or perfect diet that will cure an eating disorder. Eating disorders are a disease of the mind–like any addiction. EDs aren’t special, and Paleo isn’t magic.
When I first stumbled upon the Paleo diet, I saw the second word first: diet. Most of us do–don’t deny it. We’re conditioned, by years of marketing messages, yo-yo-dieting, and health commandments from everyone from gurus on Twitter to the US Government, to think of eating in terms of not eating–what can we ingest so that we’ll negate the effects of ingesting it? How can we mitigate the effects of craving sweet, calorie-dense foods–or how can we indulge in them while still getting the promised six pack?
Someone recently asked me how I managed to get over my restrictive mindset and follow a Paleo template for eating. And the answer is: not easily. The process was a tough one, and it required (and still requires of me daily) a commitment to erasing the word “diet” from my vocabulary and a commitment to finding foods that taste great, keep my body and brain feeling fabulous, and aren’t easily entered into a calorie counter.
In the Beginning, There Were Egg Whites
Before I made any change to my diet, I did a lot of research. And all of the research talked about eating meat and vegetables and fat. It was easy enough to conceptualize, but surprisingly hard to put into practice, between my then-current diet that was made up of kale smoothies, and stir-fried tofu, and carefully-portioned nut butter, and my previous experience with “clean eating,” which involved lots of lean proteins in small portions, supplemented with more protein in powdered form.
The first thing I did when I “went Paleo” (and all of you Paleo readers out there are going to laugh at me, because this actually isn’t very “Paleo” at all) was buy a big 1/2 gallon plastic jug of egg whites from Whole Foods and several cans of solid white tuna (soy-free, at least!).
I still weighed and measured my portions, although I did reluctantly add smidgens of coconut oil to my smoothies and the bottom of the pan when I cooked my egg whites.
Introducing animal proteins was a huge step for me, but, besides the occasional hamburger (the cravings for which I could no longer deny), I was sticking to lean meats and fat-free meals whenever possible.
As I started blogging, and as I started listening to podcasts like Balanced Bites, which includes more of a traditional diet/Weston A. Price foundation perspective,* and the Livin’ La Vida Low Carb Show, which focuses on the health benefits of low carb and ketogenic diets,** I realized that there was still an appalling lack of balance in my diet and my lifestyle.
And so I forced myself to make a change.
Change is Scary, but Fat is Delicious
After my ankle surgery, I began eating more fats (egg yolks, for the win!), and going for walks to strengthen my leg every single day, which meant lots of time to listen to my backlog of then-recently discovered Underground Wellness podcast. When I heard Dr. Vera Tarman speak about food addiction, things started to click for me.
I started doing more research on the ties between food addiction and brain health, on low fat diets and neurotransmitters. I read Julia Ross’s The Mood Cure. I spent hours searching for ties between anorexia, depression, and lack of bacon.***
The more I learned, the more committed I was to actually taking charge of and defining my own path to health, and the less concerned I was with buying into the next cookie-cutter diet/cleanse/prescription for weight loss.
And as I did “crazy” things like add fermented cod liver oil and bacon and bone broth and coconut oil to my diet–while still eating tons of veggies (see: brussels sprouts addiction), mind you–I felt less bound by ED.
Why? Because I realized that, while I could use the “Paleo Diet” for weight loss and athletic performance, all that I really needed to focus on was my mental and physical health. My priorities did a 180: the more I longed for a six pack, the longer it was going to take to get my period back. The more I focused on restricting foods, the less I’d be able to binge on time with friends and family. The more I stressed out about my body, the less my brain would be able to handle.
Gradually, it became easier to get through a meal without worrying if it was going to put me over my calorie allotment for the day (especially because my old calorie counter didn’t have an entry for beef knuckle bone broth with wakame and homemade chicken liver meatballs…). It became easier to go out and eat dinner with my then-boyfriend, knowing that, unless we were going to go to a vegan restaurant, I was going to be able to find something on the menu that would be filling and delicious. It was easier to even have a boyfriend–despite the residual body/sex issues I still had left over from my years spent engaged with ED.
Paleo wasn’t a cure-all for my depression and anxiety, but it helped. And it was what made it possible for me to get my brain into a place where it was healthy enough to write coherently, make good choices, and eventually start down the path toward health coaching, so that I can help those of you out there who also want to change your brain and your relationship with food.
Paleo is NOT a Magic Bullet
For so many people–like me, with my egg whites and canned tuna–Paleo starts out as a weight loss tool. It’s a means to an “after photo” and a way to restrict food.
For someone with an eating disorder or a disordered relationship with food, it can be just as bad an excuse as veganism for restricting calories or food groups. It can be fuel for orthorexics who take their healthy eating to such an extreme that they end up harming their health and mental wellbeing, and it can be a trap for hypergymnasics (compulsive exercisers/exercise bulimics) who see Paleo as the means for maintaining minimal body fat while adding in an extra WOD or two.
“Paleo,” on its own, isn’t a cure for everything. I’ve been eating a Paleo-style**** diet for a year and a half now, and I still haven’t gotten my period back. I’m still suffering from adult acne. I am in stage 2 adrenal fatigue and have to reckon with my thyroid issues.
Paleo–or vegan, or gluten-free, or Atkins, or any diet–is never going to cure my eating disorder/food and exercise addiction. It will not erase the mental, physical, emotional, skin-level, gut-level damage that I did in the past. Not 100%.
A grain-free, legume-free, dairy-free diet based on traditional meals and whole, unprocessed foods serves as the foundation for healing all of these issues.
It’s given me the fats and proteins to make my brain run better.
It’s given me the nutrients to make my body and bones stronger.*****
It’s given me the tools to manage my addiction on a daily basis.
It’s given me the opportunity to connect with my body to truly understand how different foods affect me.
It’s put me in touch with a community of people who have become my best resources and my best friends.
It’s helped me to learn how to start looking forward to eating–to stop restricting by crowding out my old addictive foods with more and higher quality foods that keep me fueled and feeling happy.
And so much more.
I don’t know if “Paleo” is right for everyone, but that’s mostly because I don’t think there’s one single definition for the term. At its core, it’s a diet based on what our bodies are best evolved to eat: meat, veggies, fat, and a little bit of fruit.
For some people, that means nothing but “strict,” Whole30-style meal plans.
For some people, that means lots of sweet potatoes and maybe even white rice to support endurance or high-intensity training.
For some people, that means eating a very low carb, high fat, moderate protein diet to reset a metabolism broken by obesity and diabetes.
For some people that means limiting nightshades or FODMAPS or following SCD or GAPS to heal gut dysbiosis.
For some people that means eating lots of “Paleo” desserts and “breads” and bars and shakes.
For me….it means eating enough to support my brain, which is what I use every day to write this blog, to work in marketing, to run my podcast, and be a contributing member to society–a good daughter, a good sister, a good friend, and a resource to any of you out there who need support.
It also means eating enough to have enough meat on my own bones to support healthy fertility and reproduction. It means eating enough food to tell my poor, stressed out, under-nurtured body that it’s not starving, so it can cool it with the hormone imbalance already. It means gaining weight. It means having the mindset to deal with that weight gain.
It means a little bit of freedom from disorder–and a whole lot of hope.
So…Am I Really Paleo?
These days, I don’t really like using the term “Paleo,” because it’s tied up in the media spin and the marketing. It’s a word that’s followed both in print and in our mindsets by the word “diet.” When people ask, I prefer to tell them that I “just eat real food.” Sometimes that requires more explanation (because I believe that grains are not a food, for example), but I believe that the way I eat is more than a list of “good foods” and “bad foods” or a forum thread on the Paleo Hacks website.
I don’t eat the foods that my paleolithic ancestors ate. I use evolutionary theory as a guideline, but not a hard and fast rule. Instead, I listen to my body. When it says, “Eat a pound of grapes,” I ask it why. When it says, “You’re not hungry anymore,” I try to respect its intuition. It just so happens that not eating grains, soy, beans, or dairy has helped me tune into my body’s messages.
I know that some of you out there are okay with your vegetarian or vegan diets, and in no way do I mean to judge your choice. If you are able to honestly say that you are healthy and thriving–no matter which diet/lifestyle you subscribe to–then more power to you. I’m only giving you insight into my own experience–and if you can take anything away from this whole series of posts, I hope it’s the ability to have an open mind, regardless of the philosophic foundation on which you’ve built your current worldview.
I was skeptical about eating animal protein and fat, but I gave it a shot and it changed my life. It may not change yours–I promise no miracles–but if you ever have any questions about how or why I eat the way I do, I promise to be honest and forthcoming about both the wins and the struggles.
So…stay hungry–for whatever fills you,
*The Weston A. Price style diet is not “Paleo,” per se, because it’s not based on paleolithic evolutionary principles, but rather on the observations of Dr. Weston A. Price, who studied the diets of traditional cultures. WAP includes more fermented foods and organ meats, in addition to soaked and sprouted grains (although few of the hybrid Paleo/WAP thought leaders include the latter).
**In recent years, thanks to the work of people like Jimmy Moore, there has been more of a crossover between Paleo and Low Carb diets. Many low carb-ers include dairy in their diets (as do some “Primal” Paleo folks) and also limit protein, but, again, the foundation of both diets starts with meat, vegetables, and fat.
***Not the exact Google search query, but you get the gist.
****Mostly “autoimmune” Paleo (so no nightshade veggies, and, more recently, no eggs) with shades of Weston A. Price (bone broth, liver, cod liver oil) and low carb (can you say coconut in everything?), although I’ve recently been eating much more fruit, because it’s in season and it makes me happy.
*****i.e. It’s why I didn’t die when I got hit by a car.