What to Expect on the Paleo Diet
Picture yourself as a character in the animated TV series The Flintstones. You’re at a dinner party in Bedrock where the Stone Age menu is on full display. What would you order? If you're considering making the switch to a Paleolithic diet, this is one of the pressing questions. Once you get past what to eat, the journey begins as to how to give up your current way of eating. While going Paleo is a drastic change from the modern Western diet, it's garnering popularity. To help demystify, we interviewed several Paleo dieters, whose experiences we’ll share here.
Paleo in a Nutshell
If cavemen couldn’t eat it, when you take the Paleo plunge, neither can you. What’s on the menu are foods that get back to nature without modern food industry practices including organic meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables. Smaller amounts of healthy fats, fruit, nuts, leafy greens are also a part of the diet, with still smaller amounts of other plants including herbs and spices allowable. Anything other than these foods is a no-go. Multiple studies say at least 70% of our contemporary Western dietary intake comes from foods that were rarely or never consumed by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Therefore, saying no to the large amounts of grains, dairy products, refined sugars, and highly processed fats that are a part of the American diet is a colossal challenge. A snapshot of a day’s worth of macronutrients is about the same amount of fat as a regular American diet, but double the protein and half the carbohydrates. Some plusses nutritionally include more potassium and fiber than most Americans get, but less calcium and Vitamin D, which can be supplemented.
U.S. News & World Report experts rated the Paleo diet 2 out of 5 stars on all 7 categories of key dietary factors, making it dead last in the top 25 Best Overall Diets of 2012. With this ranking, we wondered what our small panel had to say about why they chose to go Paleo. While there was mention of weight loss, respondents alluded to enhanced energy as the bigger reason they tried it:
* After just one week, one respondent said she, “…felt so much more energetic, cleaner, lighter if that makes any sense…that stopping was out of the question.”
* Another woman who has followed the strict diet for over 2 years mentions being sharper mentally after only a month on the diet. She says, “I think quicker, and focus better as well. I think the highs and lows of my sugar intake made me moody. Now that sugar is not in control, my brain works better.”
* Bob, who is only a few months in, having switched from a typical junk food diet as an experiment, also reports improved energy levels.
One part of the science behind increased energy levels is the naturally low-glycemic index of the Paleo diet. Spikes in blood sugar are lessened in diets without excess amounts of refined sugars. With the Paleo diet, blood sugar stays more balanced throughout the day and thus the avoids the crash and sluggishness that is associated with low blood sugar levels following a high-glycemic meal.
Another through line in the small survey was mention of a sustained feeling of fullness. The Paleo diet is a high-protein, high-fiber diet making it naturally satiating. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines of America recommends between 25 and 31 grams for adults between the ages of 19 and 50, but based on figures from a sample menu in The Paleo Diet, a day’s worth of fiber would far exceed that at 42.5 g. In terms of cravings, all respondents reported experiencing cravings initially. Overcoming cravings, as expected had a broad range from as little as two days to as long as three weeks. The panelist who is no longer Paleo did agree that fullness was not a problem, but said, “It’s a different kind of full that I sought. The taste of sweets gave me a satisfaction beyond my stomach and after 3 months on the Paleo diet, I missed that tremendously and fruit couldn’t satisfy my urge. Ultimately, my penchant for sweets was my downfall, not actual hunger.”
Beyond cravings, all mentioned difficulty giving up dairy products and common grains such as pasta, rice, and pita bread to name a few: Some mentioned eating out and social settings as difficult to navigate, while others found it hard to “replace” certain foods they ate out of habit. When asked what substitutes could be made for their favorite grain dishes, one mentioned, “Cauliflower is amazing in place of rice, as well as squash and starchy vegetables. Big leafy greens such as lettuce, swiss chard, and kale are great for making wraps instead of pita. Plus, almond butter is great for making batter!” A long-term Paleo eater said, “Anything that replaces the taste of grains makes me want the real thing, so I decided to stick to what I know and season my meat-and-veggie dishes as I would meat and potatoes. In essence, it’s the herbs and spices that make the taste, not the pasta or rice which are bland at best on their own. No replacements or substitutes here.”
If you’re ready to give it a try, one of our Paleo dieter's suggests to go slow. Start by slowly cutting out certain dairy and grain choices and focus on creating a stash of meals you really love that completely follow the Paleo diet. The other panelists went all in. As your stash grows, let go of non-compliant meals. Ultimately what matters is your level of satisfaction with the food, and the nutritional value it has to support your health. Meal ideas from our panel include:
Breakfast: Pumpkin Paleo Pancakes (from RunningToTheKitchen.com) with an optional addition of spinach or greens. Spread homemade applesauce on top.
Bacon and eggs cooked with butter with a side of tomato slices
Lunch: Dairy-free Vegetable Frittata
Beef-Stuffed Bell Pepper
Dinner: Sautéed Veggies with Salad
Snacks: Raw vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruit
Have you tried or are you following the Paleo diet, what was your experience? Share the good and the bad.
Our panelists recommend the following resources: