*Disclaimer: The following is my own experience, thoughts and opinions for your reading enjoyment and nothing you read should be taken as medical advice. See a doctor for medical advice!
The word “diet” makes me a little sick. It makes me want to do things like relocate myself and my family to a little hut in the middle of nowhere with no media access where we’d create our own separate society. The bathroom situation would get weird and frankly I probably wouldn’t survive 24 hours but at least there would be no weight loss scams or tv “doctors” making serious $$$ off of people’s fear of food and obsession with finding the secret to skinny happiness.
I have discussed my thoughts on our society’s preoccupation with appearance where health issues are concerned here and now I want to think about something that skates alongside that issue. Restriction. Deprivation. “Ridiculous” diet. Paleo.
*If you are wondering why I seem to do a lot of “deeper” pieces on the psychology behind diet and exercise behavior, it might me a good time for me to reveal my background in psychology and social work. I have a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Sociology and Human Development, as well as a Masters degree in Social Work. So I really just can’t stop myself from analyzing behavior and loving every second of it. Okay moving along.
When I first heard about Paleo I thought it sounded completely insane. And unneccessary and like a bizarre form of torture that only people with “serious issues” would ever subscribe to. Here’s the thing. The word “diet” by definition refers to “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community typically eats.” – Oxforddictionaries.com. That certainly doesn’t make my skin crawl. No, it’s the weight loss connotation that’s been given to the word “diet” that drives everyone nuts. So when hearing about any type of “diet” as referred to with the original definition in mind, we automatically associate it with an attempt at weight loss, even if it’s not the point. Even if it’s REALLY NOT THE POINT. We can’t seem to separate diet from “weight loss diet” anymore. And I think it’s hurting us.
People look at the Paleo diet for different reasons, but usually underlying the curiosity is a desire to change something that currently is not working for them. It could be a lot of different things or one big thing. An autoimmune disease, digestive problems, extreme fatigue, a sugar addiction, an eating disorder, a desire to lose weight, improve athletic performance, be “really healthy”, or some combination.
If you are honest with yourself about why you are interested in Paleo, I believe those reasons can predict how restrictive or freeing you experience this way of eating to be. Let me explain.
If you are someone with “diet baggage” or a history of disordered eating, bingeing and restricting, or just someone who subscribes to the “low-fat is healthy” BS that most of us have been fed since birth, you will understandably view Paleo as another restrictive way of eating. Maybe you WANT to restrict yourself and it sounds great! Or maybe it triggers feelings of being in food jail and wanting to rebel – not so great. Either way, for you the Paleo diet will feel restrictive because you are approaching it as a weight loss diet. It might even be hard to imagine looking at any type of food or eating plan without this lens in place. These are powerful forces that many people find stuck in and remain frustrated with every “diet” because no matter how they eat, nothing feels “right” or gives them the results they seek. Looking at Paleo through this lens, it appears not only restrictive but potentially dangerous seen with an already damaged approach to food. You cannot simply eliminate dairy, legumes, all grains and sugar without ADDING a lot of other foods (not just veggies!) into your diet as well. A person with a restrictive mentality will likely have trouble doing this.
However, if you have other reasons unrelated to weight or leanness for eating this way, I believe that you can learn to shift your perspective away from weight and over to nourishment and health. With all of the packaged junk gone, introducing your body and mind to real, whole foods without restriction can turn into a feeling of freedom, especially if you are simply feeling better physically than you ever have!
So what does it look like if your main reason for trying Paleo is unrelated to weight loss? If you are someone with a serious or persistent health condition that has taken a big toll on your quality of life, you might turn to paleo from a point of “rock bottom” where all signs are pointing to Paleo or some version of it as a way to regain your health and life. For the time spent suffering physically and the resulting psychological frustration with your disease, your body, and/or doctors, you might have felt deprived of living an enjoyable life and feeling well enough to engage in activities you love. So if you begin to have even small successes with a paleo diet, you view this as a revelation and feel a renewed sense of freedom. Sure, there are foods on the “no” list but you don’t feel restricted because the taste of those foods doesn’t compare to the feeling of regained energy, digestive function, and other symptom relief.
You also have a baseline for figuring out what foods add to your symptoms and make you miserable. I find that it is impossible to do this if you are eating packaged food with lots of ingredients. Bringing your food back to the basics makes it easier to figure out what does and does not work for you. For example, I have discovered since eating paleo that broccoli, brussell sprouts, cauliflower, apples, tomatoes, and bell peppers and a few other FODMAPs are not great on my digestion. Although I don’t totally eliminate these foods, I eat them in moderation with the knowledge that I may experience problems. Knowledge and understanding can feel really good when you’ve spent years not knowing why you don’t feel well.
Paleo is not a panacea. But you knew that right? There is no blank canvas option in life, you will always have to take your own personal physical and mental health history with you no matter what you do.
Paleo is also not a “diet” the way you might look at it to be. If you can only see restriction and/or visions of smaller numbers on the scale I personally don’t believe that it will bring you closer to health.
On the flip side, with the approach of improving your health regardless of weight or body fat I believe that Paleo can change your life and set you free.
What do you think of when you think “Paleo”?