by guest blogger Stephanie Eckelkamp, senior associate editor at Prevention
I’ve recently jumped on the Paleo diet bandwagon. You know, that diet that shuns dairy, legumes, grains, and processed junk foods in favor of nuts, meat, veggies, fruits, and other foods that are said to have been what our ancient ancestors preferred.
Today is actually day 22 of my 30-day super-strict Paleo challenge (called a Whole30), which even bans natural sweeteners like my beloved maple syrup and all forms of alcohol. Sure, I’ve wanted to punch a wall a few times, but thus far, I’ve resisted.
Why am I doing this to myself? Because even though I know exactly what I should be eating, I can’t always control myself. If you put a family-size bag of seemingly harmless lightly salted popcorn in front of me while I’m trying to write or prep for an important interview, I’ll eat the whole damn thing. In other words, an intervention was necessary—the stricter, the better.
Of course, I’m fully aware that Paleo sometimes gets a bad rap. Critics claim it’s a glorified Atkins, or that its emphasis on meat is bad for your heart and the planet. Others say it’s based on a faulty premise—after all, exactly what our old cavemen ancestors ate is still highly debated. Regardless, I decided to dive right in by reading all the top Paleo blogs and committing to 30 days on the diet…with no cheating.
What have I noticed so far? It’s making me feel kind of awesome—clearheaded, happy, less bloated. Oh, and I’m not OD’ing on bacon, as many of the diet’s opponents would have you believe. In fact, I’m realizing I can do this thing in a way that’s good both for me and the planet.
Here are five reasons why I’m planning to keep the whole caveman act going (minus a cheat day now and then for apple fritters—my weakness) even after my 30 days are up:
1. It gets you cooking. The fact that the Paleo diet shuns processed foods is one of the best things going for it. Most things that come in a bag, box, or can are discouraged because they often contain noncompliant ingredients, so it definitely gets people cooking more fresh, whole foods and moving away from processed convenience foods loaded with sugar and salt. So far, I’ve been eating things like eggs-and-kale scrambles for breakfast; carrots or apple slices dunked in almond butter for a snack; big veggie-loaded salads with grilled chicken and avocado for lunch; and fish with a mountain of roasted sweet potato and brussels sprouts for dinner. Sure, these meals require a bit more prep than hitting up a vending machine, but I wouldn’t call them challenging to put together.
2. It packs plenty of nutrients. So many people say this diet is restrictive, but here’s the thing: I’m eating a wider variety of foods than ever before, mainly because I’m relying less on convenient options like toast for breakfast and pasta for dinner. The diet really stresses vegetables and fruits, so you end up getting plenty of fiber and healthy carbs, despite cutting out grains and legumes. Also, fortified almond and coconut milks, along with dark leafy greens, sardines, and canned salmon, help you meet your calcium quota without dairy.
3. It emphasizes quality. The Paleo diet stresses consuming the highest-quality proteins you can find (for instance, grass-fed beef, wild game meats, pastured pigs and chickens, wild-caught seafood). That’s good news from a sustainability, humane, and nutritional standpoint—for example, health experts say that grass-fed beef may contain less total fat, a greater proportion of omega-3 fatty acids, and more antioxidant vitamins like vitamin E than conventional beef. Not to mention, producing these proteins uses far less water than raising factory-farmed meat, which first requires the cultivation of corn- and soybean-based feed.
4. It can be low in saturated fat. Although recent research says we shouldn’t fear fat as much as we used to—even the saturated kind—you can still tailor the Paleo diet’s fat content to meet your needs. There’s nothing that requires you to eat bacon or prime rib at every meal or slather everything with coconut oil. Leaner meats and fish are definitely allowed and encouraged, as are oils containing healthy unsaturated fats like olive and walnut.
5. You can modify it. Many prominent Paleo experts and bloggers agree on this: You should try strict Paleo for about a month, then it’s OK to start gradually reintroducing things like dairy, legumes, and grains and seeing how they make you feel. The reason: It can serve as a sort of elimination diet and help identify sensitivities and intolerances, potentially alleviating symptoms of migraines, IBS, autoimmune issues, and other conditions.
That way, you can keep avoiding things that cause you to overeat or have flare-ups and continue to eat what makes you feel good. Even John Durant, self-proclaimed professional caveman and author of The Paleo Manifesto sometimes eats full-fat dairy because his body does well on it.
So go ahead, let your inner caveman out for a while… you just might like the way you feel!
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a senior associate editor at Prevention magazine covering food and nutrition, and a certified holistic health coach. While she’s not writing, she’s either out on a hike, taking pictures of strangers’ dogs, or figuring out a new way to use sweet potatoes.