Why I love to hate the Paleo Diet

Lego caveman

I’ve just finished running a Paleo Challenge at Celtic CrossFit.

For anyone not in the know, a Paleo challenge is usually a month long period where CrossFitters opt to eat ‘strict Paleo’ for a period of 30 days or more.

Paleo is often coined ‘the hunter gatherer diet’ and ‘strict Paleo’ involves eating pure, unadulterated fruits, vegetables, lean meats, seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds, healthy fats. Nothing more, nothing less.The challenge is usually underpinned by a points and penalties system – gold stars for angelic eating, hideous numbers of burpees if you fall off the wagon and head first into a tub of Haagen-Dazs.

At the start of the challenge a ‘benchmark work out’ is also set. Participants complete the workout on day 1 of the challenge and complete it again at the end of the challenge, measuring improvements – usually in time taken to complete the work out.

I first ‘went Paleo’ in 2011. I owe it everything. Following a Paleo diet allowed me to break free from years of yo-yo dieting, calorie counting hell. I fell in love with real, whole foods, I felt better, I looked better and the added bonus was I lost weight (that I kept off) in the process. But… Isn’t there always a but…?

I got a bit smarter. I learned more about the food I was eating and I started to question what the Paleo diet stood for and where it came from. This post explores why I can confidently say I love to hate Paleo.

Because the glass is always half full, let’s start with the positives.

I love the Paleo diet because:

  • It provides the most incredibly simple template for anyone to follow and begin a ‘clean eating’ journey
  • It stands for a community, a bit of a movement – it’s nearly always associated with CrossFit, it represents coming together and giving something a go. It relies on those that have been there, done that and got the t-shirt to share their successes, learnings and best recipes
  • I’m yet to meet ANYONE that doesn’t feel awesome after 30 days of Paleo. And feeling awesome is, well, awesome, y’know
  • The basic guidelines mean there’s no room to deviate. Real, simple, whole foods that provide a perfect reset. It’s important for me to look after my waistline and I’m the first to acknowledge not even the finest artisan cheese or vintage Pinot Noir really helps my cause several weekends on the trot. Paleo provides an ideal reset, a chance to lean out a bit and get better results from my work outs

I specifically love what Paleo did for those that took part in the Celtic CrossFit #Mayleo (see what we did there…?) Challenge

2″ off the waist for Lewis Jones

Lewis Jones14lbs lost, 4% body fat dropped and 2% muscle mass gained for Hannah Reilly – and a new found confidence on nights out with both legs and arms on show!

Hannah Reilly Collage

Even a Vegan Andi Morris gave it a go: Thanks for your help over this month Ruth. I can’t say it’s been easy doing it whilst mostly vegan, but I’m chuffed with the body fat drop it has brought about and surprised I haven’t lost muscle mass at the same time. Now for a different take on eating clean.”

And Fran Bale completed every single day of the Paleo Challenge with a wonderful smile on her face: After about 4 days of starting Paleo I felt completely different. I wasn’t bloated and my stomach felt a lot flatter. I never thought I’d be able to shift the extra weight I’d put on over the last two years, but I have. Paleo has taught me to eat the right things and not to over eat, which is what i used to do when eating a lot of junk food.”

Pretty much everyone that took part in the bench mark work out saw significant improvements – myself including. A Paleo reset helped me throw myself back into training after a hip flexor injury. I felt so good during this final work out compared to the first. My time (for the level 1, 5 rep version @ 20kg – given the injury) went from 10:58 to 9:07.

Bench mark WODSo, my own times improved, my work out partners all reported great results so why is it I’ve got beef with Paleo?

Why I hate the Paleo diet:

  • First and foremost (and I never, ever considered this, I previously took it as absolute gospel that this is what our ancestors ate…) cavemen did not eat avocado, coconut oil, out of season tropical fruit, sweet potatoes, beef jerky or nut butter straight from the jar. The Paleo diet is merely a label. This video really opened my eyes to that
  • Paleo leads to too many people eating too much processed meat – thinking it is a ‘better’ option. More on that here. I’ll openly say I’m as guilty as charged when it comes to this – but I’ll also defend Paleo to say it’s the way the diet is interpreted, not necessarily how it’s laid out that makes this happen
  • Paleo Diet blogs, websites and resources rarely extoll the virtues of fish and seafood yet they always, always talk about bacon
  • Paleo exceptions totally SUCK – aside from the one around refined sugars! Ok, I get it, Paleo excludes dairy, legumes, pulses & wholegrains on the basis of many people being allergic to them. But why not actually properly determine whether you’re allergic to them before you go tearing them out of your diet?

All these things are forbidden by the Paleo diet but each of them has their place in providing excellent nutritional value:

Non Paleo

  • Finally, so many people call themselves ‘Paleo’ when they 100% aren’t! They bend and flex the rules here, there and everywhere but are still determined to hold onto the Paleo badge. Why don’t they simply declare they eat real, whole foods? Why does eating well, eating ‘proper’ need a label? 
  • Which brings me on to ‘clean eating’ and another label – which this blog as good as pays homage to but tries to go some way to help people just eat real food

Can I sit on the fence…?

I’m hoping I can get away with concluding this blog post sat on the fence. Is that ok? In short:

  • I loved taking part in the Celtic CrossFit May Paleo Challenge
  • I loved the buzz it brought to participating members, the conversations it started around good food and the lives it genuinely charged

Some happy smiling #Mayleo participants

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 14.37.34

  • I love that May was the month I properly got back on my feet following an injury – a stricter diet probably paid a big part in that
  • A month of Paleo cut out a ton of unnecessary calories from my every day diet – nope 125ml of Pinot Noir a night will never give me the reservatol I kid myself into believing it will; whatcha know you don’t really need to eat houmous with everything and 1-2 pieces of fruit a day won’t make you fat but when you replace fruit with dairy (guilty as charged) for the occasional snack you’re definitely notching up some serious calories that are much more of a concern than the fructose in your favourite cherries or nectarine
  • But let’s not get carried away here, and remind ourselves that the Paleo diet is open to tonnes of misinterpretation and who on earth can prove our hunter gatherer ancestors ate like this anyway?!
  • Paleo’s a badge, a label, a diet ‘fad’ to an extent. But does it have an important place amongst so many other rubbish diets in providing a superb starting point and template to build on? Hell yeh.

What are your thoughts on Paleo?

24 responses

  1. The article I wish I had the words and confidence to write – thank you!

    I’ll tell you a secret. I hate the paleo label and the ‘caveman’ association too. One day I will have the guts to remove it from my blog – when I can find a succinct and clear way of describing how I cook – and gain enough confidence to move away from paleo as a marketing tool!

    Thanks for your thought provoking words yet again!

    • I thought you might like this one… It’s like all our Tinderbox conversations scribed into a single blog post. I want to start a movement. The ‘how the heck does one define whole, real food that’s easy for everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) to understand’ campaign. Thanks Ceri for your ongoing support and commitment to the ‘just eat proper lush food’ cause.

  2. I eat mostly Paleo. The sugar is the hardest for me to move past – namely I allow it because I am not overweight, muscular, and allergic to so many other foods – it’s like my one gift to me. Every summer I do a 30 day Bikram yoga challenge. I am now considering a Paleo 30 day challenge after that. Both I feel will reset me after a horrible, stressful 10 months, including 4 of being incredible ill from the stress. I emailed myself your article to prepare for it. Great post!!

    • I definitely stray on holidays… Sugar creeps in on poolside cocktails and shoreside ice creams. I hear ya… Sugar unfortunately is the new tobacco and it’s a tough thing to ditch. I found the easiest thing to start with is thinking about substitutes – so where are you eating the sugar and what could you replace it with. Take it nice and steady, it’s not a race. Tomorrow never comes so start now. Be sure to keep me posted on how you get on. You’ve got this. Thanks so much for following and checking in.

  3. I love this blog! Thank you for writing it. Though I technically eat and follow and lecture on the Paleo diet, I HATE the term and the badge.

    I much rather emphasize a whole foods, traditional diet. I am also very irritated at all the new blogs, recipe books, etc. that are jumping on the Paleo bandwagon. So much of this was around long before this became popular and I feel people are just cashing in instead of truly believing in the lifestyle.

    • Badges have their place on Foursquare right, but anywhere else… no, just no – especially when it comes to our diet. Ironically, as we both know, it’s the best foods that don’t carry any sort of label whatsoever! We should take more from that. I’d love to hear more about your work and the lectures you’re doing. Thanks so much for checking in.

  4. I was strict Paleo for 2 weeks when I realized it was too much for me…I gave up my diary intake, my processed hippy junk food, and most of my grains…I am gluten free and the healthiest ive been in years…

    • Go Su! Great to hear from you. Gluten (I feel) is the devil – who needs that stuff?! Thanks for sharing your story, great to have you along for the ride.

  5. Anything that gets people moving and eating better is welcome. Let’s lose the element of it being too much like a cult, open our minds to proper evidenced-based nutritional advice, and then we’re really changing people’s health.

  6. sugar!!!! I am finding it very difficult to cut from my diet…..I refuse to substitute, any ideas on how it can be made easy would be very welcome.

    • Hi Karen, great to hear from you. When you say you refuse to substitute I’m not quite sure I get what you mean – if you’re keen to cut it from your diet. I can offer some more suggestions once I understand that bit of the comment :-)

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  8. I didnt feel awesome at all after 6 weeks eating paleo. Very bloated and constipated and blah. Once I got back to the whole grains I felt better. Wondering if went too low carb as well as not getting enough bulk. Didnt like all that meat either. If I could cook outside all year long that would help, just stinks up the house too much.

    • Hi Lori,

      Thanks for checking in. It’s a shame your initial Paleo experience didn’t work out well for you. There’s definitely a danger of constipation when switching to a Paleo diet through not enough fibre. I always find when I do opt for a Paleo approach I just pile my plate high with leafy greens at every meal and have a small serving of sweet potato for example once a day. Flaxseed is also great and if you need an extra helping hand, a probiotic is excellent for digestion I find. Paleo doesn’t always have to equal lots of meat. Eggs and fish still very much a superb protein choice.

    • I for the most part claim to be “paleo” as well. I made the switch for almost 2 months before finding out I was pregnant, and then gave in to all my pregnancy “cravings” and lost sight of the big picture. I am now 3 and a half months away from my due date and trying to get back into the swing of things as I did feel tons better not eating all of the processed “crap” I was eating before. I can not eat all the meat associated with a paleo lifestyle and therefore try to just go with meats, fruits and veggies and nuts. I have found very little difficulty in maintaining the concept as long as I focus more on the fruit and veggie side of it. Plus keeping up on the fruits and veggies helps to prevent the constipation issue. I guess many “paleo junkies” would consider me to simply eat clean?

      • Hi Jen! I’m so sorry, it’s suddenly dawned on me I haven’t responded to this. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Your pregnancy experience is a really interesting one. I have several friends who also found the same – in terms of simply not being able to stomach anything remotely Paleo in the early months. I’m now one and a bit weeks in to a really strict Paleo challenge (zero exceptions) and after a period of Christmas indulgence I feel incredible. I 100% agree that fruits and veggies are essential from a fibre point of view – I find sweet potato and raspberries are often a lifeline. Thanks so much again for your comment and apologies for the delay in getting back to you.

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  11. Beth, I Googled Paleo Diet to get more educated, knowing full well that there is a lot of misinformation online and found this blog. As someone new to the approach, I am put off by your reasons to hate the diet. Potatoes are not allowed. Bacon and beef jerky are full of salt which is to be avoided as much as possible. Processed meats are intuitively wrong and anyone who would eat them on the Paleo diet is completely sabotaging the diet. Cavemen had the capability of using two stones to grind up their nuts and then eating nut butter. Lastly, the Paleo exceptions are not about allergies – they are about inflammation to the gut and the inability of a LOT of people who can’t control their weight while eating beans and grains. It is clear you want to cheat, and don’t discourage new people. This blog is a perfect example of misinformation on the internet.

    • Hi Jenna, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m sorry you didn’t necessarily find what you were looking for.

      I’m very keen to help clarify a few points for you:

      1. There absolutely is a lot of misinformation regarding nutrition on the internet. It’s a shame you’ve put this blog into that category. My posts get lots of positive feedback and are based entirely on personal experience.

      2. White potatoes aren’t considered Paleo, you’re right. This post definitely doesn’t state that white potatoes are Paleo.

      3. I couldn’t agree more with you on beef jerky and bacon not being ideal mealtime staples. Likewise on processed meats not being a wise choice – especially given their links with colon cancer.

      4. Nut butter does indeed come in a jar these days and I don’t grind it with my hands but it is still entirely ground nuts – or at least the variety I choose to eat is.

      5. Legumes can indeed promote inflammation in some people, which is ultimately an ‘allergic’ reaction. Or at least the body’s way of saying it doesn’t really like something.

      6. Every single reader of this blog knows I’m no purist. I absolutely do enjoy a treat. I’m far from Paleo these days and I’m most certainly not on a diet. I attempt to eat well most of the time. I eat real, whole foods that keep me happy and healthy.

      Hope that helps clear things up a bit for you. I owe Paleo everything. It paved the way for my clean eating journey and I’ve learned many valuable lessons along the way.

      Thanks,
      Ruth, not Beth :-)

  12. Wow, great balanced opinion. I did the paleo diet for four weeks and it was amazing. It’s tough though, I don’t really think of it as a diet anymore but more as a lifestyle. If people are looking to take something away from this, I would say cut out the gluten. Trust me you will feel amazing!

    • Hey there, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Well done on making the move from diet to lifestyle, it’s such a huge and important step. I agree on gluten – and quite often when people cut out gluten, with that they remove all manner of rubbish – biscuits, cakes, white bread, pasta etc. I’m not gluten intolerant so tend to have it in rye bread, oat cakes and porridge from time to time but as you rightfully say as a general rule, intolerant or not, removing gluten does make people feel heck of a lot better.

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