My Paleo Journey

CrossFit life changes low-carb nutrition omega-3 paleo diet personal development primal diet sardines whole food

I've already been asked how I managed to stick to such an extreme diet for so long and how I was able to maintain the same level of exertion as my body underwent the metabolic changes involved in going Paleo. A lot of people at my gym who did manage to stick with the diet experienced uncharacteristic fatigue and weakness, but I never really missed a beat. So I thought I'd share the secret to my painless, smooth-sailing Paleo/Primal diet lifestyle.

The secret is: do it really slowly!

The Journey Begins

I started this journey last January, with the simple decision to stop eating high fructose corn syrup. I didn't then have in mind the end goal of going Paleo. I knew I didn't have what it took to make all those changes right away. I wasn't even sure if I wanted to stop eating grains then. I just wanted to stop eating high fructose corn syrup. And that was pretty difficult actually. I loved ketchup, for example, and I was forced to read the labels of everything I bought, since HCFS gets stuck in a lot of random foods. But with diligence, I managed it. Note, I did not stop eating sugar. I allowed myself all the cane sugar I wanted.

After about a month of no HFCS, I took a look at my pantry and realized just how much of what I ate was not real food. I was pretty hardcore into working out by then, so I had a lot of protein bars lying around, which were really just bricks of chemicals with clever marketing. I started asking myself what would be a better or equivalent source of protein, and I came across this article in men's health on Omega-3s and sardines. So out went the protein bars, and in came the sardines. I stopped buying food with ingredients I didn't understand. Key ones were artificial and natural flavors and colors, and most preservatives. I still bought some packaged foods, but mostly replaced them: breakfasts were fruits, nuts, and yogurt, lunches were sardines and trail mix and fresh carrots, and dinners were homemade fish and veggie bakes. Mainly, the only processed foods I bought were breads, crackers, sauces and salad dressings.

By the end of the school year, I had cut out all artificial ingredients and preservatives. I only ate real, whole foods. Protein was from my dad's hunting trips and fish from Trader Joe's (this store saved my life in college, making it convenient and easy to prepare wholesome food from frozen, whole ingredients). I had stopped drinking milk and stuck to yogurt and kefir. I no longer bought pre-made bread (except for some sprouted bread) and the little carbs I did eat was mainly rice. I still ate sugar though.

Keep in mind that I wasn't consciously avoiding carbs at this point. I simply didn't think to eat them very often. Rice took too long to cook in college, and it was faster and easier to just saute fish and veggies. I would eat English muffins occasionally for breakfast, but I never went through them fast enough to keep them from going bad, so I just stopped buying them. I was simply developing a taste for more nutrient dense foods, and the carbs would get in the way of that. When I really wanted some crusty bread, I'd have it, but I didn't feel too bad because I had pretty much cut out all artificial chemicals from my diet. That in itself made a huge impact on my health, one I noticed when my seasonal allergies didn't crop up in the spring.

That summer, I was a counselor at a summer camp, which made it very difficult to control my diet. Nevertheless, I took advantage of the nearby food co-op and started making my own trail and fruit and nut mixes for breakfasts. By now, I had gotten it in my head to move towards a traditional real foods diet, inspired by Food Renegade, so my grains were sprouted and dairy was fermented. Around this time, I also started cutting out sugar. Not completely, though. At the end of every session, the kitchen staff baked cookies for everyone, and I certainly partook of those (having one homemade cookie every two weeks makes for some really, really delicious cookies. You learn to appreciate treats like that). Generally though, I ate no refined sugars or grains. Meat was almost always grass-fed or wild caught, and for a few months, I was even making my own yogurt from some goats that lived on camp.

Falling Behind

After camp, I backslid a bit. First, there was a month in Florida with a family that loved to bake. This was really hard for me because it was the family of a girl I was dating at the time. I was still trying to nail down exactly what and how I wanted to eat, and was seriously moving towards a Primal diet as set out by Mark's Daily Apple, while at the same time trying to navigate the already awkward dynamics of meeting my girlfriend's family, living with them, and sharing their meals. This was when I first learned how central a place sugar plays in the lives of Americans, especially as a comfort food and a means of demonstrating affection. My refusal of cookies and even store-bought ice cream was seen as a refusal of their love and acceptance. So by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was seriously reconsidering the merits of pursuing what I knew to be a healthier way to eat.

Come Thanksgiving, I decided to eat normally, but wanted to try to make everything from scratch. So there was cranberry sauce made with sugar, lots of homemade pies, and decadent chocolate treats, in addition to home-baked bread. The fact that we made everything by hand was itself an accomplishment, but I was definitely losing my focus. After Thanksgiving, I flew off to Switzerland for two weeks, and was exposed to the delicious cuisine of Switzerland and Italy. Needless to say, I ate a lot of pizza and gelato, as well as plenty of tasty fondue and bread. The quality of the food was far superior, and I could feel the effects of that, but I was also aware of the fact that I was no longer really thinking about what I ate.

When I returned to the states, I found it very difficult to get back on the program. My resolve had flagged. I was working out at CrossFit pretty regularly, and I already knew that I would be do better without all the carbs. I had reason to believe the dairy and peanut butter weren't doing me any good either. So I started cutting out foods again, slowly, one by one, knowing that the only way to build a habit is to do so slowly and methodically. There were slip-ups, and the start of a more active social life meant alcohol became a new dietary element to deal with. But I knew what I wanted to achieve, since I knew how much better I felt on a low-carb diet, so the motivation was there.

Stepping Up

When our 30 Day Paleo Challenge came around, I used it as an opportunity to finally get everything back in line, and even go the extra distance I hadn't yet managed by cutting out dairy and peanut butter (oh peanut butter...would you be surprised if I said I still have feelings for you, even after all this time?). So it did take some dedication, but I was already used to the Paleo diet to a large extent. For me, it was a series of baby steps, rather than an all-or-nothing turnaround. For a lot of people, going Paleo meant no more soda, no more processed foods, and no more starchy carbs. I don't think I could have done that without all the preparation. For me, on the other hand, it was simply a matter of cutting out bread, yogurt, and peanut butter, as well as a few things here and there. Logistics can often get in the way, but I already had all the tricks necessary for making it work; I knew what makes a good snack, I knew how to transport Paleo-friendly food. I imagine that caused some trouble as well.

For those of you who have fallen off the bandwagon and are frustrated with yourselves, questioning whether you can actually make the cut, I would say try again, but this time, start smaller. Look for one item that you can eliminate or change. Instead of eliminating breads, for example, make a commitment to buy sprouted breads, for example, of even just bread you know is handmade and has minimal ingredients. Instead of cutting out all sugar, just cut out the artificial ones, like HFCS and Agave syrup (yes, that is a processed sugar). Maybe this means you still drink sodas, as long as they are artisanal sodas. Find the smallest, most insignificant thing to change, and focus on just that. Find something so small, you can't possibly fail. Then, use the momentum from that to make another change, equally small. Before you know it, all these things will add up and you'll be eating Paleo in no time. There's no rush.

Food is such an integral part of our lives and beings. It is woven into the social fabric of our lives, it constitutes many of our earliest and most cherished memories, and it is incorporated into our very bodies. The composition of our food determines how our bodies function and even how our minds work. So while it is important to make changes for the better, we must keep in mind that doing so involved untangling all those connections and reweaving many of them. In a lot of cases, all we can do is cut the thread and leave it, trying not to let it bother us (I will always love rice and yogurt, a dish that not only is part of my Arabic heritage, but was also my primary and most reliable comforter as a child). So when we do make changes, we have to make small changes, focusing on one string at a time. To take the knot analogy further, sometimes you have to pull out a string halfway, then go to the other side to work on something else to enable you to loosen the first string completely. And sometimes you sneeze and find yourself all tangled up again. Nutrition, like fitness, is a process, an ongoing journey with ups and downs. You will never be perfectly fit, just as you will never be perfectly nourished. These are things that you must continuously work on and do as a lifestyle, rather than a project to be undertaken and set aside.

Image Source: Pabo76 on Flickr