In the last three articles in this series, I’ve covered the 3 most common challenges people face when starting a Paleo diet: digestive problems, impaired fat and carbohydrate metabolism, and sluggish detox capacity. In this final article, I’m going to offer 5 more general tips for mastering the Paleo diet and making it work for you. They are:
- Start strong.
- Supplement wisely.
- Get support.
- Plan ahead.
Let’s look at each of them in more detail.
If your computer is running slowly, applications are crashing left and right and you can’t even move the cursor anymore, what do you do? Control-alt-delete. Or if you’re a Mac user, you hold down the power button to restart. Sometimes we need to do the same thing with our bodies. They’re under constant assault in the modern world. Refined, processed food, environmental toxins, stress, sleep deprivation and chronic infections can all wreak havoc on our health.
The health equivalent of hitting the reset button on your computer is what is commonly referred to as the “30-day Paleo Challenge”, or what I call the “30-day Reset” in the Personal Paleo Code. It’s a 30-day elimination diet designed to reduce inflammation, improve digestion, strengthen metabolism, identify food sensitivities, reduce allergic reactions, boost energy, regulate blood sugar and normalize weight. It almost seems too good to be true. I’ve not only done this myself, I’ve guided thousands of people through it. And I can tell you this: it works. No other therapy – natural or otherwise – can come even remotely close to accomplishing all of these goals in such a short period of time.
Over the years, Robb Wolf and I have helped thousands of people transition to the Paleo diet. We’ve found that in most cases, starting with a 30-day challenge or reset is the most effective strategy. You commit to a 30-day period where you eliminate the modern foods that cause disease as well as the foods people are most often allergic to or intolerant of, and focus on the safe, nourishing foods our ancestors have thrived on for 77,000 generations. Then, after you’ve “hit the reset button” and returned to that basic template, you can customize it to find the approach that works best for you over the long term.
If you’re new to the Paleo diet, check out this free guide to the 30-day Reset that Robb and I put together. It explains exactly what foods are allowed, and answers some of the most frequently asked questions about the reset.
I do want to point out, however, that for some people the “whole hog” approach isn’t the best way to start. Be honest with yourself about your personality and way of making changes; the most effective strategy is not necessarily the fastest, it’s the one with the most longevity. If making a gradual transition is more your style, and will give you the staying power you need to stick with it, then by all means do that.
The Paleo diet is an excellent starting place for anyone interested in improving their health. But it’s just that – a starting place.
It’s important to remember that our ancestors didn’t all eat the same diet. There was a wide variation in the proportion of protein, fat and carbohydrate (macronutrients) and the specific types of food consumed in different populations around the world. In fact, their diets were more alike in what they didn’t contain than what they did. For example, the Tukisenta people of Papa New Guinea ate sweet potatoes almost exclusively. Starchy tubers comprised about 97% of the total calories they consumed. On the other hand, the traditional Inuit ate about 80% of their calories as fat, primarily in the form of seal blubber. Both of these populations were naturally lean and free of modern disease, and both were following a “Paleo diet.” But they obviously were not eating the same foods, nor were they eating even remotely the same ratio of macronutrients.
This suggests that different groups of people can thrive on a wide range of foods within the basic “Paleo template.” But there’s also tremendous room for variation between individuals within the same group. Numerous factors influence what makes a diet optimal for a given individual, including genetics, epigenetics, health status, activity level, location, life circumstances and goals. An 18-year old Olympic athlete training for 6 hours a day will obviously require a different approach than a 57-year old overweight, sedentary office worker with rheumatoid arthritis.
The same is even true for two people with relatively similar circumstances. For example, one middle-aged woman with Irritable Bowel Syndrome may find that she feels much better on a low-carbohydrate diet, yet another woman of the same age with the same condition might find that she has trouble digesting a lot of protein and fat and does better with a higher carbohydrate approach.
The key to personalization is to experiment. After you finish the 30-day Reset, you may want to reintroduce some “grey area” foods like dairy and white rice to see if you tolerate them. And you may also want to tinker with macronutrient ratios, meal timing and frequency, fermented foods, and several other “tweaks”. (If you need a little guidance with this process, check out the Personal Paleo Code. It’s designed to help you create your own ideal version of the Paleo diet, rather than following a canned approach.)
There are two kinds of supplementation: ongoing and therapeutic. Ongoing supplementation would include basic micronutrient support like vitamin D, magnesium, vitamin A (retinol) and perhaps a few other nutrients that are difficult to obtain even in the context of a healthy diet. Therapeutic supplementation is designed to accomplish a specific goal, such as treating a particular health condition or, in the context of this series of articles, helping you transition to a new diet.
I go into a lot of detail about how to effectively approach ongoing supplementation in my book, so check that out if you haven’t already. I want to go into a little more detail here about therapeutic supplementation.
In a perfect world, none of us would ever need to take supplements. We’d be able to meet all of our nutritional needs through food, our sleep would be deep and restful, we’d get plenty of exercise, we’d live in a pristine environment without chemicals and toxins, we’d have minimal amounts of stress, we’d live in a tight-knit community with close, meaningful relationships and we’d have plenty of time for leisure and fun. We would have been born naturally to a mother that was equally healthy, been breastfed exclusively for 2 years, ate a Paleo or Real Food diet throughout our entire childhood and never taken antibiotics.
Okay. Raise your hand if this describes your experience. If you’ve got your hand in the air, you can probably stop reading this.
But if you’re like the rest of us, this doesn’t describe your life. You don’t sleep as much as you’d like. You’re stressed out. You work at a desk, and even though you go to the gym a few times a week, you know sitting all day isn’t healthy. You live in the city and you’re exposed to chemicals and toxins every day. Your mom had autoimmune disease and it looks like she passed those genes down to you. Or maybe you were born via c-section and/or not breastfed, or you took antibiotics for acne as a teenager, and now your gut is screwed up. Unfortunately, this is not unusual. It’s the rule, not the exception.
This is why a clean diet is often not enough to solve every health problem, and it’s where therapeutic supplementation can be extremely valuable. And it’s why Robb and I created Paleologix (which, by the way, is launching today!). We’ve all heard of the Paleo success stories… the people that switch to Paleo and see all of their complaints disappear almost overnight. While that is not uncommon, Robb and I have both worked with enough people to know that it’s not everyone’s experience. Some people need a little additional support. In these cases targeted supplements can be like a raft that helps you get from one side of the river (pre-Paleo) to the other side (completely adjusted to and thriving on Paleo). If you’ve already started Paleo and it’s not going as well as you’d hoped, or you’re about to start and you simply want to optimize your chances for success, check out the Paleologix formulas. And make sure to read the previous articles in this series for more tips on how to address the 3 most common challenges we’ve seen people face when they switch to Paleo.
Robb and I have noticed another pattern in helping people transition to Paleo: those who get the most support are the most successful.
Changing your diet isn’t just a question of eating different foods. It affects your social life, where and how you shop, how (and maybe even where) you travel, how you prepare food at home and at work, and how and where you eat out. It’s a huge undertaking. This is especially true if you’re on your own and you don’t have family and friends to help keep you on track.
Here are some ideas for finding additional support while you’re making the transition (and even beyond):
- Join a Paleo Meetup group. There are a few of these around the U.S. and internationally. They’re a great opportunity to meet other folks who are doing Paleo in person, rather than just online.
- Get a “Paleo buddy”. See if you can enlist a friend or family member to try Paleo with you. Even a single person in your corner to bounce ideas off of and share experiences with is invaluable.
- Participate in a forum. Mark’s Daily Apple has an active forum with helpful dialogue. There are other forums that are active, but not so civil. In a few months I’ll be starting a membership forum staffed by Paleo RDs under my supervision, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
- Join a gym. Some gyms, particularly CrossFit gyms, run Paleo 30-day challenges periodically. If you enjoy making changes with the support of a group, this is a good option.
- Join a program. In February, I’ll be introducing a redesigned version of the Personal Paleo Code with lots of built-in support, including weekly email reminders, tips & tricks; a forum staffed by Paleo RDs; a bi-weekly Q&A teleseminar and monthly seminars on special topics.
- Use social media. There are tons of folks on Facebook and Twitter following a Paleo lifestyle, and it’s a great medium for asking quick questions and getting some help from your peers. Following me on Facebook and Twitter is a good place to start.
For those of you that have been at this for a while, what resources have you found to be most supportive? Let us know in the comments section.
Another key to a successful Paleo transition is planning ahead. This will help you avoid those situations where you eat something you know you shouldn’t because there’s nothing else available and you’re starving, or you find yourself slipping when you travel or eat out with friends. (I’m not suggesting you need to be 100% compliant all of the time, but it is important during the 30-day challenge and initial transition period.)
Here are a few tips for staying on top of your Paleo goals:
- Plan your meals in advance. Consider signing up for something like the Paleo Meal Plan Generator. It generates meal plans that are customized for your particular Paleo needs (i.e. low-carb, GAPS, autoimmune, etc.) with recipes from the biggest culinary names in the Paleo world.
- Bring food with you. If you know you’re going to be traveling or will simply be away from home for a while, prepare some snacks in advance for the trip. Beef jerky, dried fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, leftovers, fruit, olives, pemmican, dark chocolate (85% or higher, preferably) are all good options.
- Designate a day for cooking. If you work outside the home during the week, spend a half-day on the weekend preparing food for the week. Roast a chicken, cook a big stew in the slow cooker, make a pot roast and cook a few servings of your favorite side dish. You can even set them aside in individual portions using something like Lunchbots so you can just grab them as you head out the door.
- Control your food environment. The term “food environment” simply describes the range and quality of foods you’re exposed to on a daily basis. If you’re planning to start a Paleo diet, one of the best things you can do to prepare is clear all of the non-Paleo foods out of your kitchen and pantry. If you get home from a long day at work, you’re starving and exhausted, and there’s a bag of potato chips on the counter, you might not have the willpower in that moment to resist. But if there are only fruit, nuts or other Paleo-friendly foods available to snack on, you’ll be a lot less likely to fall off the wagon.
- Buy in bulk. Along the same lines, consider buying staples in bulk. For example, we buy 1/4 of beef and 1/2 pig every few months from a local farmer, have it butchered, and store it in a chest freezer. Then we just defrost a few cuts each day for cooking. It’s not only more convenient to do it this way, it’s much cheaper.
- Join a CSA. Many farmers will deliver a box of fresh produce (and sometimes even meat) directly to your door or to a local drop-off location for a monthly fee. This is a great way to make sure you’re getting fresh, local produce on a regular basis, and to support your local farmers.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series, and that it helps you to get the most out of the Paleo diet and achieve all of your health-related goals. If you’ve been struggling with any of the issues I’ve discussed in the past few articles, or you just want to give yourself the best possible chance to succeed with a Paleo diet, head over to the Paleologix site to learn more about whether the formulas might be a good choice for you. We started shipping pre-orders at the end of last week, and as of today we’re now accepting orders from the general public. Robb and I have put a lot of work into designing these formulas, and we’re excited about their potential to help a lot of people thrive on Paleo.
Now I’d like to hear from you. What are your top tips for mastering the Paleo diet? What have you found to be most helpful along the way? What support resources would you recommend to someone just starting out?
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