Navigating Health and Performance Failures on A Paleo Diet: We’re Only Human

A friend came over last night for our weekly game night and said to me, “Neely, I saw your Facebook post about you having food poisoning… It doesn’t look so good when you have a food website and you get food poisoning.”

Or something along those lines. To which I fumed, “I never said my health was perfect.” (Because that was the best I could do?)

Seriously, am I supposed to transcend all health maladies just because I improved my diet 30 years into my malnourished life? Should I be impervious to all food-borne pathogens because I’m Paleo? No, I think that’s ridiculous and I don’t like being held to that impossible standard by others or myself. I realize my sometimes asshole-ish friend was sort of kidding, but still.

To tell you the truth, I was scared to post on Facebook that I had food poisoning for that very reason – that people would judge me. “Why’s she sick if she supposedly has this perfect diet and makes her living writing about it?” You know what? I also got a cold before my wedding this summer, and I was embarrassed about that, too. I’m not supposed to get sick – my health should be perfect…

I’d love to be one of those people who goes Paleo after decades of eating shit and three weeks later writes in to some Paleo blogger that their migraines are gone, they’ve lost 150 pounds, they’ve never had so much energy in their life, they’re pregnant after being infertile for 20 years, and there’s no sign of their debilitating multiple sclerosis. Amazing.

Those stories seem to permeate the Paleosphere, including this website. And I am beyond psyched for those people; they make me want to brave the naysayers every day. But those testimonials also create ridiculous expectations for everyone else who’s either on the Paleo diet or knows somebody who is. It’s a license to compare and judge yourself and others. I think we all have enough ammo to judge as it is without throwing miraculous healings into the mix, don’t we?

Yes, Paleo certainly helped me, like I said. I wouldn’t be such an evangelist had it not. But as you can see by my blog post about my $1500 worth of lab testing, I’ve still got stuff going on that Paleo hasn’t been able to touch. And I am pre-tty freaking Paleo…

Speaking of failure, I’m not as strong as I’d like to be either, despite my ostensibly magical diet. I got on the same rock climb 3 days a week July through September of this year and failed to complete it successfully. I had to walk away from it last week because I decided it had made me cry one too many times. It was something I’d sincerely hoped to accomplish, and I failed. I’ll go back to it next year, but for now I’m just not strong enough, even though I adhere strictly to this diet full of muscle-promoting protein, good fats, and highly nutrient dense foods. It was supposed to be enough to make me strong! It’s sort of embarrassing to fail miserably in this sport of strength when I’m so highly associated with Paleo – the diet that creates big muscles (and healthy bowel movements).

I managed to NOT fall off this one.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to stop eating the way I do. The fact is that I’m much healthier now that I don’t eat the foods I used to. I am, in fact, stronger than I used to be. My skin is healthier, my bowels are happier, and I’m happier, too. I’ll never go back. But I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people with perfect health on paper or off. I spent too many years mussing it all up for that. I’m ok with that. I know it will continue to get better, and having symptoms of my own makes me a) human and b) continue to learn so I can keep helping people with their own health.

And while I feel dejected when an ultimately pointless rock climb spits me off its face again and again, I do know that it’s not all about brute strength up there. I’ve never claimed to have unfailing confidence or the most positive mental attitude, and those things are half the battle in climbing, or any sport for that matter. I’ll do that dumb route next year. I just have to keep training, keep working on my head, and keep eating right.

But mostly I have to keep reminding myself that I’m only human and that this diet isn’t some elixir for supernatural vitality and burl. Paleo, in all its forms, is just the recipe for historically normal human health and strength, and even normal people get food poisoning and fall off rocks…


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  1. pbo

    Well said.

  2. Natasha

    Really love the honesty and authenticity in your writing. I just had this discussion last night with a friend as well. We were debating the reasons for eating paleo and he was convinced that it can’t be good for your body to not eat dairy. He continued to state how many famous athletes do you know that eat paleo? In all honesty I answered with a “I don’t have all the answers, I just know how it makes me feel and it works for me. It doesn’t mean its the only way to eat or that I think you can’t be a top athlete without it.” Again love the honesty, keep up the good work and I bet you get that rock wall next year!

  3. Bridget

    Honey, food poisoning can happen to the healthiest of food…it has to do with the storage/temperature/exposure/safety of the food prepared, before/during/ or after you got it…it has nothing to do with the quality of your health or the food itself before it was tainted. If you were less healthy, your body wouldn’t have been able to overcome the illness, or the cold you had may have developed into a secondary infection or even pneumonia. There are no guarantees in this life, or magic bullets that will make us impervious to illness or disease…but we do our best to give our bodies a fighting chance to overcome the bad stuff that may happen to us. I like to think that we’re all doing the best we can, at the time, with what we have to work with. I like this article:

  4. Deidre

    I really appreciate your honesty…this post really resonated with me and I wanted to thank you for putting yourself out there every day for us to relate to, or think about and to help us along on our Paleo journeys…..this made me realize that people can be harsh and no one is perfect….your putting yourself out there for others health is really brave….thank you!!

    Ps….You will rock that “rock” next summer!

  5. Laura

    Love this!! Still new to Paleo (under a year) and I feel amazing, but I had some digestive problems out if nowhere last night…so weird. Nice to know I’m not alone :)

  6. Katerina Bent

    I think this post is great. Sometimes by telling about all the miracles that something can do, we leave behind the people who it will work for, but not preform miracles for. I think that when we put Paleo on this high pedestal and say it will solve so many problems, some people might get frustrated that paleo is not doing that for them, and quit a lifestyle that is generally good for them. I think we need to remind ourselves that our bodies are different and have been through varying levels of abuse. Plus, let’s not forget the effects of environmental factors on our body.
    Really, thanks for your honesty.

  7. Debbie S

    Best post I have read about Paleo….The husband and I did Paleo for about a year and a half a few years back, we are back on….anywho, he did so amazing!! He felt tons of energy, lost weight, performed fabulously in Athletics…Me? Not so much…..weak, puny, no energy, gained weight, was depressed….it isn’t a fix all plan. It is definately a learning process to find what works for you…then naysayers are always gonna be there.

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