Whether you’re new to Paleo, or you were Paleoized long before it was a hip, Hollywood trend, chances are you’ve encountered a “Paleo purist.” Maybe you are one, or were one for awhile. White potatoes aren’t Paleo, they say. You can never eat dairy, even the stuff from pastured cows. White rice is forbidden. You have to be low carb or your diet is a “faileo.” You can never eat gluten-free grains. If you eat any amount of hydrogenated oils, your arteries will never recover. Butter isn’t a superfood, it’s a sin! etc.
I’ve been Paleo for eight years now, and in that amount of time, I’ve heard and seen a lot. I was Paleo before it was “cool,” before celebrities had caught on, and before most even knew what the heck it was. Paleo, for me, was a therapeutic lifestyle that helped me regain my energy and health when doctors couldn’t do anything for me. Paleo was my lifesaver and my second chance. I spent many years being a “Paleo purist” because it was a matter of health for me. If I ate strictly Paleo, I felt better. When I “cheated,” I regressed back into my horrible symptoms of chronic fatigue, depression, and digestive problems. But that was only because my body needed time to heal.
Now that I’ve given my body so many years to heal, I’ve learned that Paleo doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Perhaps you already know this from your own experience, or maybe you have always approached Paleo with the 80/20 rule. Either way, I’ve noticed a trend of people feeling guilty if they’re not 100% Paleo all the time, or that they are guilty of “cheating” if they eat some non-Paleo foods. Folks, this shouldn’t be the case! While we all have very individual reasons for following a Paleo diet, we need to listen to our bodies.
Here are four reasons why Paleo doesn’t have to be “all or nothing,” and, in fact, why it shouldn’t be:
Sure, it seems like there are a lot (A LOT) of rules when it comes to the Paleo diet—no grains, no dairy, no legumes, NO FUN! I get how overwhelming it can be in the beginning. But when you take a look at the whole, it’s not about rule-following, it’s about understanding why those foods aren’t Paleo. Primarily, it comes down to digestion. Grains, dairy, legumes, hydrogenated oils, etc. are generally speaking hard on the digestive system. It’s hard to have an optimally healthy body if your digestive tract isn’t getting the nutrients it needs or if it can’t absorb the ones it has. This is why it can be a good idea to strictly follow Paleo when you’re just starting out, but does it have to be that way? Nope. Because…
Why are you going Paleo? Why have you been Paleo? The reasons are so varied that I couldn’t possibly list them all here, but some of the more popular ones are that you’re Paleo because you’re a CrossFitter, or you’re Paleo because you want to lose weight or want to address a chronic health condition. But beyond that, some people are Paleo because they have food allergies that essentially limit them to a Paleo diet, or maybe they just want to eat cleanly. Maybe they’re athletes and find Paleo is best for performance, or maybe they’re Paleo because they’re supporting a family member who is Paleo for one of these aforementioned reasons. Whatever the reason, Paleo isn’t one size fits all, and as such, your Paleo diet can and should reflect that. If you can tolerate good quality dairy products, then I’ll be the first to say you should feel free to eat them! Same goes for white rice, grassfed butter, and beans. But it’s important to be able to honestly determine if you actually can handle them, or if you’re just desperate to have them (ice cream, I’m looking at you!). I wish I could eat all of the grassfed dairy products in the world without suffering the consequences, but I can’t. I have learned that I can tolerate some cheese, but milk, sour cream, and yogurt? My body doesn’t digest them well. As much as I would love to have some yogurt each morning with my breakfast, I have let my body dictate what my Paleo diet looks like. Because…
People who insist that Paleo foods are the only things that you can eat, or you’re not a true “Paleoite” are missing the boat on what Paleo truly is. If you go back to the origins of Paleo, you would find very different diets of our ancestors depending on what parts of the world they were from. Some would have more vegetable heavy, while others would have consisted of mostly meat and fat. Since the modern day version of Paleo isn’t an exact replica of cavemen’s diets, but distills the principles and makes it applicable to our modern life, we can and should understand that your Paleo diet may look slightly different from mine. The belief that there is only one kind of Paleo, and if you don’t strictly adhere then you’re a “cheater” is not only divisive, but harmful, because it fully misses the boat. What matters when it comes to Paleo is equipping your digestive system to work efficiently, and that means feeding your body foods that work for you.
While eating foods that are in season can be very popular among those in the Paleo camp, I’m referring to a different type of season. As we age, we naturally progress through many different seasons of life. The nutritional needs of a teenage athlete are arguably quite different from the dietary needs of a pregnant woman, a man undergoing cancer treatments, or a couple who is fighting to lose 100 pounds together. Seasons of the year naturally come and go, whether we like it or not, and the seasons of our lives progress much the same, albeit less succinctly than winter to spring to summer to fall. It’s important to pay attention to the season that your body is in, and how it could best benefit nutritionally during that time. As I mentioned before, I spent a few years eating strictly Paleo for the sake of recovering from chronic health issues. I didn’t deviate once because I had my eye on the prize: I was in a season of healing. Now that I’m halfway through a pregnancy, my nutritional needs have dramatically changed, and I will say without shame that I’ve been consuming copious amounts of Paleo foods along with grassfed butter, locally made cheese, and even white rice. Why? For one thing, pregnancy cravings can make it difficult to stick to a diet plan that can’t readily evolve, which frankly, is a blog post of its own. But on the other hand, as a Paleo nutritionist, I do believe that at times our cravings can actually be our bodies requesting specific nutrients. I didn’t start craving cheese until I was a few weeks into my second trimester—the time that the baby’s bones are actively formed. While there are definitely many different non-dairy sources of calcium, this was a much more appetizing way for my body to meet these dietary needs in this particular season of my life.
Paleo does not have to be all or nothing. In fact, you will go farthest in your Paleo diet if you are committed to one thing: being all in to eating for your health. If you can learn to listen to your body’s needs, and to accurately assess the seasons of your life as they ebb and flow, your less than pristine Paleo diet could be far more effective than someone who is a Paleo purist just for the sake of following “the rules.”
Remember how I said that initially I was strictly Paleo all the time? There are times when that truly is the best approach. This builds on the seasonal aspect of the Paleo lifestyle. Are you trying to lose weight or recover from an autoimmune disorder? Those are two cases where it pays to be all in with strictly Paleo foods. Does that mean you can never in the future throw in some Primal foods, or that you can never indulge in the occasional non-Paleo meal? Of course not! But as with any aspect of your health, it’s vital to assess why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is the essence of the Paleo way of life.
Oh, and if you’re not perfect at listening to your body and reading digestive and health signs right away, don’t worry. It’s a journey, like anything else. It can really help to keep a food journal, but if you’re really fed up or feel lost, or you have health goals that are more intensive, then get a professional’s opinion. Whatever approach you take, with commitment and confidence your Paleo diet can take you much farther than you could ever dream. Mine brought me into remission from severe chronic fatigue and Hashimoto’s, helped me lose more than 80 pounds, and helped prepare my body for pregnancy after I experienced a devastating seven miscarriages. Our other nutritionists also experienced their own Paleo transformations, and I promise you that if we can do it, you definitely can, too.
Aimee McNew, MNT, Certified Nutritionist