If you’re new to the Paleo world, or even if you’ve been at it for awhile, one of the top questions we get is “How long do I have to eat a Paleo diet to get results?” I think many worry about the inconvenience of following a restrictive diet for a long time.
Paleo, also referred to as an ancestral or caveman diet, feels and looks very different from the Standard American Diet. It excludes grains and legumes, which for Americans (who are used to hearing that one needs whole grains to have a healthy heart), is a shock to the system.
Many fear that if they avoid grains, legumes, dairy, and gluten for a long time that they will suffer nutrient deficiencies or that they will somehow harm themselves. These ideas are fostered by proponents of diets that are centered around grains, including the large agricultural companies who would be left high and dry if the United States largely caught on to an increasingly recognized truth: many grains, including gluten, promote inflammatory reactions within the body, even when food allergies aren’t present. (1)
But Won’t My Bones Be Brittle If I Don’t Eat Dairy?
This is a myth that circulates many different nutrition circles, but it’s not true. There are numerous other sources of calcium that are just as easily (or more efficiently) absorbed as cow’s milk, which contains 300 grams per cup:
- Sesame seeds – 270 grams per 3 tablespoons
- Chia seeds – 360 grams per ¼ cup
- Sardines – 375 grams per 3.75 ounce tin
Here’s the thing: calcium intake can be spectacular, but you also need optimized vitamin D levels for your bones to be healthy. This is often overlooked. Even with the fortified dairy products that contain vitamin D, many Americans have subpar levels. This is because the form of vitamin D that is used to bolster most milk products is D2, which is not as bioavailable as D3. While you can obtain D3 from some foods, the best way to ensure that your levels are where they need to be is to spend time in the sun and to supplement with high-quality D3. (2)
So, Do I Have to Stay Paleo Forever?
The above are just a few examples of how staying Paleo for an extended amount of time will not harm you. If you’re staying true to the Paleo principles and eating plenty of fresh, quality meats, vegetables, fruits, fats, seeds, nuts, eggs, seafood, and the like, you won’t suffer from nutrient deficiencies. In fact, you will be better off than the average American who doesn’t consume enough heart-protective fats or eat the rainbow in vegetables.
But do you have to stay Paleo forever? No, not at all. What you really should do to experience optimal wellness is listen to your body. When you reintroduce non-Paleo foods, pay attention to what you feel. These can be digestive symptoms like indigestion, gas, or bloating or they can be changes to your bowel movements. They can also be a little more subtle, like headaches, body aches, anxiety, unstable blood sugar, increased pulse, sugar cravings, or feelings of depression.
Food sensitivity can impact the body in numerous ways and we are often only sensitive enough to notice after we’ve spent some time away from the possible triggers.
If you do notice that you experience some adverse effects after certain foods, even that doesn’t mean that you can never eat it again. Some food allergies or sensitivities are lifelong, but others can be short-lived especially in highly stressful seasons of life or other situations that can trigger hormonal changes or otherwise impact the digestive system (think chronic disease, pregnancy, major life changes, hormonal deficiency, surgery, etc.).
Is Paleo the Only Way to Live?
As to whether Paleo is the only way to live, there are many who feel that way. But the good news is that you are not everyone else! The beauty of Paleo is that it’s a mentality and a way of life. That allows for an evolutionary process as your body changes and adapts. Instead of approaching the diet as a set of rules, look at it as a way of eliminating triggers and then the journey of customizing your dietary foodscape.
But what does eating (or not eating) Paleo forever look like? Some do well with adding raw dairy back to their diets and become more Primal focused. Chris Kresser has a great piece on the health benefits of raw dairy.
Others realize that they need an even stricter plan and cut eggs, nightshades, and nuts and follow the autoimmune Paleo protocol, or the AIP. Still others will do well on an 80/20 approach where they add back gluten-free grains, beans, and other “non-Paleo” foods 20% of the time. The ratios are not set either. Maybe you would do well on a 90/10 or a 50/50 food plan.
Ultimately, Paleo is about healing, resetting, restoring, and living. It’s not a prison. So wherever you fall on the Paleo spectrum, I encourage you to first and foremost let your own body do the leading. The more you pay attention to the cues that your digestive system (and the rest of you) are sending, the better you will be in every aspect of life.