But they are basically outsiders. Like someone watching a large group of people entering Dr. Who’s TARDIS and not understanding how so many people could fit in such a small box.
So, after observing and wondering for a while, these curious people, who are quite the adventurous type, who are self-experimenters, who challenge themselves and test things out for themselves, decide to have a go at this thing called paleo. But not to lose weight, not to change their health. But simply to see what it is like.
Just how many people can fit in a TARDIS?
This is what Alan of Life’s Too Good and two of his friends decided to do. Not test out the TARDIS , of course, but to try paleo. For 30 days. Just to see.
Alan does this kind of thing regularly. He quit a successful corporate career in the City of London but retired to the countryside in his mid-thirties with his wife and two young children in search of a better life so he is used to trying new things.
He gathered a couple of others to join him, no fixed outcomes, expectations or hypotheses (although you’ll see that some pre-judgements did get tested). They started at the beginning of the month and worked through to the end, emailing and Skyping each other for support.
Paleo: Eccentric as the good Doctor himself?
Paleo is very strange to many people. It is often a completely different way of eating to what they’re used to, it is unknown territory, and it runs counter to many of the points their doctor has made to them.
Doctor Who is strange also, and many of Doctor Who’s assistants are reluctant helpmates. Some of them are practically dragged into the TARDIS (Sarah Jane just about drove me batty with all her squealing and whimpering). But I can’t say I blame them.
They have no idea what they’re headed for, little concept of what will happen. They are having experiences that run counter to everything they previously believed to be true. And told simply to trust that it will all work out. Some of them would probably just like to walk into the blue box and walk out again.
But if these assistants go on just one adventure, they come back changed in some way. And this is what I wanted to know from Alan’s group.
Were they changed by
time travel paleo?
I asked Alan’s group to feed back how they found it, what they now thought, and what they’d do next. The reason I was interested in this is that so many of us encounter people in the paleo world who are gung-ho about it, successful, always damn-near perfect with it.
And we don’t hear about those who tried it, that drop it after a while, or decide that it isn’t for them. Or do a non-paleo, but still much more healthy, version of a typical diet than one full of junk or processed food.
So is paleo the dietary equivalent of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver?
Alan’s group varied in their experience and knowledge of paleo before their trial and I think represent a fair “every(wo)man” view of it. As you will see, they were strict about it for the month, but at the end did not embrace it fully.
Nevertheless, they made changes as to how they viewed food, and how they would adapt their ongoing eating behaviors. They had also become conscious about some aspects of their relationship with food not previously realized, and had made thoughtful decisions about moving forward.
I think these are interesting results from undergoing such an experiment. Let’s hear their thoughts. Allons-y! 🙂
Tell us a little about yourselves:
What was your experience or impression of paleo before you started this challenge?
Alan: To be completely honest, I thought it was not for me. I couldn’t (and still can’t) see why certain things are in and certain things are out. I do like the idea of eating natural, organic produce, and eliminating man-made and heavily processed foods, but I would include legumes, potatoes and honey in the list of accepted foods. I can’t really understand the logic as to why sweet potatoes are OK, but white potatoes aren’t.
Razwana: I had tried paleo before to either lose a few pounds, or to maintain my weight. I never followed the regime 100% as a modified version of it worked well for me. As an eating regime, paleo rocks.
Susan: I had tried paleo earlier in the year (late Jan — mid-March) and had liked it, and had also managed to lose weight on it – the mostly recently gained “holiday pounds”.
Why did you join the challenge? What did you hope to get out of it?
Alan: When you (Alison) asked me to review your book, I wanted to have a good basis with which to do so and thought it a good idea to actually try the challenge – giving me more focus and a better frame of reference when reading and reviewing the book. I also love to try new challenges anyway, so, knowing I would learn something from the experience, wanted to take the challenge for that reason too.
Razwana: I joined the challenge because, well, I’d do anything for Alan. The
honest more realistic answer is that I had been eating a lot of junk for a while and was in need of a health kick. This 30 day challenge with three buddies to keep me going sounded ideal to achieve this – and it was!
Susan: I’d “fallen off” the paleo bandwagon and looked forward to the challenge to get back in gear.
How did you find it – easier than expected? Harder than expected? What did you find easy? What did you find difficult?
Alan: I found it much harder than expected. I experienced severe headaches in the first two weeks, experienced carb-flu in Week Two, and generally had low levels of energy throughout the month. I found it easy having a defined set of rules to stick to – even though they were difficult rules. I cling to my rules like a safety blanket (I’m a bit of an ‘abstainer‘) and we used the Whole9 food list. I really missed tea for about three weeks and eventually got used to it in Week Four (though I’m still looking forward to going back to drinking normal tea with milk – I think this is the only milk I’ll have from now on). I found it really interesting to see how my body reacts to food and my hunger patterns – e.g. if I didn’t eat on a couple of occasions, I just wasn’t hungry at all, and yet I would instantly feel better once I ate.
Razwana: For the first couple of weeks, I was basically a raving lunatic. I was hungry, irritable and had the energy of a sloth on morphine. I found it really difficult to regulate my energy levels. Once I realized I had to eat more (I know – hindsight, gasp), it became easier. By Week Three, I was feeling far more human.
Susan: This time around, it was harder than I expected. I think that because weight loss was not a main driver, I found myself feeling more deprived. Interestingly, I did not find it hard to give up baked goods and flour products (that was almost a relief as I am an “abstainer” by nature so prefer to give something up entirely rather than aim for moderation). Instead, I found myself missing things like legumes and whole grains. I’d been vegetarian for 4+ years and those foods had been staples for me for a long time.
What surprised you about it?
Alan: How difficult I found it. I thought it would be a doddle, particularly having done the slow carb diet previously, which I thought was similar. I think the lack of legumes and having no cheat day at all make this a much more extreme diet than it looks at first. Legumes effectively replace the more usual carbs on the slow-carb diet and during the paleo challenge I constantly ate but didn’t feel like any of my meals were very filling.
Razwana: I had thought social situations would be difficult but surprisingly, once I started telling myself ‘I don’t eat [Insert non-paleo food here]’, it was really easy to just say no. I rather enjoyed being the odd one in the corner. I managed to inspire some people into eating healthier diets too. Bonus!
Susan: One surprise was giving up alcohol. I thought that would be tough, but while I did miss it, I liked the “clean” feeling that comes from abstaining. Another surprise was that along the way, I ended up shifting from coffee to tea to herbal tea. I also sometimes have green tea … even with the challenge officially “over”, I have not switched back to caffeine.
How important was the group to your experience?
Alan: The group was great. It made the whole thing more enjoyable and more interesting being able to compare notes each week.
Razwana: Incredibly. I would go so far as to say I may not have made it through the entire month if it weren’t for the group. Alan organized weekly calls and we emailed each other in between the calls. The support really helped keep me focused.
Susan: It was nice to know that others were struggling. Not that you wish struggles on others, but there is camaraderie in it.
Were your expectations/goals met? How so? How not?
Alan: Yes, they were. I expected to learn and I certainly did learn things about myself, my body, my willpower, my priorities and how far I am willing to go diet-wise. The only thing I was a little surprised about was that I didn’t seem to lose as much weight as I would have thought, though in the final week I seem to be. This is perhaps because I was at a reasonable weight to start with. No big deal, as weight loss wasn’t a particular goal for me from this experiment – it was more for the experience, the challenge and the learning than anything (and to review the book well).
Razwana: I didn’t expect to feel as bad as I did in the first two weeks. This has not happened to me before on paleo and I haven’t been able to identify why. But it was only two weeks so I’ll stop complaining…eventually. The other thing I didn’t expect is to have no desire to eat cakes/bread towards the end. There are no cravings or feelings of ‘missing’ the food I used to eat previously. Genius!
Susan: My goal was to use this time to decide how I felt about being paleo over the long-term, and I think this month gave me a good sense of that.
What advice would you give someone thinking of doing a similar challenge?
Alan: Do it – it’s by doing such things that we find out about ourselves. Particularly because in our group we all reacted differently and learned different things about ourselves through the challenge – but we all learned something. A month is a good barometer to try a diet also – not too short – so that you get the full impact of the experience because your body (and mind) has the time in that period to adjust, and not too long either. Completely do-able and worth doing in my opinion.
Razwana: Be prepared for some misery and do not expect instant results. Paleo will not change your life in the first 2 weeks! However, persevere with it, and a 30 day challenge is the perfect way to do this. You only have 30 days, and after that, you can go back to old eating habits. I promise you won’t though!
Having a buddy, or someone you are accountable to, is an excellent way to keep motivated. DO NOT have any temptations in your house – clear out all the non-paleo food beforehand. Prepare for starvation energy dips by having snacks with you just in case. And…um…enjoy it! Do not look at it as depriving you of foods you want to eat. Be creative with the foods you can eat and try new recipes.
Susan: Do it! But … planning absolutely critical. The number one success factor is ensuring that there are enough food options in your house to address your cravings. Find something new or fun (for me, it was a range of tasty herbal teas) that is paleo-friendly but also satisfying.
What are your plans for paleo now?
Alan: I will be modifying my pre-paleo challenge diet, but don’t think what I’ll be doing next would qualify as being called paleo, not even modified paleo. The experience has basically taught me that I can fairly easily limit some items that aren’t allowed (e.g. pasta, rice, bread) because I don’t miss them much. So I will. For other “no-no’s” (sweets, sugar, biscuits, cheese), foods that I find difficult to stay away from, I will keep them out of my diet except for one day a week (i.e. I’ll be re-introducing a ‘cheat day’) and I will do my best to moderate my intake.
I’ll also be less strict when eating out, or at friends houses, avoiding my ‘abstain’ foods but accepting a limited amount of my ‘moderate’ foods – for practicality and social reasons. I’ll also add legumes back into my diet as I find these (for me) to be good replacements for carbs. I think this is closer to Tim Ferriss’ slow-carb diet, though perhaps also informed by my paleo experience.
Razwana: I will stick to the no carbs/sugar as much as I can. There is no need to remove certain foods altogether because I’d be at risk of putting certain confectionery companies out of business. However, I know I will not revert back to previous eating habits.
Susan: My eating plan is now basically “paleo plus certain carbs”. And by certain carbs, I mean legumes, whole grains (excluding wheat), and tofu. What I have given up is any and all baked goods made with any kind of flour. I’m amazed that I don’t miss that.
To sum up, they ate strict paleo for one month, they learned about their own behaviors and habits, but at the end, they were paleo-neutral, with two of the group members keeping non-paleo carbohydrate and protein sources in their regular diet.
No magic paleo bullet
There was nothing about this paleo experience that hit the members of this group between the eyes like many of the stories we hear about. They didn’t suddenly get relieved of a chronic health issue, they didn’t drop a shed-load of weight. Yet they still used the experience to consciously inform their way forward to making better choices in the future and move to the next level of a healthy diet.
Understanding our motivations, our trigger points, the boundaries over which we will not step, is vitally important, and it is this self-awareness that I believe is the fundamental part of change. Once we shed light on our unconscious beliefs and assumptions, we can seek to change them, but until we do that, we are pretty much destined to repeat past patterns. I think the doing the paleo diet for a whole thirty days helped the individuals in the group learn a ton about these things.
(I would also contend that this learning can also be done over time if you choose to deepen commitment to paleo gradually. You don’t have to do a whole 30. I have never done one and have no plans to do one in the future.)
While this is too small a small group for the results to be generalized, and it wasn’t focused so much on the benefits of eating paleo – it was more about the process of doing it – I was also interested in the relationship between health issues and realizing gains.
None of the group had a major health problem that seems to drive so many of the success stories we hear about – including my own. Perhaps they need to be in place for long-term enthusiasm for the diet?
Perhaps the simple “it’s healthier” message of a paleo diet isn’t compelling enough to cause us to give up our favorite foods, especially when that runs counter to conventional wisdom. There needs to be a major lack that one is experiencing – whether it be poor health, low energy, obesity – to spur most people on to such a change.
I think this shouldn’t be underestimated and is something to be aware of when we’re talking about paleo to others. After all, many are curious, but few embrace the way of life. Just like many of those who go into the TARDIS would prefer not to go anywhere. 🙂