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Making the switch from a standard American diet to a whole foods “Paleo” (primal, ancestral, whatever you call it) diet is usually a great first step to improving your health.
Perhaps you lost some stubborn body fat when you first made the switch, or perhaps your annoying acne started to die down. You may have even had some significant health problems disappear like chronic indigestion, joint pain, or fatigue.
There are hundreds of amazing success stories of people taking back control over their health by implementing the recommendations proposed by the dozens of well-respected nutrition experts who recommend the Paleo template as the key to optimizing your diet.
Unfortunately, changing to a whole foods or “Paleo” approach is only just the first step to achieving ideal health.
For every person that has an incredible outcome on a standard Paleo diet, there’s another person who hasn’t seen the success they’re looking for, or perhaps has even become less healthy after becoming more strict about their diet. It’s enough to drive you crazy and make you want to give up on your new diet entirely. Maybe even plow through a box of donut holes on your way home from work.
Not so fast!
Before you totally give up on your Paleo diet and start chowing down on all the processed foods you’ve been avoiding for months, consider the fact that you’ve only taken the first step towards optimizing your diet. Yes, you switched to the “Paleo” diet, but have you reevaluated your current plan to make sure it’s appropriate for you?
It’s an important step that many of those new to Paleo commonly forget, and it can totally derail your successful long-term adherence to a healthy diet that’s right for YOU.
While there are dozens of potential mistakes you might be making in your diet, supplement, and exercise routine that are keeping you from reaching your goals, here are the five most common mistakes I see in my clients who are struggling on a Paleo diet:
1. You’re avoiding carbohydrates for no reason.
This is the number one issue I see in my patients who are struggling on the Paleo diet. Many people who start Paleo are drawn to the allure of quick, easy weight loss while eating their favorite low-carb foods like bacon, avocado, and prime rib.
Many Paleo bloggers tell their readers to minimize starchy vegetables, limit fruit, completely avoid all sweeteners, and keep carbohydrate intake low to maximize weight loss. Some even suggest that humans are not meant to use glucose for fuel, and rather, we should all be running on ketones 24/7. And many Paleo recipe creators default to low carbohydrate recipes, even if they don’t mean to.
There’s even an unfortunate belief circulating that carbohydrates are dangerous for all people: that they universally cause cognitive decline, fat gain, premature aging, and possibly even cancer. This belief is enough to scare many people away from all forms of carbohydrate, even those that come in healthy whole foods like starchy vegetables and fruits.
While a low carbohydrate diet can be therapeutic to some people, such as those with severe digestive disorders, diabetes, or diseases that affect their cognitive function, there are many people out there who are unnecessarily following a very low carbohydrate version of Paleo simply because they’ve been led to believe that “no one needs carbohydrates” and that eating them will lead to disastrous health outcomes. Many of these people are also highly active and trying to perform high intensity exercise nearly every day of the week. It’s not a good combination, let me tell you!
News flash: Carbohydrates are not toxic when metabolized normally. While they may be effective in treating certain conditions, they’re not necessarily the root cause of those conditions. While limiting them can help some people with weight loss, they don’t inherently cause weight gain in metabolically healthy people. For some people, reintroducing carbohydrates even helps increase weight loss when combined with appropriate caloric intake and physical activity.
Some highly knowledgable Paleo bloggers even suggest that those who don’t have problems with high blood sugar may actually do themselves harm by excessively limiting carbohydrates. Women may be especially prone to this problem of inadequate carbohydrate consumption. Paul Jaminet, one of my favorite health writers and the originator of the “safe starch” concept, even suggests that there may be benefits to eating a “higher” carbohydrate diet.
Ultimately, people vary widely on their carbohydrate needs and tolerance. If you are feeling moody or lethargic, gaining weight, and generally feeling unwell on a low carbohydrate Paleo diet, you may find that upping your overall carbohydrate intake improves the symptoms you’ve developed from being on an inappropriately low carbohydrate diet.
2. You’re not getting enough calcium.
I know this sounds like an argument an ill-informed nutritionist would make as to why a Paleo diet isn’t healthy, but there’s some truth to the statement, if you consider the way most people follow what they believe to be a Paleo diet.
You don’t need dairy to get enough calcium for good health. There are plenty of calcium rich foods that adhere to Paleo standards; for a list, click here.
The problem is, many of the most calcium-rich foods that are allowed on a strict Paleo diet are not ones that you may be eating regularly.
For as often as we ancestral health nutritionists tell you to eat things like bone-in fish, bone broth, leafy greens, and properly prepared nuts, the truth is that many people are not including these foods on a regular basis, or at least regularly enough to get their daily calcium needs.
And if you think your store-bought almond milk is providing you all the calcium you need, understand that the form of calcium that these products are fortified with (i.e. don’t naturally contain) is a type of calcium that is difficult to absorb, and these products typically don’t include the fat soluble vitamins A, D, and K2 which help regulate calcium absorption and metabolism.
My recommendation is to get at least 600 mg of calcium per day from whole foods sources. I also recommend trying to reintroduce grass fed, full fat dairy if you haven’t yet, as it’s a great source of calcium when well tolerated. This can be cheese, yogurt, kefir, and even fluid milk if you feel good drinking it. You might even want to try drinking raw milk if that’s legal in your state.
Don’t be afraid of dairy simply because most Paleo bloggers say its a no-no. There are plenty of people who do quite well on dairy and you might be one of them.
3. You’re eating the wrong types of vegetables (or simply too many!).
This recommendation is geared towards people who started Paleo due to digestive distress, such as IBS. Since about 1 in 5 people have IBS, I’m willing to bet that there are a few of you who were hoping Paleo would cure it.
For many people, a change to Paleo does do wonders for their digestion. Eliminating wheat and dairy (especially low fat dairy) can sometimes be enough to get your digestion back in working order, and perhaps you don’t need to make any other changes.
But for some people, their digestive issues still linger, or possibly even get worse after going Paleo. How could this be?
One possibility is one we already discussed: you might not be eating enough carbs to support healthy bowel movements. This can be from a decrease in thyroid function, or a loss of healthy bacteria in your gut. After all, you’re not just feeding yourself when you eat.
Another possibility, especially if you have IBS, is that you’re actually eating too many of the wrong types of vegetables.
While most dietitians will tell you that all vegetables are awesome and you should eat tons of them, not everyone digests vegetables as well as a healthy person will, and certain vegetables are especially problematic for people with IBS.
This class of vegetables (and foods in general) is called FODMAPs. FODMAPs are certain types of carbohydrates found in many different whole foods that are great at feeding certain types of gut bacteria. In a healthy person, this is a good thing, because feeding healthy gut bacteria keeps them functioning optimally and protects us against infection while helping us to digest and absorb nutrients in our food.
However, people with IBS tend to have an overgrowth of unhealthy, pathogenic gut bacteria that wreak havoc on the digestive system when they’re fed. Unfortunately, this means that normally healthy foods like brussels sprouts and apples can make someone with IBS have some serious G.I. distress.
If you do have IBS, consider re-evaluating the type and amount of vegetables and fruits you’re eating, as they may actually be doing more harm than good. If you’re still struggling with digestive issues after switching to Paleo, you might need to take it easy on the veggies.
4. You’re eating far too many nuts.
I fell into this trap when I first started eating Paleo… the trick is pulling yourself out of it, which for some people is easier said than done.
Nuts are pretty attractive to a newbie to Paleo: they’re convenient, inexpensive, available almost anywhere you shop, and let’s be honest, they’re pretty darn addictive! And while a handful or two of high quality properly prepared nuts and seeds on a daily basis is perfectly fine, it’s easy and unhealthy to go overboard on these Paleo staples.
Why? Well for one, nuts are extremely challenging to digest, especially if they’re not properly prepared. They’re super high in insoluble fiber, which is by nature indigestible and can cause issues in excess. If you have an iron stomach you may not notice, but I have had many clients with significant digestive distress who were eating handfuls and handfuls of raw nuts every day. Definitely not a good idea for long term digestive health.
Another issue is that nuts are pretty high in omega-6 fats, which isn’t a problem if eaten in moderation, but if you’re literally making meals out of them, you might be getting too much omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3 fats, particularly if you’re not eating a lot of fatty fish. This might not be an issue for a normal healthy person, but if you have any sort of inflammatory disease such as an autoimmune condition, it’s important not to overdo omega-6 rich nuts.
This also includes overeating baked goods made with almond flour or nut butters, which is a common newbie mistake when you have to give up normal baked goods and desserts. Rather than replacing all your junk food with almond flour imitations, I recommend really trying to reduce those foods in your daily diet and save them for special occasions. Eat real food during your mealtimes, not Paleo-fied treats.
5. You’re being way too restrictive.
Yes, there is such a thing as being overly concerned with your diet, and it’s unfortunately far too common in the Paleo community.
Some people call it orthorexia. Others (bravely) admit to using Paleo as a cover up for underlying eating disorders. Some people just turn a blind eye, or call it discipline. Some even assume that they’re struggling with their diet because they’re not restrictive enough. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I’ve had clients who were on the autoimmune protocol despite having never had an autoimmune disease. I’ve had several female clients who were on a very low carbohydrate diet, chronically undereating, likely overexercising, and dealing with long term amenorrhea. I’ve had clients who literally think about food all day to the point where they are distracted from other important parts of their life due to their obsessions with food.
Unfortunately this is very common, especially in an age of information overload where everyone has their own opinion about what the perfect diet to eat. (As if a “perfect” diet for everyone actually exists…)
I’m not saying you should throw caution to the wind and just eat Big Macs and Frosted Flakes, but I am suggesting that you consider the restrictiveness of your diet and whether or not it’s at a necessary level for you.
Yes, some people absolutely must avoid certain foods based on their current state of health. But putting yourself on an overly restrictive diet without having a pretty solid reason to do so is a recipe for disaster. Whether that disaster manifests as weight gain, increased G.I. distress, anxiety or depression, or any other number of negative side effects that come from inappropriate and excessive food restriction, you can bet it will show up at some point.
Many of my clients have had a great deal of benefit from reintroducing a variety of different foods back into their diet. And yes, that even includes certain non-Paleo foods like dairy products, sweeteners, and even (gasp!) properly prepared grains and wheat products.
If you’ve been eating a super restrictive Paleo diet and you can’t really articulate the reasons why you’re doing so, you may need to consider loosening up a little. After all, life is short and enjoying your food and not stressing about your diet every day should be a goal of yours, even if you are very sick. You can eat healthy food and still enjoy your meals, and happiness and mental health should be a top priority.
Are you eating the best diet for YOU?
These are just five of the most common mistakes I see people making in their attempt at following a healthy, Paleo-inspired diet. There are many more that can be made, and every person has a different ideal diet based on their lifestyle, heritage, environment, health goals, and daily activities. Heck, your ideal diet in your 20s isn’t even the same as your ideal diet in your 50s, so you shouldn’t be afraid to constantly experiment.
Experimenting with your diet, especially if you’ve been struggling for a long time with chronic health conditions, can be really scary.
If you’re not sure what’s going wrong in your current diet, and you need help determining the right diet for you, I strongly suggest looking into working with someone who can help you navigate this in a more effective, less stressful way. There’s no reason to do this on your own.
Your health is your most precious commodity, and it’s worth investing in, especially if your health concerns are reducing your overall quality of life.
Apply to work with me, and let’s talk about how I can help you make smart, evidence-based decisions in how to improve your diet and lifestyle, so that you can feel your best and enjoy your life!
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