I first read about the paleo diet about 7 years ago. Chronic pain in my joints (mostly my knees, hips, feet and hands) had driven me to see a specialist, and he took x-rays and confirmed what I feared — many, many years of waitressing had taken its toll and I had osteoarthritis. He told me that there was no cure, that it was going to get worse, and that I should take megadoses of acetaminophen for the pain. When I asked if there was any way changing my diet could help, he laughed and said no.
I didn’t want to accept that, so I went home and Googled “natural ways to alleviate arthritis pain” and ended up on a site called Mark’s Daily Apple, reading about the primal/paleo diet. (There are several modern iterations of the paleo diet, and Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint is a popular one.) The idea behind the diet is that we humans have never properly evolved to be able to digest grains, dairy, sugar and legumes, and that the modern way of eating is making us all sick. The claim is that the optimal diet for humans is the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate in the Paleolithic Era, before the first agricultural revolution shifted our diets away from wild meats and fish, and more toward cultivated grains. This made perfect sense to me! I was immediately on board. It just so happened that Mark’s Daily Apple was about to launch one of his periodic 30-Day Primal Challenges — where participants try the primal/paleo diet for 30 days and see how they feel.
I stocked up on paleo staples like organic grass-fed meat, chicken and eggs, lots of fresh greens and fruit, and nuts. There were also specialty “superfoods” that I first read about in the Mark’s Daily Apple forums, like coconut oil, raw cacao, goji berries and powdered phytonutrient-rich algae like chlorella and spirulina. In fact, it was in the MDA forums that I first learned about green smoothies and how to make them (never mind the fact that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers didn’t have blenders, or freezers, or powdered raw cacao…).
I also gave up — in one fell swoop — coffee, refined sugar, grains, dairy, legumes. The Primal Blueprint allows for “sensible vices” such as dark chocolate and alcohol, which of course I heartily embraced. (In my quest to get my carb intake as low as possible, I switched from beer to vodka. That decision did not end well, but that’s another story for another day.)
Well, I felt great eating this way. I had tons of energy, I was sleeping better, my aches and pains seemed to decrease…but most important of all, I was in control. Looking back, I realize now that this feeling of being in control was the thing that felt the best of all about eating paleo. Yes, there were definite physical benefits from ditching all the processed crap I’d been eating for years — of course there were — but the real high for me came from the extreme self-discipline required to keep this up. And keep it up I did…for well over a year.
During this time, I was active on the MDA forums and noticed a lot of judgement and infighting over what foods constituted “true paleo.” I’ll never forget one comment I read on one such contentious thread. A guy piped up: “You people realize you’re all going to die anyway, right?”
I thought of that comment again and again, especially as I found myself getting more and more obsessive about paleo and “eating clean.” I began to ask myself, what am I really trying to accomplish here? Of course, I wanted to be healthy, feel good, and to avoid chronic disease. But I recognized that the deeper feeling underneath that desire was a fear of aging and dying. In my mid 40s I had started to feel the inevitable effects of middle age on my body and it had scared me, and made me feel out of control. The body that had served me so well without complaint for years and years was suddenly complaining. But did I really believe that I could somehow stave off aging by eating a certain way? Maybe for a while. And even if I could somehow delay the inevitable, did I really want to be the chick who brings her own food to dinner parties? I had turned into someone who loudly refused to eat her sister-in-law’s pasta. My SIL was right to be annoyed with me; I was refusing her hospitality, calling attention to myself, and implicitly judging her food choices all at once. How rude! Plus if I was really honest with myself, I wanted some pasta. It looked delicious. What had seemed like self-discipline was starting to feel like self-deprivation. How had I changed so drastically from a person who routinely scarfed down spaghetti, cheese and bread, to a person who felt like I was poisoning myself if I ate a cookie? This was as bad as bingeing, just the other side of the same coin. My eating had become disordered. I was veering into orthorexia.
During the time I was figuring all this out, I was studying to become a health coach at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. It was there that I learned several concepts that would be invaluable to my understanding of true wellness going forward:
- Bio-individuality. There is no one diet that is perfect for everyone. We all have a unique genetic makeup. No particular way of eating works for everyone, all of the time. Some people may thrive on paleo, some on macrobiotic, some on vegan. What works for your friend may not work for you. What worked for you last year may not work for you this year. You may need to eat differently in the winter than you do in the spring. The important thing is to be open and willing to listen to your body, and let it tell you what it needs.
- Primary Food. The food on your plate is secondary to the primary nourishment we all need — loving relationships, purpose, movement, spiritual connection, creative expression, stress reduction. All of these are more important contributors to true wellbeing than whatever it is you’re eating or not eating.
- It’s not really about the food. The lecturer in the course that had the biggest impact on me was Geneen Roth, author of Woman Food and God. I could write an entire post about this alone (and probably will) but Roth’s book was my first introduction to the idea that the way we eat is the way we do everything. If we’re obsessed with food and dieting, it’s because we’re hungry for something that food can’t give us, and our work is to figure out what that something is. (That inner hunger can lead to other addictions and compulsions as well, and is also what made me susceptible to alcohol abuse.) In the meantime, dieting and making certain foods (or whole groups of food) bad or forbidden only makes everything worse and feeds the obsession.
Once I realized all this I understood that although my actual diet may have been healthy (or not…the jury is still out on paleo), my relationship with food wasn’t. I began to relax, listen to my body, and eat what I wanted. My goals are no longer to be immune to aging, or to avoid disease. (Aging is inevitable and disease is a crap shoot.) My goals are to love, nourish and care for my body and soul…to feel good, to be happy, to enjoy life. What I found was that, most of the time, if I take care to nourish my emotional self, my body wants healthy whole foods. Salads and smoothies are still my go-tos. But sometimes my body wants a cookie, or a sandwich, or my sister-in-law’s pasta, and if that’s the case then I eat what I want, without guilt. I’ve come to believe that the key to healthy eating is to eat intuitively, and I’ll be learning and writing about that more here on S&S.
How about you? How do you eat? Do you think you have a healthy relationship with food?