My wife wanted me to write something about what the Paleo lifestyle means to me. The simplest answer is that I’m trying to avoid the following foods, more or less in this order of importance. Grains, dairy, processed sugars, and beans. The more complex answer is, well, more complex.
I’ve been training in martial arts for most of my life. As such, I’ve been exposed to a lot of information about fitness, health, diet, and nutrition. And yet despite having that knowledge, I have been grossly obese most of my life. I could still train and teach, but I was a big fat guy. At one point I was training in karate and weighed 340 pounds! And it led to me eventually developing some serious health issues including a series of escalating joint and muscle injuries to both my legs.
In my youth I had actually lost all that weight once before. I did it by adhering to an extremely stringent and UNHEALTHY diet plan combined with near constant exercise. I would eat one pop tart or granola bar for breakfast, another for lunch, and a small dinner, like maybe just a single pack of ramen noodles. My diet was almost entirely grains and sugar, and I had reduced my caloric intake to around five or six hundred total a day. It worked, I lost 130 pounds and got thin, but I was never super healthy and a few years later when I went back to a “normal” diet I immediately gained back all the weight and more.
I had a lot of emotional baggage and stress tied up in my lifestyle. I’d eat a whole bag of chips and then excoriate myself for hours for being unhealthy and weak. I’d resist and resist and resist and then break down and eat a box of donuts and feel like a failure. Or I’d just give up and say “can’t win/don’t try” and just go along with the Standard American Diet, telling myself that the inevitable diabetes and rotting death I’d end up with was simply inevitable.
Before Paleo, a typical day of eating for me was a large supreme pizza for breakfast, two pounds of Chinese buffet for lunch, and a bag of tacos and burritos for dinner. Wash it all down with four liters of soda. And almost no water, ever. Like for weeks at a time. And that’s no exaggeration. I had back problems, knee problems, digestive problems, and lived in a state of more or less constant pain and discomfort. And I never really thought that was because of my diet. I just thought that was normal. After all, I was in my thirties now and they say it’s all downhill from there. Right?
During this time I was still training all the time. Maybe more than almost any time in my life. And a lot of the guys I was training with we’re getting into the Paleo lifestyle. I kept hearing about it, and I noticed that the guys doing it were the highest energy, most fit guys in the dojo. So I was intrigued, but I also thought there was just no way I could do it. No sandwiches? No dairy products? No beer? I could think of a million foods I couldn’t possibly live without. It seemed like an insurmountable challenge. Can’t win. Don’t try.
But I wanted to try. And then one night my wife came home and said, “Have you heard about Paleo? I think I might wanna try it.” And I said “Yes! Let’s do it!” And I started almost immediately.
The first few days were a little challenging. I still wanted to eat the same stuff I always did before. But pretty quickly those foods just didn’t appeal to me anymore. One of my challenges was that at the time I worked in two kitchens where I had pretty much unlimited access to foods that were killing me. And being poor, I felt like I had to eat the free food because I couldn’t divert the money away from my other responsibilities in order to eat healthier. One of the transformative moments for me was when my wife asked me, “If you worked in a rat poison factory, and they gave you unlimited free rat poison, would you eat rat poison for every meal just because you could?” And that changed everything for me. Once I really started to see things like pizza, and donuts, and ice cream, and cheeseburgers, and soda not as food, but as poison, I suddenly didn’t have any desire for any of it at all anymore. It became easy to say no to pastries and pasta and pop.
And once I started down that path, it became easier and easier and easier. At first I was still eating the same size portions of food. But I noticed pretty quickly that now that I was eating more nutrient dense foods I was getting full much quicker and leaving a lot of food on my plate. So I started eating smaller and smaller meals. And I was still full all the time. It used to be that I couldn’t get my meals below 12-15 hundred calories. Now my average meals are around 4-5 hundred. And where a lot of those calories used to come from foods that were difficult and even painful to digest, like bread or cheese, now I was eating foods that didn’t weigh me down or cause me discomfort.
And in addition to feeling comfortably full, I also noticed I had a TON more energy than I used to. I used to wake up a zombie and lurch through the first part of my day, until I could get some caffeine in me and then I’d get amped up for a while, and then I’d crash again and go back to dragging myself around. Before my day was filled with highs and lows, but since I started eating Paleo my energy levels evened out and elevated. I woke up alert and well rested, cruised through my day, and went to sleep easily and slept comfortably through the night. And in turn, I was becoming more active. I was working harder in the dojo, I started supplementing my karate with resistance training, and I even went running for the first time in years. My body started healing, even chronic pain from old injuries that had plagued me for months and years began to recede, and I was losing weight at an incredible pace.
I’m still new to this lifestyle. It wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows everywhere. There was a transitional period in the beginning, for a few weeks, where I had occasional discomfort as my body detoxed from my previous lifestyle. I had to learn what restaurants I could eat at and what foods to order. From the outside it seems impossible. How could I ever eat Paleo when every food I was familiar with was “off plan?” But from the inside the answer is simple. Once you eliminate those old habits, you don’t have any choice but to find creative new options. Suddenly you’re eating at new restaurants and trying new foods. Trying things you’d never even considered before. I started ordering fish and salads and potato gnocchi. I started eating steamed vegetables instead of fries and ordering sandwiches without the bread. I started noticing Soup and Salad restaurants I’d never realized were there before and getting excited about the grilled chicken breast waiting for me in the fridge after work.
From the outside it seems impossible because everything’s so different from what you’re used to. But from the inside it seems easy because you’ve changed your whole perspective. You think “I could never live without mom’s lasagna!” And then you realize that you don’t have to, and that mom’s lasagna isn’t the issue, and that you were just using that as an excuse not to take responsibility for your actions and your decisions and the consequences thereof, and ultimately, that mom’s lasagna doesn’t have that much culinary appeal to you anymore anyway. So if you want to eat it, go ahead. But you can have a perfectly fine time with your mom eating salad instead, without it affecting your relationship or your fond memories of your childhood.
I’m really excited about all the changes I’m seeing in my life. Everything I’ve experienced and learned since starting this lifestyle has reaffirmed my decision to practice it. Every time I’ve gone back and eaten one of the foods from my old lifestyle, bread or cheese or sugar, I’ve experienced all the discomfort and negative side effects that were a part of my daily existence before, further reaffirming to me that I don’t want to put that stuff in my body anymore. I still have a long way to go on this journey. I still have weight to lose, I’m still healing. I’m still learning. But this has been a really positive experience for me. And I can’t wait to see what the future holds. Or to share it with you!