January 16, 2012

About Paleo Challenges...

It is the time of year for resolutions.  Primal and paleo challenges abound on the internet.  Facebook paleo groups are resounding with "I'm in!" only to be followed a couple of weeks later with "I can't do this. I'm quitting.  I've failed. What am I doing wrong?"  We've all been there.  I even have a few attempts on my blog at starting some 30-day challenges only to get tired of updating my blog each day and facing the fact that I wasn't strict paleo once again.

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with a paleo challenge.  Maybe it is the impetus someone needs to clean out the pantry of non-paleo temptations. Maybe it will spark someone to at least try the paleo lifestyle for the first time.  My problem is with the all-or-nothing attitude of some proponents of these challenges.  I think this becomes a setup for failure.  Way too many of us who have dieted in the past know the thoughts that begin in your head as soon as you slip off the proverbial bandwagon.  "I blew today so I might as well start over tomorrow."  The same thing happens tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and eventually you find yourself posting that you are quitting the challenge on Facebook and you feel like the ultimate failure.  I've seen numerous posts like this already and it saddens me.

How about a different kind of challenge?  What if you try to eat as paleo as possible while living in the real world of work and family where you don't have hours to prepare paleo meals? As a teacher, I get 22 minutes to eat lunch and I share a microwave with 12 co-workers in my department.  I am not at home running my paleo consulting business where I can shut off my computer for an hour or take a break from exercising while I prepare a hot lunch.  What if you try to make each day just a little more paleo?  What if you forgive yourself for eating a pat of butter from grassfed cows or having a damn potato or a piece of cheese once in a while? What if you experiment a bit and find out what works best for you instead of listening to someone you've never met tell you what worked for them?  What if you devise a paleo lifestyle that works for you and your life and makes YOU feel and perform better?

I might get some flack for this. But in the last few years, I have found a place in paleo that makes me feel good and yet allows me to live a non-spartan lifestyle.  I could go the strict paleo route and never eat dairy, potatoes, sugar, coffee, or non-pastured meats again and maybe that will get me an extra year or so added to my life.  But I think I have attained a fairly happy medium where I eat paleo a good bit of the time but I still have room in my life for the occasional french fry, gluten-free baked good, tortilla chip, or piece of chocolate. I'm not willing to trade that for the tiny little bit of improvement I might get from being strict paleo.  

What I do know is this:  Nearly all of the improvements in my health can be attributed to two things.  First, gluten has no place in my life.  I would guess that 90% of my health improvements came from eliminating that little monster from my diet.  That is my area of strictness - no gluten, ever.  The second major contributor to improved health comes from strength training.  For a minimal investment of 2-3 hours per week of weightlifting (the olympic kind), other strength and conditioning work (Tabata drills, kettle bell, ropes, etc), and just general activity, I am fitter now than I have been since my late teens.  

In addition to those two things, I don't use a lot of dairy products, but I do have cheese (the real kind) and I add milk or cream to my coffee.  I limit coffee to one cup per day because it makes me jittery.  I buy pastured meat (beef, pork, chicken, lamb) from local farmers or US Wellness Meats.  I raise my own chickens for a supply of eggs (or buy local pastured eggs when my hens decide not to lay).  If I buy cheese, it is the good stuff, preferably from raw milk and I usually purchase raw milk/cream for coffee and cooking.  I EAT BACON - it is from the pastured pork and is probably full of nitrites but I can't foresee a life without bacon.  I raise many of my own vegetables during the summer and I buy as good a quality as I can during the winter and try to buy in-season and local as much as possible.  For my sanity, I have a supply of dark chocolate on hand and I make the occasional gluten-free dessert, like cupcakes for my birthday.  I don't want to eat a paleoized version of these, most of which taste like crap.  I do not intentionally eat vegetable oils, except when I eat at a restaurant that uses them. I feel like my body can handle that abomination for the infrequent times I eat out.  A lifetime without potatoes?  Can't do it - again I feel like my body can handle the occasional potato assault without too much damage.

If you've followed me this far, then some of you are tsk-tsking away at me and saying I am not eating paleo at all.  Whatever.  The point is I eat better than probably 99% of the people on the planet, I am getting good results from eating this way, and I am keeping my sanity while doing it. My lab tests (for what they're worth) show constant improvement.  When it stops working for me, I'll have to look at getting stricter, but for now I am a happy paleo camper.   For me, eliminating gluten-free grains (and most grains for that matter) and almost all processed foods have made the biggest improvement.  For others, it might be eliminating vegetable oils, or sugar, or nightshades, or coffee.  Find out what gives you the biggest bang for your paleo buck and work on that item first.  The rest is just gravy (albeit gluten-free).


  1. Thankyou for this post, I think it provides a great deal of perspective. I have only recently begun my Paleo journey and have been beating myself up everytime I use an ingredient that is not 100% Paleo. Being able to live a balanced healthy lifestyle is why I chose to go Paleo and part of that balance is sanity - going out with friends and having a piece of chocolate or using premade tomato paste won't kill you if you do it sometimes - it's just about finding the balance that works for you.

  2. Great post Laurie!

    It all comes down to LIFESTYLE!! While a 30 day challenge is a great way to reset your system, ultimately if the person taking the challenge isn't committed to changing their thinking along with their eating, then they will absolutely fail. We all have different goals and needs and things we can or can't eat. You are as Paleo as anyone and human as well!! Eating good quality real food is the answer!! If everyone just eliminated gluten/grains/legumes/soy then you have a huge range of things you can still eat! And as long as it works for you, then haters be dammed!! My body, my choice!! :-) You're right, you are and will be healthier than 99% of the rest of the carb/gluten/processed food addicted folk. :-)


  3. I just found your blog today, searching for a pork & sauerkraut recipe (yours looks delicious, by the way!)and I really enjoyed reading this post. I can completely identify with your thoughts on finding what works best for you. I also have found that just getting grains and highly processed carbs out of my diet has done wonders for my overall health and that of my husband. They seem to be the worst offenders! Looking forward to reading more of your posts, keep up the good work!

  4. Thank you all for your comments! Best of luck on your paleo journeys.