The paleo or caveman diet advocates a programme of unlimited fruits, vegetables and nuts along with fish, wild game and high-quality grass fed meat and poultry. Followers cut out sugar or processed foods but also grains, dairy and legumes, making it controversial among dieticians. Healthista.com editor Anna Magee, 45, and a cave-woman for four years, explains how it changed her life, her body and got her off the dieting treadmill
I smiled with satisfaction today when I read the research that’s found a paleo diet helps with fat loss. Scientists from Cambridge University and Sweden’s Umea University put 70 obese women on either a paleo diet of meat, fruit and vegetables or a traditional Nordic diet of fruit, vegetables, cereals, whole grains, dairy and lean meats. Those on the paleo diet lost about a stone of fat after six months while the Nordic diet group lost around six pounds on average.
I recently wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine about the Paleo diet and the cult-like following it has among devotees. Although I tried to be objective, I couldn’t help but instil a sense of evangelism into the piece that I try hard to keep out of my work. Yes, I included the pros and the cons of the paleo diet. But I also explained in detail how it helped me break free from 20 years of serial dieting hell and finally stopped my yo-yoing weight, mood swings and sweet cravings. For anyone out there on the diet bandwagon, I have written this piece to help.
I’ve spent the last two decades trying every new fad diet that’s come my way (as a health writer, that’s plenty). Salmon three times a day on Perricone’s ‘facelift in your fridge’. Mung beans and miso on macrobiotics (good enough for Madonna…). Enough pork rinds – and bad breath – on Atkins to frighten a pig farmer.
I’ve spent the last two decades trying every new fad diet that’s come my way (as a health writer, that’s plenty).
Although I wasn’t fat, I always felt the need to be on some programme or other to keep my size ten figure or to lose those illusive five pounds. It shames me to admit that more than bankruptcy or job loss, I feared putting on weight. But while each diet I tried out had enough hype behind it to supercede the last, I rarely lasted on one more than a fortnight. Friends watched as I served up their luscious Sunday roast dinners while doling myself out tofu stir-fry. To them, I was the ‘regime queen’.
I felt awful. I had a constantly bloated tummy and saggy skin. I snarled like a Rottweiler at least once a day and woke without fail at 3am worries playing ping-pong in my head. Most of all I was dog-tired. By 10 am most mornings I sat at my computer engaging not in dynamic Twitter banter but detailed fantasies about that night’s sofa-slumping and trashy telly. I spent every Saturday in its entirety Super-League sleeping, ignoring phone calls and thinking up reasons other than the lame truth – ‘I’m too knackered’ – to cancel my social engagements. Still, come Monday I was wrestling the snooze button.
I remember my epiphany like it was yesterday, though it was circa 2008. I was meeting an old friend, a nutritionist called Charlotte Watts, in the Soho vegan cafe where we always met for brunch. She walked in and everything about her had changed. Her skin was clear and glowing, her eyes bright and shiny. Though she’d never been fat her body looked stronger and leaner with thinner legs and waist. ‘What happened? You look amazing,’ I said. ‘I’ve gone paleo’, she replied.
Over the three months since I’d seen her, Charlotte (who now writes the Calmista blog for Healthista.com all about the lifestyle and diet measures to live a slim and calm life) had been ‘eating the way our ancestors did,’ she claimed and given up all sugar, processed foods, grains and legumes and began focusing on meat, seafood, fish, vegetables and fruit.
As a health writer, I pooh-poohed the idea for the next two years (what healthy diet says give up lentils? All that meat, there’s a global food crisis people!) instead jumping on and off every new vegan diet or juice fast I was writing about at any given time.
Charlotte’s energy stuck around and so did her new figure. Then in 2011, Charlotte and I wrote a book together and in the interests of research I was forced to try her paleo approach. Out went the grains, the pasta, the tofu and even the lentils. In came organic lean meat, fish and poultry, eggs every which way, tonnes of vegetables, nuts, seeds and low sugar fruits such as berries and apples. ‘What else can I eat?’ was my first reaction but six weeks in, I too was leaner and had lost four pounds.
Unlike other plans, it involved tonnes of food, three square meals a day emphasising healthy protein (organic, grass-fed meat and poultry and all types of fish), vegetables and good fats, no grains, dairy and sugar bar the odd treat plus lots of walking, a short morning yoga sequence and a 20 minute strength training routine a few times a week.
Watts’ most life changing advice for me was this: ‘You’ve focused for so long on how food and exercise will make you look,’ she said. ‘For the next six weeks before you eat anything from a piece of broccoli to a chocolate bar, ask yourself: ‘How will this make me feel?’
Watts explained how lean protein and good fats could help my stressed brain deal with relentless pressure I was always under and stave off cravings and how bingeing on refined carbs and sweets was only perpetuating the high-lows in my energy.
I’d been sold a dud by all those fad diets. By focusing only on the way I looked – my waist circumference, the number on the scales or even the texture of my skin – I was doing my body the gravest of injustices. Unless a diet and lifestyle could make me feel fantastic, I would never stick to it. Even if I did, what was the point if I felt awful.
After two months my mood and sleep had stabilized, the bloating had gone and my chronic, daily sugar cravings had all but disappeared save for the odd premenstrual chocolate fix. For once, feeling great made me want to keep going. After 12 weeks my skin looked better than it had for years, my joint pain had gone and I was at my leanest ever.
More instinctive than other diets (at least to my mind), paleo involves no calorie or carb counting and no food measuring but becoming more in touch with real hunger and responding to that. After a couple of months my appetite had stabilized and I felt more liberated around food, having smaller dinners and large breakfasts and lunches. None of this was instant by any means, but the fact that it’s been pretty permanent since still astounds me.
But while it’s been around since the sixties, it was when the high priest of paleo Loren Cordain published his book The Paleo Diet in 2001 that ‘what we’re programmed to eat’ became a key 21st century diet trend. The premise is that humans predate processed foods, dairy products, legumes, refined sugars and salt which only came into our diets around 10,000 years ago with the argricultural revolution.
In Cordain’s book, 10,000 years isn’t long enough in evolutionary terms for us to adapt to eating such foods so we need to avoid them and stick instead with eating what was around millions of years ago: meat, vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts. Cordain, a professor in the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State University has spawned an almost cult-like following. His high profile disciples include Mark Sisson, a former distance runner and author of The Primal Blueprint and Rob Wolf, a former research biochemist and author of The Paleo Solution. Each comes with a mini-industry of spin-off cookbooks, eating plans, DVDs and buy-the-T-shirt merchandise all available from their websites for a small fee. The latest is Diane Sanfilippo, a paleo poster girl based in New Jersey and author of Practical Paleo. Her blog balancedbites.com has a guzillion followers.
Paleo’s got many vehement opponents, it needs to be said. I have spoken to many, many of them and I can understand their concern with a diet that says don’t eat any grains, even whole ones.
But three years in and paleo eating is the one diet that has made me forget about dieting. It’s given me – at 44 – enough energy to get on with my life because I don’t feel hungry any more. My regular sinus infections have disappeared, along with my mood swings and the need to sleep all day on Sundays. Annoyingly for my family, I now wake at 5am to exercise and manage 12 hours at work most days. I used to pack make-up onto my face but now, my skin feels so much plumper and shinier, perhaps thanks to the fact that I let myself eat fat, that I don’t need much more than light foundation.
And yet, a truly paleo diet is tough to sustain so I have had to make my own concessions to the hard-core rules as laid out by Cordain – something most people who eat primally long-term tend to do. I eat whole grain porridge made with water and salt every few days (how many scrambled omelettes can one woman take?). If it’s someone’s birthday or I am at Claridges, I might eat a creme brulee.
What’s more, I’ll rarely have more than 100-150 grams of the meat portion of my meal and won’t go gnawing on endless cold cuts every day. So, far from keeping raw mince in my lunchbox I only eat red meat once a fortnight, usually lamb from a small family farm run by a friend who breeds a small herd each season and delivers the meat fresh to us. The rest of the meat content for me is fish and chicken. Buying organic, free range or wild meat matters as I can’t bear the thought of eating something that was intensively reared or had a bad life.
Last summer, I spent about a day trying 5:2 (god knows why, my weight is fine but everyone was on it) and all those old familiar dieting feelings came back. The food preoccupation, the gnawing hunger like a vacuum in my tummy drawing my concentration away from anything but it, the dizziness. Awful. I couldn’t wait to eat again.
Perhaps that’s it, being paleo gives me permission to eat whole, fresh food with heaps of vegetables, fruits, meats and fats. It’s delicious.
You like me, might think that without carbs you’ll be tired and cranky but because you’re allowed to eat fat which is satisfying, the cravings disappear. It feels instinctive and easy. It means I don’t have to give up all my energy to being on a diet. Some days when I notice, ‘wow, I’m not hungry, I am not thinking about food, I am working and concentrating and have been for hours,’ it feels like I have escaped from some kind of tortuous prison.
At Healthista we don’t push any one diet down people’s throats so it feels like a real departure for me as editor to come out and hold up one particular diet up above all others. Bit I felt a responsibility to the readers to tell you what it did for me, though I concede it might not work for everyone.
After so many years utterly trapped by every diet that came my way, I felt I had to tell this story about how the paleo diet changed everything for me. It might be for you, it might not but if you’re in the diet trap now, I would recommended giving it a go for a few months.
Perhaps the biggest difference has been to my mood. Despite facing some of the biggest challenges I have ever faced in my life, professionally, financially and otherwise thanks to launching this site seven months ago, I seem better able to cope and keep calm and less likely to lash out even when faced with others losing the plot with me and shouting insults (seriously) – websites are busy places!
I love the mental calm and clarity that being paleo has given me. I am also back at the gym doing weight training a few times a week (paleo people are big on weight training and many are Crossfit enthusiasts). At 55 kilos, my weight rarely budges and I feel strong and toned, not thin or weak like I used to when I would lose weight quickly (without eating basically). I walk about 10,000 steps a day and sleep continuously for about six hours every night.
Now, no matter how tempting a diet sounds when say, a new get-thin-quick book crosses my desk – which they do daily – I won’t go back there. Serial dieters out there will know what I mean.
Anna Magee is the editor of healthista.com
The Paleo Diet: Is it really dangerous? Stella Magazine, Sunday Telegraph