It’s been slightly over three years now since the summer of 2008 when I first went Paleo / Primal and it’s been one of the most rewarding and difficult changes I’ve made in my life.
Health is the cornerstone of living a free life where you are bodily able to do the things that you want to do and have the energy and zeal for life to do them. Diet is the cornerstone of health, so it is possibly the single most important part of your life to optimize.
In the course of the past three years I’ve struggled with getting off of and staying off of grains, staying Paleo while eating out and on the road, being “that one” in the group, converting loved ones to Paleo eating, and even ethical concerns with killing animals for food (detailed series of posts about my research into vegeterianism / veganism and why I ultimately stayed Paleo for optimal nutrition starting here).
Going Paleo is not an easy road. Many people give up when they discover just to what extent that most modern “food” is some combination of bread and cheese (or processed corn).
However, it can be done and there are a few things I’ve learned along the way that help make going and staying Paleo easier to do.
One Meal at a Time
I’m generally the type of person that once I am convinced that something is right and true, I switch cold turkey. I just can’t do the wrong thing when I know what the right thing to do is. Not so with the Paleo diet.
Food habits run deep. It’s not just the food on your plate that’s changing. It’s your favorite dish since childhood, it’s the family recipe for rolls that has been passed down for generations, it’s your go to restaurant when you need food quick. We have enormous emotional attachments to our food and we are not prepared to give them all up at once.
The easiest way to get into Paleo is to just introduce one new meal at a time into your repertoire. It should be tasty, satisfying, and easy to cook. Maybe you even just start small by altering existing favorites–ex. eat steak and asparagus but leave out the potatoes.
Finding recipes is not difficult. There are cookbooks upon cookbooks on Amazon for Paleo recipes.
It’s likely that you only have 3-5 main dishes that you eat on a regular basis, so even if you just introduced one new core meal a week you’ll be eating mostly Paleo within a month.
It also helps if you create meals that re-use common items. I rely heavily on different cuts of meat and salad. Changing up the cuts of meat and throwing in some different vegetables gives me at least as much variety as the ubiquitous “bread and cheese” meals.
Lunch at the Office, Chicken Salad, and No-Bun Burgers
The biggest struggle for me, bar none, was tackling lunch. For most people–and consequently most restaurants–lunch equals sandwich (ie, gluten fest). Even when I worked in midtown Manhattan with arguably the greatest variety of food in the world at my fingertips, it could be difficult to find good Paleo options.
Eating out in general becomes much more difficult. Breaded chicken, breaded pork, steak sandwich in a gigantic hero roll, bread with bread sauce on it and a side of high-fructose corn syrup (okay, maybe not the last one).
To all this I have found a simple answer–the chicken salad.
Chicken salad is surprisingly easy to find in many different types of restaurants. American restaurants, Italian restaurants, Greek restaurants, nearly all of them have some variety of chicken salad on the menu. And amazingly, it’s often not breaded chicken.
The no-bun burger is also a great option for lunch. It’s simple, just ask for no bun (and no cheese if you object). Most places will also happily substitute vegetables for your fries.
For eating out I don’t try and worry too much about what kind of oils might have been used on my food or other food preparation minutiae. As long as you avoid breaded foods, deep fried foods, foods drenched in soy sauce, and excessive starchy tubers you are staying Paleo enough to gain most of the benefits.
Preparation, Hunger Meltdown, and Intermittent Fasting
Food preparation is key for staying Paleo. It’s the times when you’re tired, the fridge is empty, or you don’t have anything on hand that you lapse back into bread and cheese meals.
Here are a few ways you can prepare in advance to prevent hunger meltdown:
- Cook large batches of meals in advance (stew, meatza, brisket) that you can easily re-heat.
- If you’re taking a road trip, pack a cooler with some hard boiled eggs, meats, fruits, and vegetables.
- Research restaurants beforehand. Know where you are going to eat before you get hungry.
Alternatively, if you find yourself headed somewhere that overlaps with meal time, you could take the opportunity to practice intermittent fasting by simply skipping or delaying a meal. However, also plan this in advance. Skipping a meal off the cuff because you’re working hard at something and expending lots of energy is a recipe for disaster.
That said, if you have any others you are attempting to bring along the Paleo path with you–significant other, kids–their resolve will melt much quicker than yours and they will have little to no sympathy for your cause. Plan food in advance, it keeps the peace.
Alcohol and Socializing (Hey, Where’d My Beer Go?)
It’s also a shock when people realize that going Paleo and ditching the gluten fest means giving up beer… Dun, dun, dun… !
The beer itself isn’t the kicker to most people though. It’s the fact that most people you know or will ever meet equate being social and having fun with going out and drinking themselves into a stupor.
Barring binge drinking and not even being a particularly big fan of drinking in general, I must admit there is a certain social appeal to going out and “having a beer” with someone.
There are a few different ways around this. First, there are gluten free beers. However, they are still not widely available in most establishments. I tried this route for a while, but ultimately found it dissatisfying because you just wind up with some other ground up grain that isn’t doing you any favors.
Wine is a suitable grain-free alternative, but it can be difficult to get people on board to go out for some wine. Especially your male friends, even the Paleo ones, might think it sounds too sissy.
Lately, I’ve just been giving up alcohol altogether. There are plenty of people out there who don’t want to have to drink to be social, and it’s actually a relief for them when they meet a kindred spirit such as yourself. Try bonding around shared hobbies or activities rather than alcohol. This is one area that I’m still working on. It can take some thought to come up with an alternative go to social plan.
It’s fair to say that going Paleo isn’t even just about the food, in many ways it’s a complete lifestyle overhaul. You don’t necessarily need to go full Paleo / Primal to get the benefits. When you first start out, you probably won’t be ready or willing to make all of those changes. Just take it one meal at a time.
The lifestyle changes you’d like to make but can’t imagine today, will be the foregone conclusions of the changes that you want to make tomorrow. It took me about 2 years before I was really able to give up grains completely.
What challenges have you encountered trying to go Paleo? Have you overcome them? If so how? If not, what could you do differently to overcome them?