I've always been curious about the Paleo diet because it makes a lot of sense to me. Known as the "Caveman diet," the pillars of following the Paleo lifestyle are incredibly simple: Go back to eating the way our early ancestors did by consuming unprocessed, whole foods loaded with nutrients designed to give our bodies exactly what they need. In essence, I guess it's kind of a "non-diet," though it's become one of the most popular fad diets in the last year or so. I've never, ever been much of a fad dieter to begin with — unless you count that one time in high school when my mom and I got on a real Slimfast and Denise Austin video kick — so I found the idea of a non-diet to be entirely tempting. I was curious to see what would happen if I tried the Paleo diet, and if all the praise for it actually checked out.
Paleolithic eating is a trend that says if a cave person wouldn't have been able to eat it, neither should you. It seems totally intuitive: anything that was around when cavemen and women were — vegetables, fruits, lean meats, seafood, and nuts — were fair game. Anything else — dairy, grains, processed foods, and legumes — was off limits. The belief behind Paleo eating is that natural food is best and will keep us modern-day humans functioning the way we're supposed to. Easy, right?
Aside from the small fact that I am only a teensy bit skeptical about a meal plan based on the life of primitive people who lived, on average, only 30 years, a milestone I will be reaching in only five short months, I decided that I wanted to make the leap into trying a Paleo lifestyle.
I've always suspected that I have a bit of lactose intolerance and like any modern-day American, have wondered if gluten is secretly trying to kill me, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to cut out the main bad guys of dairy and grains and see what would happen. At the very least I wondered if my kids might like a diet that was parceled down and loaded with nutrients (LOL, who am I kidding?).
Day 1 Meal Plan Guide (not exactly what I ate, but this helped me plan my day)
Breakfast: Blueberry muffins, eggs, and sausage or bacon
Lunch: Salad with dressing, cauliflower
Dinner: Sirloin steak and baked asparagus with salad
Dessert: Chocolate “milkshakes”
First up, I did a lot of research on the Paleo diet and found, surprisingly, that it's incredibly complicated. Some people say potatoes are fine on the Paleo diet, others say no. Turns out, a diet that is made up without any actual rhyme or reason to it has a lot of differing opinions. Who would have guessed it? But I decided to follow the basics: no dairy (except, apparently, for grass-fed, organic butter) and no grains of any kind, which I didn't realize also included oatmeal, which is pretty much my lunch every day so that was really unfortunate. Overall, the goal of Paleo is to focus on fresh, wholesome ingredients with lots of vegetables and lean protein.
I spent a lot of time on Pinterest to get inspired and came up with my own meal plan for the week to get me started. My goal was to create meals that my whole family (my kids range in age from 1 to 7) would eat that wouldn't be that much different than our normal diet and wouldn't involve a lot of extra work on my part. I also decided that there was no way I could learn all the rules, so I took a shortcut and made my cousin Mandy, who does Paleo with her husband, my personal Paleo expert. I texted her non-stop and asked her annoying questions like, "Is wine Paleo? Because Jesus totally drank it," and she patiently responded to all my queries with wisdom much like Grandmother Willow. (Spoiler: wine is not Paleo.)
Initially, my husband was completely on board with trying Paleo with me and he was so taken with the idea that he found, on his own time, a bacon-wrapped chicken dish that he whipped up for us for our first official meal. It was absolutely delicious, but of course it was, because hi, bacon.
With this meal, I was starting to think this Paleo thing wouldn't be so bad after all.
Day 2 Meal Plan (not exactly what I ate, but this helped me plan my day)
Blueberry muffins, eggs and greens
Salad with avocado dressing and leftover steak
Bacon-wrapped chicken and sweet potatoes with salad
This was the most challenging day of my entire week by far because it involved facing my biggest fear: Having my coffee without my beloved half-and-half.
Like any human being with blood walking this planet, I love coffee. I live for coffee. I don't want to live life without coffee, and the fact that Tom Brady has never had coffee makes me sad. I love a little dash of half-and-half in my coffee to just give it that perfect splash of creaminess that gives it the perfect silky smooth texture and temperature. So without it, I just wasn't sure it was worth it to have coffee. I decided to ease myself into going black with my coffee by trying the bulletproof coffee recipe, which is all the rage. Essentially, you blend coconut oil and butter together in your coffee for something that's supposed to stabilize your blood sugars, keep your energy up, and help you lose weight. But more importantly, it's creamy and I needed creamy coffee.
I added about a tablespoon of coconut oil, popped my coffee in my personal single-serve blender, and I had something that resembled a frothy latte. It was good as long as I drank it right away and while it had a slightly bitter taste, it was a good substitute for my half-and-half, if not completely there.
I focused the rest of my meals on eating as many vegetables as possible and snacking often. I had eggs and fruit for breakfast, a big spinach salad with avocado and leftover chicken for lunch (no dressing), a handful of almonds for a snack, one small red potato for another snack (Mandy said it was OK), and steak and asparagus for dinner.
Day 3 Meal Plan (not exactly what I ate, but this helped me plan my day)
Breakfast: Mango, strawberry, spinach, almond milk (and throughout the day)
Lunch: Leftover chicken and potatoes
On day three of my Paleo experiment, I woke up with the biggest headache ever and felt like I wanted to rage at my husband and scream at my children. Is it normal to feel like I'm completely dying and hate the world and have a headache when you start Paleo? I texted Mandy. She responded way too cheerily: "Yep! It's actually a good thing! You'll feel better in about a week."
Nevermind that my experiment was only a week long, I had to push through this. I imagined my body was detoxing or something and decided it would be best to go to the gym to try to clear my head. I ran on the treadmill and did some weights, but honestly, I felt like my body was made of lead and like I had zero energy. It was not cool at all.
I stayed the course and beefed up my breakfast with wilted spinach under my eggs, ate some all-natural turkey cucumber-avocado bites for a snack, and a some salmon and sweet potato after my workout, but in general, I still felt like crap.
That night I also had my ultimate test of willpower when my sister-in-law invited us over to her house for Chinese food and chocolate chip cookies and my soul died a little inside when I realized that I wouldn't be able to eat any. I packed my own giant tub of spinach and steamed broccoli and ate a few pieces of chicken without the breading, but when I got home, I was still completely starving and kind of shaky, so I decided to make this chocolate "milkshake" I'd seen and been saving for a special emergency.
When I made it, I took a big draught and moaned with pleasure. "Omg that is so good, you HAVE to try this," I said to my husband. He took one swig and almost threw up, spitting it back into the sink.
"You must be really hungry," he said to me, shaking his head.
Day 4 Meal Plan (not exactly what I ate, but this helped me plan my day)
Breakfast: Eggs and sausage
Lunch: Leftover spaghetti
Dinner: Moroccan stew and cauliflower rice
By day four, I was feeling a lot better and took assessment of myself to see if I was feeling any different, health-wise. I found that I did feel a little different: I was less bloated, for one, and my headache wasn't as awful as it had been the day before.
You know that feeling when your stomach feels gross like you ate too much and you kind of just want to sleep it off? That's pretty much how I feel all the time, but by day four of my Paleo experiment, I felt totally different. Maybe this is TMI, but my bathroom habits were also totally different too. I'm usually always plagued with a bit of tummy troubles and often need to use the restroom quite frequently throughout the day, but all throughout this experiment so far, my bowel movements were totally normal. I went to the bathroom once a day, and though it felt totally strange to do something so normal, I was thrilled. (I know you're all really happy for me.)
I also felt good just knowing that I was eating so many more vegetables than I normally would. Even though I "had" to have vegetables, I didn't mind reaching for them over something else. I was beginning to really understand the fact that "food is fuel," and having something that gave my body the energy it needed to power through whatever I was trying to do felt good.
Day 5 Meal Plan (not exactly what I ate, but this helped me plan my day)
Breakfast: Paleo Waffles
Lunch: Pumpkin turkey chili (make a bunch for leftovers!)
Dinner: Jalapeno turkey burgers
For the weekend, I was determined to find a waffle recipe that I could actually eat. I make homemade waffles (the overnight kind with yeast and everything!) for my family every single weekend and they love them. It's a weekend tradition that we all look forward to and I was determined to find a Paleo version for myself. For day five, I really wanted to give myself the time to find a Paleo waffle recipe that didn't feel like I was sacrificing so much as readjusting.
I tried to adapt a recipe of Paleo waffles (I added more coconut flour to try to make them fluffier) and while they looked pretty, they unfortunately tasted like a pile of dirt mixed with sandpaper. I either have not landed on that perfect recipe yet, or everyone who eats Paleo waffles are total liars and just enjoy eating sandpaper covered dirt. However, in terms of victory, I finally enjoyed a cup of coffee black today, so we'll count that as a small win.
Day 6 Meal Plan (not exactly what I ate, but this helped me plan my day)
Breakfast: Eggs with sausage or bacon
Lunch: Leftover chili
Dinner: Pork tenderloin and root veggies
For day six I experimented with a few different coffee alternatives because I just couldn't give up my quest for the perfect substitute for creamy coffee. First, I tried mixing it some canned coconut milk, which wasn't very good because there was processed stuff in the coconut milk and also just kind of clumped in my coffee. Next I tried coffee with almond milk and a splash of cinnamon, which was the best alternative I’d found so far.
For lunch, I had some leftover spaghetti squash noodles with turkey meatballs and homemade sauce, both of which I'd made the night before. And I found out, much to my surprise, that I’m totally intolerant to spaghetti squash, which I didn’t even know was a thing, but through a process of trial and experimentation eating it different times, I discovered it was definitely the spaghetti squash. I’ll spare you the details, but it was not fun. Also, I learned that strangely enough, I’m not the only one with this unfortunate phenomenon. Morale of the story? Paleo doesn't always mean it's good for you.
For a snack, I ate two eggs over a bed of spinach, a handful of almonds and a banana and I threw this ham-bone soup in the Crock-Pot for dinner. My husband also got crafty after the kids' bedtimes and whipped up some homemade breakfast sausage to support me in my efforts and it was pretty impressive. They tasted all right, not stellar, but it was definitely the thought that counts.
Day 7 Meal Plan (not exactly what I ate, but this helped me plan my day)
Breakfast: Omelette or smoothies
Lunch: Leftover pork and salad
Dinner: Roasted chicken, roasted butternut squash, and warm leeks in vinaigrette
By the final day of the experiment I was getting a little tired of always being hungry. I recognize that it's normal and healthier to eat smaller, more frequent meals, but I was getting a little frustrated trying to keep myself full enough to function while also prepping all the foods that I can eat while working and caring for my two little kids at home and doing all the school stuff for my older two. I realized just how much of Paleo eating goes into the prep work you do beforehand, and to be honest, that doesn't really make sense for my lifestyle. Prepping would either need to take place before the kids wake up or after they go to bed or while they nap, but that's precious time I use to take care of other things.
So on day seven, I embraced the power of the smoothie and found an all-natural vegan protein powder on Amazon that didn't taste fabulous but was non vomit-inducing. I loaded the smoothie with spinach, whatever frozen fruit I had on hand, and the most natural almond milk I could find at the store. Maybe almond milk isn't exactly Paleo, but I figured it was still better than cow's milk and did the best I could.
The smoothies helped a lot to keep me full without any effort, which I appreciated and in the meantime, my diet hadn't really changed. I continued to stick to eating tons of spinach, eggs (which we have delivered from our neighbors down the road who have chickens, so they are as fresh as can be and literally still have feathers sticking to them), salmon, chicken, and turkey for protein, lots of avocado and cucumbers for snacks, and sweet potatoes for carbs after my workouts. I also snacked on almonds a lot when I was driving kids around and stashed a bag of them in my car just for that purpose.
Was I Team Paleo?
Honestly, I feel like the most important lesson I learned is to pay attention to how food makes me feel, as opposed to following anyone else’s crazy rules on what people should and shouldn’t it. For instance, even though spaghetti squash might be a "healthy" choice for other people, it made me feel like total crap.
I think any lifestyle focused on food that helps keep you energized, feeling good, and on eating more fresh and natural foods is perfect, but everyone really is different. Adhering to the Paleo lifestyle was hard for me because I can't tolerate any red meat, spaghetti squash makes me break out in hives, and at the end of the day, there’s only so much avocado a person can eat. But I made it and I’m glad I tried a different way of eating because it helped show me that I can incorporate healthier choices into our home and our meal plans.
I learned, probably most importantly, that Paleo isn't exactly a "diet" in the traditional way you think of it. It's a total overhaul of how you eat and what you eat, all aimed at providing you with foods that immediately give your body the nutrients it needs. I also learned that a life without some kind of cream in my coffee is quite frankly a life I just don’t want to live. So to celebrate on day eight of my Paleo diet, I ate some eggs and homemade sausage for breakfast, enjoyed a spinach and avocado salad for lunch, but mid-morning, you had also better believe I poured myself one big ol’ giant cup of coffee with full-on sugar-filled creamer.
And it tasted amazing.