I don’t do diets. Never have, really. Sure, when I was a teenager I went through a stage of being obsessed with my weight and counting kilojoules. But fad diets – Atkins, Zone, Dukan, South Beach, Acai Berry (seriously?) – have never appealed to me.
The concept of cutting out entire food groups, adhering to a strict list of what you can and can’t eat, and demonising certain foods has always struck me as a little mental. Not to mention boring.
But for some reason I recently found myself drawn to one of the diets de jour – the Paleo diet. I think it was largely because I’ve been doing CrossFit for a while (if you’re not familiar with CrossFit, Google it – YouTube can explain better than I ever will) and most CrossFitters seem to be Paleo devotees. And CrossFitters are a tough, fit bunch who take their exercise and nutrition seriously and think “diet” is a four-letter word.
So I thought I’d give it a go for a month – partly, I must admit, because I was seduced by the prospect of losing some body fat. And partly because although I’m not a diet devotee, a lot of the clients I train are. So I thought it might give me some insight and empathy into that world.
For those who’ve never heard of it, the basic premise of Paleo is that you eat as the cavemen did: lots of vegetables, meat and fish, some eggs, nuts and seeds and a little fruit. In other words, no sugar, no processed foods, no grains, dairy or legumes and definitely no alcohol. Although you are allowed to drink coffee, which I think was the clincher for me (I didn’t realise cavemen were espresso fans but who am I to question?).
By the way, Paleo devotees don’t consider it a “diet”, as such, more a way of life. In other words, it’s not something you go on for a few weeks when you want to lose weight and then go off it again. You just follow the caveman way of eating – indefinitely.
For me, it was largely the elimination of sugar and processed foods that appealed. I’m gluten- and dairy-intolerant so cutting out those foods was easy as they haven’t been part of my diet for years. Overall my diet is pretty healthy: I rarely drink, I eat tonnes of fruit and veges, I never buy takeaway or drink soft drink and for the most part I avoid processed foods. But I do have a weakness for gluten-free breakfast cereal – there are worse things to be addicted to, I know – and I definitely have a sweet tooth.
I must admit, I was nervous about the lack of carbs in the Paleo diet (where would I get my energy to train?) and also the absence of legumes (including soy), which is where a lot of my protein and calcium comes from. But Paleo allows veges such as sweet potato and pumpkin (although potatoes are out) so it’s not as dire as Atkins, which abhors all carbs.
The first thing I discovered while on the diet was that because there was a whole list of things I couldn’t eat, I found myself obsessing about food – I’d sometimes be planning my next meal while I was still finishing my current one. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the foods I wasn’t allowed to eat: breakfast cereal, crackers, chickpeas (yes, really), soy milk for my coffee (I started by making my own almond milk – seriously – but that got old fast so I stuck with black coffee after that). I even dreamt about food.
The problem I found – which I suspect I share with every woman (and man) who has tried to go on a diet since caveman time – was that, unlike cavemen who just ate what they managed to hunt or gather, we have choices about what we can eat. Every day – in our fridges, cupboards, supermarkets, cafes, restaurants – there is a huge variety of food begging to be eaten. And they’re not even necessarily “bad” (I hate that word when it comes to food), they’re just foods that for the purposes of this diet are banned. And they’re known as “cheat foods”.
Very quickly I also found myself trying to work out ways I could cheat, which I think kind of defeats the purpose of being on a diet… Apparently raw honey is acceptable on the Paleo diet so I used that on everything just to get a sugar hit. I started making Paleo Anzac biscuits and chocolate muffins (with almond meal instead of flour, and honey in lieu of sugar) every other day because I was craving anything remotely cakey or bread-like in texture.
And the urge to eat breakfast cereal never went away – and it wasn’t even sugary, unhealthy breakfast cereal. It was gluten-free, low-sugar, low-salt cornflakes I was daydreaming about, for goodness sake. If I could have removed the temptation completely, I would have, but my daughter eats it for breakfast so instead it just sat in the cupboard, taunting me. And yes I did cave (no pun intended). Twice.
Here are some of the other things I learnt while on the Paleo diet:
– Breakfast used to be my favourite meal of the day but when you cut out wholegrains, it becomes a repetitive and often boring affair. It was usually a combination of fruit – berries/ pear/ apples/ dates – a few nuts or seeds and organic eggs. I did get creative for a while and would eat veges with my breakfast – grated vege fritters were a favourite – but that was a lot more time consuming. So fruit and eggs was the norm. which leads me to the next thing I learnt:
– There are only so many eggs a girl can eat before she starts getting the urge to cluck. I tried them scrambled, fried, boiled, poached, in an omelette and frittata. But at the end of the day, they were still eggs and when you eat them every day, it gets old fast.
– Ditto almond meal. The flour substitute of choice for Paleo devotees.
– My cravings didn’t go away with time – they were always there, in the back of my mind, nagging away at me to give in to them.
– When I did, on the odd occasion, give in to those cravings, I felt like a failure and a cheat. To the point where a couple of times I figured I might as well throw in the diet altogether. Which I’m sure is the reason most people “fail” when they go on a diet.
All of which led me to realise that anything that dictates what you can and can’t eat is only setting you up to fail. Call it whatever you like. If it looks like a diet and tastes like a diet, then it’s a diet. Even if you succeed (i.e., lose weight) for the period of time that you’re ON the diet, you’re still going to fail because at some point you’re either going to: (a) go OFF the diet (and then what happens? More than likely, you go back to your old eating habits and the weight returns) or (b) “cheat” which leaves you feeling like a failure and leads you to (a).
Despite all of that, it wasn’t a complete disaster. I did find ways to get creative with veges and include them in more of my meals. And I picked up a few great healthy “treat” recipes (Paleo scones or chocolate cupcakes anyone?) – check out thehealthychef.com for some amazing ideas.
But would I do it again? Hell no. I prefer my “all things in moderation” attitude to food any day.
The final straw for me came three weeks into the diet when I dared to get on the scales for the first time since starting it and found I had PUT ON almost a kilo and my body fat had INCREASED by 0.3%.
That was enough for me – I gave the diet the flick the next day and went straight back to my gluten-free muesli and soy milk for breakfast. And I enjoyed every mouthful. Guilt free.