I’ve been curious about the Paleo Diet for a while. The theory behind it seems reasonable to me and I’d heard some convincing testimonials, so I decided to try the diet myself for 1 month. This post describes my experience.
What Is The Paleo Diet?
The Paleo Diet – short for “Palaeolithic diet” – involves eating the types of foods that cavemen (cavepeople) ate. The theory is that over millions of years, evolution designed humans to eat the types of foods that were found in their natural environments.
When agriculture began 10,000 years ago, the types of food we ate started changing so rapidly that evolution hasn’t been able to adapt our bodies fast enough to keep up (10,000 years is nothing on evolutionary time scales).
On the paleo diet you revert back to eating what you are designed to eat – what you’d find in your natural environment. That means eating meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and… that’s about it.
The theory makes a lot of sense to me, so I thought I’d give it a shot. For the month of May I ate 100% paleo.
Paleo Diet Books: If you’d like to learn more about the Paleo Diet there are a few books on the topic. The three most popular authors seem to be Loren Cordain Ph.D. (“The Paleo Diet” and “The Paleo Answer”), Robb Wolf (“The Paleo Solution”), and Mark Sisson (“The Primal Blueprint”). I only skimmed Robb & Mark’s books, opting instead to read “The Paleo Solution” by Loren Cordain Ph. D., because his book seemed to go into more elaborate scientific analysis of the diet, and the 3 letters after his name gave me confidence.
What I Ate Before The Paleo Diet
To put the effects of my month on the Paleo Diet into context, I’ll give you an idea what my diet was like before I started eating Paleo. My diet was pretty healthy by conventional standards.
For years I’ve had a rule that nothing enters my apartment unless I consider it to be 100% healthy. That meant no juice, no salt, no ketchup, no salad dressing, no bread, no cookies, no cheese… no processed food of any kind. Whenever I ate fruits or vegetables in my apartment they were raw. The only foods I cooked were meat & fish (no flavours added).
But my standard for “healthy” allowed me to eat things every day that are prohibited by the Paleo Diet, including milk (lots), raw oats (every breakfast), peanut butter (every lunch), green beans, etc.
On top of that, my “100% healthy” rule only applied when I was at home. When I went out I was more relaxed. I’d eat at restaurants once or twice a week (mostly shawarmas), and I’d go eat at other people’s houses at least once a week, where I’d use salt, ketchup, margarine, eat dessert, and pick at bowls of chips that were lying around.
So I ate mostly “healthy”, but let myself slide when not at home.
The only supplements that I took were omega 3 pills (about 1,200 to 1,800 mg per day). I continued taking the same amount of omega 3 throughout the paleo diet month.
What I Ate While On The Paleo Diet
For my month on the Paleo Diet I was 100% strict. No cheat days, no letting myself slide just because I wasn’t at home.
The biggest changes were:
- Eliminating milk, home-made granola, & peanut butter
- Eliminating unhealthy food when not at home (I ate healthy 24/7)
- Eating a lot more meat, and lot more fruit (all raw), and a LOT more vegetables (all raw)
The paleo meal plans that I saw in books & online were far too complex for me to bother with. I kept the diet simple and mostly ate plain or raw food with minimal or no preparation.
For the most part I ate what I felt like eating (within the rules of the diet), trusting that my body was smart enough to make me crave whatever type of food I needed at the time.
My breakfasts were the least bland part of the diet, even though they were almost always the same:
- A sheet of dried seaweed (for the iodine)
- 3 organic free-run eggs scrambled in coconut oil
- A Tomato
- A Red Pepper
- An Omega 3 Pill
Lunches, & dinners usually consisted of some plain meat (whatever I’d cooked last), fruits, vegetables, and more vegetables. I tried to maintain a lot of variety among the meat, fruits & vegetables that I ate, but made sure to avoid foods prohibited by the diet such as green beans, potatoes, etc.
Snacks were usually a fruit, sometimes some sliced almonds (raw & unsalted of course), or whatever else happened to by lying around.
I put effort into buying organic foods whenever possible, including grass-fed beef. I also ate some more unusual foods that cave people may have eaten. For example I had a few types of pork that I’d never had before including:
- Pork Belly – Looks like unsliced bacon but doesn’t taste nearly as good.
- Pork Tongue – Rubbery. It felt similar to chewing on my own tongue.
- Pork Spleen – Looked daunting, but tasted like liver (not bad).
And… although I said I ate 100% paleo, I should point out two exceptions in case some hardcore paleo eaters might consider them cheating:
- As mentioned above I fried my scrambled eggs in coconut oil (presumably cave people weren’t able to extract the oil from coconuts)
- I drank green tea occasionally, and once per week I allowed myself to put a bit of raw honey in my green tea (I’m pretty sure cavemen didn’t drink green tea… or put honey in it)
Aside from those two exceptions, I was a caveman.
How I Felt On The Paleo Diet
For the first few days, no matter how much I ate, I could not quite reach that satisfying “full” feeling. I always felt unsatisfied, as if the spot had not really been hit.
After the first few days that “unsatisfied” feeling went away, and for the rest of the month I felt neither empty nor full after eating – I’d just feel kind of neutral.
I noticed absolutely zero improvement in how I felt compared to how I felt eating regular food before the Paleo Diet. It’s true that I felt pretty good to start with, but I’d hoped that the Paleo Diet would somehow make me feel even better – superhuman perhaps.
If anything, I may have had a bit less energy while on the Paleo Diet. The energy difference was not dramatic, and since it could have been all in my head (it’s not measurable) I’m not officially considering it to be one of the diet’s results.
Although I missed eating “normal” food, especially when everyone around me was doing so, I didn’t have any real cravings. At least not the type that I imagine pregnant women get. I often wished I could eat what others were eating, but the suffering that I endured was not intense. At least not intense compared to someone who has the bubonic plague, or compared to starving people in Africa who would give anything to eat the luxurious food that I was eating on the Paleo Diet.
What I Ate After The Paleo Diet
Rather than easing myself back into my original diet after the Paleo month, I decided to quit the Paleo Diet cold turkey to see how my body would handle it. I was anticipating a day of nausea & vomiting due to subjecting my body to toxic foods that it had grown unaccustomed to over the past month.
I started my first post-paleo day with a bowl of my home made granola (plenty of oats) with milk. Lunch involved peanut butter and more milk. For dinner I went out and if I remember correctly had pork riblets in some kind of sauce, mashed potatoes, cooked vegetables, and milk. I felt more full after that meal than I had ever been able to feel during the previous month. Oh, and I had dessert.
And during all of that I felt absolutely fine. No nausea, no vomiting, no headaches… which was both nice and disappointing at the same time.
Since then, I’ve stayed on my original diet, but a few aspects of the paleo diet have stuck (more on that soon).
Measuring The Results (Statistics!)
I’ll start by giving you my before & after numbers, and will explain them below. Here are the numbers:
Weight Before: 154 lbs
Weight After: 150 lbs
Body Fat Before: about 12.5%
Body Fat After: about 11.5%
Blood Pressure Before: 146/86 (average of 3 tests/per day for the week before paleo)
Blood Pressure After: 140/81 (average of 3 tests/per day for the last week of paleo)
* Blood pressure measurements are higher than reality – see explanation below.
Blood Test Before:
Total Cholesterol: 5.19 mmol/L
Triglycerides: 0.88 mmol/L
HDL Cholesterol: 1.43 mmol/L
LDC Cholesterol: 3.36 mmol/L
Ratio Of Total/HDL: 3.63
Blood Test After:
Total Cholesterol: 6.04 mmol/L
Triglycerides: 0.60 mmol/L
HDL Cholesterol: 1.65 mmol/L
LDC Cholesterol: 4.11 mmol/L
Ratio Of Total/HDL: 3.66
Both before and after the paleo diet I weighed myself on a balance beam scale (you know, the kind with sliding weights on beams), so I’m pretty sure the measurements were accurate. Both times I weighed myself in the morning before eating anything & after going to the bathroom.
Weight loss was not my goal by the way – as far as I was concerned I didn’t have much weight to lose. Becoming more healthy was my goal. If a bit of weight loss was a side effect of becoming healthier, so be it.
About Body Fat:
I measured myself with the fat calipers you see pictured above. The process involved taking measurements in 3 different places on my body and then using a chart to determine overall body fat from the measurements.
I took my measurements a few times in a row both before & after the diet, and found it hard to get consistent readings. So I’m not confident that my body fat numbers are exactly correct, but I am confident that I actually did lose a bit of fat (and maybe some muscle or brain also). Near the end of the diet one person commented that my face looked thinner (and, in her opinion, worse).
About Blood Pressure:
For the week before I started the Paleo Diet I used the machine you see above to measure my blood pressure 3 times each day (first thing in the morning, mid-day, and before bed). Each time I checked my blood pressure I checked it 3 times, alternating arms (either left-right-left or right-left-right). So I took a total of 9 readings each day for a week.
During my last week on the Paleo Diet I did the same thing – 9 readings each day for that week. The numbers you see above are the average of all the readings for each week.
My blood pressure readings were high when compared to the ideal of 120/80. But I discovered that my blood pressure machine reads higher than reality. I had doctors check my blood pressure using their more accurate manual machines before, during, and after the paleo diet, and according to them my blood pressure was almost always in the 120-130/80 range.
I think that my blood pressure was actually good in both cases… but probably did drop a bit as indicated by my machine. Here are the actual readings that the machine gave me:
About The Blood Tests:
My cholesterol numbers went up. Oh no, panic! Or don’t, according to Loren Cordain Ph.D, author of “The Paleo Answer”. In that book he has this to say about cholesterol:
“(discussing early saturated fat / cholesterol studies…) In those days, it was routine to carry out nutritional experiments under meticulous “metabolic ward” conditions – meaning that the subjects could eat only the food provided to them and nothing else…
The precision and accuracy of those early experiments are unquestionable, and the conclusion that saturated fats increase blood cholesterol is indisputable. [However...] The endpoint variable that was measured – total blood cholesterol – was misleading and incomplete…
Total blood cholesterol levels are a crude marker for heart disease, as they don’t reflect the dynamics of cholesterol entering or leaving the bloodstream. Some cholesterol is taken out of our bodies by HDL (good) particles, while other cholesterol is deposited in our arteries by LDL (bad) particles and forms part of the plaque that clogs our arteries. Because total cholesterol represents a summation of both good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol, by itself it is a poor measure of heart disease risk. The total cholesterol/HDL ratio is a much better index for heart disease – and it is even more predictive if we know our general state of inflammation…”
If you look at my total cholesterol / HDL ratios above, you’ll see that they were almost identical before & after the diet. In both cases, they were in the normal range. Although typical doctor might not agree, I expect Loren Cordain would say that my cholesterol numbers are great.
I have to comment here on the difficulty I had in actually getting blood tests done due to the publicly funded health care system here in Canada. The doctor who sent me for my “before” blood test was very reluctant to do so since there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with me, and he flat-out refused to send me for a second blood test at the end of the diet. I went to see a different doctor instead who agreed – after significant arm twisting – to send me for a second blood test. If health care was privately run in Canada, or if a 2-tiered system was set up, I could have just paid the price to get a blood test done both times without any arguments or resistance. I don’t actually think that the health care system should be entirely private, but can see some definite benefits to having a 2-tiered system.
In my opinion the results of the diet were mildly positive, but not positive enough to warrant the deprivation that the diet entailed. I have gone back to eating my original non-paleo diet.
Although I was a bit disappointed that the results I experienced weren’t more dramatic, I am glad that I did the paleo diet for a month. Here’s why:
- My curiosity is satisfied.
- It was a good exercise of my self-discipline muscle.
- I feel better about my non-paleo eating habits (if the paleo diet is really the perfect diet, and it had such tiny benefits over my original diet, my original diet must be pretty good!)
- Some small aspects of the diet have stuck – see update below.
I also want to point out that doing the Paleo Diet involved many changes to my eating habits. It is hard to know which of those changes had the small positive effects that I measured. Was it the elimination of milk? of oats? Or was it the addition of more vegetables into my diet? OR did the elimination of milk and oats actually have a small detrimental effect which was outweighed by the significant positive effects of eliminating desserts and junk food? I don’t think I’ll ever know those answers for sure without extensive experimentation.
August 2012 Update: I’m still eating my original non-paleo diet, but a few aspects of the Paleo Diet have stuck. For example instead of eating granola for breakfast, I usually eat something pretty close to the breakfast photo you saw above. I do still eat granola regularly; just not for breakfast. I also rarely put honey in my green tea anymore. Aside from those changes I’m no longer a caveman, and am pleased with my current eating habits.
December 2014 Update: I’m now eating vegan+fish, and have been doing so since Feb 2013. You can read about the reasons here.