Thoughts from the Chair: Living the Caveman Lifestyle
My personal experience with the Paleo Diet
During the past two months I changed my eating habits. More precisely I changed my whole approach to food to reflect more closely the diet of the pre-historic and pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers. Simply put, I have been following the Paleo Diet and am trying to eat like a caveman.
What I can report firsthand, is that it has remarkably improved the way I feel, how I sleep, my energy levels and yes, my weight. I'll explain why in a moment, but first I want to throw out a rare disclaimer with my writing.
The following paragraphs may be a little confusing and even disturbing because the information differs from what you generally receive through the media. Moreover, it may particularly irritate some dietitians. And I will be very open in conveying the fact that the Paleo Diet is not without its detractors. For example, its focus on (Spoiler Alert!) wild game, meat, fruit, nuts and seeds may not be the most sustainable approach to global food consumption – compared to plant-based diets – now that the quantity of people on the earth far outnumbers our Stone Age ancestors.
But again, this is my personal decision and not one I am trying to encourage anyone else to follow. Like all things diet and lifestyle-related, we are all an experiment of one. What may work for me, may not work for you, but as the old saying goes – you never know unless you try. And that's what I did.
I have been exploring an alternative way to eating over the past several months because I just wasn't happy with my diet. I ate pretty well compared to the average American, but selfishly I knew I could, and needed to do much better if I truly wanted to be a role model for our family and friends. I ate a pretty balanced diet of carbs and protein with some healthy fats and I exercised a lot, probably averaging 10-12 hours per week. My weight was steady, my BMI was around 24-25, my blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol were all in the healthy range and I am a non-smoker. Yet, something was still missing.
That "something missing" included the fact that I didn't think I slept all that well, I experienced highs and lows throughout the day based around my meals, and I had a feeling of heaviness when I was running. In spite of my attention to detail I still felt like I needed to lose weight to be healthier. I was already doing the exercise component of weight management, so it appeared that I would need to re-vamp my dietary approach if I wanted to unlock new levels of health.
It's a little difficult to summarize the Paleo Diet because there are quite a few variations, but my quick and easy explanation is this: it is a diet devoid of all grains and processed foods, those kinds of foods that a pre-agrarian society would not have access to. Instead I center my meals on protein and healthy fats, with a sprinkling of carbs coming only from fruit and vegetable sources. I eat minimal dairy but I do include full-fat Greek yogurt, whole cream and some cheeses made from raw milk in my diet as well. This particular variation on the purist Paleo Diet is sometimes called "primal eating."
I snack on nuts and seeds plus vegetables throughout the day. I try to limit my fruit intake to right before or right after exercise as fruits can be high in sugars, and I want to control my sugar intake. The more I read and research, the more I am personally convinced that all grains come with some potential problems. Once more we are talking about my opinion which, I would add, is also supported by some food and diet researchers.
The fact is that even whole grains can cause a host of health issues, and they are processed, because you can't walk out into a field and just start eating the whole grains before they are transformed into something more edible. In light of this I do my best to cut out all grains and processed foods. It was a struggle for awhile but after the initial shock I was doing better each day, and the positives I was experiencing were outweighing my desire for processed foods, as well as for my long-time love of "healthy" whole grains.
So what exactly have I noticed since my change in dietary habits? Check out the summary below:
Improved Sleep: I am definitely sleeping better. I fall asleep more quickly and tend to remain asleep for most for the night. In the past I used to wake up often and toss and turn, but that has been remarkably reduced. I may still occasionally wake up but I fall right back to sleep, and I wake up every morning refreshed and ready to take on the day.
Improved Energy Levels: My energy levels from morning until evening remain more constant, and by "constant" I mean full bore. I have more energy, no ups and downs in my levels and I feel like anything is possible based on what seems, at least for me, to be "fuel for success."
Improved Appetite: I was never a calorie counter and have always been a big eater. Portion control was my weakness, as I loved to eat, and still do. In large part, I was a big eater because I was always hungry. Grains seemed to affect my blood sugars and always left me wanting more in order to feel full and satiated. I tried adding more protein and fat, but as long as I had the grains I was starving an hour later. Once I cut out all grains and replaced with more protein and more fat, plus some vegetables and salads, my appetite has suppressed and I can sustain my energy and appetite control for longer periods of time.
I no longer wake up starving and I can go over 12 hours from dinner to breakfast with a heavy workout in between without any food intake. I also no longer get "hangry" (hunger associated anger) when I get home from work because I am starving and need dinner right away. My appetite suppression means I can often enjoy time with my daughter before she goes to bed, and then have dinner which is mainly a large salad and protein – quick tip and something that's reinforced in this month's issue of your MHL newsletter – I use only plain olive oil on my salads and load it up so it tastes great without all the questionable ingredients of commercial salad dressings.
Improved Strength and Endurance: I have noticed an increase in my daily strength and endurance with my exercise routine. As an over-40 athlete, I have less post-exercise soreness and fewer complaints of nagging injuries. Old injuries are literally healing themselves and on that level, I feel like I am in my 20's again.
Improved Exercise Efficiency: I track my heart rate(HR) and since my change in diet I have noticed a substantial decrease in my exercise HR at given exercise intensities. My power output on the bike, and my pace in running, are both higher with lower associated HRs of about 5-7 beats per minute. This change leaves me less fatigued and able to maintain higher intensities for longer periods of time. My resting HR has also reached all-time lows.
Improved Weight: I put this benefit last because in the end it is really the least important of the changes I noticed. Over the last six weeks I lost about seven pounds. OK, granted, not a lot of weight loss but I didn't really have a lot to lose in the first place. But I definitely have become leaner and feel better exercising and doing everything else on a day-to-day basis. I am also eating more than ever! That's right; the switch in food choices has allowed me to eat more while still losing weight and becoming leaner. Since I don't count calories, I can roughly estimate that my diet is about 40-50% protein, 30-40% fat and about 20-25% carbs. The more exercise I do, the more fat I tend to eat for energy.
Those are my changes. And yet again, I will remind you that those results are highly individual. I am absolutely making no generalized claims and, as the EPA keeps telling us, "Your mileage may vary." At the same time, I have read about other people who have experienced significant life changes by adopting this way of eating. My personal changes have been so profound that my wife is going to give it a try herself. She loves her "healthy" whole grain cereals and breads but after seeing how it has positively impacted me, she wants to see if it will do her body good as well.
As with any change, please consult your physician before making significant dietary changes, including a high-protein diet. If you have questions about what I eat, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wish you all the success in your health journey and I am grateful for the opportunity to share mine.
Stay healthy my friends,
Chair – My Healthy Lifestyle Employee Wellness Committee
(Editor's Note: In addition to serving as Chair for the Employee Wellness Committee, Daniel Ballin is the Administrator of Riverside's Therapy Group, Wellness and Outpatient Services and oversees all of Riverside's therapy services along with Riverside's Wellness and Fitness Centers in Newport News and Gloucester.)
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