“Alright, I’m in. Let’s do this Paleo thing.”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the Paleo Diet. Actually, if you’re living under a rock, you probably are doing a pretty good job at living a Paleo lifestyle…and I’m impressed you’re reading this.
Anyways! Today’s article isn’t going to dig into what the Paleo Diet is, as I’ve already covered that extensively in the “Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet,” which has been viewed over 9.5 million times.
And if you’re somebody that’s quick to point out “the Paleo diet is flawed for [insert some reason about cavemen eating something]” or because you read the China Study, check out our “Paleo Diet Debunked?” article, where we explain our stance on the diet (and why we’re fans).
Today’s article is for those people who have already decided they want to go Paleo or Paleo-ish, but aren’t quite sure what that means or how to officially get started.
We’ll dig into the different ways to go Paleo, if there’s a WRONG way to do it, what pitfalls to avoid, and how you can set yourself up for success.
Is there a Wrong Way to Go Paleo?
“But the big point of the Paleo Diet is that I can eat as much as I want as long as it’s Paleo right?”
For many people, the reason they’re choosing to go Paleo is because they want to lose weight, and have heard plenty of success stories. Heck, many of the success stories here on Nerd Fitness are from people who have done the same thing:
However, just as there’s a right way and a wrong way to start eating gluten free, and a right way and a wrong way to love somebody (thanks Keith Sweat!), there’s a right way and a wrong way to go Paleo.
The right way: Focus on eating real foods (not processed crap), like protein, healthy fats, and plenty of vegetables.
The wrong way: Switching from normal cookies and pancakes to Paleo cookies and pancakes. Eating as much fruit, potatoes, and dark chocolate as possible.
When you’re getting ready to transition to a Paleo Diet, the point is not to find Paleo substitutes of all of your favorite unhealthy foods – but rather to fundamentally adjust how you think about food and how you fuel your body.
Remember, just about every meal should be loaded with vegetables, along with a protein source. Fresh fruit is great, in moderation, and mixing in nutrient rich complex carbs (like sweet potatoes) is awesome too.
But loading up on tons of ‘Paleo friendly’ carb and sugar sources (like baking cookies with almond flour, or covering everything with honey) defeats the purpose entirely.
So, we’re focusing on eating real foods, right? Great! That’s a good start. But should switch 100% to real foods RIGHT NOW? Or slowly switch over?
Should I go all in, or gradually transition?
Great question. I knew you were smart!
THE “WADE IN” METHOD: Instead of going 100% Paleo, you decide to SLOWLY transition to the diet over weeks or months. You swap out a food here and there, eliminate one type of food after weaning yourself off of it for months, and you make adjustments along the way.
PROS: Your change is gradual, and it’s less of a hit on your wallet. Instead of throwing out ALL of your food and going to buy all Paleo items, you simply stop eating certain foods as you run out of them, replacing them with Paleo items.
Your body has to deal with less of a drastic shock, which means you’re less likely to run out of willpower during your transition. You’re slowly transitioning, pushing your body and tastebuds just slightly outside of the comfort zone.
CONS: When you slowly transition to a Paleo Diet, the “oh my god I feel amazing!” change that many people feel is a lot less pronounced. Because you’re not making drastic changes, your results will be, surprise, more gradual and less drastic!
THE “ALL IN CANNONBALL!” METHOD: If the above method is you wading slowly into the deep end of the Paleo Pool, this is you pulling a Ron Burgundy CANNONBALL! and going all in with 100% Paleo on Day 1. You get rid of all non-Paleo foods, you stop eating dairy and grains, and you “rip the band-aid” off fast.
PROS: You get all of the changes over with immediately, and all of the ‘uncomfortableness’ with transition is all done much quicker. It sucks for many, but it’s over with faster. You also don’t have to worry about deciding which foods to swap out next.
Also, because you’re going full Paleo, you’re more likely to have a drastic weight loss story in the first few weeks, which can be really encouraging and positively reinforcing, making it easier to stay on target.
CONS: Because “carb-flu” is a real thing (which I cover below), it requires a TREMENDOUS amount of willpower and self discipline. It’s very easy to slip up when you go all in, because it’s a drastic shock to your system and body. This is especially true if you normally fuel your body with grains and carbs and are used to eating a LOT of them.
Seriously, those first few weeks can seriously suck, which can be enough to cause people to have a bad day and run to their nearest Pizza Hut.
Personally, Team Nerd Fitness is a much bigger fan of the “wade in” method, as we’ve seen this be more successful for the majority of people. We’re huge fans of small gradual changes that last permanently, but we know everybody is different. What we don’t want is for somebody to go all-in for a month, lose a bunch of weight, but be so miserable that they go right back to eating pizza and pasta and undo all their work.
When NF Team member Staci went Paleo, it took her a total of eight months to complete the transition – slowly removing each item from her diet one at a time. That was back in 2010 – so while the change took a long time, it’s stuck for seven years now.
The choice is yours as to which method you like, as we’ve seen success stories from both types – it comes down to what’s right for you!
Once you’ve decided HOW you’re going to go Paleo, it’s time to figure how to play it out amongst your friends and family – as they’re going to give you a few weird looks for this “eating like a caveman” thing.
Social Paleo Recommendations
“If you’re a vegan who ran a marathon & got your dogs from a shelter, how do you decide which thing to wedge into the conversation first?” -Ken Jennings
“How do you know if somebody does Crossfit? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”
Although I’m using the examples above as a joke, you could EASILY mix in “Paleo” or “gluten free” into either of those. When we make a change to our life, we feel like shouting it from the top of the Lonely Mountain. We want to tell anybody and everybody that we feel amazing, and that life is SO much better now that we’ve seen the light. However, doing so is a recipe for getting punched in the face, so here’s how you can still eat healthy without getting ostracized by those around you:
Don’t be a know-it-all: Stay humble, and realize most people need to discover their own path to a healthy life. So don’t preach, and don’t start spouting off facts and figures unless you’re asked; certainly don’t judge those that still eat a typical diet. Remember, that was you. Like, a month ago 🙂
Stay creative when navigating the real world: Look, even if you don’t talk about your dietary changes or tell others to make adjustments for your needs, you still live in a world that is designed and built to make you fat. From a “balanced breakfast” which is just a pile of empty carbs, to snacks that are processed and plentiful, our society that is BUILT around grains…it’s a challenge to live a fully Paleo lifestyle in modern times.
You’re like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, trying to live like a caveman in today’s society.
You may need to ask your waiter to substitute some items or change your grocery shopping habits. And the weird looks? They’ll come with the territory. Embrace the weird!
Don’t panic. Use common sense: We are not a group of Paleo-book thumping fundamentalists that refuse to eat anything because it didn’t exist back in the day. There’s no purity test, and honestly, we don’t care what Fred Flintstone ate.
We just like the “idea” of the Paleo diet, as it makes eating and maintaining a healthy weight easy. So we don’t freak out about every ingredient, or FLIP out if there’s one meal that’s got some non grass-fed beef in it. Do the best you can to use the Paleo diet as an easy guide to eat more real food and less crap… lighten up, Francis!
Just try a little bit of Paleo
Maybe you like the idea of the Paleo Diet, but you’re not ready to jump in 100%.
Or maybe it scares you! Maybe you’ve heard from people that you need your heart healthy whole grains, and that fat is bad, and without dairy your bones will fall apart.
That doesn’t mean you can’t try a Paleo lifestyle, even a little bit. For example, try swapping out Coke for water. Or try eggs and bacon instead of a cereal, muffin, and orange juice.
A sustainable 10% is better than an unsustainable 100%, or nothing at all. Every little change will have big, long term effects. One Rebel lost 20lb from simply cutting out soda and fast food!
Remember, we’re after long term changes, not a 30-day diet or 10-day cleanse.
If you’re thinking “If I do this Paleo thing, how long do I have to do it for before I can go back to eating normally?” then you need to free your mind and shift how you view these diet changes.
The Paleo Diet isn’t a temporary diet, but a permanent lifestyle change. We recommend making small changes because any change you make should be something you can stick to. Not for a week, ten days, a month, or even a year. It’s a lifestyle change. Forever.
So, we’d rather you make WAY fewer changes, but make them changes you can live with for the rest of your life!
You need to experiment and find the combination of healthy and happy that works long term for you.
We’ve actually structured our Nerd Fitness Academy around this philosophy, with 10 different levels of nutrition that allow you to pick the level that works best for your goals and expectations, along with instructions on how to graduate and level up when you’re ready!
Carb Flu, Cheat Meals, and More
Carb flu is a real thing! If you are somebody that has steadily subsisted on lots of carbs for years (bread, pizza, cereal, bagels, pasta, etc.) and then you switch to a 100% Paleo Diet, your body might struggle for the first few weeks of the transition. When you consumed a lot of carbs before, your body consistently pulled from those carb glucose stores to fuel your body. When you switch to Paleo, your body has to relearn that it can pull from the fat in your body to produce energy…instead of looking for that readily available glucose.
They call this “carb flu.” It doesn’t affect every Paleo person, and it affects people in varying degrees…but it can be a real bummer for many people, leaving them sluggish and depressed (and thus infinitely more likely to bail on the dietary changes). If you are in your first few weeks of dealing with Paleo and you feel really sluggish:
- Make sure you are eating enough! If you just cut out carbs but don’t increase your vegetable/fat/protein intake, you could simply not be eating enough. Add more avocado/nuts/coconut oil/protein to your meals and see if that helps. We suggest tracking your food intake for a few days while you make this transition.
- Consider adding in SOME carbs. If you are truly struggling with a very low carb diet, consider upping your carb intake by eating sweet potatoes or fruit and see if that helps. Paleo is NOT a ketogenic diet, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a lower carb than normal, but not to the extent that keto is.
- Check your sodium levels. Sodium is an essential nutrient, and many who go 100% paleo end up going from an extremely high sodium diet to a diet with almost no sodium at all. Add a bit of salt to your food and see if that helps.
- Consider trying the wade-in method. You will be far less likely to experience the carb flu if you don’t go all-in.
Cheat meals can be rough! Depending on how intolerant your body is to gluten and/or dairy…don’t be surprised if that “cheat meal” of pizza and ice cream one day wreaks absolute havoc on your stomach and causes you to spend the next day curled up in a ball. You’ve been warned.
Your tastebuds can and will change. For those of you that think you’d never give up [a certain food] or can’t live without [blah blah blah] – that’s fine. Feel free to eat those things occasionally – life is too short. However, don’t be surprised when after a few months of healthy living, those same ‘comfort foods’ start to look gross.
Never say never, and don’t assume you’re going to struggle with giving up certain foods. Get started and see how your body reacts, taking changes as they come.
Teach me how to paleo!
I feel obliged to say one last thing about the Paleo Diet: It’s not going to turn you into Superman.
As with anything that becomes popular, people come out of the woodwork to tell you how AMAZING and life changing it is – along with those that scream the exact opposite.
Yes, the Paleo Diet can potentially help you live a healthier life – you’re going to be eating more real food and lots more vegetables. It can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. But it’s not going to make you superhuman overnight. If you are a skeptic and numbers fanatic, consider speaking with a doctor to get your blood work done, and then get tested again in a few months after making your dietary changes.
Second, results may vary. If you go all in on Paleo, and you used to eat terribly before, it’s possible to see a dramatic weight loss within the first few days.
This is because your body was carrying a lot of extra water weight, thanks to all of the grains, carbs, and sodium you were eating. So when you see that scale drop drastically, it’s easy to get overly excited and irrationally optimistic…followed by irrational depression when you stop dropping tons of weight each week. (This also works in reverse. If you eat like crap for a weekend, your water weight could spike UP!)
This is why instead of basing your self-worth on what the scale says each week, we’d rather you base your success on a few other metrics:
- How you feel – Are you feeling better? Sleeping better? Less achey?
- How you look – Compare your before photo to today’s photo (you DID take a before photo, right?)
- How your clothes fit – Are your pants getting looser? Do you need a new belt? And what’s really happening down there?
If you do slip up, we recommend not even stepping on the scale for a few days until you’re back on the Paleo
Train Flintstone Car.
Remember, results vary for everyone. Even among experts there is disagreement on if certain types of food are Paleo or not. There is no one exact right way to “go Paleo”. The best thing you can do is figure out what works best for you…and then go eat more vegetables – even if you don’t like them.
What other questions do you have for me about Paleo?
Do you have a success story, or want to share your struggles with the transition? I can think of about 250,000 people who’d love to hear your story – it might help them in their own transition!
Leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them 🙂
PS: I wanted to share some of my favorite Paleo and healthy eating articles here on Nerd Fitness:
- A College Guide to Healthy Eating
- In Defense of a Paleo-ISH Diet
- How to Eat Healthy Without Breaking the Bank
- A Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Eating
- Paleo Spaghetti
- Paleo Beef Stew
- Paleo Tacos
If you’re looking for more, the NF Academy has recipes, meal plans, and a nutrition leveling system built around Paleo principles.
Over 13,000 Rebels are leveling up in the Academy right now. Come join us!