In Defense of a “Paleo-ish” Diet

I don’t follow the Paleo Diet.

Weird, I know. A majority of people who stumble across this site through Google come from our article, “The Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet,” which has been viewed millions of times and shared 50,000+ times on social media. Actually, other than a 30-day full Paleo experiment years ago, I’ve never been 100% full-Paleo.

“But Steve! You run Nerd Fitness! Isn’t this a Paleo Site? You are living a lie! You eat food that is poison. Shame! Loud noises!”

I see you yelling at your computer right now, and it makes me chuckle (like an evil villain).

Here’s the truth: I might not follow the Paleo Diet religiously like many do, but I do follow a “Paleo-ish diet.” I’m healthy, stronger than ever, and found a healthy balanced relationship with food that works for me. I bet it would work for you too.

Time to go ALL IN on moderation! SUPER MODERATION! Radical moderation!

Should I count calories or just go Paleo?

Indiana Jones ah

As we talk about in our “Is a calorie really a calorie article” eating a caloric deficit is the primary driver of weight loss.

That means at the most basic level: as long as you eat less than you burn, it doesn’t matter if you count calories or practice the Paleo Diet, you will lose weight.

But there’s a reason more than two-thirds of adults are considered to be overweight or obese: it’s not that simple, and it ain’t that easy!

That there’s a tremendous amount working against us in our quest to get healthy. Throw in issues like habits, willpower, sugar, culture, and predictably irrational human behavior, and it can make “just count calories and eat less” feel like a Herculean task.

If you’ve tried counting calories or followed Weight Watchers only to put the weight back on, you know that the strategy can be incredibly fragile (in other words, without the program, things fall apart). In fact, a recent study in explains that we’re all doomed to stay fat if we continue to follow this conventional dieting advice.

That’s where the Paleo Diet can help:

1) When you go on a calorie-restricted diet but don’t change any other aspect of your relationship with food, you will struggle to see long-term results. You get the illusion of change (you see some short-term success) but the changes don’t stick. So, after your diet, you quickly return to your starting weight.

One central reason for this faux-success is that the majority of crappy foods we eat have been designed to target pleasure centers in our brains, make us feel more hungry than we really are, and makes our body scream “MOAR FOOD IN MAH BELLY!!!”

We can resist temporarily and see success (the battle), but unless we change our fundamental relationship with this food, we’ll lose the war.

2) Calorie-restrictive diets are difficult to pull off accurately long-term unless you are militant in your reporting. Depending on what you’re eating and the source of the food, you could be severely underestimating what you’re consuming. That tiny bag of “healthy” snacks that says 100 calories on the front? It has 3 servings in it! Or worse yet, if you are just guessing, a few bad guesses and you’ll be gaining weight when you think you’re losing, which can cause us to get derailed quickly.

3) Calorie-restrictive diets are not antifragile, meaning they break down at the first sign of trouble. Unless all of your foods come out of a box or bag (which I don’t recommend), with accurately labeled amounts (which is unlikely), or you travel with a food scale and check your amounts against a database (which is, again, unlikely), these diets can be difficult to sustain permanently. In other words, if you travel, eat out for business dinners, or attend parties, you may quickly find an excuse to pause or drop your diet plan.

4) Calorie-restrictive diets are simply hard to follow. Words have power. When you practice a calorie restrictive diet, it’s the equivalent of taking half a hit of a drug and telling yourself “you can’t have the other half of this.” You have to constantly tell yourself that you can’t have something or that you can only have part of it. It’s like the psychology trick “don’t think about a pink elephant.” But instead it’s “don’t eat the second half of that meal on your plate.”

For these reasons above, we tend to see more success with people on some form of the Paleo Diet over conventional calorie-restricted diets. Again, in any technique calories need to be restricted, but we feel the Paleo Diet has some advantages:

  • It’s simple: eat this, not that. (Easy to stick to!)
  • It helps remove the addictive hold sugar can have over your brain.
  • It doesn’t require tedious counting or rigorous portion control. (Willpower win!)
  • It’s antifragile: no matter where you are or what scenario you’re in, you know what you should and shouldn’t eat.

Consider “Paleo-Ish”

Noel_Roasted_Vegetables_022

For people with addictive personalities, and people who have zero desire to count calories (me!), the Paleo Diet is a GIANT step in the right direction of living a healthier balanced life. It’s also a giant step with simple rules to remember. That’s the big win of the Paleo Diet.

The Paleo Diet does two things counting calories doesn’t:

  • It changes your relationship with food. Instead of fueling your body with tons of sugar and processed carbs, you are consuming more healthy fats, more vegetables, and protein. This can have a physiological effect on your body and brain with how you consume food and what you consume.
  • It addresses satiety. Eating 500 calories of chicken and broccoli is drastically different from your brain’s perspective than eating 500 calories of Twizzlers and Coca-Cola. The former fills you up and will leave you full til dinner. The latter will have you asking “can I eat again right now? I’m hungry.”

When you follow a Paleo Diet, you are remove the hold the Dark Side has over your body; it’s much easier to get yourself to eat less sugar when sugar is basically removed from your diet.

But, to get this benefit you don’t have to go 100% Paleo. In fact, I think you can get there just by going “Paleo-ish.”

The important thing is stop thinking this change as a temporary diet or something you are doing until you reach a goal weight. Instead, build a balanced relationship with food that you can live with permanently.

This means we’re still following the basic rules laid out by the Paleo Diet (mostly vegetables, some fruit and nuts, quality meat, fish, and eggs), but if we eat outside the paleo diet occasionally or have a type of food that you eat because it works for you (beans, dairy, rice etc.), that’s okay!

In fact, this might be a BETTER approach for many people in the long term. By incorporating non-paleo foods into your “version” of the Paleo Diet occasionally, you don’t have to struggle with every freaking decision every time you put food on your plate.

Now, this isn’t an excuse to eat a bowl of sugary cereal every morning and call your diet “Paleo-ish.” But if you love beans/legumes or your wife/husband prepares it frequently, it might not be worth it to battle to keep them off your plate for the sake of “Paleo purity.”

Think of this like an 80/20 benefit – cut out the crap that takes the most willpower and provides minimal benefit to your health. “Paleo-ish” dieters adopt a hybrid diet by setting a general rule, such as “80% of my meals will be Paleo.”

If you go to a party and have an unhealthy meal, no problem – make your next meal healthy. If you consume dairy with some of your meals and you are healthy and happy, keep doing what you’re doing. Are you trying to build muscle and need to eat a caloric surplus? Eating rice and/or oats to get enough calories/carbs won’t get you struck by lightning for angering the Paleo Gods.

Again, I have zero interest in temporary success for you. If you go full Paleo for 60 days to fit into smaller pants, only to return to your previous way of eating once you’ve “made it,” your rollercoaster relationship with the scale will continue. However, if you make small changes and adapt a paleo-ish “nutrition plan” that becomes your new normal relationship with food, then 2, 3, 5, 10 years from now you’re going to still be living those changes.

You CAN Totally Do the Paleo Diet Wrong.

candy

Okay, there’s one giant disclaimer when it comes to going “Paleo-ish”: It’s TOTALLY possible to do the “Paleo Diet” wrong. We all know these people in our lives.

We know vegetarians and vegans that delude themselves into thinking they’re healthy by eating “vegetarian” foods, but somehow are always eating foods like like donuts, pasta, vegan lasagna, pizza, and so on.

I had to chuckle when I saw cookies advertised at my gym the other day: they were proudly labeled as gluten-free and vegan… and contained about 500 calories each. Here’s what gluten-free actually means, by the way.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have very outspoken people who are probably doing the Paleo diet horribly wrong too. “Oh you eat rice and dairy? Those things are poison. Here, have a dozen of my cookies. Don’t worry, they’re Paleo.”

In my seven years of running Nerd Fitness (holy crap!), many people have emailed me disappointed, saying they weren’t losing weight on the Paleo Diet, “despite following it perfectly!” When I ask these people to send me a daily diary of how they are eating, the answer is obvious: although they are technically consuming “Paleo” foods, they are consuming 200+ grams of sugar in “healthy!” in snacks like Paleo cookies, Paleo muffins, or loads of dried fruit.

They wonder if they’re broken (“This doesn’t work for me! I’m hopeless!”), instead of realizing that they’re doing the Paleo Diet wrong.

Yeah, fruit CAN be a great part of your long-term diet. In moderation! But don’t think “healthy” fruit juice is anything other than sugar water with minimal nutrients in it. If you are consuming most of your calories from “Paleo snacks”, fruit, and making everything with sweet potatoes and calling it Paleo, you’re missing the point.

In the examples above, we’re avoiding making the tough changes. We’re avoiding doing the hard work. What’s the alternative?

We need to fix our relationship with food.

We are fixing our lifestyle, not going on a diet

Noel_Pan_Seared_Salmon_029

I eat foods like oats, white rice, and beans regularly. Despite the fact that these foods are clearly spawned from the depths of Hell, I’m healthier, stronger, and happier than ever. I eat them in moderation, just like EVERYTHING else.

Remember: Just because we follow a diet that many claim to cure all sorts of illnesses and ailments, doesn’t mean we can follow it blindly and expect results. I believe the Paleo Diet is better than most diets, but it needs to be done with intention.

Remember, one of the rules of the Nerd Fitness Rebellion is to “question everything.”

The Paleo Diet is not a religious doctrine – it’s a starting point. A starter philosophy to give you a simple, healthy framework to examine how you fuel your body. It’s why we’ve built a leveling system into the Nerd Fitness Academy – if Level 10 is strict Paleo, then we encourage people to hang out around Level 7 (which is a balanced, Paleo-ish approach)

When you break it down, the Paleoish Diet done right should look something like this:

  • Eat real food! Try to minimize consumption of processed garbage.
  • Eat a lot of vegetables.
  • Eat plenty of protein.
  • Minimize sugar consumption.
  • Make mostly good decisions.

You absolutely can be a healthy vegetarian. You can totally be an healthy vegan. You can be a healthy strict Paleo dieter. You can be a healthy Paleo-ish dieter.

It comes down to your relationship with food and if your diet is structured to help you reach your goals.Your mom was right: you are a unique snowflake, and you need to find a balance that works for you.

I want to hear about your relationship with food.

Have you tried going full Paleo? What about being militant about calorie counting?

What did you learn about yourself when you introduce certain foods back into the mix?

Be honest: if you eat unhealthy foods while being “Paleo,” do you feel guilty about it?

-Steve

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photo: reiterlied: Indiana Jones lego, Alan: Cavemen

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  • Lindsey Jacob

    Have you tried eating sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes? Trying squash? Lifting heavy weights? You won’t get “bulky,” but lifting heavy weights creates muscle which is more dense than fat. It gives you curves, so while your weight might stay the same, your body composition will look totally different. I always plan out my meals and definitely watch my fruit consumption. Sometimes I feel like I am replacing sweets with fruit, which isn’t doing my sugar dragon any good. Keep track of your food for a week (without changing anything), then analyze it for high sugar items or high fat items. Our diets should be Meat, veggies, some fruit, some fat. (The food information is based out of It Starts With Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig).

  • Ben Stark

    Thanks.

  • John Fawkes

    I feel guilty about eating truly unhealthy foods. This week I’m using aversion therapy to train myself to hate soda. But I’m with you on stuff like legumes or rice- even if they’re not strictly paleo, they do seem to be alright in moderation.

    So the rule for paleo-ish seems to be- meat and vegetables are unlimited, junk food is forbidden, middle ground stuff like beans, nuts and rice are allowed in moderation- that about right?

  • Holden Madagame

    Thank you for this validation. Sometimes I feel guilty for not being 100% paleo (mostly for legumes/beans). I did 100% for awhile after reading your handbook, but then scaled back to about 80%. It’s really good to hear it coming from you that this is OK too. 🙂

  • http://www.rectifyfitness.com/ Alex Vrugic

    I have been on the paleo diet for years and I do my best to eat like our ancestors did thousands of years ago because I think that it really benefits our bodies to eat foods that are minimally processed. The less the food is processed the less energy your body will need to recognize/categorize and then digest the food. When I do, occasionally, introduce some other food into my diet I usually lose energy instantly and become sluggish (I’m guessing blood sugar or body goes in some type of shock). Finally, I do feel extremely guilty when I do eat these bad processed foods and typically I end up going out to the gym, no matter what time it is, and put in a really hard couple of hours to teach myself a lesson!

  • Sara Barnson

    I’m sorta paleo-ish… 80% of my meals are basically Paleo (with some dairy or legumes), but with the others I eat bread and some dairy. I occasionally make beans, since I’m on a strict budget for food and can’t afford factory-farmed meat, let alone anything that won’t make me gag. I also do eat a lot of fruit when it’s available, since I understandably can’t satisfy my sweet tooth with meat, potatoes, veggies, and fats. For that reason, I usually don’t keep tons of fruit in the house – I WILL gorge. I occasionally use Splenda, since it’s better than using sugar. Sugar provably exacerbates my PCOS; Sucralose raises absorption of sugar into the blood, but doesn’t cause the nausea and headaches I’m used to getting from my insulin reactions to sugar. I’ve discovered for myself that I need balance in my diet. Paleo, by itself, does not work for me. However, 80/20 Paleo-ish is good maintenance for me right now.

  • Julia Skinner

    Have you checked your hormones and thyroid? Females bodies can be tricky to get the last few kg off.

  • Greg Dellezay

    This is encouraging to read. I am a large man working towards being a fitter person. Nice to see a success story. Way to go.

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  • brandon

    I just started and with all good things that come off this website i am working my way into small changes to a paleo-ish diet. Right now i am logging my food and for the first week i was just looking at calories just as a starting point, i have since moved to counting the carbs just to get an idea of what i can eat or foods i can try to “make better” by removing certain aspects. I love the idea of paleo-ish because i am on a pretty tight budget and adding things like rice, oats, other forms of carbs some times makes meal prepping a lot easier.

  • KRW

    As long as I am on this beautiful planet I will be drinking coffee and tea. Mostly coffee. But both.

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  • http://cerebralinsights.wordpress.com/ elleica

    This is great! I also do a Paleo-ish diet. I’ve been doing this for 3 weeks now and the first two weeks I totally cut out the rice and sugary stuff (carbonated drinks, cakes, etc.) but recently, because of some festive events I had to go to I cannot help but eat rice, cake, ice cream, pizza, etc. Rather than feel guilty about them, I just ate healthy the next day.

    I agree with you that what Paleo does is change our relationship with food. Not make us robots. 🙂 So if I feel the need to eat burger from Burger King, I still go ahead. It’s only once anyways. And next day I am back to my loads of veggies and real protein.

  • Đào Vũ Hoàng

    At least I can eat rice

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  • Fatielemengo

    I am currently on paleo and can say it’s not just “eating less calories” as you put it. Due to what is eaten on paleo it can actually be very easy to overeat because you do not count on paleo. Also, paleo cuts out dairy, refined sugar, legumes and all grains including rice, and there are strict paleo eaters and primal paleo (where they allow more legumes and food that is not grass fed/free range).

    So, maybe you should do a bit more research, or even further, actually do paleo before you make judgments about something you obviously know nothing about. Like this article clearly stated at the end, that no firm conclusions could be made due to several reasons. So for those who are looking into paleo and realize this is very different than almost all other eating plans, there are other great articles (PINTEREST has some great ones) that would be very helpful!

    http://paleohackebooks.blogspot.com/

  • miranda-lee

    I am doing a paleo-ish approach. I love food. I have been baking my own goodies at home from scratch for the past few year now. I tried the strict paleo diet for a week and found that I didn’t get enough calories in my diet by just doing that. I was full I didn’t want more food, but I was hungry. So now I have a cornbread square with my breakfast and it give me the missing calories while making me perfectly happy. Last week I lost 4lbs and this week I lost 1 lbs. I am much happier with the 1lbs then the 4 lbs. I use my hate of dishes in my favor. That means I am not baking as much as I used to because the clean up is a pain.

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  • miranda

    I am eating paleo-ish. I tired going paleo and felt I was missing something so I added milk and sometimes rice and potatoes In there. I am very happy I did. I feel stronger and I can hear my body. It now speaks louder then my brain lol. The hardest part I am having is really just thinking about become healthy instead of loosing weight. The minute I focus on weight instead of health I fail and I get stressed. However when I focus on becoming healthier, I am happier and just feel better all around because naturally do better.

  • Miko

    Reading this while munching on chips made me feel terribly guilty.
    Why marketers? Why must you be so smart as to but the snacks right in front of the check-out?

    Well, time to go healthy. This is my last bag of chips.

  • Daniel

    Quick Question: So I live pretty much in the middle of nowhere and the closest place that sells grass fed anything is about 2 hours away. If you are unable to do Grass fed for a paleo-ish diet is that fine?

  • Normw

    I would like to know if Oatmeal with a variety of seeds and no sugar are good. Also i cant see myself dropping milk, cheese or cottage cheese. Wild rice/brown rice mix. What do you think about that and the rest paleo?

  • John Mosley

    Absolutely. Do the best you can with available resources.

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  • John Robertson

    Just found the website recently, great stuff! What would be the effect of eating paleo for two of my three meals each day? My goal is to become more lean – reduce fat and build muscle – whilst improving general health. I am eating paleo for breakfast and lunch but for dinners I eat with friends and don’t have control over the menu so it always contains rice, pasta, or potatoes. Am I good?

  • Nicole Besser

    My first week or two was a little rough. I am a cheese lover from Wi, but after the first couple of weeks it wasn’t too bad to my surprise. Though I do occasionally add cream into my coffee because I just like it.