There are many hot debates in nutrition nowadays, and one of the major ones that I come across often is whether to adopt a caveman, or paleo diet, or a more plant based, vegetarian, or vegan diet. I've written about paleo before, and I've dabbled in both lifestyles. I'd like to share my thoughts on these dietary dogmas and hope to shed some light or clarity to anyone who gets overwhelmed and confused about the nutrition news out there!
I went to Loma Linda University for graduate school, which is a Seventh-Day Adventist school and a vegetarian campus. Even though I am not Seventh-Day Adventist, I started to adopt a more vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. It was pretty easy since most people stayed away from animal products on campus. I have also always been a big bread lover, and would much rather skip meat and eat more bread! So I started eating more bread, cheese, vegetables, fruit, bread, beans, tofu, crackers, and the like. I lost a good amount of weight (I was being careful with calories too), and felt pretty healthy and confident.
However, about six months into my vegetarian endeavors, I started to notice a drop in energy. My hair was falling out in handfuls, I felt tired, and my monthly you-know-whats had completely stopped. I also started having horrible digestion issues. I've always had digestion problems, but these were painful enough to keep me home from classes or hanging out with my friends. I would be too embarrassed to go out or be with others. I knew something was wrong.
Finally, after a conversation with my cousin and my mom, I decided to add animal products back into my diet. I started with fish, then chicken, then red meat. I felt a lot better eating more animal protein! I realized that, as a vegetarian, I wasn't really eating a plant-based diet. More of a bread and cheese based diet. I cut back on the bread and cheese and felt a lot better eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and protein.
However, shortly after I started incorporating animal products into my diet, I went to my doctor to figure out why my digestion was still horrible. She recommended that I get tested for celiac disease and cut out gluten. I tested negative for celiac, but felt so much better after cutting gluten out of my diet. She stated that I most likely had a gluten sensitivity, so I decided to go gluten-free. My digestion calmed down, and I finally started feeling more energetic and like myself.
Fast forward about 6 months. I had gained some weight and started eating more gluten-free processed foods, such as gluten-free cookies, crackers, cakes, and popcorn. I was desperate to lose the weight and de-bloat, because yes, even gluten free foods can bloat us up! I came across the book "It Starts with Food." This book is about a 30-day challenge cutting out all grains, dairy, soy, legumes, sugars, and seed oils. It is basically paleo, but stricter. It cuts out "healthified" treats, such as brownies or pancakes made with approved paleo ingredients. I decided to try this challenge out, desperate for an "answer" to my increased snacking and junk food intake.
I completed my Whole 30 feeling better than ever and decided to continue on with the Paleo lifestyle. I became strict about what I ate and advocated Paleo to the world. However, I felt conflicted at the same time. I would be mostly Paleo, then have a weekend where I just couldn't take the deprivation anymore, and I would have all the gluten and dairy and sugar I could lay my hands on. Even though my family was saying this was a depriving diet, I wouldn't listen, and would continue on.
Now, I know Paleo has some wonderful health benefits. I fully stand by their recommendation to eat whole foods and limit processed foods, to eat mostly vegetables, and to limit our intake of processed carbohydrates. But I realized that after a year of doing mostly paleo, my symptoms from my vegetarian days had returned. My hair was thinning out, I felt tired all the time, I was not being able to fall asleep even with sleep aids, and my monthly you-know-whats had stopped again. My digestion problems had even started back up, even though I wasn't eating gluten, dairy, or any other problematic foods. Even though I was eating lots of vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats, I felt like something was missing from my diet. And not only physically, but emotionally.
I was so tired. Tired of always worrying what food I would be eating if we were going to a friend's house, or if I was staying at work late. Tired of not sleeping through the night and always being restless. Tired of always having food on me just in case I got hungry. Tired of not knowing what to do with my thinning hair. Tired of always feeling deprived, and like I couldn't have foods that used to be "healthy" choices for me. I knew this was normal. The Whole 30 website and authors even state that, if you have a history of disordered eating or over-restriction, to consult with a doctor before starting something like the Whole 30. But I decided to do it on my own, thinking the deprivation was just what I needed to snap out of my unhealthy snacking habits. I felt so restricted, and for someone who has had a troubled relationship with food in the past, restrictive diets are not a good idea. They can send you spiraling down a deep dark hole of isolation and utter confusion.
So, even though Paleo made me feel great for a time, I decided to not consider myself Paleo anymore. I've written many posts on this in the past, one of them called "Labeling Life." Currently, I still try to stick to a mostly gluten free diet, but I do eat grains, legumes, and dairy. I bake my healthified treats and enjoy them to the fullest.
I also love having more vegetarian and vegan meals from time to time. I don't consider myself in any food camp, and that decision has brought so much freedom to my food choices. I realize now that the benefit of both these diets is not necessarily what they OMIT, but what they INCLUDE, which is a lot of whole, plant based, fruits and vegetables. We need to start viewing our healthy lifestyles in a different light, not in the light of restriction, but through the lens of what we can add into our lives.
So, being at both end of the spectrum, I've learned the following principles:
1. When your monthly you-know-whats stop as a woman, there is a problem.
2. Eat more fruits and vegetables, mostly vegetables, and add color. This is without a doubt the best foundation from which to build your diet.
3. Vary your proteins, whether they are chicken, lentils, beans, grass-fed beef, or fish.
4. Don't fear food. You are stronger than you think. There are so many healthy choices out there. Be aware of your choices, and pick the healthy choice 80-90% of the time.
5. The best diet is the one you will stick to. So if Paleo is easy for you, then do it. If being Vegan works for you, then be Vegan. You don't have to answer to anyone but yourself.
Here are some other helpful resources in case you want more information on this topic!