It’s amazing how many different factors in my life had to come together so Paleo could make sense to me. Without the benefit of any one of the following experiences and influences, I’m not sure I’d be blogging about the Paleo lifestyle now. But first, some background.
I grew up in a, shall we say, free-range household (Read: single dad). There wasn’t a lot of money and even less supervision. I am the third of four children, and I would often do the grocery shopping and pack lunches for my little brother and myself. To me, a healthy lunch included a ham and cheese (Kraft singles) sandwich (white bread), a bag of chips (usually Chee-tos, my favorite!), a Little Debbie snack cake, and a juicebox (probably very little actual juice). If I felt fancy, I would include a green apple.
As you can tell, I was heavily influenced by whatever advertisements happened to play between the Saturday morning cartoons as I watched enraptured and devoured a sugary, technicolored cereal. Dinners were scaled to feed a mob: chili, spaghetti, stew, liters and liters of Coke, Domino’s pizza, goulash (hamburger meat with potatoes, I’m sure Hungarian peasants rolled in their graves). Other frequent fliers of my childhood included deep-fried convenience store burritos, king-size Snickers bars, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Kool-Aid made with more than the recommended amount of sugar. What vegetables we did have came from cans or were boiled to death, although one of my favorite snacks was a whole cucumber dipped in ranch dressing. That’s about as healthy as it got. Miraculously, despite the fact that our living room was a shrine to the television gods and our formal dining room was only used for holiday meals, I was never overweight.
At the age of 20, working at a bookstore café and surrounded by vegetarians, I decided to experiment, as young ‘uns are wont to do. I explored the produce aisle, introducing myself to things like portobello mushrooms, bell peppers, and real green beans. I purchased vegetarian cookbooks with my employee discount and scoured the remainder tables at the bookstore for even cheaper recipe books. And to reinforce my decision, I read books like one by an Iowa farmer (the title and author escape me now) who described how he’d ruined his family farm and his health with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and growth hormones for the animals. After suffering a heart attack, he returned to the wisdom of his forefathers and became a vegetarian and he lived happily ever after.
But without a moral underpinning for my new diet, it was all too easy to return to the tasty, tasty world of bacon and Buffalo wings. I felt zero guilt about leaving vegetarianism behind and returning to the Standard American Diet (SAD).
For at least twenty years (and probably to a segment of the population, even longer), its been popular to gross ourselves out by reading about industrialized feedlots and to scare ourselves learning about the evils of pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically modified food stuffs. Books like Food, Inc., Fast Food Nation, Eating Animals, and Fat Land chronicle America’s love affair with unhealthy food practices and expose the governmental role that enables the whole cycle. Better authors than I have tackled this, so I will leave it to them, but suffice it to say these sorts of works encouraged me to switch to organic as often as possible.
In college, I took as many anthropology courses as I could without it being a major or minor. I found so many answers for myself and human behavior there, and ever since, the idea of a vegetarian diet hasn’t made sense to me. It’s pretty clear that our brains developed as both a response to the nutrients meat provided, but also from the cultural behaviors that arose from hunting and scavenging. We simply wouldn’t be here today without all that fat and protein, nor would we have been able to migrate to inhospitable locations such as the Arctic.
Then came Michael Pollan and his emphasis on local and seasonal. Luckily for me, the foodshed where I live is incredible and I can find all manner of fruits and vegetables, pastured meat and eggs, and other local/organic items like raw milk cheese. I’ve been unable to garden at our new house for now, but I plan on doing so in the near future.
So this was my educational foundation going into Paleo/Primal eating. But what really got my stone wheels turning was this article in the NYTimes about exercising before breakfast. In a nutshell, a research study found that exercising in the fasted state allowed subjects to burn fat and prevent it from depositing in unhealthy ways. This was VERY interesting to me, as I was having trouble budging any fat despite my best efforts. My husband and I decided to try it out.
We went to our gym one morning for some lap swimming. I knew I wouldn’t have the energy for my usual workout, so I figured I’d just do a series of 100 yard freestyle repeats. About 300 yards in, I was exhausted. And I was bored out of my mind. So I switched gears and started doing shorter yardage segments with some variety, and even some sprints. I quickly understood that if you didn’t keep your mind in the game, your brain would talk you out of suffering through the workout. We went for breakfast afterward as a reward even though I wasn’t hungry and I wouldn’t feel hungry for the rest of the day either, an extremely unusual thing for me. I thought, “Those researchers are on to something.” And I began to wonder if the carbs I was eating were preventing me from achieving the results I wanted from my exercise regimen.
But what I didn’t understand about the study was the role of insulin, and why these research subjects could become insulin resistant in just six short weeks. What was that all about? And if spiking your insulin is bad for breakfast, why not all the time?
I found Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat and the rest is history. In fact, as I continue on this path, it occurs to me that it’s so much simpler than everyone makes it out to be. It’s all about insulin regulation and not becoming unnecessarily hungry. Sure, you can get into the finer points of inflammation and macronutrients and such, but for my purposes I don’t need to get all technical about it.
I am also acutely aware, via my aforementioned foray into vegetarianism, that we can always find support for whatever dogma we decide to follow. Just this morning, I was reading about The China Study and one of the commentators talked about how much energy he had, how much better his libido was, and how clear his skin was—all claims made by Paleo/Primal diets as well. You can find convincing Before & After photos on the website of any Diet. I don’t want to be a minion for someone’s philosophy, I want to be the healthiest and fittest I can be. I support the caveman lifestyle, but be prepared to be occasionally challenged here, as well as massaged for your Paleo/Primal diet. It’s important to keep questioning, keep pushing, continue researching and sharing.