The Paleo Diet is Not for Everyone

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I recently saw a friend post this photo on instagram of a beautiful spinach salad with avocado, eggs, tomato and a caption that made me cringe (both as a friend and as a nutritionist): “Working our way through Day 11 of this horrible Whole 30 plan. I don't know what will be more of an accomplishment - Finishing or getting my husband to eat Spinach, Kale and Broccoli for 30 days. #thisdietsucks#wearenofun #seeyouinfebruary.”

I was having dinner with another friend last week, and I think she almost fell off her chair when I told her that I feel better when I eat a little bit of whole grains in my diet. She was surprised because so much of the messaging right now is to avoid grains and go super low carb. And, when I say I think I feel better when I have some grains in my diet, I don’t mean a bowl full of “whole grain Lucky Charms” cereal that I’ve seen on packaging in the grocery store. I’m talking about actually cooking whole oats or wild rice or quinoa. Now, some clients I work with get bloated just hearing the word “oats” or “rice” or “quinoa,” and those are people who I think may benefit from giving a grain-free diet a try. But, it’s only worth the time, effort, and discipline if it would make that person’s life better (not being bloated after every time they eat) and not worse (being mad for an entire month of the year).

News flash: the paleo diet is not for everyone. It’s not. And, a vegetarian or vegan diet is not for everyone, either. I’m not saying it isn’t important to eat whole, real, unprocessed foods. I’m just saying that the paleo diet is not for everyone. And, it’s not for everyone for several reasons. It’s not because it isn’t (or couldn’t) be healthful when carefully planned. It’s not just because every person’s body is different (which it is and that could be a reason why it could be for you). It’s not just because it’s “expensive” to eat real food (and that argument is for a different blog post). It’s because when diets are approached as a sentence to be served or when diets cause more stress than relief (or joy), then it’s just not for you. Here are my initial thoughts…

Your Diet (the way you eat) Shouldn’t Piss You Off

I tell clients and patients (and friends and family who ask me) that making dietary/nutrition/lifestyle changes are a choice. You’re doing this of your own volition. You’re choosing to make these changes. No one else is choosing it for you, and no one else can choose it for you. If it makes you physically or mentally stressed, upset, angry, frustrated, annoyed, or any other negative adjective, then it’s not for you, or at least it’s not for you right now.

On the flip side, if you need to attempt a dietary change like this to see if it could help relieve physical symptoms you’re experiencing, then you may need to push through the challenges of these new dietary changes for enough time to see if it makes a difference for you (I typically say 6 weeks for adults – kids tend to be more resilient). In that case, then you just need to ignore the jeering comments and jokes. You just keep your eyes on the prize and get through it with the support of your nutritionist and, hopefully, friends and family.

Your Dietary Needs Are Not the Same As Your Neighbor’s

Whenever I’m giving a presentation to a large group, as I get further and further into my presentation, folks in the audience start wondering (and asking aloud) what I think they should eat. I always have to remind the audience that every single person in the room has a unique metabolism, biochemistry, gut, health history, lifestyle, family, family history (genetics), and every other aspect of their lives are unique to each person. Similarly, the paleo diet may be healthful and helpful for your coworker or friend, but it may not be healthful for you.

Food is a Social Act

When I notice that some of my clients stop seeing friends or being social like they used to be, I make sure and check in with them. Our health is not just about what foods we put in our body, it’s also about how the food is shared and enjoyed (yeah, it should be enjoyable to taste your food – even healthy foods).  When you stop spending time with friends, then you’re missing an important health need: fellowship and community.

Paleo: The Bottom Line

A paleo diet could be a healthy choice for you. It might help alleviate pain, lose weight (if you need/want to), fix digestive problems, or generally make you feel better about the way you’re living your life. That being said, every person’s health is his or her own individual journey, and we all need to find what is both physically and emotionally “right” for each of us. The paleo (or vegetarian or omnivorous) diet may fit those needs for you, but if you try it and you hate it, or it doesn’t make you feel better, then it’s not right for you.