Five Years Plus

{May 1, 2010}   The Paleo Challenge

It began three weeks ago at a friend’s evening movie night. I had just dropped Chuck off at the airport for a business trip, which always makes me feel a little vulnerable when he leaves on a Sunday. We shared some pizza at the airport. When I arrived at the party, I had some pasta, meatloaf and salad and noticed that everyone seemed to have brought a dessert. There was apple pie, berry pie, homemade chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake and ice cream embedded with candy. What a treat! I tried a little of each one, which led to a little more of each one, and perhaps a wee bit more after that. It was fun and I didn’t completely stuff myself, but…

When I crawled into bed I noticed my body was buzzing with sugar and my mind was racing, full of thoughts and ideas. I tried to calm myself with breath and relaxation, but alas, I was too sugared-up to rest calmly in the arms of Morpheus. So, as I sometimes do, I lay in bed listening to a podcast to calm my own jumping thoughts by focusing on someone else’s. I was delighted to find a new episode of The Paleolithic Solution, a humorous and informative exploration of an approach to eating called the Paleo Diet. Just as I was about to drift into slumber I heard the voice say: “Most people never fully commit; they swing on “an oscillating pendulum of ridiculous eating on both sides of the spectrum”. Wow. That sounded like they recorded it for me personally. Right then and there, I decided to break that pattern and challenge myself to eat a Paleo diet for a full 30 days, paying attention to how my body responds. I call this my Paleo Challenge and I began it with enthusiasm the next morning.

The Paleo diet is based on the theory that humans evolved as hunter-gatherers for two and a half million years. Agriculture has only been around for ten thousand years and processed foods a few hundred at most – not long enough for our bodies to evolve. Therefore, the Paleo theory says, we are naturally most suited to eating foods that were available to hunter-gatherers during Paleolithic times. The diet features meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, seeds and nuts, produced as naturally as possible. Since grains, legumes and dairy products were introduced only recently in the Neolithic era, they are excluded, as are added sugars with the exception of a small amount of honey.

There are two main motivations to follow a Paleo diet: health and athletic. By eliminating grains which are irritating to the digestive system, especially those containing gluten, a Paleo diet can be life-changing for people who have suffered with digestive or autoimmune issues. It can be helpful for many other conditions, including people dealing with diabetes or pre-diabetic conditions, as it combines protein in every meal with relatively low concentrations of sugar and starch. I haven’t found specific references for cancer prevention, but the diet does meet my criteria of being alkalizing, keeping blood sugar stable and providing adequate amounts of protein. Many athletes have found that a slightly modified Paleo diet enhances the building of muscle tissue, helps improve endurance and aids in after workout recovery.

Since my cancer diagnosis five years ago, I have followed a similar eating regimen, with the inclusion of yogurt, raw dairy products and occasional grains such as rice or quinoa. I was operating on the theory that cancer cells prefer an acidic enviroment with high levels of sugar. Avoiding the carbohydrates that tend to raise blood sugar quickly (added sugars, sweet fruits, fruit juice and processed grains) helps me to avoid spikes in blood sugar while eating plenty of vegetables keeps my body tissues more alkaline. While meat and fish do add to acidity, they stabilize blood sugar  and provide protein needed to maintain and build nerve, muscle and connective tissues.

I find it challenging to stick with my ideal eating system. I have times where I am eating consistently well and in turn I feel light and energized. At other times food seems to control me and despite my good intentions, I eat foods that make me feel sluggish and gain weight. In my 30-day Paleo Challenge, I’m enjoying cooking delicious and satisfying Paleo meals. Tonight I prepared salmon teriyaki, daikon slaw and fried zucchini. I don’t miss the rice and simply watch my desire for dessert after dinner rise and dissipate. I’ve included pictures of my beef kabob and slow-cooked chicken legs creations to whet the appetite of those of you who like to eat meat. You can also find recipe ideas and more photos at the Everyday Paleo blog of  a fitness trainer and mother of three.

The exploration of conscious eating I described in last week’s blog has been helpful in keeping me focused. Since I’m doing both Paleo, conscious eating and recently started a regular workout routine, I attribute the happiest unintended consequence to this unique combination; during the first 10 days of the Paleo Challenge, I miraculously and effortlessly dropped four pounds.

Today is Day 20 of 30 in the Paleo Challenge. This week was the hardest one thus far. I have had many slip-ups, plenty of events which included drinking alcohol and feel that familiar sugar craving coming back. Some might say that the diet is too extreme and my difficulties this week are simply a backlash. In fact, critics call Paleo a “fad” diet and unsustainable due to its emphasis upon meat and fish. I’m withholding judgment until I’ve sustained it for 30 days. Then I’ll decide for myself. In this home stretch of the Paleo Challenge, I’m reminded of the Rumi poem “even if you have broken your vows 1000 times, come, yet again come”. To me this means I need to accept myself even when I falter and simply get right back on my path.


Jim says:

you seem to have great sensitivity to the ‘symptoms’ that arise in your body as a result of dietary indescretions. i do also but that has only been true since i have had celiac disease (approx. 7 years). lately even small amounts of sugar, for example, leave me lethargic and with inflammed joints. the list goes on and on. it is for me a mixed blessing. while it’s clear what i should and shouldn’t eat in order to feel good (and probably prevent major disease), it sure is difficult to eat out or even to have ‘quick’ meals at home.

while it’s clear that all people should avoid certain foods (excess sugar, trans fats, etc)if they want to stay healthy, beyond that it’s an individual matter. i need a lot of meat, others need to be vegetarians. So how can any authority give advice to people whose physiology they have not experienced for themselves. We need to become more self-aware (as obviously you have) in order to know what is good for us and what is bad. and of course that goes way beyond diet. And that is a very long and difficult path. they say the ‘unexamined life is not worth living.’ sometimes i wonder.

Hayley says:

Hi Gyata!

I like this week’s blog. Ever since you told me about this diet during your last visit to Ithaca I’ve been mulling it over in my head. Every time I eat something I think about this diet and wonder if it would fit in. I would be interested to try it, maybe you could help me start this summer! At school I don’t have any access to good meat (the stuff in the dining hall is pretty hairy! In more ways than one 😛 )
I really like the last part of your entry about forgiving yourself for slipping and to never stop trying. It’s really easy to tell myself that I won’t eat sugary things or things that are “bad” for me when I’m not hungry or it’s not in front of me. Underestimating my desire for those things leads me to slip up later and feel physically gross and disappointed in myself.
When you visited you also talked about conscious eating and I’ve been trying to do some of that. Just noting when I’m hungry and when I’m not, whether I’m eating out of boredom or some other emotion is really useful. Thanks for reminding me to do that!


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