Let’s take a step back.
April of 2010 saw me feeling overweight, out of shape, and generally pretty unhappy — and that’s before I dared to a steal a glance of myself in the mirror. My (accidental) introduction to The Primal Blueprint got the ball rolling in an entirely healthier direction, and for a time my daily routine went a little like this:
- Wake up.
- Eat eggs and bacon.
- Later, go to sleep.
- Lose weight! Feel happier/sexier/probably less modest.
Simple enough, right? The book laid out 10 rules to follow, and follow them I did. I sprinted, lifted heavy things every so often, and generally ate everything I’d been raised not to eat, saturated fat very much included.
That’s not so different from what I do now, admittedly, but my impending one-year anniversary of going Primal has afforded an opportunity to look back on where I started — to think back on what I thought when I first started my journey towards strong, vibrant health. My body has changed, certainly, but I think the mental shifts might win out on impact alone.
Why? Well, here’s a hint: a lot of things I believed about health and nutrition back then were flat-out wrong.
The core tenants of the Primal Blueprint, I’d argue, still hold strong, and following those ten rules alone can change anyone’s life dramatically for the better. Where things get murky, however, is in the details.
Not sure what I mean? If you’d asked me about a Paleo lifestyle as little as six or seven months ago, here’s what I would have laid out for you:
- Carbs are evil. Weight gain is all about carbs and insulin.
- Fruit is generally high-carb (and therefore evil), so limit how much of it you consume.
- Rice? Potatoes? Skip ‘em. They’re bad for you. If you need a starch, grab a sweet potato.
- But who needs starch, really?
- You need at least 100g of protein daily to prevent muscle loss.
- It’s incredibly important to get at least three meals a day.
To be fair, I’ll still argue that grains are bad for you until I’m blue in the face (probably after choosing to eat a donut). But it’s pretty interesting, I think, to see where I stand now, especially when I look back on those early ideas and see how far I’ve come since then. Things have changed. I’ve changed.
I’ve changed enough, I guess, to be honest with myself.
I was wrong.
Wrong about all of them, in fact, and oh-so glad for it. Why? It proves a point, I think, that needs to be made: when it comes down to nutrition, at least, we don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to think.
A Very Human Problem
But we’d like to think we do. We run studies, publish extensive research, and try and base our opinions around cold, hard facts, which sounds — on paper, at least — like the most reasonable way to proceed. Despite this, our health as a global population continues to plummet, and America — the country I’m most familiar with, so forgive the favoritism — churns out increasingly unhappy, sickly, and overweight people every day.
That’s probably the most depressing paragraph I’ve ever written on this blog.
But don’t those two ideas seem to counter each other? Doesn’t it seem odd, when every newsstand is stuffed to the brim with magazines shouting “Get sexy in one month!” (my personal favorite!), that so few of us are getting healthier — let alone sexier? Doesn’t it seem weird that for every single study championing something like vegetarianism, another study exists to prove the exact opposite?
And that’s the problem. We think we know everything, but it’s been proven — time and time again — that we don’t know much at all.
At the beginning of my Primal adventure, I thought I knew quite a bit. I figured excess carbohydrates were the real problem plaguing America, and tapered my intake of fruit and starch (let alone grains!) accordingly. I thought getting over 100 grams of carbohydrates was the fast-track to weight gain, and I figured going zero to low-carb for the sake of ketosis was the greatest idea I’d heard in years.
Again: I was wrong. The truth of that didn’t quite sink in until this morning, when I made my first meal of the day (lunch, by the way, disproving the three-meals mentality): three or four eggs fried with two potatoes. I threw in apple slices fried in bacon fat, too, and then went quite happily about my business. I might get more protein with dinner this evening. I might not. Either way, I won’t stress, as I’ve come to realize that stressing my muscles is far more important for strength and growth than how much meat I consume on a daily basis.
The point, I think, is simple. Almost a year ago, I had what I thought was a pretty clear picture of how the human body worked. Eleven months since, that picture has changed in several dramatic ways, to the point where I’m realizing I know less about how the body works than ever before.
And you know what? This might surprise you, but I’m perfectly okay with that.
A Practical Perspective on Paleo
We may never fully understand how the body works.
But don’t get me wrong — this is anything but an excuse to stay uninformed. The incredible complexity of the subject is absolutely every reason to try and understand it, so long as we’re comfortable with the idea that what we learn today may very well be invalidated tomorrow.
That’s not an easy thing to do, I think, especially with a subject as emotional as what we eat. I think the perspective is vital, though, for one simple reason: it helps us read the truth between the lines.
You read that correctly. Admitting we don’t know much of anything is the best way to learn what we need: those simple, common truths that often get muddled or ignored when we miss the forest for the trees.
Paleo, as I know it, is changing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s not a religion. It’s not dogmatic, and it’s not — by any definition of the phrase — set in stone.
What it is, however, is a lifestyle I’ve been following for nearly a year, now, with all the good that brings. Paleo, for me, is a reminder to take a step back, see how much my own ideas have changed, and realize that what doesn’t change — what has stayed the same — is the closest thing to truth that I may ever discover.
A Few Simple Truths
And here they are, then: a handful of ideas gleaned from nearly 365 days of following a Paleo lifestyle. I’ve been proven wrong, time and time again, but that’s okay. Through it all, these concepts have remained, and for every limitation on my own knowledge of how the body works, I’m still comfortable calling these my core beliefs.
1. Eat whole. Eat natural. Eat simple. (90% of the time).
If it needs a lot of processing just to be edible (grains, legumes, etc.), you’re better off avoiding it. If it came out of a lab or factory (everything in the interior of the grocery store), you’re better off avoiding it. If the Earth provides it, and you’re consuming it close to its natural state (meat, fruit, vegetables, starch, etc.), enjoy. You can — and probably will, even if you try and be perfect — eat from the first two categories on occasion, but don’t let it stress you out. One bad meal in a hundred good ones won’t wreck your health forever.
2. Think whole. Think natural.
There’s a tendency I’ve seen to talk about a food’s individual components: macronutrients, micronutrients, etc. That works well, sure, when you’re dealing with those components in isolation, but doing so ignores a pretty simple realization: we don’t deal with those components in isolation.
An apple is not sugar. An apple is an apple. It contains sugar, yes, but not in isolation, and bantering back and forth about its relative merits compared to other fruit just seems pointless. Are some fruits ‘better’ than others? Sure. But don’t let that stop you from eating the damn banana sometimes, and don’t let it scare you away from fruit forever. Again, if it’s a whole and natural food, the odds of it doing you harm are pretty significantly low.
3. What works for me may not work for you.
I can handle starch. Some people, however, can’t. I can also handle the occasional grain-based or sugar-based food without issue, though some people can’t. While it’s tempting to take the ideas of a Paleo diet and follow them as rigidly as possible, that’s doing a disservice to yourself.
You need to experiment. You need to find what works for you. Your body — and your health — depend on it.
4. It takes time.
Don’t rush. Don’t obsess over the number on the scale. Realize that your journey towards great health is exactly that: a journey, one that you have the rest of your entire life to complete. We have a tendency to fixate on the here and now — this one meal before us, viewed again in isolation — but that seems counterintuitive when you remember that we make several choices about our food and health every single day of the week.
Give yourself time. You have it, I promise, and you can only go up from here.
Where to Go From Here
I’m going to keep learning. I’m going to keep reading as many health blogs as I can find, and I’m going to keep tweaking the details of my lifestyle as I encounter new information. I’m going to do this on a weekly basis, and then a few months later I’ll discover something new about how the body works that suggests the exact opposite of what I’d learned, leaving me even more uncertain before what to believe.
But that’s okay. The simple fact that I’m informed — and choose to be informed — is exactly what allows me to step back, take a deep breath, and remember the four ‘rules’ above. They’ve brought me this far, and they’ll continue to take me, I suspect, wherever I want to go. That’s the beauty of eating whole, natural foods, and taking a step back from obsessing over every tiny detail about what’s on my plate.
Why not keep it simple instead?
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