What Happened When I Went Strict Paleo

I refer to my paleo experiment all the time, but I never actually blogged about the experience, so here it it.

First, let me explain why I tried it! I switched to a whole foods, plant based diet 3 years ago and my results were amazing! I lost 80 pounds (although I lost the weight because I remained conscious of portion size and my energy requirements, not directly as a result of the diet change), reversed several nagging health problems, and just generally felt great and full of energy. As I learned more and more about paleo, I saw that it echoed many of the fundamentals of healthy eating I’d embraced, namely that food quality is vitally important, processed food isn’t helpful in the human diet, eating locally and with the seasons is good for health and the environment. The main area it differed from my diet was it’s inclusion of lots of animal products, and it’s minimization of carb intake. So I though, well hey, this is clearly a philosophy that merits exploration! Lets see if it might be even better than what I’m already doing! Also, my crossfit coach had been riding me pretty hard about eating meat, claiming that my strength gains were hampered by my diet and that I’d see amazing performance gains if I included meat in my diet (FTR, I was no slouch. I was deadlifting 250, squatting 155 (at 5’10…long levers folks, long levers), posting very respectable WOD times, and generally beating the pants off girls half my age in most areas. Yes, there were a few women who were outperforming me, but hey, I was old. And tall. And I’d been sedentary for 35 years).

Here’s what I did: completely eliminated the few servings of grain I was consuming (most days it was none, at most 2-3 in a day), included animal protein at every meal and snack (primarily fish and eggs), cut my carb intake from 400 grams a day to 200-250 grams (still pretty high carb by paleo standards) and increased my protein from ~125 grams a day to over 200 grams, stopped eating legumes, and ate less fruit (went from 7-9 servings a day to 2-3). My vegetable intake remained the same (impressively high) and my fat intake was about the same (100+ grams a day) but skewed more toward saturated fat than it had been, as I was getting more from coconut and animal sources. Before paleo my fat had come from avocados, nuts and seeds, olive oil and chocolate.

I ate this way for 4 weeks.

My results: I gained 7 pounds. My recovery period after workouts slowed to a crawl, I had DOMS virtually every day for 4 weeks. I regressed on several lifts (I assume because I wasn’t recovering well), and stagnated on the others. My energy was in the toilet and working out felt like an unpleasant chore, not the joyful celebration of strength and power I was used to. I didn’t enjoy my food.

I think a lot of what was wrong was that I wasn’t getting enough carbs. But I also had a sense that the meat was weighing me down (not very scientific, lol). I just felt heavy and slow. Everything felt slow. I felt weary. Again, probably more due to the carb restriction than the meat, but at the time that was my mentality.

So I went back to eating mostly plants. I felt better almost immediately, and dropped the weight fairly effortlessly. My lifts got back to where they’d been and working out felt good again.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think paleo has it right. Health comes from eating quality whole foods, that are sourced locally and sustainably. But the high meat thing didn’t work for me. My diet is still high quality, local and sustainable. The vast bulk of my diet is locally and sustainably grown vegetables, leafy greens and fruit. I fill it out with organic sprouted legumes (they work for me), nuts and seeds, and an organic sprouted seed based protein powder to meet my protein needs when my diet falls short. Other than the legumes, there’s nothing there that isn’t paleo. And it’s plant based! And I feel GREAT on it. I perform well on it. I look pretty good too.

Moral of the story: paleo’s right about eating quality food, eating locally, eating seasonally, avoiding fake foods made from industrially grown plants and animals. Some people can do quite well on minimal animal foods (nothing against animal foods, eat ‘em if that’s what floats your boat, but good health is possible without them).

So there’s my totally subjective, N=1 experience with paleo. As with everything, YMMV, and if what you’re doing is working for you, keep doing it!!


23 thoughts on “What Happened When I Went Strict Paleo

  1. Hi there,

    What’s the organic sprouted seed based protein powder you use?

    I recently tried a whole-foods, plant-based diet, but it left me feeling weak and tired. I’m wondering if a boost in protein (and calories overall) would help.


  2. Kick ass, lady! Liked this post. I was in a similar situation to you (I’m a 6’0″ long lever fitness trainer, and I was doing Crossfit in my spare time). I tried Paleo and bonked. Outright failed. I needed carbs. It didn’t take long. I was biking to and from work (20 miles, round trip), training clients, lifting heavy… and I crashed and burned. And I gained weight.

  3. Hi there – Just found your site and I think you have a very strong message in terms of body image, diet obsession, etc.

    I eat a “mostly Paleo” diet which improved my mood, eliminated my low blood sugar symptoms and food cravings. For my body type, reducing the carbs was the key. But I’m an overweight, over 40 woman who’s moderately active. Also, diabetes runs in my family so I suspect I am more carb sensitive than most.

    I noticed that most of the comments here about negative reactions to eating low carb are within the first few weeks. This could likely be carb withdrawal, which corrects itself after a period of time. This happened to me… I felt terrible the first few weeks on paleo… tired, flu-like symptoms, weakness, etc. but stuck with it and felt amazing after about six weeks.

    But who knows… this all could be about better nutrition and lowering calories.

    In the end, I’m loving your site and want to thank you for offering a more sensible voice to the craziness out there.

  4. I really appreciate your story and wanted to tell you that it has been very helpful to me. I have been struggling with unexplained, uncontrollable weight gain for months, even though I have mostly kicked grains and starches out of my diet and upped my protein, while pretty much tripling the amount of exercise I was getting before (was doing only yoga for the past year, recently started strength training, walking and lots of yard work). I thought for sure I would start losing weight like crazy if I went Paleo and started working out more, but I keep gaining.

    I had some tests done by a metabolic typing specialist a year ago and he determined that I am what they call a “slow oxidizer”, meaning I digest food slowly, especially fatty foods. The diet he recommended to me restricts meats with high purine levels (beef, lamb and pork, as well as salmon and other oily fish), and I am supposed to get 60% of my calories from non-starchy carbs. Two salads per day, low-glycemic juices, steamed veggies, limited fruits. I have been eating a lot of fruit for years, having come off of a raw mostly vegan diet which eventually left me very depleted and weak, still I kept up with the smoothies and figured that was a good source of carbs. But the more I read about the Paleo diet, the more it made sense, and I got it in my head that I should be eating that way if I am building muscle. Well I have put on a ton of muscle since I was raw vegan, but also about 35 pounds of fat. Nasty.

    So now I don’t know if I should keep on drinking my bulletproof coffee with a big slice of grass-fed butter and tablespoon of coconut oil, if I should keep letting myself eat chicken skin, the fat on my steak, full-fat raw dairy, if I should keep feeling guilty for every corn tortilla or slice of whole rye bread I eat…I am so confused. I have been jerking my body around from week to week and now my yoga pants don’t even fit. Last week in class I couldn’t do one of the arm balances we were being taught because there was too much of my fat in the way to get my elbow under my thigh.

    I just started working with a trainer and he is about to give me a diet plan. It will be helpful to have objective advice on how many calories I should be taking in, as I have no idea. But I know he is going to suggest the typical low-fat, skinless chicken/fish, count your carbs sort of diet. I paid a lot of money to have my metabolism diagnosed and a diet recommended for me, so i am hoping this trainer can roll with that. What I think I’m going to do is get off the Paleo train, follow the diet I was given, and get serious about cardio and interval training. I don’t know yet where animal fat fits into this plan–people have such differing opinions on saturated fat, and I believe there is no one diet that’s right for everyone. Your blog re-affirmed that for me, so thank you again. I have been blinded by ideas, following gurus without paying attention to my own body, and the truth is that what I’ve been doing is NOT WORKING. I am getting fatter every week. Now I really don’t want to give up my grass-fed butter, but if you and a few others here say that you started losing weight once you added carbs back, I see that it is possible. And since I was told to eat 60% carbs, I think it’s time for me to allow myself that delicious oatmeal that I love so much. I need to figure out which carbs are good for me. I know potatoes are not, gluten makes me look pregnant for the next two days. I am 5’8″ and 190 pounds, enough of that is muscle that people tell me all the time I look fine, but my goal is 155 and then see how I feel. It may sound overweight for my height, but I’m kind of an Amazon :P . Strong is the new skinny, ladies. More power to you.

  5. Your blog has made a huge impact on my life. I was heavy into CrossFit and as a result Paleo. I was very restrictive to the point of excluding most fruit (except for some green apples and berries). I wouldn’t eat potatoes, rice, oatmeal, etc. Half a sweet potato became a real treat. Was I super lean? Yes (ripped abs). Was I super happy? No. I became obsessed with food choices, worried about going out to dinner (the bread basket called to me seductively and I ignored it most times), became guilt ridden if I fell off the “paleo wagon”. I was trying to keep carbs at around 100g/day and yet trying to perform at a very high level with strength training, HIIT, etc. My anxiety ramped up and I became depressed (although didn’t really realize it). Cut to this summer when I finally got a case of the “f*ck its with the help of your blog and FB page. I ventured off the Paleo reservation and WOW….What a difference. It’s not like I went from strict paleo to eating ice cream and processed food. All I did was include more fruit, potatoes, rice, oatmeal and upped my carb intake. It has made a world of difference. My depression and anxiety has lifted and I feel like I have a new lease on life. I’m not against Paleo but I’m and all or nothing type of person so the level of strictness I was trying to maintain (and I did for a long time) was slowing making me crazy. My husband has noticed a huge difference as well. I no longer have guilt when we go out to eat. I don’t just restrict myself to salad, etc.

    I would also like to say that I had a lot of digestive issues (to the point of seeing a functional medicine doc) but since cutting back on fat (I found myself standing around binging on almond butter just to feel some sort of satiety which always led to digestive distress) and eating more fruit and healthy carbs, my digestive distress has pretty much disappeared (eating grains doesn’t make my tummy feel bad or, in other words, I’m not gluten intolerant). I would also like to note that I had blood work done pre strict Paleo and it was fantastic. I then had blood work done about a year into strict Paleo and it was WORSE. Cholesterol shot up (although HDLs have always been high so doc wasn’t as concerned but was surprised at the jump in total). C-reactive protein shot up (which also could have been my over zealous HIIT routine and not enough recovery). Anyway, that was a bit of a wake up call. Here I was thinking I was on my way to nutritional, fitness nirvana and my blood work was worse and I felt like sh*t. Looking good, feeling bad. It was the beginning of my wake up call but it would still take me a while to completely come to as the diet gurus had me convinced that I was on the right path. At one point in 2011 I even did a 30 day “paleo challenge” (which was pretty easy because I was pretty much already doing it all the time anyway) and when I completed the 30 days I had some of my niece’s birthday cake. I waited for the “you’re going to feel really awful after” moment and NOTHING HAPPENED. I felt no different. I had no intestinal distress or whatever. Grrrrr….

    Anyway, I wanted to thank you Go Kaleo as you have been a bit of a life saver for me. This is a long comment but wanted to lay it out there because I spent so much time stressing about food, etc. and doing what the diet gurus said. So I guess my tagline for my life during that time would have been “Looking good, feeling sh*tty”. Maybe my experience will help someone else out there.

    Thanks again.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story and adding a fresh voice to the Paleo conversation, which at times seems so clear cut – no grains! no legumes!
    I too just can’t handle 3 protein meals, it just feels too heavy, which seems to be a common experience here.

    Two weeks in on strict paleo I felt exhausted, hungry all the time and was constipated which s a really really bad sign, as the digestive system is overloaded and the partly food stays in the system too long, creating toxins and ultimately disease. I was even dreaming of vegetarian food, prepared by vegetarian friends!

    I made reference to Ayurveda, which shows how legumes are made digestible by the use of herbs and spices, and I eat them at midday when my digestive fire – an aspect of metabolism – is highest. Indians have always understood the need to temper legumes with spices to improve digestibility.

    This article is a good place to start if you want some info on legumes and preparing them from an Ayurvedic perspective


    Peace and blessings of good health

  7. “I think a lot of what was wrong was that I wasn't getting enough carbs. But I also had a sense that the meat was weighing me down (not very scientific, lol). I just felt heavy and slow. Everything felt slow.

    So I went back to eating plants. I felt better almost immediately, and dropped the weight fairly effortlessly. My lifts got back to where they'd been and working out felt good again.”

    Yup! Same happened with me. Within a few days of going low carb paleo, I knew without a doubt that that was not the right diet for me. I brought back in generous amounts of fruit, cut back my meat consumption (heavy and slow, with blood sugar swings and needing to sleep in the middle of the day, urgently, is how I feel when I try the whole “meat at every meal” deal) and felt better immediately. I share about this in detail throughout the 30 day trial I posted below.

    Listening to your own body and its feedback, and heeding its distress signals when it sends them, is so important. So many people attach themselves like barnacles to a diet guru or certain diet philosophy, and disregard the feedback their body is sending them. Trusting your own body’s wisdom is difficult, but crucial. I commend you for carving your own path, and encouraging others to do the same! A woman after my own heart… :-)

  8. I can’t believe I haven’t run into your blog before! I resonate with so much of what you’ve written, not just in this article, but in all that I’ve read so far…

    I thought you might like to read of my own dietary experiment with paleo, when I conducted a 30 day trial of that diet after many, many years of strict vegetarian and vegan diet regimes, culminating in a total infatuation period with the 80-10-10 diet, which taught me the invaluable wisdom of avoiding diet dogma like the plague and not drinking the Kool-Aid. High five to that, sister!

    Keep blogging, you have an important message to share…


  9. Late to this party, but it never hurts to comment, right?

    I really liked this blog post, too.

    People really are different, and how their bodies respond to things is different. Ever since I was a kid, I preferred fruits and veggies to starches and meats. And I loved eggs.

    Today, i pretty much eat veggies and fruit (most by volume, least by calories though), and then eggs, and then meat. I’m finding that I’m currently eating meat much less — probably harkening back to my vegetarian/vegan days.

    There are days where I wish I could go back to veganism (health issue makes that not possible) — I do miss it. And, I probably could go back to vegetarian — but with eggs and without dairy. I wonder if I would tire of the eggs? Hmm. Anyway. . . it’s not that dogmatic in my world.

    I really like the formation of your diet. Very cool.

  10. LOVE this story! I’ve tried Paleo a few times and crashed and burned because my body just cannot operate at that level and so it’s nice to see that I’m not “failing” and that’s it’s not for everyone!

  11. Pingback: Kaleo thoughts | Zukies

  12. It’s interesting to read about your experience with the paleo diet.
    I don’t think I’ll ever try it, mostly because I am grossed out by meat and couldn’t handle that. Also, I know myself and know that eating high amounts of meat and fat doesn’t work for me. And anything low-carb has never worked for me… reduce my carbs that low and I turn into a crazy monster! I eat lots of fruit. I’ve been reading about fruitarianism but I probably wouldn’t do that either… I’ll just eat what makes me feel healthiest and have the most energy! :) I don’t like it when people try to push one kind of diet onto everybody.

  13. Everybody is different. I enjoy following a specific plan. If I don’t, I find I don’t include much variety in my diet. I tend the eat the same foods over and over. I think it’s just a matter of finding a plan that works for me and that’s simple and doable.

    • I agree, Isa, everyone is different. Eating the same thing all the time isn’t necessarily a bad thing! My diet changes with the seasons, but day-to-day I eat a lot of the same things. Lots of root veg, apples and citrus in the winter, lots of berries, melons and tomatoes in the summer, etc. If what you’re eating is seasonal and nutrient dense, lack of variety doesn’t have to be a negative. Focusing on what grows where you live as the foundation of your diet is a good way to maximize nutrition and sustainability, while minimizing expense (seasonal produce is abundant, so less expensive than foods that must be imported from far away).

  14. You have highlighted my belief that there is no one ‘diet’ that suits everybody. So long as we stick to natural foods and not processed rubbish, it is up to the individual to determine which foods suit them best. Just. Eat. Real. Food! :)

    • Word, Elizabeth! Thanks for chiming in. I checked out your site, you’re doing good work, thank you for your help in creating a sustainable and healthy food system!

  15. Hello:

    I completely understand the benefits of following a healthy diet. I am in the initial stage of following diet and I easily scum to temptations. I am a vegetarian by birth/religion and so haven’t had meat at all. My temptations are deep fried items and eating more (haven’t thought about portions till now). What would you suggest to control temptations. Please help!

    • Divya, the first step in controlling cravings is to make sure all your nutritional bases are covered. I have found that when cravings arise, I can generally take a look at my food logs and see that I am missing an important nutrient, either one of my macronutrients is low (macronutrients are carbs, fat and protein), or I’m not getting enough a particular vitamin or mineral. Making sure I’m meeting all my requirements on a steady basis has pretty much ended the cravings and compulsive eating I used to struggle with. The best way to do this is to track your food intake at a site like myfitnesspal.com, caloriecount.com or sparkpeople.com (there are others too).

      Portion control is more of a habit issue. It’s possible to find foods you can eat large portions of that aren’t too calorie dense, this is one of the reasons I frequently serve my meals on a bed of leafy greens. The bulk of the greens gives me the sensation of eating a large portion, but I’m saving myself the calorie load of the rice or pasta I might have historically used to give me that bulk (bulk of food, and bulk of body!). As you make an effort to eat more realistic portions though, you will find that your body gets used to it and it becomes less of a struggle over time.

Comments are closed.