Transitioning to Paleo

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As every New Year’s resolution-maker is finding out around this time of January, change is hard. Lasting change is even harder, and a huge lifestyle overhaul like adopting a Paleo diet can seem downright impossible. Sticking to a healthy diet in the modern world is never easy, but the first few months of transition can often be the hardest part as you try to get used to a completely new way of looking at food.

The long-term benefits of the switch are well worth all the growing pains, but whether you jump in head first or ease your toes into the Paleo water one inch at a time, be prepared for at least a couple of bumps in the ride. The switch from a carb-burning to a fat-burning metabolism can be unpleasant at first, breaking old food habits is draining and frustrating, and learning to buy and prepare everything from scratch can be very hard for people who’ve never been taught to cook. The more prepared you are for these challenges, the more ready you’ll be to work through them when they come, and move on to the fun part: enjoying your new health and energy.

Low-Carb Flu

Probably the best-known “side effect” of the transition to a Paleo diet is the low-carb flu – not a contagious disease itself, but named after one because it feels just as lousy. The biology behind the low-carb flu is fairly simple: as you switch from burning mainly carbohydrates (sugar) for fuel to burning mainly fat, your body needs some time to adapt. Carbohydrates are a much quicker-acting source of energy (this is why you get a “sugar rush” from eating too much candy), so suddenly switching to a lower-carb diet essentially puts your body into carb withdrawal. It’s used to getting that hit of easily digestible instant energy multiple times a day, and when you don’t oblige it, it can get very cranky.

In the long term, this metabolic switch is very useful, because it weans you off the need for constant energy boosts from carbohydrates. People with predominantly sugar-burning metabolisms often experience a series of blood sugar highs and crashes (with accompanying periods of high and low energy) throughout the day; a fat-burning metabolism is much more stable and allows you to skip or delay a meal (or two, or three) without feeling ready to start the next World War. In the short term, though, your body often has a rocky adjustment period for a few weeks.

Low-carb flu symptoms frequently include headaches, brain fog, constant exhaustion, and a general feeling of being run-down and weak – just like the regular flu. Some people also report intense mood swings, and other more individual symptoms; everybody’s body is different, so the withdrawal will vary depending on how your particular metabolism reacts to it. This can be even worse for people who have intestinal bacterial overgrowth problems. A low-carb diet is ultimately very beneficial for SIBO or other bacterial overgrowth, because it starves the harmful bacteria of their favorite form of nourishment, but in the short term it can be extremely unpleasant as the bacteria die off.

One way to handle the initial adjustment period of a lower-carb diet is just to tough it out. Like any other kind of withdrawal, the low carb flu doesn’t last forever. If you can hold out for a few weeks, you’ll start to notice your body getting used to using fat as a fuel source, and the “flu” symptoms will disappear.

If you’d rather take it a little more slowly, try eating the same amount of carbohydrates, but switching to Paleo-friendly safe starches instead of grains. This is a great transition tool because it allows you to take your time dialing down your carb intake while immediately seeing the benefits of giving up toxic foods like grains. This technique also makes it much easier to eat a low carb diet, because the variety of Paleo-acceptable carbohydrates is very limited, so carbs stop being a “fun food” and start being just another part of dinner. Think of the way people snack on chips or crackers, and try to imagine snacking that way on baked potato: it just isn’t the same. Easing the transition with Paleo-friendly carbs lets you handle this mental shift first, and then tackle the physical reaction a little at a time.

Fatphobia and Accidental Calorie Restriction

As well as the classic symptoms of the low-carb flu, many people feel tired, cranky and low-energy in their first few weeks of Paleo eating because they aren’t replacing those carb calories with enough fat. Thus, they end up in a calorie deficit without realizing it – especially for active, athletic people, this is exhausting all by itself.

If you’re restricting carbohydrates, you need to make up those calories from somewhere, and considering that your body can’t even metabolize more than 30% of calories from protein, that extra energy will come mainly from fat. This is a challenge for many people because they’ve been trained to equate “low-fat” with healthy. Even people who understand why this isn’t true still struggle with a subconsciously ingrained urge to limit fat calories. Sometimes this is so habitual that people don’t even notice they’re doing it – they’ve always bought skinless chicken breasts, and they’re used to eating them, so they just keep doing it without realizing that eating those chicken breasts with broccoli instead of rice puts them in a serious calorie deficit.

Sometimes, just being aware of this can put an end to the problem. You might also find it helpful to count calories at first – not to limit your diet, but to make sure you’re getting enough food. If you’re struggling to get enough fat because you just don’t know how to make it happen, cooking up delicious fatty treats like coconut milk ice cream or Paleo mayonnaise can be a great way to experiment with new recipes and get a healthy dose of fat calories in the process.

Detox and Latent Problems Reappearing

If you were eating an extremely healthy, whole-foods diet before switching to Paleo, you might not have any detox symptoms, but this is rare. Many people experience initial discomfort, low energy, and other symptoms as their bodies get rid of all the artificial colorings, preservatives, and other accumulated toxins of the modern diet. This is especially hard for people who experience very rapid weight loss on Paleo, since fat tissue is a prime storage site for toxins, which are then released into your blood stream as you lose weight.

This seems completely unfair: shouldn’t you feel better when you take these foods out of your diet? Why is your body punishing you for eating healthy food? You will feel better eventually, but first your body has to get rid of all the toxins that were building up over a lifetime of exposure, and that’s a tall order to fill. It isn’t a punishment; it’s more of a healing process – think of detox symptoms as something like the sting of hydrogen peroxide in a cut. A little pain now can save a lot more pain later. To ease the process, make sure to drink plenty of water, and take good care of your liver, the main organ of detoxification.

As well as the symptoms of detoxing, some people also think they run into various digestive or other problems on Paleo, when actually these problems existed before, and the Paleo diet just removes the crutches that were hiding them. People with some nutrient deficiencies or problems digesting protein or fat often unconsciously adopt certain dietary coping mechanisms on the standard American diet, and then experience problems switching to Paleo when the nutrient content of their diet changes. This is especially true of people who’ve had their gallbladders surgically removed: the gallbladder is the organ that stores bile (the fluid that digests fat), so if you’re missing your gallbladder, fat digestion can be very difficult.

If this is you, it can be tempting to run back to your old diet, but it’s more useful in the long term to figure out what’s behind your symptoms and how to treat it. For fat digestion, for example, getting enough cholesterol can help ease this problem, as cholesterol is vital for bile production. Traditional remedies like digestive bitters are also useful for many people, and supplements like ox bile enzymes can also help make fats more digestible. Addressing the disease, rather than the symptoms, will let you enjoy the benefits of Paleo, and head off potentially worse problems further down the line.

Cravings

Sugar cravingsAnother challenge to face down when you’re embarking on a new Paleo lifestyle is food cravings: all the brownies, skittles, and pancakes of the world suddenly seem so much more tempting now that you can’t have them.

The long-term good news is that cravings are very largely based on habit. You want something sweet after your evening meal because you’re used to it, not because your body is somehow hardwired to bug you for dessert. The cravings won’t entirely disappear, but they do get a lot more manageable the longer you keep these foods out of your diet.

In the short term, several different people have come up with a variety of ingenious strategies for beating cravings – different tricks work for different people, so experiment with various techniques to find something that works for you. Some people discover that a very low carb diet eliminates cravings, while others find that it actually makes them worse, so adding some safe starches into the mix might help you stave off the desire for bread and pizza. Taking L-Glutamine when a sugar or starch craving hits can be a great crutch to lean on, especially at first. It can also help to move around – even a brisk 10-minute walk often gets your mind off that baguette.

It’s also a good idea to get anything you don’t want to eat out of your house. This will make it harder to get at any junk food you might be craving – and the harder it is to get, the less likely you are to end up eating it.

Conventional diet wisdom suggests gum or diet soda as alternatives to food when you’re craving, but these aren’t suggested within a Paleo framework: they’re full of additives and preservatives, and they keep your taste buds used to artificial food products instead of real food. As a healthier alternative, try some herbal tea, especially a sweeter or fruitier kind with an orange or vanilla flavor. For an on-the-go latte substitute, Starbucks’ Vanilla Rooibos tea tastes sweet and rich even without any milk or sugar, and since it’s sold at Starbucks, it’s available almost anywhere.

While you’re fighting off the urge to clear the grocery store out of Haagen-Dazs, it’s worthwhile noting that your cravings might be more than your taste buds trying to sabotage your diet efforts. Especially during the transition period, cravings may also actually be a sign of a nutrient deficiency . Chocolate, for example, has a lot of magnesium, so if you’re dying for some fudge, you might actually need to eat more magnesium-rich foods like squash or nuts. If you’re craving one food consistently, you might want to look into this as a possibility: it’s not uncommon, and it’s definitely easier to treat a nutrient deficiency than spend all your energy fighting down intense food cravings all day.

Information Overload

It’s amazing that the simple question “what should I eat?” can become so incredibly complicated. Is sauerkraut good because it’s fermented, or bad because cabbage is a FODMAP? Should you eat lots of kale because it has such a great nutritional profile, or avoid it for fear of goitrogens? Is liver a new and amazing superfood, or a potentially toxic overdose of Vitamin A waiting to happen? And that’s without going into questions about sleep, stress, energy levels, and specific health complaints like acne or IBS.

Some people react to this by trying everything: one day they overdose on Vitamin D, the next day they’re strictly avoiding FODMAPs, and the day after that they’re frantically eating every antioxidant in sight. While it makes for an entertaining grocery list, this won’t do much for improving your long-term health, since these changes often take several weeks to start showing results, and constantly cycling through them won’t get you anything but a stomach ache.

Other people get so overwhelmed with information that they give up entirely. While it isn’t useful to go back to pizza and ice cream, this approach actually has a lot to recommend it. The flurry of recommendations, warnings, and conflicting advice is so unnecessarily complicated that it’s often best just to ignore it all in the beginning. In terms of health, a basic Paleo diet will get you 90% of the way there; little tweaks to your magnesium intake or the cooking temperature that you use are much less important than a solid foundation. Start at the beginning, and after your body has had a month or two to get used to the idea of Paleo, you’ll have a clear picture of what health problems you still have, and you’ll be able to target your information search accordingly.

“I don’t know how to cook”

Some people are fine with the idea of eating Paleo – as long as someone else cooks it for them. But personal chefs just aren’t in the cards for most of us, and as much as we’d all like the option, there isn’t much in the way of Paleo take-out. Paleo TV dinners are pretty thin on the ground, and restaurant offerings aren’t much better. Unless you have a lot of extra cash, eating Paleo means you’re going to have to cook – but that doesn’t have to scare you off. You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to make a dinner that doesn’t come out of a box.

The first order of business is to get your supplies. If you don’t have them already, stop by Target (or better yet, Goodwill) and pick up:

  • 1 frying pan (preferably cast-iron)
  • 1 pot
  • 1 wooden spoon
  • 1 chef’s knife
  • 1 smaller knife
  • 1 cutting board
  • 1-2 large Pyrex containers (for storing food); get the glass ones so they can do double duty as oven pans.

Plate full of paleo food

More equipment is useful, but unnecessary – really. Don’t waste time agonizing over what brand of vegetable peeler to buy. If you have an extra $20, the next most useful tool will be a slow-cooker; invest in that before you start looking at fancy knife sets or other cute but unnecessary gadgets.

After you get all your shiny new equipment home and unwrapped, try a dead simple stir-fry for your first meal. It won’t turn out looking like something in a four-star restaurant; that’s fine. The important part is that it gives you practice cooking your own meals and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. A quiche is a quick second project that’s just as easy as a stir-fry. This olive, garlic, and lemon chicken recipe is also quick and easy to make. For side dishes, salads are one of the easiest options available – buy a bag of spinach, drizzle some olive oil on top, and add leftover chicken, olives, nuts, or other toppings. Sweet potato fries are delicious if you’re craving something starchy, and much easier to make than they sound. As you get more comfortable cooking Paleo meals, you can expand your repertoire, but for now, the most important thing is to work cooking into your daily routine.

If you have a slow-cooker, you could also start out with the simplest possible way to cook any kind of meat. Take any amount of pork, chicken, lamb, or beef, throw it in the slow cooker with salt and pepper, add enough water to cover the meat, and turn it on low. 8 hours later, come back for dinner. This kind of recipe won’t win you any cooking prizes (although you can make it much more interesting by adding other spices to the pot), but it is a foolproof way to get tender-, well-cooked meat without a lot of fuss or attention.

Slow-cookers also have another great virtue: they save time. Even non-cooks whose experience in the kitchen is limited to the occasional tray of cookies know that making anything from scratch takes time: time to shop for all the ingredients, prepare the food, and then time to clean up and wash everything afterward. This can be one of the hardest challenges of Paleo cooking, especially for busy professionals who wince at the thought of crawling home from the office at 8pm to start cooking dinner from scratch.

To make cooking more manageable, try to build yourself a routine: make double portions of whatever you cook for dinner, and throw the other half in your lunchbox right away, or cook up a big batch of something on the weekend and freeze it in individual containers for your own personal Paleo Lean Cuisine. You might start wanting to spend more time in the kitchen as you learn to enjoy the cooking process, but you definitely don’t have to be chained to the stove.

Setbacks and Discouragements

If you’ve been eating Paleo for a year already, it’s a little easier to put the occasional setback in perspective. One bad day, or even one bad week, still doesn’t negate the 50 pounds you’ve already lost and the other health improvements you’ve already noticed. But at the very beginning, when you haven’t established a routine yet and you’re still trying to figure out how your body is adapting to this new diet, any small setback can loom very large.

One of the most common setbacks is giving in and eating something that isn’t Paleo, either consciously or by accident (because you forgot to read a nutrition label from a food you’re used to eating). After slipping up once, it’s tempting to just give up the whole effort – if you really have so little willpower that you couldn’t stay away from gluten for 1 week, what makes you think you can actually make this work in the long run? But beating yourself up like this isn’t useful, and Paleo isn’t about perfection. You don’t “fail” when you give in to one cheat food; you only fail if you stop trying.

To keep these initial discouragements in perspective, try making an agreement with yourself to give Paleo your best effort for at least 30 days (either as a formal Whole30 or just as a promise to yourself). Commit for a month, come hell or high water, and promise yourself that if you still feel discouraged about any one setback when the month is up, you can think about quitting then. After a month, with the worst of the low-carb flu, detox, and other initial problems behind you and a solid record of Paleo eating to stand on, you’ll be able to put these temporary slip-ups in perspective and understand how to move on.

As well as feeling the urge to give up after one “cheat,” some people also get discouraged when they switch to Paleo because they’re expecting their diet to solve every health problem they have. They hear miraculous stories about Paleo transforming people’s lives, and hope that they’ll be able to completely cure themselves with diet alone, even though they might also be seriously skimping on sleep, surrounded by environmental toxins, overtraining, or otherwise putting their body under an unhealthy amount of stress. Needless to say, diet can’t solve these problems. Keep your expectations realistic, and be aware that Paleo isn’t a magic spell for instant health.

Conclusion

The mental, physical, and organizational challenges of transitioning to a Paleo diet can be difficult to get past, especially in the first few weeks. Between the physical malaise of detox and the low-carb flu, the sudden need to cook everything from scratch, and the emotional rollercoaster of pride in your new diet and discouragement at every setback, the change isn’t easy. But knowing about all these challenges in advance and taking steps to prepare for them will help, and the long-term benefits of Paleo are well worth the difficulty of the learning curve.

P.S. Take a look at the Paleo Recipe Book. It's a Cookbook we've created to help you prepare the best Paleo food. It contains 350+ recipes and covers everything you'll need.

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