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5 Vicious Cycles and How to Avoid Them

Paleo and Stress

One of the big principles of Paleo is that everything is connected: “health” is about your body as a whole, and whatever you do to one part affects all the others. That’s why Paleo takes such a whole-life approach: it’s about sleep, stress management, and exercise, not just food. Looking only at food misses the big picture.

Part of that picture is understanding self-reinforcing feedback loops, where A causes B and B turns right around to cause A. That’s great if you’re in a good pattern: your diet makes you feel good, so you have energy to exercise, so you feel inspired to keep eating well, and so on. But what if you end up stuck in the opposite: a vicious cycle of problems feeding into each other?

Here are 5 vicious cycles to avoid if you can, and how to get out if you’re already in them.

1. Blood Sugar Crashes <-> Eating Sugar

can of sugary soda

Sugar: it’s not actually the solution to feeling lousy.

for Energy

How it works: You start your day with sugar (for example purposes, let’s take a “healthy” LARABAR, with 18 grams of sugar for the apple pie flavor and almost no protein). But it doesn’t give you sustained energy without enough fat and protein, so you crash midmorning. You grab a handful “healthy” raisins (25 grams of sugar for one of those little boxes, again with no fat and almost no protein) for a pick-me-up, which works fine until your blood sugar crashes again around noon. Rinse and repeat.

This is also known as the blood sugar rollercoaster. It’s not fun. Blood sugar crashes can make you exhausted, irritable, depressed, fuzzy-headed, and just plain miserable.

How to escape: Start your day with protein, fat, and vegetables to head off the cycle completely. (For example, three eggs fried in coconut oil with a pile of wilted spinach and some sweet potato – which unlike a LARABAR also has enough calories for an adult). It’s fine to eat carbs as long as they’re not the only thing you eat.

If you’re already stuck in the blood sugar low, resist the urge to self-medicate with more sugar. Eat a real meal with protein, fat, and vegetables. You may have to tough it out through some residual sugar cravings. Eat protein, fat, and vegetables whenever you’re actually physically hungry, and find something else to occupy your mind when you’re just craving.

2. Stress <-> Insomnia

How it works: you’re stressed out, so you can’t sleep. The next day, everything that was stressing you out is a thousand times worse and more stressful because you haven’t slept. So you’re even more stressed, and your sleep is worse…

Variation on a theme: you’re stressed out, so you can’t sleep. The next day, you drink way too much coffee, which makes your sleep bad even if the stress is gone. Then you’re tired, so you drink too much coffee again, so you can’t sleep…

(Note that if you choose to self-medicate for exhaustion with sugar instead of caffeine, this can also be combined with #1 for a double whammy of awfulness).

How to escape: Before you go to sleep, take 10 minutes (at minimum; you could definitely do more) to do some kind of stress management/reduction that works for you. Knit, read, take a bath, meditate, stretch, do yoga, go out to the backyard and shoot a potato gun at a picture of your boss’s face…whatever helps. Before you say you don’t have time to do that, consider whether it would be more useful spending that time + the next 6 hours lying in bed worrying, or whether it would be better to spend it setting yourself to get good sleep for the rest of the night.

If this happens regularly, practice handling stress so that you can be in stressful situations without feeling stressed out. Here’s some good advice on that.

3. Extreme Calorie Restriction <-> Overeating

How it works: you dutifully embark on a 1200-calorie diet. You’re starving and miserable. At some point, you snap and gorge yourself on everything you’ve been missing. Obviously, this calls for even stricter calorie restriction to “make up for it,” so you crank it down to 1100. You’re even more starving and miserable, and you snap again, so obviously it’s time to go down to 1000 in penance…

This is not helpful for weight loss or anything else. If your diet is making you so hungry that you’re driven to uncontrollable overeating, the problem is the diet, not you.

How to escape: muster up your courage (it does take courage!) and stop trying to punish yourself for your “failures.” Let them all go. Start fresh. At your next meal and every meal after that, eat a moderate amount of animal protein (3-4 eggs, 1 chicken breast, 1 pork chop, or equivalent amount), a huge pile of vegetables, some healthy fats, and some starchy vegetables if you do well with them. Eat whenever you’re hungry, and eat until your physical hunger is gone. Don’t eat for entertainment, stress relief, or other reasons.

If after several weeks, you’re not losing weight on that diet, you may be at your body’s ideal healthy weight already (this is probably higher than your ideal weight according to Cosmo). If that’s obviously not true, here’s where to start looking for answers.

4. Eating junk food <-> Gut flora changes

How it works: your gut flora respond to what you eat. Studies have actually found that eating junk food conditions the gut flora to want more of it (you can read more about this here). So you eat junk food, which makes you want junk food, so you eat more of it, which makes you want it even more…

How to escape: get your gut flora used to real food instead. This may take a little bit of white-knuckling at first, but if you’re eating enough food to meet your actual calorie needs and getting all the important nutrients, the white-knuckle part shouldn’t last very long.

5. Not cooking <-> No proper kitchen tools

Cooking tools

You can get secondhand pots and pans for MUCH less than a week of takeout dinners.

How it works: you aren’t in the habit of cooking your meals at home, so you can’t justify the expense of proper kitchen tools, so you never cook, so you can’t justify the equipment, because you never cook, because you don’t have the right stuff…

Variation on a theme: replace “pots and pans” with “pantry staples.”

How to escape: make a chart. On one side, write down all the money you spend in one week on not-cooking (restaurant meals, takeout, buying pre-packaged microwave dinners…). Multiply that number by 52, to get the amount you spend per year on not-cooking. On the other, write down $30, which is enough for a starter set of pots and pans from a secondhand store.

It’s easy to pay $8 or $10 at a time for takeout dinners, but seeing it all at once like that really brings home how much you’d be saving by buying the cooking equipment. Don’t know how to cook, either? Here are 10 super-simple recipes to start you off.

What’s the worst vicious cycle you’ve ever gotten yourself into? How did you get out! What advice would you give to someone who’s there right now? Share your wisdom on Facebook or Google+.