Paleo is mostly known as an approach to food. So the typical way to “start Paleo” is to purge your kitchen of grains and sugar, stock up on grass-fed steaks, and fire up the oven for some roasted broccoli.
But what if you tried a different approach? Instead of starting with food, start with everything else:
- Commit to 8 hours of sleep, every night. Even if you have things to do. Even when there’s something good on TV.
- Reduce or manage your chronic stress through meditation, talking it out, taking a hot bubble bath…whatever works for you.
- Every other day, get moving in a way that makes you break a sweat.
In other words, start with the Paleo lifestyle – re-create the sleep, stress, and activity environment that your body was built for, and then move on to the food. Eventually you can switch to a completely Paleo diet. But for the first week or two, it may actually be very helpful to get everything else humming along first.
Why Would I do That?
To set yourself up for success
Changing your diet is hard. It takes energy, long-term commitment, and the serenity to bear with the rough parts of the transition period for a while.
Who’s going to have a better shot at all those things: the neurotic ball of stress skating by on 5 hours of sleep every night, or the calm, well-rested person who’s had a week or two to slowly look over Paleo recipes and get everything ready? Who’s going to do a better job of resisting a donut: the comfort eater who doesn’t know any better way of handling her anxiety, or the seasoned stress-manager who knows 10 different ways of active coping that don’t involve sugar?
Starting with a solid lifestyle foundation will set you up to make your diet changes stick.
To lose weight better, especially if you’ve failed before.
Trying and failing to lose weight typically means trying and failing “diets,” whether they’re low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat, or just plain crazy. It’s easy to start on Paleo as another kind of “diet,” which means that whatever sabotaged all your previous diets will sabotage this one, too. Starting with lifestyle changes gives you the chance to make new habits, get into healthier thought patterns, and work on your long-term goals without going crazy over the food stuff for a while.
And that’s without mentioning how important all these lifestyle issues are for weight loss in and of themselves. Just tackling behavior, without ever thinking about food, can start you down the path of weight loss right away:
In one study, restricting subjects to 5 hours of sleep (without restricting food intake) caused them to gain 2 pounds in a week compared to well-rested controls. Sleep-deprived subjects ate more food, and especially more junk.
- Sleep restriction reduces metabolic health and impairs insulin sensitivity. In practical terms, this means that you will be hungrier, have more carb cravings, and have a greater tendency to store calories as fat, instead of burning them for fuel.
- Chronic stress is also a major factor behind weight gain. It may be one of the reasons why obesity correlates with poverty (want stress? Try choosing between food and rent), and it may also affect insulin sensitivity and cause metabolic damage. This study found that stress management helped a group of women lose weight compared to a control group, even without a dietary intervention.
- Exercise is a form of stress management; it improves mood and mental well-being, and it also improves insulin sensitivity and metabolic health.
You might find that even without changing one bite of your diet, addressing lifestyle factors automatically results in some weight loss right off the bat. It’s that magic combination of better metabolic health, lower cravings, less comfort eating, and higher willpower. And all of these changes will also make for easier and faster weight loss once you do start changing your food.
To amplify your non-weight-loss success
Not turning to Paleo for weight loss in the first place? Maybe you’re looking for an answer to chronic gut dysfunction, thyroid problems, migraines, or something else – and in all of those cases, dialing in your lifestyle is a critical part of healing.
In fact, poor lifestyle habits can cause exactly the same kinds of problems as a bad diet. Sleep deprivation and chronic stress increase inflammation, wreak havoc on the gut flora, suppress thyroid function, and impair your own immune response. This can easily cause a massive list of problems ranging from constipation or irritable bowel syndrome to acne.
If you’re trying to treat a stress-related problem with food, it just won’t work: you’re addressing the wrong issue! The answer isn’t in something you’re eating; it’s in the sleep you’re not getting, the boss who won’t get off your back, or the chair that you never leave (or all three). There’s absolutely no point trying to manage a lifestyle problem with stricter and stricter diets.
By looking at your lifestyle issues first, and then turning to diet, you’ll never drive yourself crazy looking for a dietary solution to a lifestyle problem. Who knows: maybe some of your “food issues” will disappear altogether, freeing you from weeks of trying one diet after another to find something that works.
When do I Get to the Food?
The short answer: when your new lifestyle habits are well and truly ingrained. For some people, it might only take a week to get into a solid routine of going to bed on time, making time to do yoga or meditate, and hitting the gym every now and again. For most of us, it takes a little longer. You might even prefer to tackle one lifestyle change at a time – for example, start with sleep, and wait until that becomes your new habit. Then move on to stress.
While you’re patching up your lifestyle, of course it’s fine to start planning your diet changes as well. Look around and gather up some recipes that sound tasty. Bring home some new ingredients and just start cooking with them in addition to your regular menu, to see how you like them. Visit your local farmers’ market and say hi. Do easy things like leaving fresh fruit around the house so you can grab a banana instead of a candy bar for a snack. That way, when you’re ready to make the diet leap, you’ll have the groundwork laid out for you.
Summing it Up
Better sleep, effective stress management, and a solid exercise routine make it much easier to stick with diet changes later, help kick-start weight loss, and might save you from weeks of dietary experiments that end up just wasting your time. This approach isn’t for everyone, of course – some people will always prefer to start with food, and that’s just fine. But for others (especially people who’ve dieted in the past), starting with lifestyle changes might be the perfect trick to help make Paleo stick for good.
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