Maybe there’s one going on at your gym. Or maybe your friends are all doing one and they want to rope you in. Or maybe you’re just hunting around for ways to pull yourself out of a Paleo slump or get back on track after a detour or kick-start your progress, and someone suggests it: a Paleo challenge.
The Paleo Restart is one example - 30 days of meal plans, shopping lists, and daily support - but there are a bunch of Paleo and Paleo-ish challenges out there. People who love them bill them as a motivational kick-start, but isn’t a 21-day (or 28-day, or 30-day, or whatever) challenge just a temporary band-aid that won’t help you actually develop healthy habits in the long run? What happens when the challenge is done? Won’t you just go back to your old habits without making permanent changes?
Maybe, maybe not. It depends on you. Paleo challenges aren’t good or bad; it’s all in how you use them. The deciding factor is you – here are some suggestions for deciding whether or not a Paleo challenge or a similar program is the best thing you could be doing right now.
A Challenge Might be Right for You If…
You already have a good emotional relationship with food and your body
You might want to change some things about your diet or your body, but you don’t hate yourself and you mostly treat yourself with compassion. You don’t have to always love yourself or be totally enthused about your body all the time – real life is not an Instagram feed. It’s fine to sometimes be neutral, or ambivalent, or even dislike yourself sometimes. But for the most part, your thoughts about food and your body don’t cause you significant distress, and they don’t make you miserable. You can decide to eliminate certain foods without making it into a punishment.
You do well with diving into the deep end
Some people prefer to approach changes that way – none of this toe-dipping nonsense; just jump right in, deal with the temperature all at once if it’s cold, and get to swimming. Not everyone is like that, but if you are, then a challenge can be a great way to start or recommit to Paleo.
You have a temporary rough patch coming up and need some extra motivation
If you need the motivation of a challenge all the time, it’s a sign that you need to stop doing challenges and find a more sustainable way to eat. If your diet requires constant external motivation to stick with it, it’s the wrong diet for you.
But sometimes, special circumstances call for special tactics, and if you’ve got a particularly hard few weeks or just one particular weekend coming up, committing to a Paleo challenge may be a helpful extra push. After all, who wants to blow it on Day 20 of their 21-day challenge by eating a bagel at a highway rest stop? And with challenges like the Paleo Restart that give you a meal plan and shopping list, the mental relief of having everything planned out for you can be a nice break during a stressful time in your life.
You want to identify a specific sensitivity
If you want to see whether or not you’re sensitive to dairy, it’s hard to beat a few weeks of dairy elimination. The same goes for FODMAPs, histamines, fructose, or just about anything else. Finding a sensitivity could be the key to finally resolving your symptoms, but it’s hard to give up even more foods from your diet before you’re sure it’s going to help. In this case, a specific and targeted elimination challenge can be the support and motivation you need to give it a try.
Maybe Skip the Challenge If…
You don’t know how to eat well when you’re not doing a challenge
This might be you if you do a challenge, power through…and then go spectacularly off the rails, and then feel so guilty that you dive into another challenge to “get back on track,” power through that…and then go off the rails again when it’s done only to appease your conscience with yet another challenge…and so on.
If this is you, you do not need another challenge.
What you need in this situation is a way of eating that you can sustain even without a challenge to motivate you, so you aren’t swinging wildly between extremes all the time. Diets that rely on a constant flow of external motivation are unsustainable. You need to learn to eat well – whatever that means for you – without the security blanket of someone else’s rules. Another challenge will just keep the cycle going.
Often (not always, but often), the “challenges” in this cycle are unsustainably low in calories, either because they’re just lousy eating plans or because they’re perfectly fine eating plans but you’re interpreting them to be punitive “diets” and restricting your food intake. Then of course you end up binging, because your body is starving. This is a biological cycle, it’s largely out of your control, and it won’t go away until you stop starving yourself and find a way of eating that satisfies your hunger – yes, even if you want to lose weight.
You hate yourself
Using food to punish yourself (for “being fat,” “being lazy,” or just for existing) is arguably worse for your health than any particular food could possibly be. Using a Paleo challenge to punish yourself with food turns that challenge into a kind of eating disorder regardless of what the authors intended. If you respect the intentions behind the challenge, don’t do that.
It's just not workable
If you're moving across the country and trying to manage a stressful transition period at work and temporarily taking care of your sister's kids and participating in your friend's wedding...your plate is probably full. You might not be able to give a challenge the time and energy it deserves, especially if it involves memorizing a new set of rules, following someone else's shopping lists or meal plans, eating very specific foods that aren't available when you're traveling, or adding a bunch of extra workouts on top of your already-packed schedule.
If it's just adding more stress on top of stress, a challenge isn't improving your health. That doesn't mean "go off the rails completely and eat nothing but junk food;" it means "make the best decisions you reasonably can, and don't sweat the small stuff." You can always do a challenge later, when you have the energy to do it properly without driving yourself insane.
The challenge doesn't address your needs
If you're a happy moderate-carb eater and you have no reason to go low-carb, there's no point doing a low-carb challenge just because it's there. If you don't have any symptoms that would indicate a FODMAP intolerance, there's no point doing a FODMAP elimination challenge and making your life unnecessarily difficult. If you're already eating the Paleo basics, you don't need a Paleo Basics challenge - it's just the way you eat already!
Don't use challenges as a form of entertainment, and don't feel pressured to do one just because it's there. If it doesn't address a particular need that you have (for motivation, for finding a sensitivity, whatever your need might be), there's no reason to commit to it.
Summing it Up
A Paleo challenge can be great, if you’re ready to take it on in the right spirit and make the most of it. But challenges also have a dark side, especially if they’re the only way you know how to keep yourself in control. If you’re stuck in a challenge-binge-challenge cycle, the answer is not another challenge.
So is a challenge right for you? Possibly! At the right time, done for the right reasons, a Paleo challenge can be great. But take a hard look at your motivation and your personal diet history before you jump in.