Wednesday, 29 August 2018

I went paleo (Whole30) for a month – here’s what happened

Very little. Yeah, I’m not going to keep you in suspense and have you read (or at least scroll) to the end of this post to find out. Very little happened, and what happened was mostly negative!

Monkey salad - a nice, plant-based, filling breakfast, but not considered great on this diet...
There are so many accounts of Whole30 changing people’s lives for the better, but of course the W30 website doesn’t give any negative accounts, whereas on the forum, and also other websites, there are lots of people who didn’t get such amazing results, and I’m one of them.

Spinach frittata from the W30 book, one of my staple breakfasts during the diet
I first came across W30 when browsing recipes online, and decided to give it ago. I’m not entirely sure about my motives anymore, but I think my main reason was to find out whether I had intolerances. I did elimination diets before, but never anything this extensive (i.e. cutting out this many food groups), and it seemed an ‘easy’ way to find out whether I was intolerant to anything, once and for all.
Obviously, I read up on what W30 entailed before I started, but nonetheless I wasn’t fully prepared. Mainly for how much meat I had to eat! Because despite the W30 book (which I got mainly for the recipes – and there are a couple of nice recipes in it, which I still make) literally saying that you never have to eat anything you don’t want to while on this diet, I absolutely had to eat more meat than I felt comfortable doing. Before I started, I thought nuts were going to be my go-to food. They’re high in protein and high in calories, which I knew I was going to need. Contrary to most (weight loss) diets, on this one you actually have to work hard to get enough calories, because so many foods are off-limits and so much of the diet consists of veg. And I absolutely love veg, but they’re not that filling, and the idea of W30 is not to be hungry all the time.
The meat content of the diet was my main problem with it. I didn’t mind eating this much veg at all – in fact, I felt quite proud to be eating this much of it! Throughout W30, I had 500 to 750 g of veg a day. Every day! That felt very healthy. I also didn’t mind not being able to eat dairy, grains or legumes. I didn’t miss bread at all. But as I said, despite thinking beforehand that what I couldn’t eat would be the problem, my main problem was the meat. “You may be thinking ‘so much meat’ because we’re asking you to include an animal protein source with every meal. Please note, however, that the serving sizes are actually quite moderate (as low as one palm-sized serving three times a day)” says the book. But that is not a moderate amount! I was a vegetarian for about seven years, and even though I’m now technically an omnivore, I’d only eat meat every other day or so. So having to eat meat (or seafood, for that matter) with two of my three daily meals (the other usually consisting of three eggs and veg – mainly to avoid having to eat still more meat!) was a big deal for me. And unfortunately this is not just a matter of personal taste, either: eating this much animal protein is NOT SUSTAINABLE. I’ve always understood that 75 g of meat per day is all one needs (although perhaps that was an iron requirement guideline? It certainly doesn’t provide enough protein), but also, eating more than that amount puts far too much strain on the earth. There’s no way of sustainably growing that much meat for every person on earth.
Despite my telling myself that I was only doing this for a month, and that I had some credit from all my years of not eating meat at all, I still felt very guilty towards the earth for eating this unsustainably. I was supposed to be doing this for my health, and I don’t want to sacrifice my health. But sacrificing the earth for my health isn’t really an option, either.

Paleo Scottish breakfast
Perhaps this feeling of guilt caused a negative placebo effect which led to the negative effects I experienced. I don’t know. I think it more likely that all the animal protein in my diet was weighing me down, but I can’t be sure about this. In any case, despite expecting ‘carb flu’ (flu-like symptoms caused by going off refined carbs cold turkey), my first days of W30 were remarkably easy. It took some getting used to, but, as with my previous elimination diets, from about day 2 I had this feeling of ‘if I give up now I’ll have to start again, and that would be a waste of this first day that I already did’, and I wasn’t feeling bad, experiencing cravings, or missing sugar or snacks that much. But after about a week I forgot to plan my meals in advance and experienced a form of ‘hangry’ness I had never had before. I wouldn’t quite know what to eat and when I got hungry, rather than feeling angry, I felt utterly devoid of energy and very down. This made it impossible to decide on what to eat, much less cook something (because that is something rather annoying about this diet – almost every meal has to be cooked. You can never just grab something readymade, as those foods will always contain off-limit ingredients). If my husband just told me what to eat (and did the shopping…) I’d feel better almost immediately. As I said, I never experienced this extreme an effect of hunger before, and I found that very strange. This diet was supposed to make you feel pleasantly satiated all day long, which I found very hard to achieve in the first place because I just can’t eat that much in one sitting, but when I got hungry the hunger was much worse than usually!
So at first I had no energy when I was hungry, but after a while the energy shortage was persistent. Usually I have pretty much unlimited energy, but on W30 I was really really tired. I wanted to exercise lots while on the diet, but I hardly managed to do any exercise at all. One day I went walking in the dunes with my hubby, and I found it very hard. Just walking! I felt like I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. (About a month after I was finished with the diet I took a similar walk and had no such problems anymore at all…) I discussed this with a dietician afterwards and she said because I haven’t got that much fat on my body, I just didn’t have enough reserves to get energy from. But wasn’t the point of this diet eating more fat than usually, and getting energy from that fat?!
Some people on the W30 forum advised me to eat more starchy veg to help with my mood, as well as my energy levels. I guess I had been trying not to eat too much starchy veg, because I thought they weren’t considered that great on the diet, but focusing on including them in more of my meals did help. But I still didn’t feel great either mentally or physically, and certainly never got anything like ‘Tiger Blood’, as the book calls the amazing amount of energy one is supposed to get on W30. Also, I kept having trouble not feeling super stuffed after meals, while not getting hungry again too quickly either. Just three meals a day just doesn’t seem to be for me, whereas the amount of protein was actually too much. I also just missed ‘eating moments’ and flavours, and found it very boring to taste food only three times a day.

Steak salad - because you must eat something and this didn't require cooking :P. But it was actually nice!
And then came the introduction! It’s very important to do that seriously as well, because this is the phase that tells you whether you have intolerances. Which means that W30 doesn’t actually last 30 days, but at least 40: at least four reintroduction days with two days in between each time, to let possible intolerance symptoms wear off. I was really really eager to get off the diet by this time (while the authors assume no one really wants to go back to eating normally again because they’re feeling so awesome…) and the only thing that kept me going was that I had already persevered for 30 days and I didn’t want them to be for nothing. It was really great to have a buckwheat pancake on my first reintroduction day though, and then some oats as well! It felt fine to eat them, very healthy in fact, and of course I didn’t notice any adverse effects from eating them. On the next reintroduction day I had legumes, which I thought might cause some problems, but again, nothing happened. Then, on reintroduction day 3 (day 37) I had yoghurt – and was amazed how sweet it tasted! It was just plain Greek yoghurt without any sugar added, but it really tasted sweet to me after 36 days without any added sugar. So the diet did change my palate. Dairy didn’t cause any symptoms either. Finally I reintroduced non-alcoholic beer (also SWEET :o) and gluten containing grains. Then I was done!!! And very thrilled. I was supposed to have gained ‘food freedom’ by overcoming sugar addiction and other unhealthy eating habits, but the main food freedom I felt and relished was not having to focus so much on food anymore and no longer being afraid that I might put something ‘non-compliant’ in my mouth and have to start over (I had plenty of nightmares about this)…

Quiche lorraine with a potato crust
When I was finally done with this frankly ghastly diet and the reintroduction I took my measurements and found that I was actually significantly slimmer than before I started, despite not having exercised at all and having eaten unlimited fat. I could also see this in the mirror! So for me personally I do think it proven that eating fat does NOT make you fat! (As long as it isn’t the bad trans fat, of course.) Which I find interesting. But despite this I didn’t consider for one moment to keep eating like this. Though the diet is presented as lasting only 30 days, what the authors suggest it that you to continue with it indefinitely, but it had way too many negative effects for me. I also think paleo is pretty misguided. So much research points to grains and even legumes helping prevent disease! Despite the huge amounts of veg I ate each day, I didn’t actually eat 30 g of fibre per day :o, so it seems hard to reach that amount without eating any grains. Also, I read about the diets of centenarians in the ‘Blue Zones’ and ALL of these centenarians have pulses in their diets. And grains. And very moderate amounts of meat, if any at all. In fact, there’s a significant difference in longevity between the vegetarians and meat eaters among the generally healthy and long-lived population in the Loma Linda Blue Zone, with the vegetarians living longer. And then there’s research like this. Also, genes do change! One of the main pillars of the paleo diet is that humans are supposed to still be genetically the same as before the onset of agriculture, but Western people have actually developed the ability to digest dairy since then! So that is simply not true. I do have reservations about dairy because it simply doesn’t seem natural for adults to consume something meant exclusively for baby animals, but I don’t think cutting dairy out completely is necessary if you haven’t got an intolerance. I think the positive health effects many people report after switching to a paleo diet must be due to cutting out sugar and refined foods, and focusing more on vegetables, and in spite of adding more animal protein, not because of it!

Bringing my own food to a re-enactment event: salmon & sweet potato cakes from the W30 book, and starchy veg!
So, I learnt a few things about food and my own diet from being on W30, but I’ll never do it again! Everything in moderation (except veg!), and as little processed food and sugar as possible, seems the most sensible diet approach to me!

How to make your own mayonnaise

One thing I did take away from W30 and will probably keep doing, is making my own mayonnaise. It’s really easy to do, gives you complete control of the ingredients (my previous standard mayo, while being one of the better quality readymade ones, still contained rapeseed oil, sugar and EDTA, for instance) and after the diet it turned out I actually liked the flavour better than that of my previous store-bought one. I didn’t think the mayo made according to the recipe in the book had enough flavour though, so I make it as follows.

300 ml mild olive oil (i.e. not extra virgin)
1 egg (at room temperature)
¾ tsp mustard (not powder)
½ tsp salt
Juice of one lemon
2 tsp white vinegar

First, immersion blend a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil with the egg, mustard and salt. When the ingredients have mixed well, add the rest of the olive oil in batches. The mixture should start thickening quickly. Once you think it’s got the right consistency, add the lemon juice and vinegar either by immersion blending or just stirring in. In the fridge, this should keep at least until one week after the best before date of the egg, but I find it usually keeps even longer.

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