Thinking of Going Paleo? Start Here

Matthew Ankeny set out for three weeks of fad-dieting to see if the wave of hype surrounding the latest favorite American diet could hold weight. How did he feel after 21 days of eating just fresh fish, vegetables, fruit and nuts (plus a demonic juice binge)?


I ate it all, and I liked it. The McFlurries, chips, pork loin (and belly), bourbon-braised beef: all of it went in the hopper. Snickers, burritos, cheddar, havarti, and jack, all down the hatch. I was happy; life was good. I drank beer. I ate deep-fried sushi. I capped each night off with an ice cream scoop. The cornucopia of American mass consumption spread its fruits on my table, and I shied not. I remember back to when I was a kid and, once a year, the county fair came to town. My mother and I would go, and we’d skip the pig races, the carnival rides and the knitting competition, and we’d mill throughout the concession stands — the funnel cakes, corn dogs, brisket — and we’d eat. That was our annual tradition. To make my mother proud, I made that culinary indulgence my life.

Magically, it worked. My metabolism kept up with the intake, and a mix of athletic endeavors (basketball in college, triathlons and marathons in grad school) burned the calories to keep the ship skimming along the surface, no anchor of saturated fat dragging me down. In my mid twenties, I went to the doc to check cholesterol levels (a problem in my family), and after seeing the rock-bottom numbers, he pushed me out of his office with one admonition: “Go eat a steak.”

And then, at the height of my athletic prowess, I assessed the belt loop. I’d come off three months of marathon training and felt, generally, like I’d reached some pinnacle of mid-life fitness. My legs felt strong. My endurance was high. And I was, broadly, in good shape. But despite all the carb burning, I’d lost zero inches off my waist, and, in stepping on the scale, I logged the highest weight I’d seen in six years (there was a dark summer of overindulgence in 2008). My girlfriend came into the room holding up the empty carton of Ben & Jerry’s, head cocked, hip out. I tried the “muscle weighs more than fat.” She shook her head. I was out of excuses.

I set out for three weeks of fad-dieting, to see if the wave of hype surrounding the latest American diet could hold water for my own body. I set out to spend 21 days living life like a caveman.

In eating all, I’d never learned to eat. With that, it’s fair to say, I never learned to train. And so, as the post-marathon layman’s analysis revealed, I’d been seeing less than a maximum yield from my training. I was also carrying around about a dozen pounds of extra weight (relevant especially for running and cycling). So, as we’re apt to do in this country, I set out for three weeks of fad-dieting, to see if the wave of hype surrounding the latest American diet could hold water for my own body. I set out to spend 21 days living life like a caveman.

For the record, this counted as the second prolonged dietary attempt in my life. The last was in high school, under the tutelage of Marv Marinovich (the father of controversial, “Robo QB” Todd Marinovich). Papa Marinovich at the time advocated for the perfectly balanced diet, a 40-30-30 mix of carbohydrates, protein and fats, and — fitting with the same drive that drove his son’s maniacal rise and fall — Marv was fanatical about it. At the time, his athlete-de-résistance was Tyson Chandler (the now center on the Suns). The diet, also touted as the “Zone Diet”, aims to stabilize blood sugar levels by keeping an ideal macronutrient ratio. The thinking goes that with an optimized diet, you get optimized performance. I tried it for a month, saw no Chandler-like development, and gave it up.

12 years later and I picked up The Paleo Diet for Athletes and did obligatory web searches to start my “nutritional training plan”. As baguettes and ice cream seemed to be my biggest culinary downfalls, the Paleo standard for extricating grains, dairy and sugar fit. The caveman emphasis on meat, fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and nuts — all things I greatly enjoy — had me sold. I’d give up that which I know I should not eat, and use a bumper crop of that which I enjoy to eat. Shouldn’t be hard.

First day, I weighed in at 214 pounds (I’m 6’5″ tall, and 210 to 215 pounds has been my natural weight for years), and fit in the last notch on a size 34 belt. It took a bit of adaptation to fit my normal routine into Paleo, but I encountered no culinary severity. For the morning tradition of a breakfast burrito, I dropped the tortilla and cheese and added a bit more meat. Lunch, taken from Whole Foods Market prepared foods, was a simple exercise of avoiding a few key items, with nothing major lost. Dinner came easily enough, replacing carbs like rice and pasta with broccoli and a few more green beans. In the first week, I saw the grocery bills go up, but the eating out decreased; overall, I saved money. My girlfriend and I spent more time cooking, but also found easy ways for quick meals (a Chipotle salad sans rice and corn is very Paleo friendly).

Kolbert found those devastating (and rightfully so). She ended up feeling, “nearly every paleo dish I prepared, beyond straight-up meat and vegetables, was a flop.” She suffered from Faileo.

Elizabeth Kolbert, for the New Yorker, recently wrote about her adaptation to the Paleo diet. She did it for a week, and involved her husband and kids. She had success with meat, veggies and fruit, but struggled with the typically gluten-based muffins, pancakes, etc. — a subset of Paleo meals made by creative use of nut and coconut byproducts. For the most part, Kolbert found these food productions devastating (and rightfully so). She ended up feeling that “nearly every paleo dish I prepared, beyond straight-up meat and vegetables, was a flop.” She suffered from Faileo.

As a Reddit Paleo thread explains, Faileo leads to quick burnout and disappointment. Fearing the same, I steered clear, opting instead for the more organic approach: thriving on an apple for dessert or celebrating one pristine, plain, grilled chicken breast. The first week was smooth. I worked out six days, with mild-to-medium exertion in a routine of post-marathon recovery. I ate well. I felt hungry at times, but the pangs were relieved by a handful of walnuts or an apple with almond butter. At worst, I went to bed craving a few calories, which felt appropriately restrained, rather than desperately starved. After five days, I’d dropped four pounds and the belt loosened. I checked the webosphere for similar results.

Writing for Outside, John Bradley spent a year trying out six different diets, eight weeks each. His opinion on Paleo is clear and concise: he recently updated the article with a prologue, writing that he is “not a fan”, and that it left him “feeling like crap”. However, while on Paleo, he did mark the lowest weight, lowest body-fat percentage, and best ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol of all six diets he tried. He just didn’t have energy. He said he felt “seriously under fueled, tired, spacey, and hungry”.

Giving up grains, dairy and sugar is a markable shift. It’s a recalibrating, and it takes its effects. Part of the process of change is that your body is so efficient with digesting vegetables, fruit, and lean meat. It does it easily, and that’s why some Paleo eaters advocate for less of a leafy-green Paleo approach, and one more centered on fatty meats and nuts, which fill you up more. On the second week, I found myself gloating at how my stomach is an incredibly efficient machine. My bowel movements were consistent and easy. After finishing a meal I’d feel satisfied but not weighed down. I felt I could consume as many calories as I’d like, and they’d be used, processed, and passed through by well-skilled intestinal workers. I started to regard bread, dairy, and processed foods as “Gut Bombs”: foods that give the stomach a hard time digesting. Staying in the sweet spot of lean meat, vegetables, and fruit, I cooked on premium gasoline. I found cruise control, and there, I was happy.

And then, in my most ill-advised decision, I took comfort to the extreme. I agreed to meet a cold-blooded killer: the three-day juice cleanse.

On day 17 of my foray into Paleo I weighed 209 pounds, notched the belt up one loop, and still had room. I felt light and streamlined. Clothes fit easily, even a little loose. I was a taut, lean version of myself. Food-wise, I missed dessert, but overall, I found satisfaction with my diet. I had energy. I could concentrate. I didn’t fixate on eating. And then, I started the three-day cold-pressed juice cleanse. Our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t have modern juicing techniques, but everything that goes into a contemporary bottle, they could eat raw. The cleanse — an intestinal deep-scrub — seemed like a nice capstone to an improved diet.

My body felt cleansed, but it wanted to be replenished. I found an increased potential in my olfactory senses. The smell of fresh bread wafted on every block.

The first 24 hours of the cleanse hit hard, and between battling a nauseous stomach and fatigue, I would have been content, on that first day, to quit. But, giving credit to things that improve with time (it’d been a long 18 days of abandoning immediate gratification), I soldiered on. At 48 hours, my body had had its fair share of juice. It felt cleansed, and now it wanted to be replenished. I found an increased potential from my olfactory senses, and the smell of fresh food wafted on every block. My workouts went to pot, and that second night, exhausted of energy, I hit the sheets at 8:30 p.m. (about three hours earlier than normal). The third day I ground it out to 72 hours of cleansing, then dove into the almond butter. I gave myself a day to recover normal eating habits, and the return to stable foods was warmly welcomed by my near-liquidated bowels.

At my last-day morning weigh-in, three weeks from the start of my Paleo, the body landed at 207 pounds, seven pounds lighter than when I’d started. I’d brought the belt in another loop, and felt lean and efficient. I hadn’t suffered through 21 days of starvation and malnutrition and tiredness and obscure cooking techniques. Rather, I spent three weeks eating the food I probably should have eaten all along: fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts. In reflecting on the time spent in the cave, I had the same realization I had after traveling three weeks in Barcelona — I saw benefit to smaller portions; I believed in the quality of whole foods; I found most of my countrymen overeating, consistently; I found myself overeating, always.

Giving up cheeses and fresh-baked bread and ice cream and al dente pasta isn’t currently on my list of life goals. But I’ve sidelined the McFlurries and funnel cakes, for now. I’ve corrected some of the overeating. I’ve drunk less beer (another side effect of Paleo: no beer or bourbon). I have become more conscious of what is entering into my body, and what works well with my intestinal tract.

The last time I quit a diet, I had Marv Marinovich staring at me on the squat rack. He knew I looked weak. He asked me what I’d eaten. I confessed: nothing balanced, nothing macronutrionally optimized. He looked at the weight I was lifting; he felt justified.

This time, I’ve cut a few baguettes and cartons of ice cream. I’ve eaten more fruit, vegetables and produce from the Pacific Coast, and less from the monocrop farm. It’s slimmed me down. On full Paleo, it made me lithe. In the everyday I’d like to maintain, with a few Neapolitan pizzas here and there, it’s made me optimistically mindful. And while that’s not making me a contender for the NBA draft anytime soon, it does make me—a semi-athletic guy with a strong penchant for enjoying a good meal—and my stomach, very happy.


The Do’s:
Meat: All is good, but I focused on fish, chicken and lean beef (and a bit of bacon).
Vegetables: Focus on green ones, and the darker colors. Carrots are lifesavers, and broccoli was a go-to rice replacement. Potatoes are a no-go.
Eggs: A go-to source of protein in the mornings, I upped my egg intake and enjoyed every hot breakfast.
Fruits: Here, remember that fruits can be high in sugars. I steered clear of pineapple and mango, and tried to keep it with the lower-sugar fruits (berries, watermelon, apples).
Nuts: These are your go-to resource for polyunsaturated fats, and a great midday snack.
Oils: Keep the olive oil flowing, and cultivate your avocado addiction.
Wine: I allowed this one, but kept drinking to social occasions.

The Don’ts:
Grains: Even if you’re trying to eat balanced, you can probably benefit from cutting some carbs.
Dairy: The hardest one for me to give up, but also the one factor that made my body feel the best.
Salt: Though I included most spices.
Potatoes: Hate to pick on the spuds, but be honest — you only love them deep fried or slathered in sour cream, so they’re not a huge loss.
Legumes: They don’t seem too particularly haunting to a diet, but Paleo purists put them in the “Don’t” pile (and include the favored peanut).
Processed Foods: Of any kind, including refined sugar and vegetable oils, and every Hungry Man meal your have in your freezer.

Remember: You’re still an omnivore, and that’s reflected in a diet with a vegetarian backbone and a meaty bent. Celebrate the variety; there’s enough fruits/vegetables out there than to keep you content. Then, treat yourself to protein-rich meat at the end of the meal. And if you’re going the way of the Paleo athlete, include some unprocessed carbs before, during and after your workouts.

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