Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Paleo Diet: Two years in review

Also known as 
"There and Back Again:  A Paleo Tale by L.A. Jennings"

Paleo in April 2011, then back to grains in early June 2011
This is the story of my experience with the Paleo diet from September 2009 to April 2011.  This is my personal experience and is not meant to critique the diet as a whole.  Rather, I wanted to share with the other souls out there who, like me, believed heartily in the diet yet found it did not fulfill the expectation of improving health and physique.  I know many people who have had success with the lifestyle but perhaps it is not the best for people who, like me, train a highly demanding sport. 

The story:

September 2009
In September 2009, I had just moved across the country with my husband to begin a four year doctoral program in Denver, CO. At the time, I was eating a body-builder style diet a la Tom Venuto and was 120-ish pounds, not very strong, but relatively lean. In addition to moving 1500 miles from home, I went from leading our Train.Fight.Win group workouts 4x/week to 6x/week and decided I was ready to get very lean. So, I opted for the paleo diet.  For me, this meant giving up my morning oatmeal, low-carb wraps and dairy.  Other than that, I already ate a great deal of vegetables and lean protein.  Perhaps it was not the best choice, but the growing hype and insistence by nearly every female practitioner that it made them 'ripped' was enough incentive for me to throw out my remaining grains and get started. 

May 2010

After several years of counting calories and macro-nutrients, I just allowed myself to eat...a lot. I ate lots of meat, green veggies, nuts and fruit. By January, I weighted 130-ish pounds and felt slow and fat. I cut out the nuts, fruit and coconut milk and limited myself to meat and veggies only. I weighted and measured my food again, this time keeping the carbs under 50g/day and the fats around 90g. I was under a lot of stress; Mike had been unable to find a job and I did not sleep at night.  In addition to the stress brought on by our financial woes, I was depressed over my increased fat and incredibly poor performance on the mat. 

In April 2010, Mike landed an amazing job and in addition to be thankful for our new-found economic comfort, I was convinced that I would be able to lose weight. In May, I was 138lbs...the heaviest I have ever been.

I hoped that over the next couple of months, my weight would change. I was still eating lots of protein, some fat and very few carbs. In my obsession to lose fat, I became somewhat reclusive, declining invitations to hang out with friends where there would be non-diet foods. Several times, Mike and I went to lunch with other people and I would order nothing, opting to wait until we were home to eat my salad or veggies.

April 1, 2011

By April 2011, I felt desperate.  I visited my doctor and had multiple tests run, which included a full thyroid panel.  Although my TSH levels were normal, my T3 level was incredibly low, a phenomenon that has been linked to very low carb diets.  I asked my naturopath for a thyroid supplement and she agreed to try.  Although I felt better (my feet were not as cold, deeper sleep and general boost in mood), my weight did not change. I began a weightlifting protocol and decided I would focus for the next few months on technique and increasing my lifts. After six weeks, I stopped the thyroid supplementation but, as you'll see, I never had a reason to go back on. 
But I still felt alone, as if I was the only person 'doing it wrong' and getting fatter rather than leaner. 

June 22, 2011

Shortly after, I discovered Leigh Peele through the FitCast and began to listen to older editions of her podcast.  Her book, The Fatloss Troubleshoot, provided excellent information regarding caloric deficit and burn, but also the reality of metabolic damage due to extended deficits and macronutrient deficiencies.  On June 1st, I ate a bowl of oatmeal...the first time I had eaten grains in nearly two years.  I also added in non-fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and fruit.  Within two weeks, my weight dropped to 130lbs.  My lifts increased significantly and I did 5 dead-hang pull-ups after struggling to do one for years.

Currently I am eating more than I ever have, not restricting myself at all at restaurants for my weekly indulgence.  Before, I would order salads and skip anything containing grains or dairy.  Now, I order what I want, eat it and know that everything will be okay.  I eat chicken breast, egg whites, salmon, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, oatmeal, tons of veggies, fruit and moderate amounts of fats.  The typical breakdown is 150g protein, 120g carbohydrates, 50g fat.  One day a week, Mike and I go to dinner and I enjoy myself.  I watch my caloric intake and adjust it in order to accommodate my heavy lifting days.  I wish I could be the type of person who did not have to count calories, but even now, six months after getting it right (for my body), I still need to keep track of what I am eating.  I don't have to weigh and measure every little thing, but I do need to ballpark it in order to stay lean. 

Starting to see abs again!

I don't think there is anything wrong with eating a Paleo diet necessarily, especially if you are overweight or have dietary issues.  My problem was that I was not eating enough carbohydrates to sustain my high level of activity.  MMA is extremely glycolytically depleting and I was now allowing my body to receive the nutrients necessary to keep up with my training.  Also, the high levels of fat simply does not work for my particular metabolic system.  I tend to be leaner and have less digestive issues when I keep the fat on a lower end and bump up the carbs.

Ultimately, I think everyone needs to consider what is best for their body rather than adhere to a diet that sounds good on paper.  I love my current eating style because it allows me to enjoy the social aspects of eating, lift increasingly heavy and feel good about my body.  I do not intend for this post to be a referendum on Paleo or Primal diets but rather to share the experience of one woman who felt


Juliet said...

I think the *most* important thing is to find out what works for you and I'm glad you've found it. I've been toying with paleo and, so far, I like it. BUT! I also dont' do MMA. My exercise is almost exclusively strength oriented.

Train.Fight.Win. said...

Good point, Juliet. It sounds to me like the folks who have the most success are primarily lifting, doing 'slow' cardio and maybe sprints once a week. I know that the Paleo diet doesn't have to be low carb, but when I tried to eat higher carbs with sweet potatoes, root veggies and fruit, I found my calories went too high to allow me to function at my leanest.

I'm glad it is working for you and you haven't succumbed to paleo dogma ;)

Kristen said...

I agree with Jobb - finding what works for you individually is the most important thing, not following some diet dogma. I love the idea of going grainless in theory, and then I remember how yucky most nuts make me feel, even though I love them. And then I remember that oats are a grain. So for now, I too am sticking with a lower carb, high protein plan. It seems to work for me.

Kristen said...



Train.Fight.Win. said...

Thanks for the input, Kristin. I eat a lot of protein now, up to about 150g a day coming mainly from chicken breast, fish, egg whites and the occasional delicious beef and bison. I straight up LOVE fatty red meat, nuts and coconut milk but I know that when I eat too much fat, I tend to get bloated and have funky bowel movements (I know y'all wanted to hear about that).

I still don't eat anything containing gluten (except when I am out to dinner and eating something yummy) and I always avoid bread, pasta, crackers, etc. But I think adding in oatmeal and decreasing my fat intake has really helped my body composition.

slideyfoot said...

I'm generally put off fad diets because there seems to be a new one every week, with people singing its praises until the next one comes along. I've instead just assumed I'll be fine as long as I keep exercising.

However, I think I've got a fairly high metabolism, so I've been able to get away with a lot of crap in my diet. Now that I'm past 30, I may have to start being more careful...

Erika said...

SO glad you found something that works for you now. That's what matters. All the trial and error of getting there certainly sucks though, I think we can all relate! I've been 99% paleo since September and I love it but I'm still working through the kinks.
P.S. You look awesome!!

Train.Fight.Win. said...

Thanks Erika! I loved eating "Paleo" and to be honest, I still do for 90% of my intake. But adding in the oatmeal has really helped the lean out.

Slidey - My husband could eat anything he wanted and still have a freaking 12 pack. I think for most guys, especially the ectomorphs, can get away with concentrating on training rather than diet. Lucky boys ;)

Jiu Jiu said...

Very cool! I am now at 156 - down from 231 at my heaviest (2005) and from 205 when I started BJJ in 2010. I made small, permanent changes and slowly lost the weight.

I recently set a 20 lbs in 20 weeks challenge for myself (and my readers) and have been trying to use that as mental momentum for increased weight loss. It's most recently been about cutting some calories, although on days when I've done 3+ hours of BJJ it just isn't enough and I'm absolutely ravenous.

I've been reading a bit about different body types, and I think your experience with Paleo is very cool to read about - if only because it gives a different perspective other than what I've mostly been hearing. I don't adhere to paleo, although sometimes it's easier to say "I do paleo-light" than to describe exactly what I do (usually avoiding white-carbs and drinkable calories).

Thanks for sharing - I know not everyone would!