To deviate from Paleo, or not to deviate from Paleo?….. NOT.
Hands up if this sounds like you: You start a new training regime or diet, go gung-ho into it and then gradually lose your enthusiasm until you’re back to where you started.
Anyone? Ah, yes. Most of you. Me too, back in the day.
And yet, we all keep doing it, despite the fact that we’ve all been down this road before and failed. Finally, I’ve come to the realisation that there is a better way; a more sustainable way. That is to not seek perfection when it comes to a new way of eating or training, but to roll with the punches when they come, and find your own way of doing it – your own code of what’s an acceptable deviation from your new path.
Let me give you a personal example. It’s my Mum’s birthday later on this month, and at some point, a birthday cake will be wheeled out. Now, my own rules on this are already well established. As a real-food eater, I avoid cakes that have been made with grains, sugar and ingredients I can’t pronounce (which pretty much rules out any cake bought in a shop, by the way).
So the birthday cake rule is this: If I’m offered a cake that’s been bought in a shop, I politely decline. I know it won’t make me feel good, and I know I can do without it. Socially, there may be a touch of awkwardness and some people may even encourage me to have a slice; ‘spoil sport, c’moooonnnn it’s blah-blah’s birthday, live a little’ etc etc. It’s still a no. Everyone will forget about it a few minutes after the cake, guaranteed.
However, if someone has gone to a lot of effort to make the cake from scratch, even if it has ingredients in it that I wouldn’t normally eat, I’ll have a slice. For me, that’s an acceptable deviation which fits with how I want to be socially.
(As an aside, can you imagine someone saying to a vegetarian ‘oh go on, just eat a little bit of steak. Don’t be a spoilsport!’)
There are a lot of situations like this when you’re on a Paleo diet. There are a lot of questions to ask, and as you learn more and more and refine even further, somethings you’ll get tighter on, and other things you’ll loosen up on.
So, here’s a few other ideas that make up my own code. Yours will be completely different, I’m sure, but these have helped me transition to a Paleo diet and maintain it, making it a sustainable, fun and nourishing part of my life:
Fast food is out…except…
I don’t eat fast food. Reading Fast Food Nation put paid to it years ago, way before I discovered Paleo. It was a persuasive book! That said, this summer we did eat quite a bit in Chipotle. Technically, it’s fast food, but it allowed us to stay within the Paleo boundaries (by choosing the Mexican salad option) and grab food quickly when we needed to grab and go (normally because we’d messed up Lucas timings!).
In New York, where budget and convenience were a big factor, it saved us a couple of times. Chipotle also appear to be making a big effort on the quality of their meat, choosing local and sustainable sources which are humanely raised.
I’ll also make an exception for food-trucks. Again, I would class this as fast food, but when a barbecue truck pulls up at Kerb over the summer…well, sampling some pretty amazing food falls under my acceptable deviation list! And yet! If it’s in a bun, I’ll ask for it bunless and have some extra salad. I’m sure the BBQ sauce doesn’t meet my sugar-standards, but as this is a once-a-summer occurrence, that’s okay.
Biscuits, cakes and muffins
Biscuits? They’re dead to me. I mean, I totally get it when someone who is on a fairly strict Paleo diet deviates for an amazing slice of cheesecake, or a Borough Market chocolate brownie. But a crappy, standard biscuit? C’mon people!
A cultural experience, or a unique food
Across the world, nations and cultures have signature dishes that are radically different from the food we eat. For me, part of what makes life interesting is trying those foods. My corporate career took me to Singapore fairly regularly.
On my last few visits, a few of my pals took me to off-the-beaten-track hawker markets where I had some of the most amazing food I’ve ever sampled. It was authentic, what the locals eat, and cost a fraction of the bland hotel food that I could have had instead.
I sat with my Singaporean friends and thoroughly enjoyed the meal and the experience. Pretty much none of the food was Paleo, but in that moment, that didn’t matter one bit for me. The experience was incredible, and well worth it. I did fast the next morning though…
Eating out when on a Paleo code
My thinking about eating out has definitely evolved since Lucas came along. Mainly because we now so rarely eat out! Again, this is an example of where I have my own code. When I first changed to Paleo, I was really strict, and would stick to the diet rigidly when I went out. I wasn’t quite at the ‘what cooking oil do you use?’ level, but I would reject all grains and sugar. Now, I’m a little more flexible, and will partake in something amazing if it presents itself.
In general, I avoid starters, unless I see something like prawns. Most appetizers are battered or fried, so I can live without them. For main course, I tend to have steak, lamb, or ribs, which I would have chosen even if I didn’t eat weird. But dessert is where I will sometimes just go for it. It’s not every time, and there still has to be something which I think will be special, but I am cool with having a dessert and not feeling any guilt at all.
An example. If I’m going out to any kind of ‘chain’ restaurant, I will most likely avoid dessert. It’s only been made in some factory and shipped in, anyway. But, if I’m going to a local or fancy-pants restaurant where a chef actually put some care and attention into creating a dessert…well, if it looks up my street, I’ll give it a go.
First, let me say that I don’t feel clued up enough to make this a Paleo v Vegetarian v Vegan discussion. I’ve read enough to know that each diet has its flaws, and that anyone who says that eating their way is a ‘no-brainer’ perhaps doesn’t need their brain, as they’re not using it. But I’ve not retained enough information to fight my corner effectively, so let’s save that fight for another day.
Paleo, for me, is not just a low carb diet. When Angie and I started Live Simple, we made sure that sustainability, the environment and the earth were all wrapped up in our philosophies. We care deeply about that kind of stuff. So eating low carb is just one aspect of it – that’s the aspect which I think will be beneficial to your body.
But then there’s the ‘where does the protein come from?’ aspect, and that is where Paleo, Vegetarian and Vegan align in their hatred of conventionally raised meat. It’s not good for the animals, it’s not good for the people that eat it, it’s not good for the planet.
It’s just not good.
Actually, it’s more than that – I personally think that factory farming animals is right up there as one of the most awful things humans do. For me, there is still an argument for eating meat, but because I choose to do so, I want that meat to be from animals who are well cared for, fed what they should be fed, and raised by farmers rather than machines.
Eating high-quality meat is an aspect of Paleo that’s evolved more for me over the past few years, and it probably comes from thinking less about myself and more about my impact on the world. Eating quality meat has been high on our agenda this year, and we’re raising our standards even more.
Where organic and free range used to be enough, we’re going to demand more – which will mean paying a bit extra and doing a bit more research. But, I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do. I also think you’d find that most people that get really interested in Paleo would share my opinions here.
A snapshot of my Paleo code
So there you have it. A snapshot of my own Paleo code, and how I’ve included some flexibility (or not) as I’ve adapted my diet over the years. Critically, if I do deviate from the diet within my code, I don’t use it as an excuse to eat more rubbish food.
When I’m working with clients on the nutritional side of things, we have a golden rule: ‘make the next meal awesome’. It nips the downward spiral in the bud, and it’s a rule I follow myself 100%.
When I first discovered the Primal diet (which led to Paleo, then real-food, then to my own version), I was super strict and didn’t eat anything ‘off plan’. But, when I did go off plan and succumb to temptation, I felt guilty. Ridiculously guilty.
Now that I have my own code in place, the guilt doesn’t come; the deviations are all part of the bigger picture, and are there to be enjoyed.
James has come to writing and blog writing in particular, late in life. When not working as a systems analyst for an American Telco, he spends his time honing his writing skills on our blog and commuting between Houston and Dar es Salam to the family home in Mikocheni.