Though the paleo diet has swept the nation-glorified by workout fanatics and talk show hosts alike-it wasn’t until recently that I encountered someone who actually followed it. During a potluck dinner, one of my running buddies passed around a dish. She exclaimed, “It’s gluten-free, dairy-free and paleo-friendly!” Politely, I took a bite of the chocolate-almond dessert bar she’d shared. To my surprise, they tasted just like the Nanaimo Bars I loved as a kid! “What does paleo even mean?” I asked, licking my fingers clean. Little did I know, I was opening up a much larger conversation.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The paleo (or caveman) diet encourages people to only consume foods that were available to humans during the Paleolithic era. Because food was not mass-produced or overly processed back then, the argument goes, it was more wholesome and better for the human body. My friend confessed that she began it as a way to cut big pasta dinners out of her life.
Intrigued (and slightly infatuated with the dessert bars she made), I continued my research at home. What exactly did cavemen eat? Could I possibly try this out? (If it meant more delicious treats, of course, the answer was yes!)
The list of limitations starts out much like any other diet.
- No processed foods (e.g. chips, pretzels, candy and pastries)
- No soda
- No refined sugar
- No alcohol
Alright, I thought. I can do this. Then I read further:
- No grains
- No legumes
- No dairy
This could be a deal breaker for a pasta-loving cheese connoisseur like myself. No beans, butter or bread? I decided to put my paleo thoughts on pause.
Months passed before I gave the diet a second thought. During that time, I moved next door to an Italian market and bakery. Alas, my biggest loves were steps away: fresh baked bread, creamy bins of gelato, handmade pasta and a sprawling assortment of cheese. Needless to say, I went on a carb and dairy binge. And then, recalling my friend’s experience, I decided to give paleo a try. Here’s how it went:
I began on the weekend so I could focus on the task at hand. Unfortunately, my fridge was pretty bare that Saturday morning. Since my typical eggs-and-toast routine wouldn’t pass for paleo, I had to think. Then it hit me-shakshuka. (P.S. Here are dozens of other recipes to make when your fridge is bare.) Shakshuka is an easy skillet meal composed of tomatoes and eggs. (No dairy or bread in that!) I whipped the dish together in minutes, adding lots of spices to the mix. The eggs didn’t seem like enough to fuel me through my busy day, so I added a cup of black beans for good measure.
As I dug in, I had second thoughts. I whipped out my phone and quickly Googled, “Are black beans paleo?” Nope. This was my first paleo fail.
Takeaway: Many healthy pantry items, such as canned beans, are not paleo-friendly.
Since I live alone, I rely heavily on make-ahead, freezer-friendly meals. It’s a great way to keep leftovers in rotation for weeks at a time. A frozen pork roast with yummy homemade gravy and roasted veggies was calling my name. Then, recalling that my gravy had been thickened with all-purpose flour-something cavemen definitely didn’t have-I sadly scraped off the sauce with my knife.
Takeaway: You can adapt non-paleo recipes pretty easily, but it might sacrifice flavor.
Shredded Chicken Tacos, Deconstructed
Breakfast consisted of eggs and cooked spinach-a paleo success! For lunch, I had my heart set on shredded chicken tacos. Tortillas are so tasty, but so not paleo, so I knew I’d have to make a few adjustments. Looking at my sad deconstructed taco, I thought to add some brown rice, to make the dish more like a burrito bowl. (Check out more fast-food-inspired recipes here.) I topped my creation off with a little salsa and sour cream. Mmm!
Checking my ingredients online once again, I realized my latest mistakes. Rice-even healthy brown rice-isn’t permitted in this diet. And the sour cream? Well, I should have known better. (Trying to avoid dairy? You won’t believe these recipes are dairy-free.)
Takeaway: Just because food is healthy, doesn’t mean it’s paleo. And just because sour cream is delicious…well, you get the idea.
Sunday is my grocery-shopping day. I felt confident that, with the right ingredients, I could stop inadvertently cheating on this diet. On my way to the store, I passed my beloved bakery. The smell of fresh-baked bread nearly knocked me over.
Takeaway: The temptation for non-paleo food is real!
At the store, I mapped out the rest of the week’s meals. Filling my basket with items from the produce section and meat counter, I successfully avoided my usual non-paleo staples (pasta, milk, chips).
Takeaway: If you’re looking for fresh, unprocessed ingredients, stick to the outermost sections of the grocery store. In his book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manifesto, writer and James Beard honoree Michael Pollan explains, “Processed food products dominate the center aisles of the store, while the cases of mostly fresh food-produce, meat and fish, dairy-line the walls. If you keep to the edges of the store you’ll be much more likely to wind up with real food in your cart.”
Chicken and Broccoli
That night I put my new ingredients to work making chicken and broccoli-it was simple and fast (kind of like our top-rated dinners in under 30 minutes.) I was happy I still had the fortitude to continue my paleo efforts. Plus, I was gaining new awareness about how much processed food was in my diet.
Back to work! As you might imagine, working at Taste of Home means being constantly confronted with delicious homemade food. Whether it’s leftovers from our Test Kitchen’s daily taste testing or a plate brought in by one of the many home cooks on our staff, every corner of the office is filled with delicious temptations. The cravings hit hard, and I confess I broke down and tried a cookie. Then another. My diet intentions were crumbling fast.
Squash Soup with Ground Turkey
For dinner, I dug into the back of my freezer for something quick. I found a butternut squash soup I had long forgotten about. Yes! These are the moments when I thank myself for freezing leftovers for later. (Learn best practices for freezer-friendly foods.) The soup was yummy, but still I pined for a toasted baguette to pair it with.
Takeaway: Giving up foods you commonly munch on is tough; you crave them out of habit as much as hunger. It’s helpful, though, if you keep snacks or easy meals on hand to curb your appetite.
My family arrived from the East Coast this afternoon, eager to explore Milwaukee. As I gandered at our to-do list (which included a brewery tour, a trip to a local sausage-maker and-of course-a sampling of the state’s finest cheeses), I knew my paleo journey was about to come to a premature end. Brats, fried cheese and the monkey bread I’d planned to bake are not paleo-friendly in the slightest.
There were far too many foods I wanted to cook, share and enjoy with my family. Trying new food together is a bonding experience, and I didn’t want to hinder that with my restrictive diet-so I ended my mission.
And that first bite of cheese-topped sausage on a chewy, golden bun was dee-lish.
Takeaway: Eating paleo at home is tricky, but eating paleo with friends and family is a true feat of strength. Also, the best Midwestern dishes are definitely not paleo.
Although I only made it halfway through my intended seven-day trial, I learned a few important things in the process:
Don’t focus on what you’re giving up. I found it hard to follow the diet because I was very focused on what I was giving up. (No more bread from the bakery or mac and cheese dinners?!) This saddened me because there are so many things I love to cook and eat. Instead of focusing on what I couldn’t have, I think a better approach would be to focus on making the most out of the permitted ingredients. Maybe that means getting a pricey cut of meat from the butcher or scavenging a farmers market for fresh produce.
The most successful diet involves a change in lifestyle. As I attempted paleo, I realized I was unsuccessful because I had one foot out the door. I was only trying out the diet for a few days, so there was no need to truly commit. The people I know who are happy with their paleo diets have turned their entire lives around to suit their eating habits. They know what’s for dinner. They know what to order at the pub. What’s more, their fridges are stocked with all the right ingredients to make delicious dishes. It’s not a diet, it’s a “live-it.”
You can eat healthy without going on a specialized diet. Though the paleo diet is awesome for some people, it’s okay if you don’t hop onboard. Certain aspects, like avoiding processed foods and sugary drinks, are good ideas for everyone, but you can still be healthy without transporting your pantry back to caveman times. When it comes to trendy diets, our food editor and registered dietitian, Peggy Woodward, advises: “Be skeptical of any diet that cuts entire food groups from its plan. Not only will you be missing key nutrients, but it will be hard to sustain a restrictive diet for any length of time in order to reach long term goals and maintain weight loss.” As my attempt illustrates, it certainly is difficult to sustain. Next time, I’ll have to borrow that chocolate-almond bar recipe from my friend.