5 Reasons Your Paleo Diet Isn’t Working

posted in: Nutrition and Movement | 0

The Paleo/Real Food movement is an undeniable one. It seems simple enough: eat real foods that you could’ve gotten before industrialized agriculture came around. Eat whole, unprocessed, natural foods. Cut out grains, sugar, and dairy. Easy peasy.

You may think that this is the magic bullet. Just a few weeks and you’re going to look AMAZING. You’re going to have a six pack and have all the energy in the world! Your health problems will vanish!

Then a few weeks go by…and sure, maybe you’ve started to see some changes, but it’s not the cure-all that you expected, and you haven’t lost those love handles that you thought would quickly evaporate. Why?!

This was supposed to be the promised land! This nutritious diet was supposed to solve everything! What went wrong?

The following are the top five reasons that this mystical switch to Paleo/Real Food you’ve made isn’t working or why you’re possibly even gaining fat.

Here’s what you’re doing wrong and what you can do it fix it.

1) A tray of Paleo or Gluten Free brownies is still a tray of brownies.

Just because a recipe says “Paleo” in front of it, doesn’t mean you can eat it all day long without recourse. It’s still food. Maple Syrup is still a sugar. So is coconut sugar. So is honey. So is organic cane sugar. These items are still calorie dense, with little nutritive value, and cause an insulin spike. True, your body knows what to do with these natural sweeteners as opposed to refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, but that doesn’t mean that eating them by the bucket will make you magically lean.

I see lots of folks new to Paleo posting dozens of recipes they’ve found for Paleo cookies, ‘healthy’ donuts, Paleo cakes, gluten free brownies….then they complain “I went Paleo and I haven’t lost any fat.”, or that “this doesn’t work”. Take a minute to read the intro to a dessert section of a Paleo cookbook. This line is ALWAYS there: “These recipes should be be treats, enjoyed occasionally.” So basically, on those nights you decide to have a dessert, have something that is natural and a bit better for you than your standard flour and sugar concoction. Not make a batch of these and destroy the whole tray in one sitting because hey, it’s PALEO! You need to back away from the idea that “Paleo” means “doesn’t count”. There’s no such thing as a ‘healthy’ dessert or baked good. There are versions that are less damaging, or even neutral to your health, but sweets (gluten free or not) do not add to your health.

Common sense tells us that lean meats, veggies, fruit and some nuts are nourishing options while sugar, booze, and grains are not.  Use Paleo desserts as you would any dessert – to be enjoyed sometimes when you need a fix. “Paleo” is the new “Skinny” when it comes to labeling. Just because it says Paleo on it, doesn’t mean its magic.

Quick Fix: Save Paleo desserts for occasional treats. Make a batch of cookies or brownies and bring them into your box to share with your community. This way you only have a few at home that you can enjoy and you’ve brought some tasty joy to others.

2) You are eating all the meat, and none of the vegetables.
Paleo is not meat-centric. Quantity still matters.

For the women out there, this one could also be “Just because your boyfriend is having a 20 oz rib eye, doesn’t mean you should, too.”. This one is very much a result of my own “research”. Years ago, when I realized that I needed to tinker with my nutrition, I finally bit the bullet and met with our box nutritionist at the time. He had me journal my food for a week and come back. “What you’re eating isn’t bad…but you have no reason to eat a 20 oz steak.” Essentially, while WHAT I was eating was all well and good, I was eating way too much of it. He even told me that while he doesn’t usually suggest people pay attention to calories, I really needed to watch my portions. Working out for an hour a day doesn’t mean that you have free reign to eat everything in sight. You have to figure out what works for you and your body instead of just taking a book you found that says “this is paleo!!”. I do not advocate calorie counting, but rather eating what’s appropriate for your training and goals.

Paleo/Real Food in it’s love of bacon and grass fed steak, has the reputation of being all about the meat. The truth is, it’s about balance. We’re talking about maximizing the nutrient level on every plate. That means variety. That means a vast mix of vegetables as well as a sampling of the animal kingdom. Every animal, plant, seed, nut, fat, and fruit, has something different to offer on the vitamin/mineral/fatty acid/amino acid scale. The best way to achieve wellness is to incorporate as many as possible. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Too much grass-fed steak is still TOO MUCH.

It’s also possible to be eating far too little when removing wheat, grains, dairy and processed foods. This not only effects your health, but will stall weight loss. Rather, it will cause weight loss on a scale as your body breaks down muscle tissue for energy, but it will stall your ability to burn and drop excess body fat. For women, generally we need over 1700 calories per day, and men over 2000 (though this depends significantly on the individuals body, weight, height, and activity level).

Easy Fix: When build your plate, start with lots of veggies. Then add an appropriate amount of protein (daily goal should be between .7g-1.25g per lb of body weight, closer to the higher end for men and those trying to gain muscle mass) and add some healthy fats (use veggies as fat-vehicles). Drink a small glass of lemon water 30 min before your meal and make sure to chew your food. Pay attention to when you’re feeling satiated…and stop. 

3) The 80/20 Rule Doesn’t mean eat junk food half the time.

The infamous 80/20 rule. 80% of the time, you’re sticking to your real-food plan. 20% of the time you real and indulge.

Some creative math is often what allows this rule of thumb to spiral out of control. If you find yourself eating perfectly-paleo all week and just “cheating” on the weekend yet still not seeing or feeling results…then this is for you.

Here’s the truth to the weekend-long days ‘off’: The week is 7 days. Say you eat nutrient-dense foods Monday-Friday afternoon (4 1/2 days), then let your hair down and have ‘cheat meals’ and drinks Friday night – Sunday (2 1/2) days. No wonder you’re stuck. What you may have thought was 80/20, is really more like 60/40.

You need consistency to see results. The honest truth is that you really make a full on lifestyle change. This means it’s time to stop thinking of Paleo as a DIET. I hate that word. Diets will never work long term. You need to change your thinking. All of those “non paleo” things that dominate the weekends needed to be redistributed as occasional indulgences. For many, that means maybe once a week. The majority of your food intake, especially if you’re focused on body-composition, needs to be out of the “better choice” column. That’s just how it is. You cannot have your gluten free cake and eat it, too, if you’re still working towards goals. Maintaining, that’s a whole other ball game.

Quick Fix: Decide ahead of time when you will indulge, and be smarter about what you indulge on.  Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. When you’ve got a plan, you’re less likely to crash and randomly gorge on a box of Thin Mints. I generally suggest to continuously avoid gluten and chemical additives. Opt for better quality options, even when it comes to treats.


4) You’re comparing yourself to a high-level athlete and using them as your barometer.

You do not train multiple times a day. Even if you DO, you don’t do it at their level of intensity. I heard Jason Khalipa (CrossFit Games 2008 Champ, top finisher every year since and 2nd in 2013) talking about this. He said that any CrossFitter can do any workout he does but he will beat them because they aren’t at his level of intensity. This is why these people are the top 1%. They are the outliers. They are the people who can work so hard and be happy in the suffering that comes with it. We are not them. We can aspire to that, sure. But until you’re doing it…it doesn’t matter how they eat because you are not them. For that matter, there is a lot of talk about ‘flexible dieting’ and how as long as you keep your macros in the right proportions, you can eat WHATEVER you want and get lean. Donuts and all. Does it work for people? Yes. Does it mean they’re HEALTHY? No. You can’t out ratio, out exercise, or out ‘flex’ what a donut does to your pancreas. Regardless of if you end up with a six pack. We cannot continue to associate leanness with health, or happiness for that matter.

Quick Fix: Eat for your body and activity level, don’t simply copy someone else’s you heard on a podcast. You are not them. What works for them, will not necessarily work for you.  It’s great to have people to look up to and aspire to emulate, but you have to remember that you are your own person, with your own unique needs.

5) You’re a liar.

I don’t mean this as an attack on you. I’m sure you’re a lovely person. Here is an exchange that will illustrate what I mean:

“I’m not losing weight on this. I am pretty sure I’ve gained weight.”
“Really? How is that possible? Are you eating a lot of potatoes or honey or something?”
“What are you eating?”
“Honestly, I’ve barely even had cheat meals! I’ve just been eating what’s Paleo. I really think I’m eating too many vegetables.”

OK. No, you’re not. No one ever got fat from eating spinach. Spinach in cream and cheese? Maybe. This goes back to that 80/20 thing we were talking about. You have to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t matter what you tell other people. Your body knows the truth. Just because I don’t tell you that ate a pizza, doesn’t mean that said eating of pizza never happened. I can hide the evidence all I want. Your body knows what really happened. Just because we tell ourselves “Well, it’s not that bad! I only had three beers instead of the usual five.”, doesn’t make those beers transform into water. The body is still keeping tabs. The only way to be successful is to be truly, painfully honest. For many, that means keeping a journal for a few weeks and seeing where you’re actually at. It allows you to take real responsibility for yourself and change habits. It’s the simplest thing you can do. When it comes to making a real, lasting change: Honesty is the best policy.

Quick Fix: Keep a food journal for two weeks. Eat the way you’ve been eating, but log EVERYTHING. Force yourself to write down every little thing that goes in your gullet. This will give you a snapshot of how you ACTUALLY eat vs how you THINK you eat. Then, make the necessary changes.

At the end of the day the answer is simple: You need to find what works for YOU.

It doesn’t matter what book you read, or what Paleo ‘rules’ you are following or what challenge you signed up for. Your body is a lab. You have to experiment to see what creates optimal results. If what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to tweak it. You’re not going to be able to listen to what someone else does, mirror that exactly, and have the same end result. We know eating real, whole food works. It’s in the fine tuning for the results YOU want that the magic happens. Try some different approaches out. Give each one a few weeks and see how you FEEL. How you FEEL is the best indicator there is. Your body is telling you what you need to do to put on weight, to lean out, to feel energized. Learn to listen.


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