Expectations in the Paleo World

Based on increasingly numerous testimonials, best selling books, and internet blogs (high five!) over the past few years, the paleo movement could safely be called, I think, a Paleo Movement.    We are advocates and we are examples.  Spurred on by our own logic and personal successes, we reach out to others the best way we know how.  Some of us write blogs and reach millions of people (what up Richard!).  Others work it at the gym and convert cardio addicts.  More still change friends’ and family members’ lives forever, and if that’s not the most fulfilling and badass component of living this way, the devil can up and take my soul, I don’t want it anymore.

I don’t mean to say that the paleo community is intentionally adopting an ideology in any way, or that any sort of group-think brainwashing ever goes on.  Quite the contrary.  The way in which paleo practitioners encourage each other to experiment and to perform their own research is rather inspiring.    Paleohacks rocks my world.  The spirited debates that often spring up between prominent voices, too, on, say, the benefits of starches or the evils of fructose, are also worthy of fierce admiration.

That said, having such a big, open community means that paleo dieters know a lot about each other.   We also know a fair bit about what transformations typically occur on a paleo diet.  Energy increases.  Weight slides off.  Skin clears.  Pains go away.  Digestion becomes regular.  Sleep normalizes.  Circulation improves.  Cholesterol plummets.    And, as one of the highest voted posts on paleohacks asserts, aim improves when throwing crumpled up paper into garbage cans.  These are all totally awesome things.

But they are also expectations.  Paleo is a balm for many ailments, but it is not a panacea.   I can hope to mitigate as many issues as possible with a paleo diet, but I cannot expect all of my problems to go away.   Eating paleo has increased my energy, sharpened my mind, and uniquely sated my appetite.  These benefits have saved my life in many ways, and I am enormously grateful for their place in my life.  However, going paleo has not fixed my Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome, has not made me fertile again, and has not cured my intermittent acne problems.  I hope you are not reading this post and thinking: “yes, but has she really tried eating 100 percent paleo for at least 30 days?”    You bet your sweet ass I have.   I’ve experimented with lots of ideas and methods.  Perhaps I’ll find the solution in time.  But, as it stands, my paleo diet has not cured me of everything, and it would be a bit ridiculous of me to expect otherwise.

Something many people condemn about vegetarianism is that failure to achieve perfect health on the diet is often associated with incompetence or immorality.   Are you an unhealthy vegetarian?  You’re not doing it right.   Are you unhappy?  Maybe you’re going to hell.   I kid you not, these sentiments exist.   (In some misguided circles.)   And they’re hurtful and wrong and confusing and they suck for anyone who is trying to find his way.

The Paleo community is NOT the same.  No way.  But when people don’t experience stellar results with the diet, it’s easy to assume that their methods, rather than our expectations, are to blame.   My mother experiences impaired blood circulation.   Eating a paleo diet should clear up her vascular system, right?   Maybe  she eats too many.. I don’t know.   Maybe she eats too little.. I don’t know.  But there’s got to be something within the paleo arsenal that will cure her capillaries.

Or not.

I think that when we get people on the paleo wagon, it’s best to say: “Here are the few awesome things that I’ve experienced, and here are some cool things I’ve heard happen to other people, too.  But I want you to try it and see for yourself.”   One person may cure his insomnia, but another may be dealing with larger issues that cannot be fixed so easily.  Another may experience cleared acne because he cut dairy, but still another may maintain his cysts because of an adrenal problem.   We never really can tell.   And if we promise a panacea to our friends, we might be setting them up for the same type of perfectionism and disappointment we scorn in the vegetarian movement.

As the Paleo Movement continues to grow, I hope that our raging successes do not compel us to standardize.  We will, undoubtedly, continue to expect the diet to ROCK.   This is a given.   But we should be wary of casting the paleo diet as a cure all.   Disappointment blows, and it often leads to internally-directed frustration.  If you are having problems with your health, do what you can to experiment and to fix it, but don’t blame yourself for your inability to achieve the paleo ideal.    Approach the paleo diet, instead, with an open heart and an open mind, and acknowledge, too, it’s limitations.   Rational optimism is all the rage, and mental and communal health is even cooler.

Am I crazy?  Presumptuous?  Let me know what you think.  Make me thoughtful, make me smart!

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02 2011

12 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    This is such a great post — and an important one for newbies to paleo to read.

    Since I cleaned up my diet, it’s easier to manage my weight, I sleep like a champ, and my mood/energy don’t have crazy peaks and valleys.

    But eating paloe doesn’t wave a magic wand and make one’s life perfect.

    I don’t have a functioning thyroid, so eating clean helps me make sure nothing is interfering with my synthetic thyroid hormones. But even when I eat 100% compliant, I still have the occasional grumpy day or feel tired or can’t sleep my usual eight hours.

    The ‘magical’ part is that when I eat this way, it makes the bumps in the road easier to handle. Eating paleo won’t fix broken relationships or remove all the stress of modern work life, but it surely makes thinkly clearly easier… and makes me feel balanced so I can approach issues and challenges with the best me possible.

    Thanks for this post; love your blog!

    • pepper #

      Melissa– Thank you so much for chiming in. I think your perspective is dead on. The best thing paleo does for me is smooth out the bumps by making a lot of physical and mental problems easier to handle. My favorite aspect is the improved mental clarity. I can’t believe how fatigued and cranky I used to think being was normal. Crazy.

      No, I love YOUR blog! You have the most stunning and admirable sass. I love a strong woman, especially in the paleo movement, so I couldn’t be more grateful for the fact that you write. Rock on, Melissa.

  2. 3

    Hey Pepper. Thanks for the shout. You have a quality blog. Keep at it, please, and keep commenting over at my place to get yourself more traffic.

  3. 4

    This is an excellent post…and the reminder of the vegan trap (“you must be doing it wrong”) is smart and timely. There’s an important difference between enthusiasm (always good) and overselling (counterproductive).

  4. Bodhi #

    Hey Pepper,

    I’ve noticed that quite a few paleo bloggers are posting articles like this, but I really like the way you have stated it. Paleo/Primal is amazing, but…it isn’t magic.

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  9. 10

    So, let me preface this by saying I am not a spambot for prescription drugs (see above), but that I just found your blog and have been going through it for the last half hour with a mixture of joy and utter relief that I am, in fact, NOT the only binge eater struggling with a paleo diet out there like I thought I was.

    This is a great, great post, because this is the exact sort of thing I’m dealing with right now–my skin has only cleared up marginally, my chronic depression has not been cured, I don’t have tons of energy, I can’t fast intermittently, and I can still put away a LOT of food. I have lost almost 20 lbs in 3 months and gained some muscle, but my fiance has lost FORTY-FIVE pounds in the same timeframe and is able to go whole days without eating and I just wonder sometimes what I’m doing wrong. Obviously, falling off the wagon hasn’t been helping, but even since I’ve been strict for the last few weeks, I’ve only lost maybe a pound in that time frame.

    Anyway, what I’m saying is thank you for writing this, and for the rest of the posts on your blog about disordered eating. Paleo has helped, for sure, but it’s not the cure-all everyone makes it out to be–at least not for everyone.

  10. 11

    Great post. I went on a low carb diet over a year ago, eating real, clean food. At some point, I discovered the diet I was eating was in fact paleo. Among other things, I had chronic acne and it got better over time, but it took it a YEAR to completely disappear. I think we can and should assume that Paleo will help chronic disease, but there’s an element we are missing:

    Wrong formula: Paleo food + Paleo activity = health
    Correct formula: (Paleo food + Paleo activity) x Time = health

    Health improves with time as a factor. Paleo can work wonders, but some chronic issues take longer to disappear than we like them to. I think Patience should be a Paleo quality too.

    That said, however, sometimes damage is permanent and may never be reversed. Good luck to everyone out there dealing with health problems. Know that following a Paleo template will give you the best chance to live as healthy a life as your body will provide.

  11. 12

    I was really happy to see this post linked from Whole9 and to find your blog. For me, a combination of the testimonials I read and my joy at the many positive outcomes I experienced after switching to Paleo raised my expectations to an impossible level. Like you, I’ve found that, while being dairy- and gluten-free help, my moderate acne isn’t going anywhere. I still have 1-2 days each month where no matter what I eat or don’t eat, I’ll get a little sick. At the same time, I love some of the expectations that Paleo has encouraged me to give myself. I expect that I will prioritize at least 8 hours of sleep- this has been a game changer for me. I expect that I need to trust my body more than I have in the past, instead of trying to force it into certain actions or habits. I am still learning but at least I feel that my body and I are one in this journey!

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