During my lunch hours working for a big telco in the 90s, I unleashed carefully wrapped baggies of carrots from my desk and ate them slowly, imagining my new Christie Turlington body, all glossy legs and sinewy arms. Years later I mixed strawberry yogurt with cottage cheese and tried not to dry heave as I gagged down the clotted mixture — purportedly the “perfect balance” of protein and carbs.
In 2002, I downed Hydroxycut pills in an effort to slim down for a holiday in Thailand with my brother and his teeny, flat-bellied girlfriend. The pills made me jittery and more than slightly teeth-gnashy but I grimly kept taking them. They made me skinnier and I didn’t have to eat bags of carrots and gallons of loathsome cottage cheese!
Like a lot of women, I’ve tried many diets over the years: starvation, fad, insane and impossible. They were all temporary. No woman can subsist on carrots alone and most “diets” aren’t meant for long-term usage. They inevitably fail, which is why new ones keep coming out. The problem of eating delicious food while still rocking a confidently lean body seems to have not yet been solved.
In 2005, I had a baby and stopped thinking about diets; I only had time to swipe snippets of my baby’s soggy crackers and sips of lukewarm coffee. I lost weight because I stopped eating, but I looked unhealthy — my skin was sallow and I was bloated in a fat-skinny frame.
When I started dating Corey and his chiseled torso in 2009, I again became interested in diets. He was so conscious of what he ate: egg whites, plain chicken breasts and vanilla protein shakes mixed only with water. My skinny frame was decent in clothes but a quivery unhealthy mess underneath my sweater and I felt ashamed of my neglected body. I needed to find a diet that worked and I could live with and perhaps, one day, might contribute to some pretty, functional muscle.
Corey and I enjoyed running together and, when we started living together, we realized we also liked to cook together. We were both interested in optimizing our workouts and our bodies. Corey wanted to find a diet that didn’t necessitate being hungry all the time, and I just wanted to glean some of his leanness. We tried a lot: Body for Life, the Zone diet, low cal and low fat. Body for Life was OK, but it wasn’t until we found the Paleo diet that we discovered a very simple diet that actually produced tangible, fast and sustainable results.
I’ve talked about the premise before, and it’s gaining in popularity, so you may have heard too. The Paleo diet requires that you eat real food — vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, meat and that’s it. If it has a food label, it’s probably not Paleo. It sounds crazily restrictive but, in fact, once you get going, it’s incredibly easy. This morning, I had a pumpkin raisin muffin (made with almond flour) and some sliced strawberries and almond milk. We had organic turkey and whole carrots for lunch. Options for dinner include everything from shepherd’s pie (with cauliflower topping) to a yam casserole with red peppers and tuna. Snacks can be nuts, fruit with a swipe of almond butter or maybe some celery filled with tuna salad. Paleo portions are not restrictive and we are never hungry.
Six weeks postpartum, I am energetic and my belly is almost totally flat again. I wholeheartedly believe that I can credit exercise and adherence to a whole food diet, with the latter being (arguably) most important.
Here are five diet truths that have worked for me over the last three years:
1. Use vegetable alternatives to pasta and bread
If a strict adherence to a Paleo diet seems too drastic for you, cutting out pasta and bread is the next best thing you can do for your body and your energy levels. During my pregnancy, I experienced heavy cravings for English muffins and raisin bread and allowed myself to indulge once in a while. While they tasted amazing, I immediately noticed bloat and indigestion. Now that I am postpartum, I have cut out bread again and can already see my muscles making a comeback — not to mention my energy levels. We use spaghetti squash instead of noodles and coconut flour peppered with cumin and garlic to make wraps for tacos. Creativity gets amazing results.
2. There is no such thing as a meal replacement
Lately, a few friends have been extolling the virtues of protein shakes as meal replacements. I’m against this as a long-term solution. Shakes might be OK as a way to lose some weight in the short term, but I don’t believe in their viability as a permanent solution. Who wants a preservative-filled drink for lunch instead of an an almond-grape chicken salad? Not me, and definitely not for more than an occasional post-workout meal in a pinch. Protein shakes might be OK for a post-workout pick-me-up, but I don’t know anyone who’s subsisted on shakes as a meal replacement for any length of time. And that’s probably a good thing.
3. Eat a big breakfast
You’ve heard this before and there’s a reason why. A robust, hearty breakfast will fuel you for the morning and help curb your urge to reach for starchy, bloating food later in the day. Corey almost always has an omelette filled with lean meat and vegetables, and I love fruit salad and a paleo muffin or a salmon frittata. You can also get creative here: Baked acorn squash, mashed and filled with coconut milk, fruit and sliced almonds is a hearty and delicious morning treat.
4. Throw out your scale?
I gained 16 pounds when I started eating Paleo and exercising almost every day. I only knew this because I got a body comp test and learned I’d lost oodles of fat and gained muscle mass. Though I’d gained weight, I’d also gained visible abs, firm arms and tighter legs. I looked so much better than when skinny and sallow — even though the scale showed “regression.” I had to learn to use the way my clothes fit and the way I looked as a true gauge of success — numbers on a scale mean nothing.
5. Think simple
Months ago I had a call from a panicked friend who was trying the Paleo diet for the first time. He was rummaging around frantically at the grocery store, looking for the “proper” foods to buy.
“Popcorn!” he yelled through the phone. “Is popcorn OK?”
“Basically stick to the outside aisles — the meat and the produce and you’re OK,” I said. “If there’s a word you’ve never seen on the ingredient list of something, then you don’t want it. No salt, no dairy, no sugar, and you’re set.”
The Paleo diet is somewhat time consuming. Store bought sauces are often out because there is so much sodium and additives even in the organic brands. But homemade tastes so much better anyway, and Corey and I enjoy cooking at home together and coming up with new recipes all the time.
This is a diet I can see us following for the rest of our lives, without feeling deprived, jittery or tired. There’s no need to count calories, weigh food or ignore a rumbling belly.
With food, like almost anything else, it seems true that simple is best, and it has definitely worked for us. I’d encourage you to give it a try for a month, and if you do, let me know what you think.