Embracing my inner cavewoman

A week-long trial of the Paleo diet

One of Zhang’s Paleo-friendly meals.
Image by: Kailun Zhang
One of Zhang’s Paleo-friendly meals.

Last week, I paid homage to my prehistoric ancestors by eating a copious amount of boiled broccoli. 

According to enthusiasts of something called the Palaeolithic diet, our ancestors from 10,000 years ago ate better than we do today. So I gave their dead, caveman spirits the benefit of the doubt and went Paleo for a week.

Before the agricultural revolution brought farming, we homo sapiens had to take what the good land gave us — animal meat, plants and seeds. Paleo dieting aims to follow a similar food regimen, restricting grains, dairy, legumes and processed food. 

Although particularly popular among CrossFit and body building communities, the Paleo diet has made its way into mainstream dieting. It even beat the juice cleanse for most Googled diet in 2013. 

The first thing I did on the morning of day one was download a couple of Paleo recipe apps onto my iPhone. It was like Paleo food porn, and it kept my spirits up about the whole only-eating-plants-and-animals situation. I didn’t actually make a single recipe from the apps, but it was fun to look at while I already started dreaming of bread.

The first few days were, to my pleasant surprise, painless. Still living at home for the summer, I had full access to a fridge full of fresh food.

In a combination of laziness, and not wanting to drive myself into obsession, I also didn’t prepare fancy dinners for myself and eat it haughtily if my family was having something else. 

Instead I ate what I could of what they were eating. Luckily my mother kept me in mind while she planned meals for the week — I just had to make small adjustments like picking the potatoes out of my pot roast.

My grandmother, who’s living with my family over the summer, wasn’t completely on board with the Paleo idea. She scolded me for throwing my diet and body off balance by imposing such drastic restrictions so suddenly. I still don’t know if I’ve got her completely convinced that this wasn’t a desperate attempt to lose 10 pounds. 

“I’m 70 and look, I still have these thick thighs! You just have to embrace them!”

I got some good pep talks nonetheless.

The third and fourth day was when the diet started to take its toll. I was feeling lethargic and somewhat under the weather. I knew it couldn’t have been solely the diet backfiring on me because I could taste that unmistakable bitter, sick flavour in my throat. 

It’s hard to tell if my eating was affecting me in a good or bad way, if at all. Continuing to eat fruits and veggies couldn’t have made it worse, but I could’ve done with a few more carbs for energy. 

The Paleo diet is often discredited for promoting a low-carb lifestyle, when starchy carbs are argued to have actually been a large part of cavemen’s diets and are vital source of energy. Having worked in a restaurant, I’ve seen enough lettuce-cupped hamburgers and gluten-free pizza doughs to conclude that even outside of the Paleo diet, starchy carbs are deemed the devil. And perhaps unfairly so, because while a cold was definitely a factor in feeling bogged down, the tiredness I felt in my body was hard to ignore.

Accordingly, I tried to dig deeper for my inner cavewoman and eat more meat. 

When you can only eat meat and a selection of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, a hearty meal relies heavily on its protein counterpart. I’ve never been a huge meat lover — particularly of the red variety — but what else was I going to eat that’s salty and chewy? Seasoned kale? 

With my cold thankfully plateauing at nasal congestion and a sluggish feeling, I still had an appetite. Paired with some vegetables, I was loving a good piece of chicken or salmon, and I wasn’t having resounding issues with feeling hungry. Still, coming down to it, I wouldn’t say I was enjoying the entire Paleo experience. 

Maybe cavemen did eat more wholesome foods than us, but I don’t think cookies were created for nutritional purposes. They ate to survive; we 2015 humanoids eat for many more reasons than that.

When I was out for dinner with some friends on the seventh day, I couldn’t split a dessert or try their food. At work, my manager brought in pizza, and I couldn’t have a slice. My grandma made “bing” — my childhood favourite pita-like bread — one night for dinner, and I longingly watched my sister eat it while it was warm out of the pan.

Unlike our caveman counterparts, eating isn’t just a routine chore to keep us alive. I eat when I’m sad. I eat when I’m stressed. I eat when I’m happy. I eat when I feel like celebrating. I eat with friends. 

Of course, the core function of eating is still physical. We haven’t reached the point where we can slurp back magic sludge and get all our nutritional needs fulfilled. But I think that food is meant to be enjoyed, and a crash version of the Paleo diet certainly didn’t promote that for me.

My weeklong stint was an interesting challenge. There was something nice about eating so simply, but personally, all the restrictions and rules of a specific diet just made me feel deprived of the joys of modern food.

The day after I ended the Paleo diet, my sister made cupcakes. I ate one happily. The cavemen didn’t know what they were missing.

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