Are Meal Plans Paleo?
I have a confession: I have a terrible sense of direction. In fact, I’ve lived in San Jose for two years, and I still can’t find my way around this town without my GPS app running. While this is a sprawling, confusing town to navigate,* you’d think that after two years I could at least figure out how to get to the places I always visit without Siri politely reminding me to “turn left in 500 feet.”
I’ve only recently begun to think that there might be a problem with the fact that I can’t seem to find my way without help. After all…it didn’t take me that long to figure out directions when I was first learning to drive in South Florida. Why was I able to get from point A to point B without an eloquent, satellite-run iPhone app then but not now?
The difference, I realized, was that I no longer have to think about where I’m going, because someone (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing Apple’s servers, just let it happen) I “know” and trust is telling me where to go.
I don’t have to remember road signs, make decisions about when to go left or right, or discover back alleyways when I accidentally take the wrong route. The entire learning process has been superseded because my Maps make sure I don’t need to learn. And so I coast from the map to map, but god forbid my iPhone to run out of battery before I reach my destination…
If not, let’s try this one:
When I was a little kid, I mostly ate what we had around the house and when I was hungry. Sure, I knew that there were institutions like “breakfast,” “lunch,” and “dinner,” but the decision about whether I would have peanut butter and jelly or tuna salad sandwich was not a major source of anxiety. And snacks? Yeah, they happened whenever. No big deal.
As the years went on, and I learned first that soy was the seed of the devil, and then saturated fat, and then bread, and then animal meat, etc., etc., my mealtime anxiety began to rise. Feeling unsure of the best route, nutritionally speaking, I started seeking out maps in the form of women’s magazines and “healthy” food blogs.
Of course, that actually confused me more, because even though I had the map (which of this week’s “7 Most Important Super Foods” should I be eating?), I still didn’t know the best route to weight loss, fitness, and health.
So I started reading fitness magazines with meal plans, calorie counts, meal timing, and macronutrient breakdowns. I started using meal-logging apps to tell me when I had strayed too far off-course. I chose the easy road by measuring and bulk-cooking the same “safe foods” over and over again and eating them every day in the same order.
And so many of the women (and some of the men!) who have reached out to me have expressed the same frustration that I now feel when I get in the car and put on my seatbelt—or stand in front of the refrigerator, trying to figure out what in the hell to eat.
Even here in the “Paleo” community, I see folks struggling with the same exact problem that I dealt with when I was bodybuilding and later vegan: what do I eat? When do I eat it? If I IF, can I still work out in the morning and not lose muscle? Do you have a meal plan for someone who is low carb autoimmune Paleo who Crossfits and also is nursing a baby? Do you have a meal plan for someone who doesn’t want to be on a diet?**
I think we’ve made such great strides in the Paleo/ancestral health world—introducing local, seasonal, biologically appropriate foods into the almost-mainstream is a huge win—however, I think we, as a plugged in, podcast-and-blog-advice-consuming community, still have a long way to go.
For every person who just eats when they’re hungry and stops when they’re full no matter what time it is or how it fits in with their macros, I meet another hundred who want to buy a meal plan and coast on mealtime autopilot for the next 30 days.
And this is not to say that those of us who do provide meal plans and offer suggestions for meal timing, optimal food ratios and combinations, and the like are doing anything wrong; like Apple and Google, they’re just offering a map to the lost and confused. But I’m just wondering out loud what might happen if we all stopped offering advice—not just in the Paleo world, but on the internet and in the media at large.
I’d like to think that after a few days of confusion and uncertainty, we might pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, find our way to the grocery store, and figure out what to eat, all on our lonesome. It might not be “optimal.” We might gain or lose weight. We might not have six packs. But I guarantee, we’d start tuning into our hunger signals and figuring out that we don’t need to be eating the same X meals and Y times every day.
This is something I’ve been experimenting with myself: no diet. No meal plans. Bulk cooking for the sake of having food in the fridge during the work week, but not planning which meals to eat when. Sometimes I have salads and sometimes I have cooked veggies.
Sometimes, all I want is a scoop of nut butter. And it’s scary as hell because I don’t know if I’m taking a left turn that’s going to spiral me into massive weight gain or loss, but at the same time…I no longer feel panicky when it’s 12:59, and I haven’t taken my lunch break yet.
Or can we lose weight, cure/manage our diseases, get fit, and all of the other things we want Paleo to do for us without turning to someone else’s guide? Can we learn to read the map ourselves, or better yet, take the road less traveled and figure it out as we go?
I don’t know. I’d like to think that this is possible. That we can go “all-the-way Paleo” and stop dieting once and for all. Until then…I’ll be the girl cutting across three lanes of traffic, desperately trying not to miss the exit on the highway.***
*Somehow, every road runs North, yet they all connect. IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. San Jose city planners, y’all might want to get on that. Just sayin’.
**This, my friends, is a paradox that makes my brain hurt. We can’t have it all—either we have a plan or we don’t, and these days, I’m leaning toward: don’t.
***Seriously. Never ask me to be your road trip copilot. We will get lost.