Is The Paleo Diet too Restrictive?
Is the Paleo Diet Too Restrictive?
Raise your hand if the following sounds familiar:
“I could never [INSERT ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:]”
1. Give up bread/pasta/pizza.
2. Stop drinking soda.
3. Eat that much meat.
4. Restrict my diet.
“You shouldn’t leave out whole food groups. I eat a balanced diet—everything in moderation.”
“You sound like you have an eating disorder. Don’t you know it’s possible to be too healthy?”
You’ve heard all of these complaints… But in reality, is the Paleo Diet too restrictive?
Look, I totally get it. “Paleo,” as a Diet™, can seem weird and restrictive because it’s a set of prescriptions that basically turns the typically accepted western diet on its head. It cuts out “whole food groups,” if you’re counting everything we ingest as a food.* Paleo, as an ‘Official Diet’, is restrictive.
That’s right. I said it.
And so is veganism as an ‘Official Diet’.
And so is Clean Eating as an ‘Official Diet’.
And, in many ways, so is the Western/Standard American Diet.
There are three ways to look at restrictive eating:
The first way is the conscious restriction of food for the purposes of changing body composition (losing weight, changing athletic performance, achieving a certain aesthetic look, etc.) or the purposes of dealing with a medical condition (autoimmunity, neurological disorder, insulin resistance, etc.).
The second way is the conscious restriction of food for ethical, economic, or otherwise peripheral reasons. This can be anything from refusing to eat meat period to refusing to eat CAFO meat; from only buying in-season at your local Whole Foods to only buying what’s available from your local farmer and only within 30 miles of your house.
The third way is unconscious restriction—eating a diet that’s mostly made up of things that are white (flour, sugar, potatoes, etc.) and synthetic (Kraft Macaroni and “Cheese,” I’m looking directly at you), because you’re a “picky” eater or because that’s just what you’ve always eaten and it’s “normal,” so why should you change?
From the above three categories, I would argue that “restriction,” in some form or another, is inevitable no matter what diet you follow. That every single one of us is “restricting” in some way unless we have iron stomachs and adventurous spirits of Andrew Zimmern-like proportions.
I would also argue—and I’m making this argument as a recovering anorectic and 13-year calorie counter, cleanse-doer, fad-diet follower, and restrictive eater, so I make this with the bias of understanding what true restriction looks and feels like—that when someone criticizes Paleo eating as restrictive, orthorexic, or disordered, they’re not always using the word correctly.
So let’s look at both sides of the argument:
Let’s take a look at the following two statements that I have actually heard from real people who live in my own life:
“The Whole30 changed my life. For the first time, I feel like I have freedom with my food.”
“I can’t do another Whole30. It’s too restrictive—It messed with my head.”
Same Whole30. Two different people. One person felt freed from her food addictions and restrictions; another felt like she was being suffocated with restrictive rules. How does that happen?
I think the difference is in perspective. Person One came from a “Standard American Diet,” needing to lose a significant amount of weight for health, and not aesthetic, reasons. She had no concept of what “healthy” portion sizes or food choices looked like, and she spent years struggling with food and sugar addiction** without realizing that she had a problem other than “not being able to stick with a diet.”
The Whole30 gave her the tools she needed to understanding portion size and to start removing the parts of her diet that were harming her—and adding in and exploring the amazing foods that she had been unconsciously restricting as “too healthy” and “just not what she ate” for most of her life.
Person Two, on the other hand, had a background in eating clean. She came from “gym culture,” where macros, calories, and supplements are considered scintillating conversation starters. She did not have a history of eating disorders; however, with a background in, and friends who continued to practice restrictive eating in the name of “perfecting body composition” (meal plans, cheat meals, hitting macros, counting calories, etc.), her approach to the Whole30 was certainly colored by her past experiences.
For her, removing snacks and treats from her diet, giving up certain foods (like nut butters), and following a set plan for a month was akin to the restrictive guidelines she’d subjected herself to in the past—and it was a set up for the same cycle of restrict/binge behavior she had dealt with in the past. It did not work for her.
I know we all love to share the “one diet that worked for me” as if it were the “one diet that works for everybody,” but until we can standardize everyone’s experiences into one human consciousness,*** it just ain’t gonna fly.
Outside of an actual diagnosable eating disorder (marked food avoidance/food fear, nutritional depletion, unhealthy limitation or elimination of food, co-occurring psychological disorders, rapid and abnormal weight loss, etc.), changing your diet to be “gluten-free” or “Paleo” or even “vegan” is not necessarily a red flag for disordered eating. Don’t get me wrong: It can be a red flag, but it is not an absolute.****
Personally, as a recovering anorectic, I avoid anything that calls itself a diet, a meal plan, a cleanse, a detox, etc. I don’t do it because any of those things are inherently bad or restrictive, but because I know that my sick mind will latch onto the rules and regulations as an excuse to restrict. As someone prone to returning to a history of disordered eating, I know what my limitations are in terms of how I keep a healthy relationship with food.
However, as a health coach and as a friend, I often have “regular” (read: not disordered) eaters ask me where they should start in terms of “getting healthy,” and I invariably tell them that they should get their hands on a copy of the Whole30‘s creators’ It Starts with Food (and also Practical Paleo, just because it’s a great book and resource)—or if they’re not ready to go whole hog on Paleo, at least to get a copy of The 21 Day Sugar Detox.
In sharing these resources, I look forward to the ways in which these books will help my friends and acquaintances open up their diets to a more holistic way of eating—from grilled cheese sandwiches and Taco Bell or even batch-cooked and reheated steamed broccoli and grilled chicken breast to adding color to their plates in the form of vegetables or lovingly home-cooked meals full of delicious meats, fats, and spices.
I know that many people think that Paleo is a restrictive diet because it eliminates many “healthy” and “necessary” foods like whole grains, beans/legumes, and sometimes dairy. But if you’re getting adequate nutrition—and not having to take supplements to make up for the lack of variety in your meals—then you’re doing just fine.
If you’re doing “Paleo” by eating the same meats and veggies every single day, then you might be restricting—but switching up chard for kale or picking up a new veggie at the farmer’s market every week or experimenting with liver or bison or duck eggs instead of your go-to chicken or burger or omelette every single day actually provides you with a variety of nutritious foods.
If you’re leaving out whole food groups and thereby causing major nutritional deficiencies*****—or, if you’re only eating the same six “safe” foods over and over again in rotation, then you’re restricting nutrition—and you can call it Paleo, vegetarian, vegan, clean, cabbage soup, Master Cleanse, or SAD, but it’s all the same thing.
You can eat a variety of foods within a template. Restriction is not removing grains or beans from your diet. It’s leaving a hole in your diet where grains used to be. Restriction is not avoiding soy. Doing the same meal plan over and over and over and over because you don’t know how to eat or cook things that don’t contain soy is restrictive. Restriction is not choosing not to eat foods with artificial sweeteners, gums, and synthetic foods. Only eating coconut oil, broccoli, and chicken breast because it’s convenient or other foods scare you is restrictive.
Can’t Eat/Won’t Eat
When I think about “restrictive” eating, I think about avoidance of food because of fear. Fear that it will harm our health for reasons outside of diagnosable medical disorders; fear that it will cause us to fail athletically; fear that it will “make us fat.” Restrictive eating isn’t necessarily about the “can’t eats”—i.e. I am physically unable to eat this food because it kill cause a reaction and/or kill me. It’s the gray area where the “won’t eats” come in.
“Won’t eats” are the personal choices we make—whether we’re Paleo (I won’t eat grains or legumes), vegan (I won’t eat any animal products) or SAD (I won’t eat whatever those icky green things are that are floating in my soup because they look too much like vegetables). Won’t eats don’t make us disordered eaters. It’s when won’t eats become can’t eats, or we give ourselves an ever-diminishing pool of “can eats.”
And it’s when the “can eats” (or the “when I can eat” or the “how I can eat”) start to dwindle that we run into problems.
To give a personal example: I “can’t eat” dairy (even though I want to and have tried more often than I should have) because it physically makes me ill and starts a major hormonal disruption that sends me in a month-long spiral of painful acne. I want to eat dairy. I’m not afraid of it. I’ve looked for solutions, like goat’s milk/goat cheese and, on occasion, thrown caution to the wind and eaten the feta on my salad or the butter on my brussels sprouts anyway.
I “won’t eat” grains or legumes because they make me feel foggy and start up some uncomfortable digestive issues for me. Will bread kill me? Probably not. Do I choose to eat it? No. Does that make me a restrictive eater? No—because I don’t leave that hole unfilled. Leaving out bread is not an obsessive action to reduce the amount of calories I consume, but rather a way for me to put more of the things I like into my diet. I’d rather not eat the bun and go for the helping of extra sweet potato fries when I go out for burgers. It’s just a personal preference, and I feel like I function better because of it.
So how can you tell when your healthy (or even unhealthy) food choices have turned into restrictive “can’t eats?”
First of all, any time that you have anxiety about being “on plan” or “off plan,” “on track” or “off the wagon,” you’re probably on a restrictive diet.
“What about something like the Whole30?” you ask, “Didn’t you just say that it’s okay to be ‘on a plan?’”
Here’s the difference: the Whole30 is a guideline. If, heaven forbid, someone sneaks high fructose corn syrup into your ketchup at a restaurant and it causes a nuclear meltdown—or, worse, a throw-your-hands-in-the-air-and-give-up binge because “everything’s ruined,” then you’re not doing the Whole30; you’re restricting. If you can conceptualize a world where even the “won’t eats” are forgivable—where you don’t have to eat them ever again if you don’t want to, but if you do they won’t kill you, then you’re probably on the right track.
A Whole30, for example, is supposed to gently support you as you transition into a new or back into a healthier lifestyle. A Whole30, for example, is supposed to give you a set of guidelines against which you can weigh your choices to see if your in-the-moment decision-making fits in with your overall desired lifestyle. If you can’t even go out and grab a grass-fed burger and sweet potato fries with a friend at 2pm because the 30-day Whole30 approved meal plan you purchased from a blogger says you have to eat wild-caught Alaskan Salmon and cauliflower rice at noon, then it’s time to reexamine.
Cheats and Treats and Guilt…Oh My!
Another way to tell if your eating has become restrictive is whether or not your “plan” contains “cheats.” I think that meal planning, when done with the aforementioned flexibility in mind, can be a great tool for someone who needs a little structure or is new to a healthier way of eating. I don’t necessarily recommend it for someone like me who likes to follow the rules a little too strictly; however, for many people, having a plan removes some of the stress and anxiety of putting good food on the table.
But if the “won’t eats” you keep out of your plan morph into allowed or unallowable “cheats,” then you’re going to eventually run into trouble. Calling anything a “cheat” or a “treat” automatically elevates a “won’t eat” food to a special, “can’t eat” status. Not only do you feel deprived because you can’t eat this food, but when you do eat it, you associate this food with feelings of either guilt and shame or decadence and reward.
When I was a vegan, for example, I remember reading blogs by other vegans who, despite their ethical fanaticism, would write paeans to their one “cheat day” with cheese a year. When I was body building, I read blogs by women who would obsess about the guilt-inducing cheat-meal/binge they were looking forward to post-competition. Even in my cardio-queen, yo-yo dieting days, I knew that chocolate cake had to be eaten fat-free, and that, if I ate it, it was cause for a lot of self-flagellating and extra time on the arc-trainer because even fat-free, low-calorie cake is still cake and therefore deliciously, addictively evil. (But that didn’t stop me from obsessing about the cake until I finally just gave in and ate it.)
Cheats and treats are a mental construct. They’re a way that we justify leaving holes in our diets. I’m not saying that our diets need to be free-for-alls and that Paleo treats (or even non-Paleo treats), for example, should be an every-night thing, but if that’s what’s working for you, then there’s no need to cut them out just yet. If you’re NOT eating them, but obsessing about the one day a month you’re “allowed” to eat them or the one day a month when you “accidentally” binged on them….then yeah, your diet is probably unnecessarily restrictive, and you might do well to do some course-correcting.
To sum up, here’s a quick test you can do at home to figure out if your diet is unnecessarily restrictive. Ask yourself:
• Am I eliminating foods or food groups in a way that is detrimental to my health, such as under-eating calories or limiting essential nutrients?
• Am I following a rigid plan that causes me anxiety, restricts my social life, or causes a binge/restrict mindset?
• Do I define my “won’t eats” as cheat/treat/binge foods that I either punish or reward myself with?
If you’ve answered any of these questions in the affirmative, it’s time to make a change—or seek help if you don’t know how to change.
If you’re following someone’s strictly regimented version of Paleo, I recommend doing a little assessment to see if you can’t loosen the reins and at least substitute a meal or two here or there, switch up your veggies, hit up a restaurant with a friend or colleague, or even, if it’s not a trigger for addictive behaviors, try a Paleo treat.
If you’re following a Paleo template—whether that be something like a Whole30 or just the bits and pieces of information you’ve cobbled together from the various influencers, scientists, and health advocates in our community—then you have the tools to make good decisions about the foods that make you feel good without limiting your enjoyment of life or causing a nutritional deficiency or an eating disorder.
Let Paleo be the yardstick against which you measure your food choices, but don’t let it become the food scale upon which you weigh every single calorie. Let it guide you as you navigate the aisles your farmers market, Whole Foods, or Safeway, but don’t let it lead you down the same unadventurous paths to the magazine racks that admonish you to “eat this, not that.”
This is coming from someone who still struggles with the urge to eat the same thing every day, with the fear of eating the “wrong” foods, with the desire to count, weigh, measure, and plan. This is coming from someone who is still adapting to the idea that a template is not a play book, and there are no cheats—only plays that work and plays that don’t. This is coming from someone who needs a strategy to make good choices, but is finally learning to accept that we can’t expect our bodies to play the game the same way every time.
As you are confronted by the various people in your life who want to know why on earth you’re restricting croissants and acting like an eating disordered caveman, I urge you to use the logic of eating according to a “template” and to be an example of an unrestricted, healthy eater.
It’s possible. Even with Paleo.
*Yeah, Whole Grains, Legumes, and (sometimes) Dairy, we’re calling you out.
**I do believe that both food addiction and sugar addiction are real conditions, and conditions that need to be addressed for both physical and mental health reasons.
***And the Buddhists have been working on that one for a while…I’ll let you know when we get there.
****Just a caveat: there is a point where the perspective of not being restricted gets distorted into disordered eating. I “didn’t feel restricted” when I was into the “Eat Clean Diet” and eating my six 200-300 calorie meals of grilled chicken breast, white tuna, or protein powder, because I had my one-scoop-of-PB2-and-Casein-powder snacks to look forward to before bed and my oatmeal-and-1-tsp-of-cocoa-powder to look forward to in the morning. I was severely restricting my calories and only eating “safe foods,” so even though I had convinced myself that I “had so many options and never felt restricted,” I ended up in the worst relapse of my eating disorder to date. Please do not confuse “different artificially flavored syrups in my oatmeal every day” for an unrestricted diet, because I know a lot of men and women who do.
*****And no, there are no essential vitamins and minerals in grains that you can’t get anywhere else. And don’t get me started on the dairy/calcium thing.