It's 8 AM. My boyfriend has already left for work and the alarm on my iPhone is going off. All I want to do is snooze and complain, but if I wake up now I will have slightly less than the perfect number of minutes to multitask all the things I need to do to get to work on time, or a only little late. So I wake up: I toss on my robe and go into the bathroom to wash my face with a gentle cleanser, but not brush my teeth.
I arrive in the kitchen and grab a random assortment of fruits and vegetables that kind of make sense together: at least two different dark leafy greens, a banana, a fruit that isn't a banana, another type of vegetable, coconut milk, and citrus, to lift the flavors. I get all those things going in the Vitamix, pour it into a glass, put a metal straw in it, and stick it in the fridge. I wash the Vitamix in the sink and put it back on the stand. Now I'm ready to scoop some coconut oil into my mouth and swish it around for 15 minutes while I shower, to whiten my teeth and "extract toxins." I spit it out. I brush my teeth, put my robe back on, go back into the kitchen to get my smoothie, and drink it through the metal straw. While I cook some bacon in a cast-iron pan, I make a disgusting lunch because I'm running out of time: some boiled eggs that I managed to make yesterday morning, a sweet potato that I roasted earlier in the week, some chia-seed pudding if I had the foresight to put some crap in a jar the night before. Maybe some sardines, the beef jerky of fish.
I also have to feed my chameleon. And get dressed!
At this point my roommate, Spencer, in his sleep clothes, wanders from his room into the living area looking upset. "This is awful," he says, and I nod grimly, or say something like, "I feel like a single mom." I think we mean this to be funny, but we don't laugh because we really are upset. He goes into the kitchen to make a smoothie in the Vitamix. I go to my room to toss on clothes, grab my bacon, and attempt to get out the door.
What makes it worse, perhaps, is that I chose this. I chose to try paleo.
Read more: When Does Eating Clean Become an Eating Disorder?
I can't tell if it is better or worse, or equally boring, that I am doing this years after the diet was minted as a phenomenon, appearing in the New York Times and the New Yorker in 2014 as a strange cultural curio. Before going paleo I ate a standard American diet, which is to say I ate everything: pasta as a vehicle for various sauces and proteins; work salads; bread; cold-pressed juices; juices from concentrate; grain bowls; bread; pastries; curries with rice; stir-frys with rice; anything with rice; bread. I also drank the occasional soda; ordered Seamless with abandon; gave into my yearning for a McDonald's cheeseburger (I live right next to one, unfortunately); stuffed my face with Doritos—the world's best chip—and basically whatever I could reach when I got too stoned, which is often. I liked the idea that paleo would restrict what I ate to only "whole foods," and eliminate anything processed. I've always thought of myself as a healthy eater, but my cravings tended to get the best of me in my weak moments. With paleo, I would be able to actualize my true diet, like shedding away a layer of fat to reveal abs.
It's a good thing that I'm even more of a sucker for externally enforced self-control. My boyfriend, Rion, wanted to try the diet again—he had done it before and frequently bragged about how much it benefitted him in order to get me on board—and our roommate, Spencer, also agreed to go along with it, for no specific reason. We pledged to follow a diet of only meat, vegetables, fruit, and nuts (sparingly) for at least 30 days. To mark the occasion, we cooked steaks for the first time in our lives and used the bones to make broth. We all thought that we could never survive without bread—sweet, sweet bread—and it also didn't help that Rion and Spencer had bought $18 worth of movie-sized boxes of candy from the dollar store (which we also live right next to) before we made our impromptu decision to snack only on nature's candy, but we have kind of been killing it.
We all thought that we could never survive without bread—sweet, sweet bread.
But it also has been kind of killing us. The diet is labor intensive: You really do feel like you are making food to survive, much like our pre-agricultural ancestors, who did not have the convenience of buying something packaged and ready to eat. On the diet, food becomes your life. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; ostensibly, food should take time, and we should be thoughtful about what we put into our bodies. But the modern world is not built for slowness. There are meetings to go to and Pokémon to catch. Even on the weekend, when the time frame is much more relaxed, cooking is tiring. There are a lot of dishes to wash. Spencer once said of paleo, "It really fills the void if you don't have anything else going on," referring to the diet's effect on our dwindling social life, which is starting to exclude everyone besides ourselves.
Rather than cravings, meal planning has been the toughest aspect. In the first week, to get ahead of this, we all decided to make a big pot of meat chili with vegetables. We didn't have a specific recipe, per se, but we figured throwing a bunch of things into a pot with some tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, and chili seasoning would pretty much get the job done. We were so, so wrong. The act of the gathering the food was a hunt in itself. First we went to Meat Hook, our local butcher shop, to make sure we were getting high-quality, grass-fed meats. The thing about that, though, is it is expensive. We could have avoided dropping $80 there on the raw material for a single meal if we had planned better, but we did not. We went a little nuts: Garlic scapes? We definitely needed those. This specific brand of locally sourced canned tomatoes? Yas. I can't even list the rest of what we bought because it seems like we barely got anything. I also may have spent $18 on a bag of organic cherries, which I later tried and failed to return "because they were moldy," while in this haze. Making it worse, Meat Hook's vegetable selection is fairly limited, so we also had to go to the regular grocery store and drop another $50 on various types of peppers. And the chili turned out to be more like meat soup than a classic chili consistency.
That was clearly a mistake, and I like to think I have gotten a lot savvier with shopping. We've been eating paleo for a little over two weeks so far, and despite the labor, I have been genuinely enjoying eating this way. Rion, Spencer, and I quickly got into a groove of boiling eggs in bulk (which sounds bad, I know); making multiple smoothies per day to get the most out of the outrageously expensive Vitamix we all bought together, like one big Paleolithic family; and coming home at night to roast a whole chicken, or several pork chops, with some vegetables. It's also nice that I can't really drink anything other than water, with a bit of apple cider vinegar in it if I'm feeling fancy, which has made my skin look really glowy.
Overall, I just feel better. It might all be psychological, but that's worth something, too. A study just came out in the American Journal of Public Health that suggests eating more fruits and vegetables increases "life satisfaction equivalent to moving from unemployment to employment." Paleo certainly forces you to up your green intake; I've never before left a grocery store with six bags filled with only fruits and vegetables. And while I'm not (yet) a CrossFit junkie, I have been exercising more since I started a diet that causes me to think about my health on a daily basis.
Nevertheless, as a way of life paleo remains a source of confusion and the butt of jokes. Which makes sense. The ideology in which paleo is embedded still seems counterintuitive to everything we have been told about food. In most health- and environmentally conscious circles, meat is enemy number one. Characterizing this disequilibrium, my roommate, a former plant eater, would say things like, "I don't know, I believe Michael Pollan" and, "Why am I doing this?" as non-sequiturs in the first few days of our foray into Stone Age eating. It also doesn't help that the diet's most famous adherents are Jeb Bush and Silicon Valley zealots.
As with any odd, restrictive eating plan, you do sound crazy when you talk about it. And I can't not talk about it, because my coworkers constantly ask me questions: How did cavemen eat eggs? Did they boil them? (I don't know.) Why are beans bad? (They cause inflammation, apparently.) Didn't you eat a cup of meat for lunch that one time? (Yes. I made pot roast.)
You also look crazy, especially when you bring a bleak Tupperware filled with sweet potato and boiled eggs to work, and the sweet potato smears a little on the boiled eggs (multiple, always multiple), and you have to wipe them off with a napkin before you peel them at your desk. (I admit that I still have not perfected the paleo work lunch in terms of aesthetics.)
my bf said I would be persecuted for saying I'm doing paleo but I feel more at risk eating boiled eggs without explanation
— Gabby Bess (@seemstween)June 27, 2016
I was very much a skeptic myself. Within a couple of days of starting the diet, I came down with "the paleo flu," getting headaches and feeling tired during the transition period from traditional eating. It was like I was withdrawing from a drug, and the drug was carbohydrates. My temper became considerably shorter; it became very easy for my boyfriend to annoy me by acting slightly different than I wanted him to. I also started to have intense lucid dreams, which are still unexplained. At one point, I had to leave work early because I was dizzy, having pushed my double-egg lunch special back so far that it made me sick. Every morning, as we fried up bacon and saved the lard to fry up other things later, Spencer and I would joke that paleo was either the unhealthiest diet possible or the healthiest.
Fat-loading evangelists would say it's the latter. Anyone who does paleo professionally—meaning they have a lifestyle blog, or have written books about the "way of life"—will tell you in no uncertain terms how much our modern Western diet sucks. We should be eating the way our primal ancestors did! they cry. They often sound like conspiracy theorists who insist that the nutritional "establishment" is fundamentally wrongheaded, or actively out to get us.
I can't say I fully buy into the evolutionary theory, but health officials are slowly starting to reflect the underlying argument of what paleo freaks have been saying all along: Fat is fine, and even good for you. Unsaturated fats, found in olive oil and avocado, have been firmly established as "healthy fats." And a new study from Harvard researchers admitted that even saturated fats—found in butter (which is considered paleo when it is from grass-fed, free-range cows, though it's technically dairy), lard, and meats—are not going to give you a heart attack. The only fats nutritionists currently advise people to avoid are trans fats, which occur in heavily processed foods that are made with hydrogenated oils.
"In my mind, saturated fat is kind of neutral overall," the study's author, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian told Time. "Low-fat turkey meat or a bagel or cornflakes or soda is worse for you than butter."
Interestingly, it's these explanations that seem to turn people off. In all fairness, they do sound like pseudoscience. They also just sound wrong: Who wants to eat like people who, on average, died at age 35? But when you experience the diet, day by day, you notice that you really are eating much healthier than you would have been otherwise. I think my boyfriend, who works in marketing, said it best when he mentioned that paleo needs to re-brand. My roommate added, "People see it as this gross, masculine diet of only meat, but that's really not what it's like."
Though being 100 percent faithful to the meal plan does get taxing. Sometimes you just want to eat some carbs. Some nights, when I wanted to get high, I would take a tiny bite of a weed brownie. I didn't consider this cheating because the amount needed to get stoned was too small to even be enjoyable. But my boyfriend and my roommate grew viciously jealous of my carb morsels.
Last weekend, on our official two-week mark, the two of them decided they deserved a cheat day. Originally, I was against it completely, not really wanting to think of my eating in terms of deprivation and reward, but the day before the cheat day I got extremely drunk on two sips of Jägermeister at work. (Without carbs, alcohol affects you quickly.) I was drinking the questionably paleo alcoholic beverage because VICE keeps it on tap and I definitely can't drink beer, the only other option, because it is made of bread. I started to think that eating one paleo-breaking meal wasn't such a bad idea. My boyfriend picked me up from work and further sowed the seeds of dissent in my mind while I was vulnerable, and the next day I found myself at Chick-Fil-A eating the hell out of a delicious Original Chicken Sandwich. I also got the strips.
But as I feared: I lost all control.
Later that night, I was stoned—weed is paleo—and craving. Then, the worst thing possible happened: I remembered the bag of dollar-store candy Rion and Spencer had bought before we found our true nutritional calling. We had hidden it in a kitchen cabinet, but not thrown it away. As soon as I mentioned it, all three of us were ravenously eating out of the giant plastic dollar-store bag that contained smaller bags of candy within it: Twix, Sour Patch Kids, Peppermint Patties, mini Butterfingers, other things I don't want to think about again. At first, I ate them timidly, only tasting a bite of a candy and throwing the rest out. Then, I fucking destroyed them. Immediately after, I felt psychologically bad, but I woke up the next morning feeling physically ill: A strange soapy taste stuck to my tongue. Apparently, I was "carb detoxing" again. It was highly unpleasant. The candy was not worth it, and my coworkers further mocked me.
Resolved to never do that again—while vaguely considering some other foods that I missed—I made some bacon and a smoothie, drinking it through a metal straw.