I'm getting a little tired of Whole Nine. First no coffee, then no TV, and now bacon is bad?
I'm not saying they're mean or they're wrong. I get where they're coming from. And I'm all about optimizing nutrition for health. I understand that they're trying to get the clearest message out there, with the best information about nutrition.
But I'm also a psychologist and so I think about the psychology of the situation. We're all HUMAN. We can't be strict about everything. Trust me, I've tried. I've tried to be perfect, I've tried to eat only grass-fed beef and coconut and salads, and I just can't do it. At some point you just can't handle being the weird one anymore and you cave and eat a handful of mini Snickers bars from the office kitchen. And then you spend the rest of the day hating yourself. And guess what, that's not healthy either.
Remember the whole inspiration behind the Paleo lifestyle? It's not about rules and regulations, it's about simplifying and enjoying life. It's about understanding the WHY and making informed decisions, based on what makes sense for us as a species, as human animals (not machines). That doesn't mean you can't have hard lines about things (my hard line is gluten, because it makes me sick). But it does mean that if you find yourself weeping at your desk because my god, can't I just be normal for one day of my life and why is there this ever-growing list of things I can't eat, and there's just nothing left and I hate food and I hate life - well, it's time for a reality check.
The emotional and social toll
As humans, we need to seek balance. Having ever-multiplying hard and fast rules about how we eat and how we live our lives will take an emotional toll and a social toll. We have spent all of our lives building emotional ties with food. It is greatly exaggerated, I think, and you can loosen these ties more than you think you can, once you break physical addictions to grains and sugar. But emotional ties to food will always be there to a certain extent. You can get yourself out of the habit of having something sweet after dinner, but are you really not going to order the creme brulee after your birthday dinner out? (Maybe that's just me...) Does the added health benefit warrant the sacrifice? Are you striking a balance?
Socially, food and drink are important. Every culture has their shared food and beverages, and it is front and center in Western culture. Even the most die-hard Paleo-lovin' CrossFit affiliate is going to have a picnic with margaritas once in a while. People are still going to meet up for coffee, they're going to go out to dinner (which you can't do if you're freaking out about what kind of oils they might be using in the kitchen), they're going to have weddings and business lunches and happy hours and potlucks.
We don't have to let cultural food conventions control us. We don't have to feel guilty because we're not partaking of the birthday cake at the party or the morning donuts at the office or because we get a salad when everyone else gets a sandwich. But we all need a social outlet, and living and dying by rules denies us this social outlet. It's not just the awkward explanations of why you eat so weird (you learn how to deal with that). The stress of following our own increasingly strict rules can make us bitter, it can lead us to avoid social gatherings where there will be temptations to avoid, and that is not good for us!
There are a few exceptions, however, some circumstances where you need to hang on and really be strict, if only for a certain period of time.
- When you're first starting out, I think it's a good idea to be strict. Really, NO grains, legumes, or dairy for some specified period of time (30 days is a good start). It's an experiment, and a useful experiment needs control. You don't know what you can live without until you try it. You don't know how you feel without something and how much of a difference it makes until it is truly out of your system.
- When you have an autoimmune disorder, you need to be strict. If I had multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or one of a host of the nasty autoimmune diseases, I would definitely try to optimize my diet. These diseases are so awful, the increase in quality of life is worth the sacrifice of some of your favorite foods.
- When you're otherwise really sick, you need to be strict. Diabetes, morbid obesity, heart disease - they may be common, but these are not things to mess around with. It's one thing when you're trying to prevent them (as we all are), but if you're SICK, you need to get well. That needs to be your first priority.
- When you're not meeting your goals, you need to be stricter. I can't tell you how many times I've heard or read someone complaining that this Paleo thing isn't helping them lose weight, but when you press them on it, they're eating 3 cheat meals, a dozen bananas, and a 3 lb bag of nuts every week. If it's not working, tighten up the rules and give it a real chance. You can play around with cheats AFTER you've reached your goals, or when you're satisfied with the progress you're making.
You may not feel 100 percent on board with this post. You may feel like a hard line is the best approach for right now. You may feel that any hard line is not the right approach. Another part of being human is that when we're trying something new, we will flounder a bit, we will have to figure things out. My position on specific foods and the best overall approach has not been consistent since Day 1 of my going Paleo. We can be wrong, we can change, we can change back. That's okay, it's a journey, and we learn from experience.
We each have to find our own way, discover our limits and also our potential. You might think that you could never give up your favorite chocolate chip cookies for all of time, but a few months down the road, it's not such a big deal anymore. You might be a long-time vegetarian who thinks they could never eat meat, but that can change, especially when you notice big improvements in your health. On the other hand, you might think that you'll never, ever drink coffee again, or eat grains or sugar, or bake with almond flour, but one day you're at a party, and you just decide to have that almond flour cookie or sushi roll or margarita, and it's not the end of the world.
I'm not saying that because we're human, food is a free-for-all and it's okay to make excuses for everything. That is the opposite of everything I stand for. I hate excuses. We absolutely need to take responsibility for the choices we make and understand that everything has consequences. And there is a slippery slope, where one excuse leads to another and another. So we have to be careful.
But we need to acknowledge psychological realities and understand that we have emotional and social needs as well as physical needs. We can optimize or we can satisfice. Very few people can actually optimize, and trying to do so may just make you crazy. So rather than adhering to every piece of advice, every rule, and every regulation, make your own decisions, understand the consequences, focus on foods and behaviors that truly make you happy and feel good, and enjoy life.