By Zach Friedman, myPALeos
Have you decided to go Paleo but are looking for where to begin? Here we lay out a plan for the first 8 weeks of starting the Paleo diet and some of the strategies to make your transition as successful and stress free as possible.
How to get Started on the Paleo Diet
So you've read all about Paleo - the theory of the diet and the amazing health transformations it has created for thousands of people. You may even know someone personally who has transformed their own health, appearance and energy levels by following the Paleo diet. The guidance below is designed to increase your chances of success when starting out on the diet. Sure you could just get started and go cold turkey eating only Paleo foods starting this minute. But having a game plan in place can make the difference between achieving your goals or quickly falling off the Paleo wagon.
Plan a Paleo Launch Date
A great way to start the Paleo Diet is to plan out a date in the near future: tomorrow, a day this week, the start of this upcoming week, on which you will commit to going fully Paleo. I would recommend giving yourself at least a day of pre-planning to make your transition as smooth and successful as possible. This allows you time to stock up on Paleo foods, prepare your kitchen and get familiar with some initial recipes and other critical steps to get you ready. Here are some of the pre-planning steps I would recommend:
Make a List of Paleo Recipes that Appeal to You
A great thing to do when you are excited about trying the diet and have the momentum on your side is to start to browse through suggestions for recipes and dishes that you think sound delicious. For example how does Paleo Creamy Cauliflower Garlic Mash, Steamed Paleo Artichokes, or Homemade Paleo Thai Red Coconut Curry with Squash sound? This is a great time to gather a list of recipes that inspire you. Some great resources for finding delicious Paleo recipes are blogs like Against All Grain or Nom Nom Paleo or the Paleo section of Pinterest (just be careful that recipes on Pinterest are fully Paleo)
Gathering together a big list of recipes you’d like to try will be very helpful to do in advance if you can, so that you will have a good idea of what you will eat when you start the diet. It also helps give you some inspiration and motivation to get cooking. Doing this at a leisurely pace before you officially start on Paleo gives you space to find recipes without feeling a lot of pressure. Researching recipes while also trying to cook these brand new recipes, adjust to eating grain free and at the same time planning out your first set of meals for the week can be a lot to take on all at once. Why not space it out over a few days?
Stick to Simple Recipes Initially
Just to keep yourself sane, I would personally look for recipes that take minimal time to prepare and use simple ingredients. Many of the flashy Paleo recipes online can be time consuming to make and require a lot of ingredients. You don’t need to be eating Paleo Pop Tarts during your first couple of weeks on Paleo. Put together a list of recipes that appeal to you and are also reasonable and quick to make. Quick Paleo meals do exist and can be found online, despite the prevalence of Paleo bread and muffin recipes everywhere. For example, intricate Paleo desert and Paleo bread substitute recipes tend to be time consuming, and generally not as healthy as foods made with fresh simple ingredients. Many of the eye catching but complicated Paleo recipes online are designed for a birthday or special date night once you’ve been on the diet for a long time. This type of recipe is typically unnecessarily time consuming for everyday meals when first trying out Paleo. Keep it simple.
Make a list of Paleo Breakfast, Paleo Lunch, and Paleo Dinner Meal Ideas
I would try to find a least a handful of recipes to use for breakfast, for lunches, for snacks and for Paleo dinners. This way you have a good amount to choose from. If the recipes you've picked out are all snacks and things you would only enjoy eating for lunch, you will end up scrambling to find breakfast and dinner recipes later. Plan ahead. Not every ingredient highlighted in the recipes you find online will be in season or available at your local supermarket, health food store or farmers market. So it’s good to have a sizable list of recipe options.
Ease in to Paleo Cooking
If you have the time I would also highly recommend to start making a few Paleo friendly dishes in advance prior to the day you officially start the diet. For example, you could make a big batch of a few paleo friendly dishes beforehand, taking some pressure off yourself during the first few days on the diet. Things invariably come up, and it is a great feeling to know you have a dish ready to go for dinner if you are running low on time to make a Paleo meal one of those first days on the diet. Being ahead on your cooking is a great place to be. You can put together a good selection of leftovers to have in the fridge or possibly even freeze portions for when you don’t have the energy to cook. This will also help to ease you in to trying and learning a few staple paleo recipes. While not mandatory it is a great way to help set yourself up for success with the diet.
Stocking Your Kitchen with Paleo Friendly Foods
Getting some initial shopping done prior to the day you plan to first start following the diet is also extremely helpful. Basically, you want to load up your kitchen with Paleo friendly foods and ingredients that appeal to you. This way you won’t be tempted to eat anything that is not part of the diet as you will have so many great Paleo food options already in your kitchen. It’s typically the time when you are hungry and want a quick snack that you are likely to make exceptions and revert back to unhealthy food. This temptation is normal, but the best defense I have found is to have lots of great Paleo approved foods and even paleo snack foods on hand to get you through these times.
In general, the best possible option is to have made a number of dishes that you love the first few days being on the diet that you have enough for leftovers. This way any time you get hungry, you can simply warm up the leftovers as a quick snack. Although Paleo prepackaged snack foods are a good option in a pinch, the healthiest food is generally going to be foods you make yourself from scratch. Keeping delicious Paleo approved food on hand in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer is a great way to ensure there is always something ready that is delicious and healthy.
What to Buy on Your First Paleo Grocery Shopping Trip
Given that you have put together a list of dishes you’d like to make as step one, you already have a pretty good sense of some of the ingredients you will need on your shopping list. But it’s also great to pick up general staples that will allow you to throw together a quick paleo snack or use for everyday meals. There is a general rule of thumb for paleo grocery shopping which is to shop along the perimeter of the grocery store and skip the shelf stable packaged foods in the middle aisles. You want to focus your time on the fresh produce, fish counter and butcher sections on the perimeter as this is where you will find most Paleo approved ingredients. That said, you also may want to dip into the middle aisles quickly to pick up oils (such as olive, coconut and avocado oils), nuts and possibly frozen vegetables, but in general the produce, meat and fish sections are where you want to be.
Stock Up on Your First Few Grocery Shopping Trips
As I’ve touched on briefly, I would recommend really stocking up with that first and even first few grocery trips. You might even consider going to a few stores in your area to pick up items that you wouldn’t normally be able to get at the store closest to you. The first several weeks are critical in getting used to the diet. The end goal is sticking strictly to the diet during this period to be able to truly experience the benefits of eating this way. The better and more exciting the selection of Paleo foods you have at home means giving yourself the best possible chance of following through and sticking with the diet. By surrounding yourself with plentiful, delicious foods you will not feel like you are depriving yourself. The goal is to be excited about the new items you get to try and to take the focus off of the foods that you are cutting out.
Splurging a Bit on Food Ingredients in the Beginning
Really splurging on a great selection of foods over the first few weeks may seem like an indulgence, on top of the Paleo suggested guideline of purchasing more expensive organic produce, wild fish and grass fed meats. But again these first few weeks are a critical time in adapting to the diet. A good way to think about it is that spending more and buying a greater selection of food the first few weeks on the diet is an investment in your health. As time goes by, you will start to figure out which Paleo dishes and foods you most enjoy, start to memorize your favorite recipes and generally get used to the diet. After you have several weeks eating Paleo under your belt is a much better time to start to look at your spending habits and to start to cut back on unnecessary expenses. After the first month is a much better point to start figuring out which Paleo ingredients give you the best value for your money. For just the first few weeks I would recommend not limiting yourself in terms of what you have available to eat in your kitchen.
Put Unhealthy Foods Away to Start with a Clean Slate
For the same reason it’s helpful to stock your kitchen full of Paleo friendly foods your first few weeks on Paleo, it’s also very helpful to put away all foods that are not allowed on the diet. This avoids you having to think each time you look at an ingredient whether it's Paleo or not, and possibly mixing them up. This also cuts down on the temptation factor of having non-Paleo foods staring you in the face each time you open up your pantry. Some people are more extreme about this and suggest throwing out or giving away all non-paleo food from your house so that you won’t be tempted to eat it. This can be difficult, especially if you don’t live alone and everyone in the household is not going Paleo. Also throwing out a lot of food can be wasteful.
A good compromise that I would recommend is putting together all of your non-Paleo food items inside a cabinet in another room as far from the kitchen as is reasonable (if they are from your pantry) or putting them together in an opaque plastic bag in the back of your refrigerator (if they are refrigerated condiments and other refrigerated items). Making it less convenient to go to the other room to get a bag of junk food rather than eating the healthy Paleo foods stocked throughout your kitchen can be surprisingly effective. The goal in that situation is to encourage yourself to try one of the snack foods pre-made in your kitchen instead. A lot of willpower tends to be linked to habits. Habits can be changed, but it takes time. In terms of temptation, the first few weeks tend to be the hardest time, when your body and tastes haven’t yet adjusted to this new way of eating.
What to Expect the First Month on the Paleo Diet
The first month on the Paleo diet tends to be the most challenging period and therefore the most critical time in determining your success. On top of learning a whole new set of recipes, finding alternative snack foods and experientially learning the ins and outs of the diet, you are the most likely to experience sugar and junk food cravings at some point during this first month. Realizing how strongly your body and mind reacts to going cold turkey with things like bread and our sugar laden “normal” food products tends to be an eye opening experience for many people. Some of the symptoms commonly encountered by cutting out sugar and grains tend to elicit comparisons to trying to quit cigarettes, coffee, or other addictive substances. You might experience things like headaches, irritability, brain fog and intense cravings typically associated with withdrawal from addictive substances. Not everyone experiences these symptoms in the same way or at the same point in their transition to Paleo. It can vary quite a bit based on your previous ways of eating or just natural variations between people.
But it's critical to be prepared for these challenges. It is truly a natural detoxification process, similar to getting a massage after months of being stressed where you were holding the stress in your muscles. If you can get through the detoxification period, you have the potential to feel amazing. You just need to get through the period of clearing out the effect of the toxic foods so prevalent in our modern lives. The first month is also the hardest because you are attempting to change patterns that we have built up over many years. When you think of being on autopilot while snacking, watching TV or coming home and grabbing something quick to eat without really thinking about it, these are all learned habits. During this first month you will notice that you have to really think about what you are eating before grabbing that quick snack. It will take time to build up healthy habits to replace those involving non-Paleo foods from the past. Eventually, you will be able to mindlessly grab a healthy Paleo snack, but it will take time to replace habitual daily activities around food.
What to Expect the Second Month on the Paleo Diet
While there are no hard and fast rules about what your experience during the first month and second month will be, there are some general trends that tend to apply for most people. Although you will likely experience some of the cravings and still feel you are adjusting to the new eating pattern, during the second month on the diet, you will likely see some of the struggles and withdrawal reactions start to transition to feelings that you are getting the hang of everything. Most importantly, you will start to feel some of the initial tentative benefits of eating in this new healthy way. Many people report feeling less fatigued, having more energy, having a clearer mind and generally less aches and pains. In addition, smaller health issues such as skin conditions or digestive problems that you may or may not have been aware of previously may start to fade away.
The second month is generally where people will begin to notice a real change in their weight to be more in line with their natural ideal weight. All of these benefits can be slight at first. Some of the benefits, such as having more mental clarity and alertness can be hard to notice initially. As is human nature, people who cheat on the diet tend to notice the health benefits receding quite clearly, but have a harder time noticing some of these benefits. When straying from the diet, often many of the benefits achieved start quickly reverting back to their previous level of health. That these gains are tentative and fragile is a challenge to overcome during this second month. It's fairly common to start feeling better and then immediately start experimenting with adding cheat foods back into your diet. Although this may be a reasonable strategy for the long term, it can also stop and even reverse some of the health benefits just recently achieved.
Health Conditions May Start to Improve by the Second Month Strictly on the Diet
For those struggling with significant health issues such as my own personal issues with an autoimmune condition, expect for it to take longer than simply one month for all of the benefits of going Paleo to materialize. As is often quoted in the autoimmune communities, it likely took you a long period of gradually becoming progressively worse before starting the diet. It will likely also take a gradual period of progressively improving on the diet get to the point where all symptoms start to go away, roughly related to how long it took you to become sick. That said, you should hopefully start to see the first signs of changes and improvements in even the most debilitating health conditions during the second month on the diet. This will certainly vary from person to person and with the health condition you are working on improving, but it is around the second month of keeping strictly on the diet that many people report seeing their health start to really improve. For many people, even a minor initial improvement is a major milestone, considering the impact autoimmune conditions often have on our lives.
Long Term on the Paleo Diet
By the third month of being Paleo, you have made into what I would call the sustainable phase. Some of the health benefits can take several months to materialize and it is still a good idea to fine tune your diet based on your unique reactions to different foods, but you are well on your way. Hopefully by this point you will have noticed some significant improvements in terms of your health, energy or weight. As you look towards the future, you will need to balance health improvements you have experienced with ways to make the diet sustainable for the long term. This may involve deciding on a cheat day each week, going 80/20 on Paleo, or strictly following the diet for those with major health conditions that improved on the diet. Being at this point where you can adjust the diet to work for your lifestyle and experiment with how you feel under different scenarios is a great place to be. If you have reached this point, congratulations! You have certainly earned all of the health and weight loss benefits you have achieved.