One of the more esoteric but much beloved tools in the paleo dieter’s tool-kit is intermittent fasting.
What is intermittent fasting? I.F. is the practice of maintaining overall caloric intake while consuming those calories in fewer meals or in reduced time windows throughout the day. The goal is to create conditions of fasting in the body, but not for extreme lengths of time.
Some examples of intermittent fast strategies include 10, 8, or 5 hour eating windows throughout the day, or perhaps eating just two meals each day: one in the morning, and one at night. The evolutionary premise — the argument that proponents of intermittent fasting make — is that humans evolved to optimize their health under less-than-optimal conditions. Intermittent fasting, they say, is a natural and perhaps even necessary part of being human.
The modern-day scientific correlate appears promising, too:
Most people are nowadays aware that a calorie-restricted diet has the ability not just to decrease body weight but also to lengthen a human life. Emerging research is beginning to show, however, that intermittent fasting is just as effective as calorie restriction in ensuring these health benefits! Amazingly enough, this happens without any of the psychological crippling side effects of cravings and food obsession that practictioners of calorie-restriction often experience.
Intermittent fasting, proponents say, also may benefit the fight against cancer, diabetes, and autoimmunity. Here is an excellent, up-to-date review of the “benefits” of fasting. It is wholly understandable that fasting is all the rage these days.
Intermittent fasting women is a specific interest of mine because of what I have witnessed both in myself and in working with literally thousands of women in the PfW community.
Many women report to me (read more about that in this awesome book) that intermittent fasting causes sleeplessness, anxiety, and irregular periods, among many other symptoms hormone imbalance, such as cystic acne.
I have also personally experienced metabolic distress as a result of fasting, which is evidenced by my interest in hypocretin neurons. Hypocretin neurons have the ability to incite energetic wakefulness, and to prevent a person from falling asleep, in reaction to the body detecting a “starved” state. Hypocretin neurons are one way in which intermittent fasting may dysregulate a woman’s normal hormonal function.
After my own bad experience with IF, I decided to investigate intermittent fasting. I looked into both a) the fasting literature that paleo fasting advocates refer to, and b) the literature that exists out in the metabolic and reproductive research archives.
Intermittent Fasting Women: Problems in the Paleosphere
What I found is that the research articles cited by Mark’s Daily Apple (and others), focus on health benefits such as cancer-fighting properties, insulin sensitivity, and immune function.
However. I was struck by what seemed like an egregious sex-based oversight in that MDA post I linked to above. MDA cites this article as a “great overview” of the health benefits of intermittent fasting. This startled me because the article MDA cited was for me one of the strongest proponents of sex-specific differences in response to fasting.
Sex differences were relevant in two striking areas:
1) women in studies covered by the review did not experience increased insulin sensitivity with IF regimes and
2) intermittent fasting women actually experienced a decrease in glucose tolerance.
These two phenomena mean that women’s metabolisms suffered from IF. The men’s metabolisms on the other hand improved with IF across the board. Recall that the review was reported by MDA as “a great overview of benefits [of IF].”
Secondly, in another fasting post at MDA, of which there are many, the health benefits of fasting are listed and reviewed, but the sex-specific aspects of the hormonal response go unmentioned, and reproduction/fertility/menstrual health isn’t mentioned at all.
This is not to say that Mark is not attentive to who should and who should not be fasting. He knows very well and cautions people against the dangers of fasting while stressed. Still, the mere fact of being more sensitive to fasting simply by being a woman is, I would assert, pretty important for a woman who is contemplating or already practicing IF.
This goes nearly unmentioned in the blogosphere.
Intermittent Fasting Women: Problems in the Literature
Beyond reporting biases in the blogosphere, there remains an even greater problem of a significant testing bias in the fasting literature. Searching “men” + “intermittent fasting” in a Harvard article database yields 71 peer-reviewed articles. Searching “intermittent fasting women” yields 13, none of which are a) solely about women b) controlled studies or c) about more than body weight or cardiovascular benefits.
The animal studies are more equitable, but also a bit less applicable to human studies.
It is well-known in both the research and the nutritional communities that caloric restriction is horrible for female reproductive health. This is not news. There is an infertility condition – called hypothalamic amenorrhea – that millions of women suffer from due to being overly restrictive. But what of fasting?
Intermittent Fasting Women: Should we Fast?
The few studies that exist point towards no.
It is not definitive, since the literature is so sparse, and it necessarily differs for women who are overweight versus normal weight (and who have different genetic makeups), but when it comes to hormones, women of reproductive age may do well to err on the side of caution with fasting.
What follows first is a brief review of what can be gleaned in sex-specific responses to fasting in animal studies. Afterwards I talk about what has been concluded by the few relevant human studies.
Mice & Rats
First up is a study that demonstrates the hippocampal changes of calorie restriction and intermittent fasting for both male and female rats. In this study, they do alternate day fasting, which entails free eating on one day and a fast day on the next.
The study found that brain states while fasting were different for male and female rats. For male rats the change in hippocampus size, hippocampal gene expression, and ambulatory behavior was the same no matter what kind of restricted diet they were on – but for female rats, the degree of change in brain chemistry and in behavior was directly proportional to degree of calorie intake, demonstrating the unique sensitivity of female rats to the starvation response.
” The organization of the females’ response to the energy restricted diets is suggestive of some underlying mechanism that may allow for an organized, pre-programmed, response to enhance survival in times of food scarcity. Comparatively, the males’ genetic response was less specific, suggesting that the males respond to a general stressor but they seem to lack the ability to discriminate between a high energy and low energy stressor.”
Moreover, “IF down-regulated many gene pathways in males including those involved in protein degradation and apoptosis, but up-regulated many gene pathways in females including those involved in cellular energy metabolism (glycolysis, gluconeogenesis, pentose phosphate pathway, electron transport and PGC1-α), cell cycle regulation and protein deacetylation.” In this study, both male and female rats gained small amounts of weight on IF diets.
For female rats, even in the most innocuous form of restriction–intermittent fasting–significant physiological changes take place. Male rats do not experience as dramatic hippocampal and general brain chemistry change as female rats do, and their behaviors, specifically their cognition and their dirunal and nocturnal activity, do not change.
Female rats, on the other hand, “masculinize.” They stop ovulating and menstruating. They become hyper-alert, have better memories, and are more energetic during the periods in which they are supposed to be sleep. Theoretically, according to these researchers, this is an adaptive response to starvation. The more the female rats need calories– or at least the more their bodies detect a “starvation” state– the more they develop traits that will help them find food. They get smart, they get energetic, they get active, and they stop sleeping.
In a follow-up study conducted by the same researchers who explored the masculinzation of female rats, the researchers analyzed the gonadal transcription of male and female rats subjected to IF regimes.
This study found that male reproductivity up-regulates in response to metabolic stress. Female reproductivity down-regulates.
Completely opposite to the female rats becoming infertile while fasting, male rats become more fertile. In the researchers’ own words: “our data show that at the level of gonadal gene responses, the male rats on the IF regime adapt to their environment in a manner that is expected to increase the probability of eventual fertilization of females that the males predict are likely to be sub-fertile due to their perception of a food deficient environment.”
In the final relevant IF rat study I could find, researchers subjected rats to the same diets– to 20 and 40 percent Calorie-Restricted (CR) diets, as well as to alternate-day fasting diets, and monitored them over the long term for hormonal responses. The results were striking. Below is the abstract in full because it’s so powerful:
Females and males typically play different roles in survival of the species and would be expected to respond differently to food scarcity or excess. To elucidate the physiological basis of sex differences in responses to energy intake, we maintained groups of male and female rats for 6 months on diets with usual, reduced [20% and 40% caloric restriction (CR), and intermittent fasting (IF)], or elevated (high-fat/high-glucose) energy levels and measured multiple physiological variables related to reproduction, energy metabolism, and behavior.
In response to 40% CR, females became emaciated, ceased cycling, underwent endocrine masculinization, exhibited a heightened stress response, increased their spontaneous activity, improved their learning and memory, and maintained elevated levels of circulating brain-derived neurotrophic factor. In contrast, males on 40% CR maintained a higher body weight than the 40% CR females and did not change their activity levels as significantly as the 40% CR females. Additionally, there was no significant change in the cognitive ability of the males on the 40% CR diet.
Males and females exhibited similar responses of circulating lipids (cholesterols/triglycerides) and energy-regulating hormones (insulin, leptin, adiponectin, ghrelin) to energy restriction, with the changes being quantitatively greater in males. The high-fat/high-glucose diet had no significant effects on most variables measured but adversely affected the reproductive cycle in females. Heightened cognition and motor activity, combined with reproductive shutdown, in females may maximize the probability of their survival during periods of energy scarcity and may be an evolutionary basis for the vulnerability of women to anorexia nervosa.
They also found this:
The weight of the adrenal gland was similar in rats on all diets; however, when normalized to body weight CR and IF diets caused a relative increase in adrenal size, the magnitude of which was greater in females, compared with males.
The testicular weight was unaffected by any of the diets. In contrast, both CR diets and the IF diet caused a decrease in the size of the ovaries.
And this, bearing in mind that “daytime” for nocturnal rats is “nighttime” for humans:
The daytime activity of females was doubled in response to IF, whereas the IF diet did not affect the activity level of males. Nighttime activity levels of males and females were unaffected by dietary energy restriction.
Uterine activity was monitored daily with vaginal smear tests; cyclicity was scored as regular, irregular, or absent. The mild energy-restriction diets (20% CR and IF) significantly increased the proportion of animals displaying irregular cycling patterns, whereas the 40% CR animals displayed an almost complete loss of estrous cyclicity.
In males, corticosterone levels were elevated only in response to the 40% CR diet, whereas in females corticosterone levels were significantly elevated in response to all three energy-restriction diets, suggesting a relative hyperactivation in females of the adrenal stress response to reduced energy availability.
For lipids, all the rats did well: “Collectively, these data suggest that atherogenic profiles of both males and females are improved by dietary energy restriction.” Interestingly, too, as they pointed out in the abstract, human females also perform cognitively much “better” (memory and alertness) on CR and IF diets than on normal feeding schedules.
There are of course some caveats to this study: A) They are rats. B) They are somewhat “metabolically morbid” rats, which may make them more susceptible to disease. C) The rats were allowed to eat ad libitum on the IF days, but they simply did not meet their caloric requirements this way. So while it is a somewhat natural form of IF, it is still calorically reduced, such that that must be taken into account when gasping in horror at the hormonal responses of IF-ing female rats.
The Few Human Studies
I mentioned above that through the same review that MDA used as a “great overview” of IF benefits for all sexes, I found harmful metabolic effects for women subjected to alternate-day fasting regimes.
This is the study:
Heilbronn et al found that with IF, insulin sensitivity improved in men (21 participants) but not in women (20 participants): after three weeks of alternate day fasting, insulin response to a test meal was reduced in men. Women experienced no significant change. “It is interesting that this effect on insulin sensitivity occurred only in male subjects,” they report.
With respect to other health markers female health actually declined, specifically with respect to glucose tolerance:
“Another diabetes risk factor that has shown a sex-specific effect is glucose tolerance. After 3 weeks of ADF, women but not men had an increase in the area under the glucose curve. This unfavorable effect on glucose tolerance in women, accompanied by an apparent lack of an effect on insulin sensitivity, suggests that short-term ADF may be more beneficial in men than in women in reducing type 2 diabetes risk. ” The opening line of their discussion reads: “Alternate day fasting may adversely affect glucose tolerance in nonobese women but not in nonobese men.”
In a follow up study, Heibron et. al studied the effects of alternate-day fasting on cardiovascular risk. When human subjects fasted on alternate days for another three week period, circulating concentrations of HDL cholesterol increased, whereas triacylglycerol concentrations decreased. This is a good thing. However, the shifts in lipid concentrations were shown to be sex specific: ie, only the women had an increase in HDL-cholesterol concentrations, and only the men had a decrease in triacylglycerol concentrations.
The most recent review of IF agrees with my conclusion: sex-specific differences in metabolism exist and need to be studied further.
This study of alternate day fasting included 12 women and 4 men. In eight weeks, body weight decreased by about 10 pounds, and body fat percentage decreased from 45 to 42. Blood pressure decreased, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and traicylglycerol decreased. These people were significantly obese, which limits the results of this study to an obese population. However, “perimenopausal women were excluded from the study, and postmenopausal women (absence of menses for >2 y) were required to maintain their current hormone replacement therapy regimen for the duration of the study.” (Their words, my emphasis)
The one, big study of intermittent fasting conducted on men and women looked at differences between isocaloric feeding schedules: 3 meals/day feeding versus 1 meal/day.
The study focused on body weight composition, blood pressure, and body temperature in subjects. Subjects were fed isocalorically either one meal each day or three meals each day. All subjects were between 40 and 50 years old (excluding women of reproductive age), and between BMIs of 18 and 25. They ate, so far as I can tell, a healthy diet with 35 percent fat, PUFA < MUFA < SFA. Only 15 of the original 69 completed the study (which goes to show just how fun everyone thought fasting was). As for the results,
“Systolic and diastolic blood pressures were significantly lowered by ≈6% during the period when subjects were consuming 3 meals/d than when they were consuming 1 meal/d. No significant differences in heart rate and body temperature were observed between the 2 diet regimens. Hunger was enormously larger in the one meal/day than in the three meals/day group. “The 1 meal/d diet was significantly higher for hunger (P = 0.003), desire to eat (P = 0.004), and prospective consumption (P = 0.006) than was the 3 meals/d diet. Feelings of fullness were significantly (P = 0.001) lower in the 1 meal/d than in the 3 meals/diet.” Body weight dropped only four pounds after several months. Cortisol dropped, but Total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol were 11.7%, 16.8%, and 8.4% higher, respectively, in subjects consuming 1 meal/d than in those consuming 3 meals/d.
In sum: patients on the one meal/day regiment were unhappy, hungry, lost a little bit of weight, increased cholesterol. This was a small sample, included somewhat menopausal women, and all people of normal body weight.
Intermittent Fasting Women: In Conclusion
All that being said, that’s it. That’s all that exists! Women don’t have much to go on.
There are a few rodent studies. They found that when alternate-day fasting,female rats and found significant negative hormonal changes occurring in the females.
There are even fewer human studies. Human studies on alternate day fasting have not been conducted on women of reproductive age at all, nor have any studies analyzed reproductive responses to fasting.
Moreover, the few studies that have been conducted on non-obese women have demonstrated that their metabolic responses are not nearly as robust as those of men, and may in fact be antagonistic to their health.
This post has focused on sex-specific responses to fasting, specifically intermittent fasting women. Another important distinction to make is between different body weights. Overweight and obese patients appear to experience significant improvements with IF regimes, but normal weight patients do not show the same across-the-board benefits. For women this may be a particularly sensitive issue. Overweight women may experience metabolic benefits, whereas normal weight women do not. I suspect that that may roughly be the case, but who knows. Honestly, no one at this point.
The practical solution, then, I believe, is to look at options, to be honest about priorities, and to listen to one’s body with awareness and love.
Is fasting worth trying if a woman is overweight and trying to improve her metabolic markers, and so far hasn’t had much success? Perhaps. Should it be undertaken if a woman is of normal weight? What if she is a light sleeper? What if her periods begin to dysregulate? Or stop? What if she starts getting acne, getting a stronger appetite, or losing her appetite altogether? These things happen, and I see them in women who fast and contact me time and time again.
We women (people!) should be honest with ourselves about our priorities, and act constantly with our mental and physical health foremost in our minds. All women are different. But the literature is so sparse in this area that we cannot make any real statements or predictions about the effects of fasting, other than that we just don’t know, and that we should continue to emphasize the centrality of awareness, caution, and loving nourishment in moving forward.
IF is one realm in which the female body has unique characteristics and needs that demand attention. There are boatloads of others. If you’re interested in reading about the collective set of them and learning how to optimize female skin, weight loss, and hormone balance, for a few examples, you could do worse than my best-selling book, Sexy by Nature, here.
And that’s a wrap! What do you think?
I am a tremendous advocate for the process of using traveling to new places as a way to grow and expand your knowledge. I have had the privilege to travel to many different countries, most currently my temporary home of Oxford. Traveling gives you the opportunity to expand your perspective beyond what is comfortable or the normal for your day-to-day mindset. This really is a tried and true theory, we can utilize watching TV or listening to podcasts or reading books as methods of traveling so to say, but they do not work as well as sinking your toes into a foreign land. If you have the opportunity and privilege to travel, I strongly encourage it.
After many years of traveling myself, I have developed a string of essentials I must take with me every time I travel. These are things that I bring that bring me comfort, convenience and capability wherever I go. I think we all have our own comfort and wellness rituals for traveling; I remember as a child that long road trips meant one of the only times I was able to have peanut m&ms’s and an extensive amount of coloring books and crayons. My traveling rituals also reminded me that we were about to embark on a new journey that would most likely leave me feeling educationally challenged, enlightened, or just closer to those around me.
As an adult my traveling rituals have definitely changed, although the concept still stays the same. Check out my favorite traveling essentials all located below!
1. Hand Lotion
A traveling must-have, my hands experience severe dryness in any sort of airplane cabin. When they get dry and crack, they tend to feel really stiff too, making me feel a bit immobile. That is one of the last things I would like to be feeling while traveling. I recently have been using this ultra hydrating moisturizer as my go-to.
In the similar mindset, my lips get terribly dry while traveling. I tend to travel to places where I can spend a decent amount of my time outdoors; a different environment and climate can quickly affect our sensitive lips. I tend to always have a few chapsticks rolling around, (does anyone actually ever finish a whole tube of chapstick?!) so I usually grab whatever’s closest. Recently it has been good old Carmex in a squeeze tube. Get it here.
3. Small Wallet
I try to condense all of my carry-on and luggage into the most minimal package I can possibly pull off. This can be tricky, but one of my easiest ways to accomplish this is by swapping my everyday wallet with a smaller, cash clip like wallet. I suppose I could just carry my small wallet around with me all the time, instead of having to switch when I travel, but I digress. Anyways, I never end up needing any of the random punch cards that I store in my large wallet so downsizing into a smaller one allows me to switch between purses or bags effortlessly, or allows me to not need to carry a purse altogether.
4. Thieves Oil
To be fair, I put this essential oil in my bottle of hand sanitizer, so it doesn’t smell like cheap alcohol. Thieves is known primarily for its antibacterial properties; it contains several other essential oils that harness these properties into one super oil blend. People use this oil in their cleaning products, to help stop smoking, on open wounds, and the list goes on. Mainly for me, it makes me feel like I am protecting my immune system just a tad more than the basic task of washing my hands. I definitely recommend getting it from someone who represents the Young Living Oil collection, quality is key here and I know Young Living has very strict standards when it comes to their oils.
5. Bleach Wipes
I feel a little silly, but mostly triumphant, when I whip these bad boys out on the airplane or in a hotel. I have, on multiple occasions, flipped down the tray table and there has been left over food on there! Visible leftover food! If you can see the food, imagine how many other things are lingering on those tray tables. Between that and the recycled air, bleach wipes are my must have. And, I am by no means a germaphobe, but planes are one area that is considered the dirtiest around.
6. Face Wipes
Face wipes are typically an essential based on convenience. I could bring my face wash in a tiny travel bottle, or I could bring easily accessible face wipes that can turn into body wash wipes when needed. If I don’t have time for a shower or to really thoroughly wash my face, these suffice and make me feel less grimy and traveled. I typically buy these cucumber face wipes, and I know Beautycounter has some excellent face wipes as well, which you can get here.
So we basically know we need our entire skin regime packed in tiny travel form in order to keep sensitive skin happy while traveling, or at least I need to typically do this. I think my skin ends up being a happy little ecosystem when I maintain some semblance of consistency while traveling. That includes a lot of moisturizer. Especially since Noelle mentioned that oilier skin results in less wrinkles, you know I have been laying on the moisturizer thick. I typically bring one that has an SPF content for in the morning and throughout the day, and then one without SPF for at night. I have been using this kind at night, and this one in the morning.
This is 100% always necessary people. You never want to end up being the one that gets the obnoxious sunburn on the first day of your trip, and then struggling to slather aloe vera on said burn while keeping up with all the fun activities. Do I sound experienced here? Trust me, I am! Please bring sunscreen, or buy some wherever you arrive. This little stick from Beautycounter is natural and can be carried in your carry-on.
The last time I traveled I had several tea bags in my purse, chamomile, mint, ginger and turmeric, and one white tea. Tea is a great staple to have in case you end up feeling a little under the weather, whether its upset stomach, or maybe a cold coming on. I love keeping the ginger, turmeric and mint for tummy aches. You can typically find a free cup of hot water anywhere too, so if you aren’t able to find a good cup of coffee this can be a great free, easy alternative.
10. Bagged Tuna
I can never find anything beyond an epic bar at any airport or truck stop and sometimes you need more than a bar to get you through. I love bringing this stuff because you can always fly with it, it’s non-perishable, and it is really easy to eat. You don’t even need a fork to eat it with. I have successfully eaten a bag of tuna without a fork and only my mouth and a few crackers. There are a few really delicious flavors too. I bring a few bags of olives to toss in with the tuna when I need a fast impromptu but satisfying meal. This brand is really great too.
11. Bagged Olives
These babies go great with bagged tuna, surprise suprise! Again, these nuggets of delicious fat are super easy to travel with, and mix well with other non-perishables like bagged tuna. Or if you grab a cucumber or some beef jerky, you can assemble your own little traveling charcuterie board.I usually grab the mini bags they have at Trader Joes.
Do you travel without headphones? If you answered yes, please explain this to me! I have friends and family that do this but I truly cannot understand why you would ever want to put yourself through this. Headphones are the perfect access to the introvert portal whenever you need it but cannot find the space or place to be alone or introvert out. They also make any traveling in a plane, train, or whatever the means, pass by a little faster. Being crammed into a plane with a ton of people I do not know is my least favorite thing to do, so being able tto escape to a movie or podcast is how I survive these travels.These ones are a little bulky but are noise canceling. Get them here.
Now that you have my fantastic list of travel essentials, I wanna know what travel plans you have built up. Do you travel often? Or does your family embark on vacations each year? If money and time was not a factor, where would you travel if you had the opportunity?
It’s been a while since Thrive Market started and they’re still going strong.
In fact, the last couple years has been a time of awesome growth in the world of health foods and they now offer so much more than they could at first!
With paleo becoming more and more popular, tons of great, healthy and fantastic easy-to-eat food items have popped up on the scene. And I’ve always found Thrive to be the best place to buy them!
You see,Thrive is a membership based site, so they function like a warehouse store where you pay a yearly fee and you are able to benefit from the great prices all year round. Shipping is also very inexpensive.
What I love most about Thrive are the prices. Buying this stuff in person or even Amazon (as much as I love it!) will cost you an arm and a leg sometimes.
But with Thrive, that membership fee and gives you access to incredible deals on everything from protein powder to mayonnaise.
If you consume a fair amount of paleo products on a yearly basis, the membership will more than pay for itself and you will end up saving in the end.
I discovered Thrive while searching for a way to get some of the snacks and foods I live off of like Primal Mayo, Tanka Bars, and wild honey. Thrive has all of these products and many, many more for prices lower than you’ll ever seen them.
It’s seriously an AWESOME place to shop because they carry all the non-perishables you could possibly want- from oils and condiments, to snacks and bars and the prices are AMAZING.
If you haven’t tried some of these easy paleo foods and products, you are missing out! They have made my life so much more convenient and helped me to be able to do more of the things I love, which have nothing to do with eating!
Thrive is currently offering a free trial period on their membership, so if you sign up now, you can buy lots of yummy things and try it out to see how it works for you before paying a membership price!
Check it out here!
Have you tried Thrive? What did you think? What are your favorite snacks to buy?
Grass fed meat is an important part of the paleo lifestyle and many of us make a big effort to eat as much of it as we possibly can.
But grass fed meat is not always easy to come by, nor is it easy to afford.
Enter Butcher Box.
SO many of my readers have now become big fans and loyal subscribers to Butcher Box’s pioneering subscription-style meat delivery service.
They make grass fed affordable and simple and can do boxes in beef, pork, and chicken.
But over time I’ve heard from some of you with some minor beefs (pun intended).
You guys were really excited about the idea but wished there was a bit more meat in each box.
You also wished they would use less plastic packaging so that you didn’t feel like a blight on the environment.
I heard you!
Butcher Box did too!
So they’ve made some great changes to their boxes the meet your needs!
Boxes now come with only biodegradable packaging and instead of a Styrofoam box to keep things cool, meat is packaged in a large reusable tote bag! (It’s really cute btw and great for picnics!)
Boxes also now come with an average of a WHOLE POUND of meat more per box for the same price!
Possibly best of all, there is now a pork and chicken ONLY box option if you’re just not feelin’ beef that month!
Butcherbox delivers right to your door, so its a great option for those of you who live far away from an available source of grass fed meat.
And the variety of cuts is awesome!
I’ve tried some great new cuts with this service and my readers who use Butcherbox love the included recipes.
A box of meat or even a subscription would make an AMAZING gift for anyone trying to go paleo in the new year and it would be something nice to do for yourself after all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season!
Use this link to learn more and order from Butcherbox! You’ll get FREE BACON added to your box just for signing up through us! Get more on Butcher Box here!
For a few years, I ate a very “strict paleo” diet.
It consisted of fish, eggs, meats, vegetables, and coconut oil.
I rarely ate fruits or starches. I never ate out at restaurants or at friends’ homes. I never touched a processed snack like a handful of potato chips. I never drank alcohol.
I most certainly never ate bread.
Now, it isn’t to say that that was entirely a bad thing. My diet was perfectly healthy…. in a way.
Nowadays, however, I eat much more flexibly. I’ll have a handful of chips. I’ll drink a glass of wine. I’ll have a Halloween candy or two. If a particularly tasty looking cake is being served in the dining hall, I’ll have a bite of my friend’s. I don’t go overboard and I certainly don’t stock my pantry with these sorts of foods, but when they come my way, I let them.
And it works for me.
Back when I ate strict paleo, I wasn’t doing particularly well, physically or mentally. If only I knew some things I do now, I might have saved myself a lot heartache and pain. Here’s a list of 5 crucial things I wish I knew when I ate strict paleo:
1. You don’t have to be paleo 100% of the time to get the nutrients you need
Paleo is an incredibly nutrient-dense diet. If you eat the awesome paleo staples like pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed beef, organ meats, wild-caught fish, leafy greens, a rainbow of other vegetables, and starches and fruits on a regular basis, you are most likely supremely well-nourished.
Having a meal that is less densely-packed with nutrients, such as some sort of mac-n-cheese or chicken-fried rice, will not make you nutrient deficient, I promise. Most nutrients last in the body for quite some time, and the most important ones, like vitamin A and D, can be stored in the liver for several months.
2. If you don’t have leaky gut or an autoimmune disease, you can eat grains occassionally without the world ending
The whole paleo diet world is a bit doomsday-esque about grains.
One experience of mine demonstrates this quite vividly: I was at a “famous” paleo person’s house during a paleo event, and the home was full of big-time paleo names. Just about everyone there was drinking tequila and “paleo margarita’s”, and some were even smoking cigars. During the after-dinner conversation I casually mentioned that I had had a bowl of Raisin Bran cereal the week before. Everyone gasped in horror.
Grains I believe need to be handled with care. For people who struggle with gut issues, who have an autoimmune disease, or who are trying to manage systemc inflammation, I think avoiding grains 100% is a must. I really, truly do. Many people need to eliminate grains altogether.
For the rest of us, I think it may be wise to err on the side of caution. I personally am not sure how I feel about the “toxicity” level of grains. To that end, I like to play is safe, and to generally avoid grains.
I also know that grains are not high quality food. They don’t really have all that much nutrition in them, and the nutrients that they do have can quite easily be cancelled out by their high phytonutrient content. Phytonutrients bind with “real” nutrients and flush them out of the body, such that they can actually be said to “steal” your nutrients from you.
However: grains can also be eaten by people without particular grain-sensitive issues without the world ending. If you don’t have an autoimmune disease, a cracker here or there, or a piece of cake at your friend’s wedding, probably won’t destroy your health. Grains are not optimal but they are not poison.
(For most people.)
If I had recognized this back in the day, I wouldn’t have been so fearful about food. I lived in fear so much of the time, because I thought any food that I hadn’t personally prepared might poison me and cause all these extreme gut and health disasters.
Turns out, they probably won’t, and I personally at least am not burdened with having to avoid grains 100% of the time in order to feel healthy and good.
3. Following diet “rules” can make you eat even worse
When I ate strict paleo, I followed strict diet rules: no booze, no carbs, no grains, no sweets, no treats.
Following these rules made me feel like I was deprived. I couldn’t help it: try as I might, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the foods I couldn’t have. I obsessed over them. I dreamt about sweet foods like it was my job.
Feeling so deprived and obsessive in the end was terrible for me, because it not only made me feel unhappy in the moment, but it also made me go off the rails in the long run. Then all of my “perfect paleo” would come crumbling down. I would eat a whole dessert tray full of pastries in an evening, for example. Or, on one particularly unhappy occasion, I ate several full loaves of dessert cake by myself.
Then I would feel terrible about myself and starve myself back in feeling moral, perfect, and “paleo” again.
Then I would feel deprived, and the whole cycle would start all over again.
If I had known then that it was the diet rules that were the problem in the first place, I would have been liberated. I would have been free. I would have been able to relax my grip on my life, and no longer swing between these violent extremes of perfect and disastrous eating.
The way that I now manage my eating is by thinking of paleo as a guideline. I eat paleo because I choose to. It isn’t a rule I have shackled around my diet. It is a healthy, life-giving and life-enhancing choice I make. I don’t have to eat paleo all of the time in order to be physically healthy and fit. I only have to choose it most of the time.
And choose it I can and I do, because now I have the power over food, instead of food having the power over me.
4. Wellness is about both physical and mental health
Sure, a handful (or, screw it, a whole bag) of potato chips isn’t the most awesome choice for my health.
But true wellness is about combining physical and mental health to make a happy whole.
Sometimes after a particularly rough day, some dessert really does hit the spot in a way that makes me feel better.
Or, if I am feeling homesick, I may be able to sooth my longing by baking that Irish soda bread my mother used to always make.
Back when I was strict paleo I never allowed my mental needs to weigh in with my physical needs. That was a mistake. It only ever made my emotional state worse, and never let me relax into myself.
If I had allowed myself to let my emotional self make some decisions around food, I wouldn’t have drowned in self-condemnation and harsh judgment. I wouldn’t have had to feel like I was at war. I would have been able to feel at peace with food, and to be able to eat more intuitively and lovingly.
5. Eating paleo won’t make you immortal
This is an important point that I still need help with.
Somewhere, deep inside of me, I am terrified of eating the wrong foods, because I am terrified of dying.
Some part of me thinks that if I eat the perfet foods all of the time, I won’t die.
Or I at least won’t have to die as soon.
Now of course there is some truth to this. Eating well is an important factor in a healthy life. Eating well can save you from Alzheimer’s disease, from autoimmune disease, from heart disease, and perhaps even from cancer.
But it will never make you live forever.
And it will never make you invincible against the invariable forces of chance and fate.
My terror around death drives a lot of my decisions. It drives a lot of the fear I sit with on a daily basis. It drives the choices I make, both big and small.
Fortunately, it is no longer such a big part of my relationship with food. I no longer obsessively control my diet. I no longer fear every tiny morsel of food because of the effect it may have on me. I am always careful to be good, but I am no longer a strict perfectionist about it.
And to be honest with you, in the long run, I think this is even better for me, because being purposeful and happy is just as much a part of a rich, long life as eating well, if not even more so.
Paleo won’t make me immortal. It may help me life well and happy, but I have to remember that it is only one of many factorss, and perfectionism about it – at least for me – does more harm than good.
And with dying, I bring my list of the 5 most important things I wish I knew back when I was so strict paleo. Now I am curious about your experience. How strict are you with your diet? Why? Why not? What has your relationship with paleo been like, and are you happy with it?
Nuts are big time winners in the paleosphere, or at least bigger than I would expect. I mean – they do have their naysayers (like myself) – but they have big time champions, too. Nuts are probably the most popular paleo snack, and they are also often used in flours (like almond flour) for baking paleo treats. At paleo fx, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of my calories came from nuts, given all the paleo treats and protein bars I snarfed between book signings.
I am one of the few people who says ‘no’ to nuts. Of course – occasionally, sure. Have a nut here or there. (I’d happily say the same of ice cream or even bread.) I mean, THESE have nuts, so I won’t cut them out completely. They are, after all, dense sources of vitamins like vitamin E and selenium. They also, in some studies at least, appear to reduce inflammation rather than increase it. So they may not be all that bad. Still, the wisest thing to do is to err on the side of caution, as over-doing it can be seriously detrimental.
Here’s why I don’t like nuts:
#1: 99% of the time they are processed
Nuts are often horribly prepared. Consuming a “processed” nut like one you’d find in a convenient store or a gas station is just like eating deep-fried food, if perhaps worse. This is because…
nuts are often cooked in high omega-6 poly-unsatured seed oil.
Keep your eyes on ingredient labels. If the nuts in question aren’t labeled “raw” they are most likely cooked in some oil or another, and I can almost guarantee you it will be an unhealthy one like peanut oil, soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil.. These are all omega-6 seed oils, which are highly inflammatory in the body, even in small doses. Here is an example of a raw nut that would be a better choice, if you do plan to eat them.
And also because…
While being processed, nuts are heated to a dangerous degree.
If “fried,” “baked” or “roasted” in seed oil, the potential for harm skyrockets even higher, as heating these oils (and the nuts themselves!) to high temperatures rancidizes them, creates oxidative damage in the body, and is a surefire, powerful method of inflaming the body.
If “dry roasted,” – which means they’re not prepared in an oil – still be wary! Heating nuts to any degree will rancidize them. Even without the added toxic potential of seed oils, nuts themselves are composed of omega-6 oils and will become extra inflammatory when exposed to elevated temperatures.
2) If raw, nuts still have high omega 6 profiles.
All nuts, save for macadamia nuts, are extraordinarily high in omega-6 fat. (Here’s a great macademia nut choice.)
Check out these numbers collected by Mark Sisson:
Omega-6 Content Various Nuts
(1/4 cup, which is about 20 small almonds, and 200 calories)
Walnuts – 9.5 g (50% of the calories!)
Almonds – 4.36 g (25% of the calories!)
Cashews – 2.6 g
Macadamias – 0.5 g
Brazil nuts – 7.2 g
Hazelnuts – 2.7 g
Pistachio – 4.1 g
Pine nuts – 11.6 g (>50% of calories!)
Pecans – 5.8 g
As you can see, Macadamias are innocent, which is why they are the only nuts I recommend people eat, and Cashews and Hazlenuts are okay. Other than these few exceptions, however, the omega 6 content is extraordinarily high. 10 grams of fat is the amount of fat in one “serving” of oil… so 1/4 cup of walnuts has just as much omega 6 in it as a whole tablespoon of soybean oil, and enough your body needs for more than a week. That is a lot of omega 6 fat.
You might respond as this point by asking the question: “Can’t I balance my omega 6 intake with more omega 3? I heard that the most important aspect of these fats is balance.”
Consider this math: your omega 6: omega 3 ratio should be no more than 4:1, and probably more like 2:1. If you ate one handful of walnuts which means you consumed somewhere between 5 and 9 grams of of omega 6, you’d have to eat one whole pound of salmon, herring, sardines, or mackerel to make up for it.
So it’s hard to achieve balance if you regularly eat nuts. It’s almost impossible, actually. My favorite recommendation regarding omega 6 and 3 intake is to rely on animal products like bacon and beef to deliver to the body the small amounts of omega 6 it needs, consume about 1 pound of fatty fish a week, and leave the nuts for squirrels. (Here’s a great wild caught salmon option)
Moreover – it is incredibly important to keep your total omega 6 and 3 content low. Balance is certainly important. But the balance should be kept to a fairly minimal level. In the above scenario, you’d consume 18 whole grams of these PUFAs. That’s an extraordinarily high number. It is much more ideal to keep a daily intake to less than 3 percent of total calories. For a 2000 calorie diet, this is no more than 4 grams a day.
3) If raw, nuts are still potent sources of phytoestrogens.
Phytoestrogens are molecules from plants that resemble the body’s natural estrogen, but do not quite match it. This means that they sit at estrogen receptor sites. Sometimes they increase estrogenic activity – depending on the type of estrogen receptor present in this kind of tissue, say, in this case, the skin – and sometimes they increase it, like in the ovaries.
In either case, eating a lot of nuts can negatively impact female hormone balance. It’s worth noting at this point that combining phytoestrogenicity (this is not a real word) with inflammation is a big problem for menstrual cramps. If you have trouble with cramping and regularly eat nuts, they may be to blame. (For more on hormonal balance, check out my book Sexy By Nature)
4) If raw, nuts are still very high in insoluble fiber.
There are two kinds of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber is digested by gut flora and used as nutrients for your body. Insoluble fiber is completely indigestible.
Having some insoluble fiber in the diet is important. This helps keep digestion moving along smoothly. Nevertheless, if you struggle with inflammation, acne, autoimmunity, leaky gut, Chron’s or Diverticulitis, or impaired digestive comfort in any way, nuts can exacerbate the problem. They are roughage. They can scrub the inside of your intestines like a wire brush. Tread carefully around nuts if your gut or skin health is an issue.
5) No matter what, nuts are very high in calories.
I am not a “calorie counter” by any means – but I do know that it’s important to keep calorie intake relatively normal and constant in order to maintain a healthy weight.
This can be hard to do when nuts are so dense in calories. One package of macadamia nuts from my local market Meijer, for example, contains 1400 calories. There are not very many nuts in that package! Like six. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you get the point. You could eat half of the package before you ever knew it, and that would be enough calories for one whole big meal!
6) No matter what, people tend to eat too many of them.
Nuts, as with most foods, I think are fine “in moderation.”
Yet the fact that they are usually unhealthfully processed, coupled with their high calorie content and status at paleo-snack-of-choice and flour-of-choice, means that they get way overeaten.
There are lots of better snack choices. Fresh fruit and veggies, bars like these or these, a handful of chocolate chips or even gummies made with this gelatin.
In the paleosphere, we spend more time justifying why we eat nuts than seems reasonable to me. Other foods are not hard to justify. Meats, bacon, seafood, vegetables, fruit. These rockstars are all easy to evaluate: “awesome!” We do a lot of backbending for nuts that I find unnecessary. Sure, eat some, as in all foods, but they’re not the best.
Your immune system, skin, hormones, and waistline may thank you.