Some context: It’s the Winter Semester and I’ve started a brand new waitressing job at a pretty niche restaurant in town, the owner, herself a Paleo diet devotee, sits me down and explains the menu – ‘it’s sometimes called the cavemen diet, the idea is you only eat foods which were available to early humans’. ‘Neat,’ – I think, eyeing up a huge plate of ribs the chef has just finished preparing –‘a diet which lets you eat half a cow!’.
Many months later: it’s Spring Break and exams are looming, the restaurant has closed down and I miss my job as a waitress. One thing sticks in my mind, while I was running up and down stairs, lugging crates of fancy wine, and struggling to haul those huge plates of ribs over to tables of fifteen people, sweating and panting, the manager who is doing all this and twice more shows nowhere near the signs of exhaustion I do. I envy her, she’s super toned and has enough energy to run a restaurant, do a degree in nutrition, run a family of five and go to the gym every day. ‘How nice it would be,’ I think, ‘to have that much energy during exam season’. So that’s how I decide to give the caveman diet a shot.
My Tesco order arrives. After a very brief Google I learned that the Paleo diet consists of these food groups:
- ‘Grass-fed’ meats (I don’t bother to check whether my 2 kilo bag of frozen Value chicken breast has been grass fed or not, I daren’t even look at what country it’s come from)
- Fish/seafood (I have bought a kilo of ‘white fish’, literally that’s what it says on the bag, no specified breed, just fish that is white)
- Fresh fruits (yes! I relish at the sight of my organic apples, bananas and huge punnet of strawberries)
- Fresh vegetables (I am disappointed to learn that potatoes are not Paleo, my dreams of living off Spanish omelette are destroyed)
- Eggs. (guess I’ll have to make do with spinach and ham omelettes)
- Nuts. (other than fruit, this is basically the only thing I can snack on, there are a LOT of nuts in my order, but weirdly, no peanuts, apparently peanuts aren’t Paleo, I tearfully throw away my jar of peanut butter, unable to imagine what a banana smoothie tastes like without it)
- Seeds (even more disappointing a snack than nuts)
- Healthy oils
After I’ve unpacked my freshest order yet, I enthusiastically make myself a cup of green tea and go on an Instagram frenzy, following about 20 ‘Paleo’ recipe accounts. For dinner I have mushrooms stuffed with olives and mince.
I wake up starving and therefore eat my way through half of my fruit for the week, oops. I pack up a load of mixed nuts to fuel me for my day of studying and set off with a banana and almond milk smoothie. The nuts keep me fairly full but by 5:30 pm I’m starving, I eat the leftover stuffing from last night’s mushrooms, which is basically Bolognese sauce, and polish off my strawberries to satisfy my sweet tooth.
I’m having the worst mood swing of my entire life. I’m in a cafe whinging to my best friend Lauren about anything and everything. In an attempt to distract me from my non-existent problems she asks how my new diet is going. I tell her the basics of the diet and she asks which foods I’ve had to give up:
‘Cereal, bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, dairy, caffeine…’
‘But didn’t you used to have like four coffees a day?’
Lauren is right. On a typical day on campus, I would have up to four coffees just to keep me perky for lectures and seminars, but because our cavemen ancestors didn’t have access to skinny vanilla lattes, I don’t either. Lauren has sussed out why I’m feeling so blue, I’m literally having withdrawal from coffee. I stare down into my umpteenth cup of herbal tea and pray this is all worth it.
I’ve started drinking coffee again, I’m sorry but the cavemen didn’t have 13000 words worth of essays due in a fortnight. I make it with almond milk though so I’m technically dairy-free. A note on almond milk, I rate it on cereal and in smoothies, especially the sweetened stuff, it’s a bit odd but tolerable in coffee but absolutely vile and 100% unbearable in tea.
I don’t know if I’m just kidding myself, but I have noticed my stomach is already slightly flatter, the cutting out of bread and dairy means I’m a lot less bloated in a fairly short time. Though I haven’t felt any change in my energy levels which was my original intention, being able to see the effects encourages me to keep going.
By this point my sweet tooth is really suffering. I’ve been enjoying making homemade ‘naked burgers’ (basically just a big ol’ meatball, flattened slightly, fried (in olive oil) then slapped between some spinach) and the fish and vegetables makes me feel like a health goddess, but I simply cannot sit down to do work in the evening without a yoghurt or a biscuit or SOMETHING which isn’t goddamn nuts or fruit.
In sugar-deprived desperation I turn to those Paleo Instagram pages. I scroll through and find a recipe for Paleo Snickerdoodles. I have no idea what a Snickerdoodle is but in the picture it looks like a chunky biscuit so I’m willing to give it a try. I head to Leamington’s organic shop Gaia Wholefoods (7 Regent Place) and stock up on Coconut Flour, Almond Flour, Honey, Coconut Oil, Gluten Free Baking Powder and Cinnamon, fairly confident that my baking skills can stretch to accommodate these bizarre replacements.
It’s close to a disaster. The recipe is American and I’m not good at maths, I’m pretty sure I get the measurement conversions wrong (what the HECK is a cup?!!) and the ‘Doodles end up super dry and crumbly, they’re just about tolerable with a load of non-Paleo jam on but they’re absolutely no match to the flapjack sold in the Library Coffee Bar.
I’ve given up. The incident with the Snickerdoodles and looming deadlines have completely killed my willpower to see this little experiment through, and I’m relieved to sit down to my essays with a large dairy-filled latte and a pasta salad.
Perhaps my timing was wrong, if I were less stressed I might not have relied so heavily on quick, carby and caffeinated energy fixes. I rated cutting out bread and reducing my dairy intake, and continue to do so as much as possible, but it’s difficult to keep full and energised when your meals can’t include other carbs such as rice or pasta. Because of this, I actually ended up exercising less than I normally would, which was arguably unhealthier for me.
I’m sure if someone had more time (and probably more money – meat is expensive!) the Paleo diet might work wonders, but for a stressed and financially strained student with a lot of deadlines, going Paleo was a little too drastic to cope with.