Not So Paleo: Is There a Place for Cheating?


I know, I know. I’m sometimes seen as Paleo Dogmatic. I’m perceived as strict, old-school, or too rigid when it comes to how I portray following an authentic Paleo diet.

But guess what? I’m over it. At least I’m over being that dogmatic.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not, for a second, saying that I’ve stopped believing in a real Paleo diet. I do, 100 percent. But a few things have changed and it’s been a long time coming.

A few years back, Dr. Cordain and I were invited onto the Dr. Oz Show first the first time. We were brought on as Paleo experts.

It was 2013 and Paleo was well into its foray of becoming a ‘thing.’ But I had yet to accept the reality of how much it had been and continues to be taken far out of context.

Back then, I still felt angry when I’d see another Paleo-labeled product hitting the stores or online, which was anything but, or see yet another cookbook focusing on how to take Standard American specialties and recreate them in gluten free, soy-free, dairy free versions. That doesn’t make them Paleo.

I’ve always made it clear that I do feel things like these can have a small place in a balanced approach to eating. But it needs to be understood from the get go that cakes, noodles, pasta, bread, and bars – even though they may well indeed be made from foods which are (or were) part of a Paleo regime – still defeat the purpose of what the approach is all about.

The issue is that without the knowledge of what and why any approach to eating is about, the approach can easily be misconstrued. Then something else is adapted with the best of intentions and when it doesn’t ‘work’ it’s easy to say the exact same thing about the actual approach – it doesn’t work.

But the actual diet may never have been followed in the first place!

Say, for example, someone with MS reads about how Paleo can be beneficial to their healing. But instead of happening upon the work of Dr Cordain or other experts such as Dr Terry Wahls, or Dr Amy Myers, they happen upon a cookbook or website which suggests they can eat Paleo pancakes for breakfast, Paleo lasagna for lunch, Paleo muffins for a snack and Paleo pasta of dinner. That person a) will not have actually followed a Paleo approach and b ) will not see improvement in their health and then c) may tell others around them it was all for naught.

But – and it’s a big but– there can be some wiggle room for these non-Paleo foods, assuming the ‘why’ behind the diet is kept in mind.

And now here’s the shift I mentioned earlier in this article.

On the Dr Oz show, the producer and I had extensive preparatory conversations. I have to give her credit for the amount of time she spent researching and interviewing both myself as well as Dr. Cordain. We talked everything through and I was never asked to say anything I didn’t agree with or believe in.

Until we broached the topic of cheat meals.

I had an immediate and visceral response that under no terms would I suggest cheat meals! After all, I wasn’t about to go on National TV and announce that eating pizza, ice cream and pasta every week was a good idea! I was no sellout!

Then… the epiphany.

The producer calmly shared that I might want to think about who the audience was. Didn’t I want to reach more people versus turn them off? Didn’t I think that if the average person watching was eating a poor diet and they took even a small piece of what I was saying to heart that it was a step in the right direction?

Indeed, I did.

And though it would be another couple of years before I began actually incorporating this mindset into my private nutrition coaching business, it was that moment at the Dr. Oz show when I realized what the 85% recommendation in Dr. Cordain’s book was all about.

So now, when I say Paleo or not Paleo, it’s the same thing. I do believe in a grain / legume / dairy free protocol and I do believe it supports gut health, optimal health, and mental health.

I no longer feel everyone must be 100% Paleo all the time, so long as there are no medical concerns (i.e. eating gluten when someone has Celiac is just…a bad idea.) There also needs to be a trial and error period during which all inflammatory foods are removed. But if someone opts to have a small amount of full fat, 100 grass-fed cream in their coffee each day and that allows them to continue on the trajectory of eating an otherwise Paleo approach for 95% of the time, I think it makes far more sense.

That doesn’t make dairy Paleo and it doesn’t need to be the reason to create yet one more version of the Paleo diet. What it can do is help to create a lifelong strategy to eating that feels more balanced to someone who believes being complete Paleo doesn’t suit them.

Now of course, I personally feel we have all we need to create long term, true Paleo living with all the rich fats, abundant veggies and properly sourced proteins at our fingertips, but again, we all have different goals, objectives, backgrounds, and lifestyles all of which factor into what will or will not work.

Eighty-five percent, with a feeling of empowerment through education of what we’re eating, balanced to factor in those holidays, special occasions, and our fitness training regime (here is where the gels I used to use would fit in!), I do honestly believe is better than 100% for 3 weeks and a sense of failure!

No, I’m not going to say “everything in moderation.” Rather, test to see what non-Paleo foods you can implement from time to time to keep you on your long term, sustainable, Paleo trajectory!

About Nell Stephenson, B.S.

Nell Stephenson, B.S.Nell Stephenson is a competitive Ironman athlete, personal trainer, and a health and nutrition consultant. She has an exercise science degree from the University of Southern California, a health/fitness instructor certification from the American College of Sports Medicine, and over a decade in the health, fitness and nutrition industry. To support her training for the Ironman Triathlon, Nell has tried many different nutritional plans and has found that the Paleo Diet is superior to all other ways of eating. She’s found that she’s leaner, faster, and fitter than ever before and uses her own experience to teach clients how to achieve optimal nutrition and health. Visit her website at Download meal plans tailored to you here.

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