Why I’m excited about the Fall 2014 Whole Life Challenge

Things have been a little quiet around the Eats blog lately. We’re still eating (as if that were ever in question) and I’m still cooking a decent amount, but the amount that I share on the blog has diminished significantly in the past year.

Why?

After 3+ years of increasingly strict primal/paleo “lifestyle,” I reached a breaking point last August. And, I quit. Not in the throw-up-my-hands-nothing-is-working version of quitting. Quitting because it was the best thing I could do for my health.

Cavemen are sick of your stereotypes about their lifestyle.

Cavemen are sick of your stereotypes about their lifestyle.

You see, I’m pretty lucky: I don’t have an autoimmune disorder. I’m not overweight. For most of my life, I’ve eaten and enjoyed a wide variety of things with minimal physical side effects. But, like many women, I do have a history of disordered eating. And, as time went on and my results on paleo weren’t “good enough”, my response was to just. try. harder. (boundless energy, shredded physique, and perfect, unblemished skin sound just around the corner on every paleo blog–and I found myself increasingly lethargic, puffy, and slightly blemished…)

And yet, nothing changed. If anything, things were worse. Moreover, I was increasingly fearful of what might happen were I to eat “forbidden” foods like gluten. If I knew I was going out to lunch with a friend or colleague, I’d spend 20+ minutes scrutinizing the menu online to determine the safest course of action. If, as occasionally happened, it wasn’t on the menu or had been sold out, my first instinct was to want to cry (!), and the second was to want to refuse to eat anything until I got home.

This was unsustainable, unhealthy, and highly disordered behavior. Plus, it was time consuming, stressful, and anti-social–turning down home-cooked food, agonizing over social events, and cooking every meal to guarantee its contents was isolating and exhausting. But I’d spent years with an increasingly regimented set of food rules–all done in the name of health, at first!– that were just as challenging to break out of as prior habits.

I wanted to stop, but the idea of going cold turkey was frightening (and not helped by reading the ridiculous paleo forums that abound on the internet). Recognizing that I was heading down an increasingly slippery slope–with NO positive outcomes other than stress–I used last fall’s Whole Life Challenge as a way to challenge myself to regain control over my diet, by making the nutrition rules my own:

  • Legumes were okay on the WLC, so I’d embrace this (by extrapolation, that also meant that paleo dietary dogma was fallible, as legumes are generally forbidden in the paleo-sphere, and allowing them was a first crack at my rigid patterns)
  • I told myself: You are 31 years old. You DO NOT need someone on the internet to tell you what you can and cannot eat.
  • I also told myself: You are a scientist, so do some self-experimentation and figure out what works for you.
  • I docked myself a point for any time I was hungry but refused to eat because nothing was “paleo enough”
  • I docked myself a point for any time I was hungry but didn’t eat because “it isn’t ____ meal time”. Eat when hungry, stop when full. If that meant 4 breakfasts, so be it.

Every time I panicked about what might happen, I reminded myself it was only for 8 weeks.

And, nothing happened.

Well, nothing bad happened at least – everything stayed the same physically and I no longer spent inordinate amounts of time obsessing over food purity. Consequently, my stress level plummeted, and, along with it, most of my lingering issues.

But I didn’t really know how or whether to share it here, and I felt vaguely guilty about continuing to post recipes here – like I was secretly living a food blogger lie, or something ridiculous. And I also didn’t know how to write about it, especially as there are multiple people who have written about their experiences quitting paleo and I felt like I was just regurgitating their stories.

I did gain a lot from my time as a hardcore paleo-adherent: I cut out most alcohol and haven’t missed it (with added benefits of better sleep, lower bar tabs, and fewer regrets); I successfully kicked any vestiges of fat-phobia; and it prompted me to participate in a CSA (community supported agriculture – a giant farm box), which exposed me to a host of new veggies. I’d always been a good recipe follower, but the past few years pushed me to new comfort levels in the kitchen.

But just as there are positive elements of paleo–and many dietary communities–there are also negative elements. Namely, dietary dogma and rigidity–the attitude that if you’re not getting results, you’re just not doing it well enough. (Are you eating nightshades? Did you soak your nuts? Maybe it’s that small amount of sugar in your kombucha…etc.)

What I was lacking was balance, and this is why I was so excited to see the new food guidelines for this Fall’s Whole Life Challenge. Michael Stanwyck writes:

Where you’ve likely been getting it wrong is by trying to be “perfect.” Perfect doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even exist. If you think there’s only one way, you may never start and what really matters is that you start! You can’t make a change in anything if you can’t start.

Don’t worry about what anyone says is “best.” You can get there (or as close as you want). But you can only start from here. We didn’t create these levels because they’re “easy.” We created these levels because every person has their own “hard.” 

I spent so long trying to be perfect that I lost sight of why I was doing this all in the first place: to have an awesome life built on healthful practices–with room for fun and flexibility.

I’m excited to keep practicing balance and striving not for someone else’s idea of perfection, but on what works for me, in this fall’s WLC.

(And, now that I’ve “come clean” about my break with rigidly “clean” eating, I’m hoping to post more regularly!)

One of the authors who has most inspired me in the past year has been Amber at gokaleo.com. For anyone who thinks about food and diet–sometimes too much–she is a voice of reason in a sea of dogma.

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9 thoughts on “Why I’m excited about the Fall 2014 Whole Life Challenge

  1. “I docked myself a point for any time I was hungry but refused to eat because nothing was “paleo enough” I love this rule!

    I had a rule myself during one challenge that I was not allowed to starve myself if there were no compliant options. I made my rule that I would have to eat something even if it was non-compliant and lose the point.

  2. Love the honesty about your experience Becky! I found this post encouraging for my own dieting regimen. Enjoyed the caveman meme too.

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