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An Update on My (So-Called) Paleo Diet

As I wrote in this blog, in early May I started on a new diet, which is misleadingly (for reasons I will come back to) called the ‘Paleo Diet.’

First, a progress report. Over the 3.5 months I lost 15 pounds, or around a pound per week. Not particularly impressive by the standards of super diets that promise that you will lose 20 pounds of fat in a month, or even in a week. On the other hand, I haven’t done anything drastic, like starving myself, or undergoing stomach stapling. In fact, I eat as much as I want, I just don’t eat certain foods (as a reminder – no cereals, no legumes, and no dairy).

In any case, losing weight was never the main purpose, getting healthier was. And it worked remarkably well, much better than I expected. It is difficult to describe, but basically I feel much younger and I have a lot more energy. Probably the best way to put it is that I feel as though I stopped poisoning myself.

I was raised in a big city (Moscow) and lived for several years in another one (New York). In 1980 I moved away from NYC and since then I have lived in a succession of small towns or in rural areas (except for two years in Seattle, but it’s hardly a megalopolis). After a while I noticed that when I come for an extended visit to a big city, after a few days I start feeling ‘off,’ not really sick, but not really well either. After returning to my rural abode, I almost immediately get better. This happens every time when I have to stay in a city for longer than 3-5 days. I think what happens is that the urban pollution simply poisons your body. People who live in cities all the time are used to it, and stop noticing it (as I did, when I was a megalopolis dweller myself).

Well, switching to my new diet was like moving away from New York (although it took a little longer to flush the poisons out of the system, but the effect was even more striking). This is what I mean when I say that I feel as though I stopped poisoning myself. So the diet definitely works. I have not done any blind trials, so it all could be just the placebo effect, but I don’t give a damn. It works. Initially I was going to give it 6 months and then decide whether to stick with it. But now, just past the midpoint, it is clear that I will be sticking with it.

Now to why calling this a ‘Paleo diet’ is a complete misnomer. Most people, when they hear me explain that I am on the paleo diet, at best think that I don’t eat carbs (a la Atkinson). At worst, they think I run around through the bushes barefoot and hunt game with my bare hands.

I need to come up with a better name – how about the ‘post-neolithic diet’? I’ll still have to explain it, but at least people will not have any preconceived notions that I will have to dispel.

When I explain to friends that I don’t eat any cereals or grains, legumes, or dairy, a frequent reply is – “what’s left?!” Actually, a lot. All kinds of meat, any seafood, eggs, all kinds of fresh vegetables (salad type – lettuce, tomatoes, cukes, radishes, green scallions, cilantro, peppers), other vegetables (all varieties of cabbages, numerous kinds of squash, avocado, olives, asparagus, onions and leaks, spinach), root vegetables (potatoes, yams, carrots, root parsley, yucca, and a number of others I haven’t explored yet), fruits and berries and nuts. No caveman ate the kind of varied diet that we can obtain by an easy trip to the supermarket. So the ‘paleo diet’ is a complete misnomer.

Additionally, there is no particular virtue in eating an undomesticated variety, compared to a domesticated one. In particular, I suspect that wild rice is probably worse for you than white rice. Both are grass seeds, and so poisonous by definition. But with the domesticated rice there is at least hope that the most poisonous varieties have been selected out (although it is not a certainty). Interesting how an evolutionary approach makes you look at things from a very different angle.

Another problem with this diet is that food now takes a larger chunk from the budget. Fresh vegetables are expensive! And you need to eat a lot of them to get an equivalent of a one pound package of pasta, even a fancy one. This is no poor person’s diet… Also, wild-caught salmon is more expensive than cultured salmon. And it goes without saying that a steak from a grass-fed cow will cost an order of magnitude more than a pound of pink slime. Although I haven’t yet been able to find a reliable supplier of grass-fed beef around here.

In addition to expense in terms of money, following this diet is more time-consuming. In my family’s division of labor I am the one who cooks. So now I can’t simply stop, on my way from work, for a Chinese take-out or a pizza, I have to cook each and every meal myself. I mean, I like to cook, but doing it every day is a chore.

Travel has also been complicated. Most restaurants are worthless. Mexican food, for example – it’s all about tortillas, rice, beans, and cheese. There is nothing left. Indian is all about rice, lentils, other  beans, nan. In most other restaurants they add ingredients I can’t eat into almost everything. Because I haven’t eaten wheat-based products for three months, I find that I am now more sensitive to small amounts of flour that may be added to a sauce. The best bet is French restaurants (also Italian and Spanish), but they are also the most expensive. I now have to study the menu real careful, and then negotiate substitutions. Fortunately, American waiters seem to be used to all kinds of weird dieting preferences, and in most cases are very gracious and accommodating.

Finally, I had to give up beer. I still like the taste (now the memory of it…), but when I look at a glass of beer that a friend is drinking, I see the distillation of all the worst grass seed poisons (shudder). So there is no temptation to order one for myself.

The psychological aspects of this dietary shift are also very fascinating. My good colleague Jon Haidt has a wonderful metaphor. He compares our conscious mind to the rider of an elephant (the subconscious mind). The rider may be thinking he is in charge, but the elephant will do whatever he wants. That’s why it is so difficult to be on most diets, and that’s why dieters are prone to recurrent bingeing on forbidden foods. I will not embarrass myself with examples, but I have about as much control over my own elephant as an average person.

But in the case of this diet my elephant and I seem to be of the same mind. My wife continues to eat bread, occasionally pasta and rice, and ice-cream. Today I had a dinner in a restaurant with a good friend, who was eating yammy-looking rolls, among other things. What I find surprising is that I don’t need to exert my will to stay away from these foods. At least so far – we’ll see if it lasts.


Join the discussion


  1. Impressive! But what about such a vital ingredient for scientific work, like coffee?

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Coffee is no problem, and may actually be a good thing (I seem to remember some studies that suggested it). Naturally, you cannot put milk in it, and I don’t put sugar in on general principles, so I drink it black. In fact, I drink 2-3 cups of black coffee instead of breakfast now, which works for me very well (the good strong taste of coffee somehow replaces the need to eat something, not that I am particularly hungry in the mornings).

  2. John Lilburne says:

    Talking of coffee you should try adding back milk and seeing the effect.
    There is some debate out whether all grains are equally bad. the author of wheat belly link to comments that modern versions of wheat are the largest problem

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I don’t think I’ll ever drink milk again. I don’t particularly like it, so why bother? What I miss most is rice, and once the six month period is over, I will experiment with occassional sushi or Chinese. At that point I will probably be able to feel the effect directly (for example, if I experience lowered energy after eating rice, I will have to give it up for good…)

      Thanks for the link – it looks interesting. It does seem that wheat is the main villain, although corn (maiz) may be even worse.

  3. Martin Hewson says:

    I’ve been paleo for 3+ years now, and so far the results of my n=1 experiment are quite good. Less snacking, more energy. I eat a fairly high-fat version, and frankly eating fats is both tasty and satiating. (I do not think the standard government advice to eat low fat food is sound: why would we evolve to be harmed by saturated fat?)

    It would be nice to see some randomized control trials of paleo and low-carb/high-fat.

  4. Beef jerky + some fiber (fruit, veg) and a lot of water to clear the salt.

  5. Peter Turchin says:

    I am also beginning to think that there is nothing wrong with eating fat. Fatty foods are satiating, so in a round-about way they can be less fattening. A medium-size piece of swordfish or tuna (high fat content) with vegetables and/or a salad (and don’t forget a couple of glasses of Chardonnay!) is an incredibly tasty and satisfying meal.

  6. Mexican food restaurants can actually be your friend on the road, Peter. Even the most mediocre ones generally have fajitas, which if you skip the tortillas and sour cream are very Paleo friendly. Better restaurants will also offer things like carne asada (usually just grilled steak) and carnitas (usually very tender pork).

    Granted, it’s tough telling the waiter not to bring you chips, tortillas, rice or beans, but if you poke around the menu hard enough you should be able to find something that won’t upset your diet too badly.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      OK, you can get your meat in a Mexican restaurant, but I can’t eat just meat – and Mexican food is not strong on other vegetables. So I now travel with my own supply of nuts, banana and plantain chips, and beef jerky. Adding any fresh fruit I can buy locally is sufficient to carry me over.

      The most paleo-friendly restaurant type seems to be American steak house (surprisingly enough). I am in Vancouver right now, and I just had an excellent meal of grass-feed beef and vegetables (but the Canadian prices are shocking).

      • John Rogers says:

        I just spent a couple of weeks in Nova Scotia and I can agree with you on the shocking prices. The people are very nice though.

  7. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now
    each time a comment is added I get four e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
    Thank you!

  8. martin says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. Sounds familiar :) and reflects many others I have heard and read. Post-neolithic is not bad, its suggestion resonates with me, better to move forward then back into the past.

    Travelling can indeed be a pain and that’s why we started a “paleo retreat” to help people with paleo/GAPS/SCD health requirements have a problem-free holiday. Come visit us in Ardeche, in the south of France:

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Dear Martin,

      Two years ago we spend several delightful days in Ardeche. My wife and I absolutely loved the place, and we want to go back as soon as we can arrange it. And when we do, it would be great to visit you and enjoy your paleo cooking. It looks like you are just North of the Gorges. Great location!