I’ve summarized this before, but never written a detailed post about how I eat mostly Paleo, most of the time. I thought that might be helpful for you to see what #foodfreedom looks like for me.
Yes, I know that “partial Whole30” is an oxymoron.
(For those unfamiliar with Whole30, it’s committing to 30 days of strict adherance to a Paleo diet. If you’re not sure what that is, see What’s the Paleo diet?)
But while I think there’s a lot of good to be earned from doing a Whole30, it just isn’t right for everyone, all the time. If you’re trying to sort out which is right for you right now, here are some things to consider.
Today, I’m sharing a success story that touches on a topic near to my heart: lupus. My dad suffered from lupus for a little more than three decades before he went home to Jesus in 2010. Before he was actually diagnosed, he was bedridden and in severe pain for weeks at a time, for more than a year. After diagnosis, he was on heavy-duty meds that kept the pain and inflammation under control for many years, enabling him to live a more-or-less normal life. Once a week, he went in for his methotrexate shot, and I think he took other medications as well. In the end, lupus + the meds + the stress of caring for my mom as she declined in Alzheimer’s did him in. If only we’d known then how much of a role food can play in lupus and other autoimmune diseases, he may have been able to take less medicine, and been with us longer.
But now, many lupus sufferers are discovering that the Paleo diet or some variation of it helps reduce their symptoms. On Instagram, I met Annie through the #paleo hashtag, and I was intrigued when she mentioned that she has lupus. She recently shared the before and after pics you see above, and I asked if I could share her story here. (You can find her on Instagram as @wholepaleoannie.)
When you’re craving tacos, but you know you feel better if you skip the tortilla and/or the cheese, this Paleo-friendly way to get your taco fix is quick and simple when you’ve got prepped ingredients ready to go.
This isn’t a recipe: it’s an assemblage of several things I keep on hand, thrown together. If you have all the ingredients ready, this will cook up in about 15 minutes, maybe less. It’s super easy! I’ll walk you through it…
I’ve always got cooked diced sweet potato and diced onion on hand in the fridge. (Check out my sweet potato post for tips and a how-to video.) On this happy day, I also had cooked, seasoned, crumbled hamburger in the freezer. I don’t always have it on hand, but when I’m cooking hamburger for a recipe or immediate meal, I try to cook extra. It’s cooked with onions and maybe garlic, and seasoned with a little salt and pepper (not too much, since it’s usually added to other things that may already have salt and heat). Then I divide it into single-serving baggies, and stash those in a gallon baggie in the freezer. The small baggies are quick and easy to thaw, making meals like this much quicker.
I rarely cook dishes like this by recipe anymore. But for those who aren’t so comfortable winging it, here’s my guess, per serving:
- onion – about half a small onion, or a quarter of a large one
- hamburger – about 4 oz. or 1/2 cup
- sweet potato – equal to or a little less than the hamburger
On this particular day, I added some diced bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, and kale, but those are quite optional. Another no-chop option would be to just stir in some salsa.
Then I add a generous sprinkling of homemade taco seasoning (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon; start small, taste, and add till it suits you), stir it in, and boom! – it’s done!
(Here’s my gluten-free, sugar-free taco seasoning mix recipe.)
Toppings are optional. If I’d had avocado or guacamole on hand, I would’ve used one of those. But I didn’t, so I topped it with dairy-free “sour cream” (coconut milk yogurt with a splash of lemon juice stirred in). You could use real sour cream, if you do dairy.
Yum! Tons of flavor. You won’t miss the taco shells or the cheese at all!
“The second day of a diet is always easier than the first.
By the second day you’re off it.”
So, are you thinking about starting a new eating plan? Whole30, Paleo, 21-Day Sugar Detox, Mediterranean, or ketogenic? Good for you! But maybe you’re a little worried because of past experiences you’ve had starting — and stopping — a new diet.
(Impatient? Jump straight to the quiz.)
Oh, those optimistic first few days of a diet! This time, you think, this time will be different. I’ve got this! I’m going to change all the things! I’m never going to eat sugar again! I’m going to eat salad every day!
And then, in a few days, reality hits…
Often, at least part of the problem is we’ve attempted a plan that really isn’t well-suited to the reality of where we’re at right now. This is especially true if you’re making a giant leap from a no-restrictions lifestyle to an eating plan that’s very restrictive, such as Whole30 or keto. Choosing a diet that;s a step or two in the right direction — rather than a giant leap or two or twelve — will help ensure both short-term and long-term success.
My own eating changes happened by trial and error, in steps small and large, over the course of many years. And I ultimately landed on a plan I can live with pretty much every day, forever. I love mostly Paleo, with a few accommodations that make it more livable. And “livable” is the big factor for long-term success.
Dr. Walter Willet, Chair of the Deptartment of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, says:
“The real issue is not losing weight—people can lose weight on almost any diet—but [the real issue is] keeping weight off over the long run. Thus it is more important to find a way of eating that you can stay with for the rest of your life. For this reason, any eating plan you choose should be satisfying and allow variety, and should also be nutritionally sound.”
So what’s “nutritionally sound,” and also satisfying? There are a number of diets that fit the bill, I think. (Low-fat isn’t one of them. You need fat for the assimilation of vitamins and for building cell walls. And a low-fat diet tends to not be very satisfying.) But what all nutritious, livable plans have in common is that each of them is a “diet” (by which I really mean a permanent way of eating for life) that focuses on real food: whole foods that haven’t been messed with in a lab or factory. Making sure there’s protein, healthy fats, and plenty of veggies included daily. Whether and how much fruits, grains, and dairy are included depends on each person’s individual tastes and biology.
I’ve landed on a mostly-Paleo approach that allows for some accommodations that keep it livable for me, without triggering junk food cravings. It’s a far cry from how I ate 10 years ago, but I didn’t get there overnight.
I thought about those steps that I took over the years and I’ve broken them down here for you. And created a flexible approach that lets you pick and choose which steps are most pertinent for you, right now.
You might take two steps for now, really work on those for two weeks, or a month, or more, then come back and add a couple more for another round. And repeat until you find what works for you.
Or maybe you work on changing your breakfast habits for two weeks, then your lunch and snack habits for two weeks, and then tackling dinner.
So here are the questions to help you get started. First, there are four questions to help you sort out what your most pressing needs are, and suggest some various starting places, based on your answers. Then, there are three questions to help define what time period you want to commit to this project, and what you’ll do afterwards.
CHOOSING YOUR FOOD PLAN:
Please honestly answer questions 1 through 4:
1. What is your current health status? I am overweight, and/or I have one or more of the following: metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, diabetes (either type 1 or 2), heart disease, enlarged liver, and/or I have had a stroke.
__ A. False
__ B. True
2. How do you do with sweets/carbs/junk food? Tally up how many of the following are true for you. (Or more often true than not.)
Note: “Sweetened drinks” include anything sweetened with sugar, corn syrup, agave syrup, OR artificial sweeteners: lattes, smoothies, pop, sweet tea, and energy drinks. Also, most liqueurs or alcoholic cocktails with a sweet or sour taste: Amaretto, Kahlua, Bailey’s, margarita, mojito, Moscow mule, sangria, etc. Also beer, because of the maltose.
• I plan to eat just a small portion of a treat and end up eating the whole package/thing.
• I crave simple carbohydrates daily: sweetened drinks, chips, cereal, rice, pasta, bread, granola bars, etc.
• I’m likely to over-eat sweet or starchy foods.
• I’ll eat large quantities of sweets or carby foods even if I’m not particularly hungry,
• I turn to carby food or drinks (sweetened drinks, beer) when I’m feeling emotional — up and/or down.
Check your total:
__ A. 0 – 1 out of the 5
__ B. 2 – 5 out of the 5
3. What are you drinking? I drink sweetened beverages most or all of the day, and/OR I drink beer or sweetened alcohol at least five days a week. (Sweetened beverages = same list as in question 2.)
__ A. False
__ B. True
4. What are you eating? This best describes how I’m currently eating most of the time:
__ A. No real restraints, or alternating between severe restriction and the-hell-with-it
__ B. Low-fat, restricted calories
__ C. Lots of fruit, grains, potatoes, and beans; less meat, protein, and veggies
__ D. Low-carb, little to no sugar, few veggies
__ E. Low-carb, little to no sugar, lots of veggies
Scoring so far:
Following is a list of possible food boundaries you can choose from, divided into Level 1 and Level 2. Which level you choose from depends on how you answered the questions above.
If you answered B to question 1 and B to either or both of questions 2 and 3, you should start with one or two items in Level 1. After this round, come back and add another option or two. Small steps add up! (You can skip ahead to read Level 1 now.)
If you answered A or B to question 1, but you answered A to both questions 2 and 3, read on regarding Question 4….
If you answered A to question 4, start with one or two items from Level 1 for this round, then plan on adding more for your next phase.
If you answered B or C to question 4, you should start with two or more items in Level 1, then plan on adding more for your next phase.
If you answered D to question 4, you can focus on adding more non-starchy vegetables to all your meals, and if you like, also choose one or more options from Level 2.
If you answered E to question 4, select one or more options from Level 2 that will build on your already good diet.
Check off the items you would like to tackle now. You can always add others after this round:
Nutrition isn’t just about what you don’t eat: it’s also very much about what you do eat that adds to your health. So don’t overlook these first items that involve adding something you’re not currently doing. They’re all designed to satisfy nutritional cravings your body has (even if you’re not aware of them), and they help balance your blood sugar, which will also reduce sweet and junk food cravings.
__ If you’re not already eating low carb, aim for a visual balance between protein and carbs in all meals and snacks
__ If you’re eating low fat, add protein and healthy fats to your meals and snacks
__ Add non-starchy veggies to your meals and snacks (all veggies except regular potatoes, winter squash, and starchy beans)
__ Eliminate anything made with white flour (this includes anything battered and fried)
__ Eliminate sweets and all forms of sugar in food and drinks* (corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, etc. See Other names for sugar.)
Nutrition isn’t just about what you don’t eat: it’s also very much about what you do eat that adds to your health. So don’t overlook these first two items that involve adding something you’re not currently doing. They’re designed to satisfy nutritional cravings your body has (even if you’re not aware of them).
__ Add protein, greens, and/or healthy fat to your breakfast, if lacking
__ Add protein, greens, and/or healthy fat to your snacks and other meals, if lacking
__ Eliminate all wheat, corn, and soy
__ Eliminate most or all dairy (many people find this helps with skin, gut, and joint issues)
__ Reduce or eliminate alcohol
Or choose one of the following:
__ Transition to a “real food” plan. Eliminate all super-processed foods, stick to whole foods (meat, eggs, fish, veggies, fruit, dairy). More info in the notes.*
__ Follow the Mediterranean eating style*
__ Follow a strict Paleo approach* (If you do this for 30 days with no breaks, that’s “Whole30”.)
__ Define your modified Paleo plan* – Paleo eliminates all sugar, syrups, and sweeteners; all grains and pseudo-grains; all dairy; all alcohol; and all legumes. To modify it, choose those parts that you’re willing to commit to for this time period. You can choose this option as a trial run before doing a Whole30, OR use it to define what “food freedom”* is for you afterwards.
__ Another way of eating that suits your particular health needs right now. E.g, low histamine, AIP, low FODMAP, etc. (These are designed for people with specific health problems. If you’ve tried strict Paleo and still have allergy, autoimmune, or inflammation issues, or migraines, you may need to look into one of these elimination diets. If you don’t have any of those issues, you don’t need this.)
CHOOSING YOUR TIME PLAN
Now, thinking about your temperament, and how much time you have in your calendar for the coming weeks, answer the following…
5. Will you allow for breaks, or not? Answer the following:
– I tend to be more successful and less stressed when I:
__ A. Follow clear-cut rules all of the time, eliminating the need to make decisions as I go.
__ B. Follow rules most of the time, with a few loopholes built in so I don’t feel deprived.
If you answered B, decide which ONE of the following patterns you’ll adhere to for this round:
__ For now, I am just going to work on changing one meal a day, seven days a week, and that meal will be: ______________________.
__ I will stay in my food boundaries all the time except for one day a week, and that day will be: ______________________.
__ I will stay in my food boundaries, except for three meals a week, and those will always be: ______________________.
__ I will stay in my food boundaries, except for one meal a day on weekdays. That meal will be: ______________________.
__ I will stay in my food boundaries, except when eating out with others, and then I will modify it by: ______________________. (Limit this to five meals a week, at most)
6. What will your starting and ending dates be?
Note: the 15-day option won’t give you radical results, but it might be a good time period for baby-stepping your way to a bigger goal. For example, a good strategy would be to add protein and healthy fats to your meals for two weeks before you start eliminating sugar.
– I would like to commit to this changed way of eating for:
__ 15 days (if you’re choosing this option, you’ll see more benefits if you follow your boundaries 24/7, with no breaks)
__ 21 days
__ 30 days
__ 40 days
– I am going to start on: (date) _________________________
– So my ending date will be: (date) ______________________
7. What’s your end game? If you’re doing any of the items that involved adding something healthy to your diet, there’s no reason to quit that. If you’re doing any items that involved eliminating something from your diet, you can choose at the end whether to continue that strictly, to drop that restriction, or to create some new boundaries for yourself that keep the not-so-healthy food in sensible doses.
For example, if you were eliminating dairy and found that some of your health issues improved, you might want to test one type of dairy at a time (aged cheeses, fresh cheeses, cream, yogurt, butter) to find out whether one or all of them are the culprit, then adapt your long-term diet accordingly.
Or, if you chose a baby step for this round – say, adding protein for 14 days – your end game should define which step you’ll choose next. Or, at least, that you’ll come back to this post and walk through the process again to decide on your next round.
My end game is: _____________________________________
Put a note in your calendar now for your starting date. Also write one on your ending date, reminding yourself what your end game / next step is. Review and learn from your struggles and successes, and make a new plan for your next round, or for life forever.
How can I help you?
I send out a short email once a month, pointing to some easy, healthy recipes and sometimes other helpful resources. And when you subscribe, you’ll also get a couple e-books I wrote:
- 10 diet hacks anyone can do to cut down on sugar and carbs
- The meal plan for people who hate to meal plan!
Go here to learn more.
Oh, and here’s another thing that might help you start and stay strong: Get your “but” out of the way!
I hope you’ve found this process helpful. If you have any questions, please comment below, and I’ll answer them if I can.
*Notes about food plan options
Quitting sugar; adding fat
For more detail about whether or not you need to quit sugar completely, see this post.
Why low-fat is not all that and a bag of chips: Eat fat, scientists say.
Real food, Mediterranean, or Paleo?
A “real food” approach doesn’t provide a lot of specific parameters, other than just avoiding processed food. If you’re more comfortable with a little more structure, the Mediterranean and Paleo approaches to eating are a couple I think are worth looking into. If you don’t like red meat so much, and/or if you can’t live without wine, you may prefer the Mediterranean way. If you want more meat in your diet (there are still a lot of veggies; it’s not all meat), consider Paleo or Whole30. Or a modified Paleo, where you allow what works for you.
Here are some tips I wrote that will help you start strong. I originally wrote it with the Paleo diet in mind, but most if not all of it is applicable for any real-food diet: 15 tips to make eating healthy easier
What is this “real food” you speak of?
More info about the Mediterranean diet
Info about the Paleo diet and Whole30
A post about Paleo: What is the Paleo diet and should I try it?
Success stories from people who found the Paleo diet changed their relationship with food and, for some, improved their autoimmune symptoms.
In case you missed this comment earlier, “Whole30” is 30 days of eating strict Paleo, with no breaks or cheats. It will make more sense and you’ll have a higher chance of success if you read the definitive book first: It Starts With Food
Set realistic expectations for doing a Whole30: The Whole30 Timeline
After you’ve determined which foods are good for you and which aren’t, you’re ready for food freedom:
- What it is, according to author Melissa Hartwig
- The book: Food Freedom Forever
- Check out the book I’m working on: Filled With Good – a grace-filled journey to food freedom
I remember the first time I had pasta alla vodka: in an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles — La Cucina, I think. (I was traveling and eating on someone else’s dime, which is the best!) I don’t remember what seafood it had in it, but that sauce! It hooked me. All the happy flavors of marinara, plus the extra body that cream brings to the sauce, plus a subtle little tang from the cooked-down vodka. (No, it doesn’t taste alcoholic at all.) The entire rest of my trip, at every restaurant, I tried anything that sounded like that dish, never recreating that first wow! experience.
Genuine alla vodka sauce contains cream and vodka — both no-no’s if you’re eating Paleo, or any version of a dairy-free, alcohol-free diet. And then there’s the pasta. Non buono if you’re eating gluten-free! So although I loved this dish, and had made it at home before, I thought it was just something I could no longer enjoy except for the occasional splurge. ‘Cause I do believe in food freedom!
And I didn’t really set out to recreate that dish: I was just trying to throw together a quick meal for myself with what I had on hand. Which was some homemade marinara, shrimp (both in the freezer), and some zucchini. Hmm, I thought, I can make zoodles and top them with marinara and shrimp!
Then, as that was cooking on the stovetop, I thought how nice a little creaminess would be in that sauce. Then — aha! — I remembered I had some coconut yogurt in the fridge! I stirred a bit into the sauce and tasted it: the yogurt adds not just creaminess, but also that slight bit of tang you get from cooked-down vodka. And it brought back the memory of that first heavenly taste.
(Sure, you could try a different brand. I just haven’t tested any others, so I don’t know how they’d turn out. Or, if you’re not avoiding dairy, you could substitute some full-fat plain Greek yogurt for the coconut yogurt.)
And this dish really goes together quickly. If your shrimp is already thawed and you have marinara on hand, you’ll be enjoying delicious, MOL (mmm out loud) food in less than 20 minutes!
I highly recommend using homemade marinara. It’s so simple, takes just 30 minutes, and tastes infinitely superior to store-bought. (Check out my homemade marinara recipe.) However, if you don’t have time, you can certainly use jarred marinara. Look for a sugar-free brand, if possible.
If you don’t like shrimp, you could substitute lobster or crab. Or chicken, if you must.
I’ve made a short video showing just how easy it is to make zoodles. Please note: I say that they only need to be cooked a minute or two. It will probably be longer than that, but it depends on the thickness of your noodles, the heat in your dish, and your desired texture. Just taste them every so often; you’ll learn what works for you.
Not avoiding gluten or grains? Sure: use your favorite pasta. Cook it beforehand, and add it when you would add the zoodles. (Did you know that cooking pasta, cooling it in the fridge, then reheating it changes the starch? It reduces its impact on your blood sugar, and the resistant starch is “superfood for your digestive system.” Cool, huh?!)
Whether or not you’ve tried pasta alla vodka before, I think you’ll love this dish!
Paleo pasta alla vodka recipe
2 medium zucchini
10 oz. large raw shrimp (fresh or frozen, peeled and deveined, no tails)
salt and pepper
oil for cooking the shrimp (olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil)
1.5 cups marinara (homemade, if possible. here’s my recipe.)
1/4 cup CoYo brand coconut yogurt, plain flavor*
optional: a couple large leaves of fresh basil
*Note: if you’re not avoiding dairy, you may substitute full-fat plain Greek yogurt for the coconut yogurt, reducing amount to 3 tablespoons.
Prepare the zoodles and set aside. Thaw the shrimp. Pat them dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Mince or julienne the basil, if using, and set aside.
Heat a medium-large saucepan over medium heat. Once it’s ready (a few drops of water splashed in the pan should sizzle a bit before evaporating), add a drizzle of oil and let it heat up a minute; then add the shrimp. Let the shrimp cook on one side until you see most of the tails starting to turn pink-white. Turn the shrimp over and cook until most of them are curled into a closed circle. You want them just barely or even a little under-done. They’ll continue to cook after you take them off the heat.
Remove the shrimp to a dish and keep warm. Add the marinara to the pan and heat through; add the yogurt and stir till well mixed.
Add the zoodles and stir to combine. Let them cook in the sauce until they’re done to your liking. Pull out a noodle to taste-test the texture. This should only take a few minutes.
When it’s all heated through and the zoodles are done to your taste, remove the mixture to a serving bowl or individual bowls or plates, and top with the shrimp and basil.