What I Learned On The 30 Day Paleo Challenge

A distance runner’s journey on letting go of sugar and processed foods.

 

            Food is many things to many people. Food is sustenance, it is nutrition, it is life, it is love, it is pleasure, it is family, and it is survival. Food is good, bad, organic, unhealthy, healthy, processed, pure, manipulated, protected, grown, farmed, free ranged, mass produced, genetically altered, “fairly traded”, and cruelty free. While food’s main role is to keep us alive, it carries such a deep emotional significance, that we as a society have become disconnected with our food, with its sources. Many of us are starving while eating “food” in abundant quantities.

            As a long distance runner, crossfitter, trainer, and the occasional restaurant worker, I’m on my feet burning the candle at both ends almost daily. I’ve never really struggled with weight, yet I have been debilitated by negative body image, anorexia, and bulimia, which have hugely affected my ability to nourish my body in a healthy, loving way.  As a distance runner, I learned that I could sustain myself on lots of processed grains and sugary foods to “fuel my long runs” but was often using my mileage as a compensatory reaction to poor eating habits. No one would argue my diet choices because I could simply say to them, “oh I just ran 17 freakin miles I deserve this!” This summer while training for the NYC marathon, my mileage peaked at 45-50 miles of running each week, I was strength training 2x a week, and often walking roughly 6-8 miles from one gig to the next while getting very little sleep. My counteraction to all of this was to fill with more sugar and more processed grains just to keep myself above sea level. I felt exhausted, depressed, and inflamed. My Achilles tendinitis came back with a vengeance, my right elbow ached fiercely with tendinitis, my left shoulder…everything just started to ache. I had no idea that I was starving myself because I always ate to fullness. My sleep patterns were gravely affected by the sugar/caffeine intake, and my moods were all over the place. Once the race was over, I couldn’t get out of the eating patterns, but was no longer able to counterbalance with mileage.

            Over the past few years Crossfit Dynamix has conducted a Paleo Challenge in January led by our coach and fabulous chef, Ryan Brown. The first two years I signed up and lasted just under 2 weeks and decided Paleo wasn’t for me. It was “too hard” or I’d lose too much weight. My energy would spike up, but after 10ish days, the honeymoon would end, I’d be down 7-9 pounds and I was done. What I didn’t know was that I was just simply not eating enough food.

            When Ryan announced the challenge this year, I knew I had to give it another try. My weight was pretty much the same, but joint pain was at an all time high, I was experiencing more asthma (inflammation of the lungs) than usual, and I just felt sluggish every day. The cycle of caffeine, sugar, processed “snacking” kept getting worse and I just wanted to see if I could break it. I knew I had to approach the challenge differently though; I could not focus on body aesthetics and weight, but how I felt instead. I just wanted to FEEL BETTER!

            Chef Ryan Brown guides the Paleo Challenge. Before the challenge we receive a guideline on the food plan, proper sleep, hydration, and exercise. We are held accountable through a daily entry into our Paleo Challenge journal, recording hours of sleep, water intake, exercise, and meals and snacks. We are required to eat at least 3 well-balanced meals a day. There is a point system; 5 points for adhering to the Paleo food plan, proper sleep, exercise, and hydration. We are allowed a “cheat” day in which we can consume non-Paleo compliant food without having points deducted.

            As I said, I did not enter this challenge to win or to lose weight; I simply wanted to feel better. After 3 days I began to feel the detoxification of sugar. I had a complete emotional melt down, as I felt angry and sad that I was breaking up with my long time lover, sugar. I had experienced this before so I understood what was happening, and I kept saying to myself, ‘you can have sugar tomorrow, just not today’. I ate a lot of fruit and sweet potatoes on this challenge because for me that was a huge change already. On day 4 I began to feel a bit light headed, and I went against Ryan’s suggestion to not weigh myself during the challenge and got on the scale. Already down 5.5 pounds, oof! Here we go again, ‘I’m dropping too much weight too soon and I feel weak, see it’s not for me.’ I went to the gym that day and Ryan happened to be teaching class, so I told him about how I was feeling and he said, “you’re probably not eating enough, make sure you’re having carbohydrates with every meal!” Simple right? Well, for me this is where I learned how my history of food restriction ran deep. I had to get very honest with myself with my fear of eating solid meals throughout the day and the idea that I may get struck 20 pounds in doing so. After class I went home and I tried something different, a larger plate of solid, nutrient dense food and I immediately felt better. Again, this seems simple right? For a woman who has suffered from eating disorders pretty much her entire adult life, it was not easy. I decided that I would go against my inner restrictive voice and take each meal one at a time. Having to record my meals, knowing that if I ate only 2 solid meals I would be penalized, forced me to go outside my comfort zone and eat!

            After years of being in recovery from exercise bulimia, I could see that my diet-compensatory exercise cycle was taking me back in the direction of that darkness. I knew as soon as I read Ryan’s suggestion to exercise 5x a week, and my reaction to try and maneuver my way out of that, that I needed this challenge. For example, the first week I tried to make my “rest” day a 7.5-mile run (ha!). Ryan comments on the journals, and his comment on that day was, “When are you going to take a rest day??” I was deducted a point, and I thought, huh, he’s holding me accountable to not hurt myself. Having to adhere to the 5x a week principal allowed me to gently get off the cycle of “eat-exercise-eat-exercise-repeat”. By taking those 2 rest days, I started to notice my sleep improving, oh and my resting heart rate was back to its “normal” low self. (I usually run between 55-65, sometimes lower, and it was getting up to 65-70 from all the overtraining and long days on my feet). I share this as a runner and run coach, as I see fellow runners and clients struggle with this principal. We think, “More is better!” More mileage, more days of running, more, more, more! By taking my 2 rest days I began to see my sleep patterns changing, the sugar cravings also weren’t triggered, and my anxiety around having to “work off” those calories lessened.

            I would not have been able to stick to the food plan had it not been for meal preparation. I’m not someone who likes to plan my meals (it feels too restrictive), and I hate cooking in large quantities, so for me meal prep was made simple by ordering Chef Ryan’s’ meals from Paleo With Love. Ryan’s meals are delicious and provide a variety of options. All the ingredients are high quality, from reputable sources, and these meals are items I couldn’t cook myself, so I never felt bored with my food choices. I also discovered that I enjoyed baking homemade paleo muffins and paleo bread for my typical runners breakfast. I needed some familiarity with my food, and as a runner, I do need the carbohydrates from the fruits, but also the protein from the nut butters. I discovered that I love to bake and prepping fruit salads as well as vegetable and starch sides felt manageable. I surprised myself with just how much I was enjoying this food plan, and before I knew it, I was gaining more freedom in my diet through the elimination of processed food and sugar.

            I entered into my third week on the Challenge, and I remember thinking, ‘wow, I forgot about that pain in my elbow’.  My Achilles had remained silent for about a week now, and suddenly the weights I struggled with during workouts, now felt manageable. I felt such a strong inner foundation that I had never felt before. I should mention that there is a benchmark workout that you do in the first week, and repeat after the last day of the challenge to see your progress. I’m jumping ahead, but let me just say that I took 3 full minutes off my time for the workout.

            I decided to not take any cheat days in the first couple of weeks because honestly after the detox from sugar passed, I did not want to go though it again! I did, however, “cheat” on my birthday, which was during week 3. The moment I ingested processed sugar I felt my heart rate rise and my addiction ignited. I did not however shame myself for not eating imperfectly, I simply observed what was happening to my body, and got right back on the program.

            By the fourth week of the challenge I was feeling better than ever. My joint pain was literally gone, my energy levels were back, and I had a better outlook on life. I could see changes in my body as well, I was gaining muscle and the inflammation in my face and stomach was gone. Of course I had to remind myself to shift the focus from the aesthetics of muscle definition to what my increased strength was allowing me to do. On the Saturday after the challenge I went to the gym to do the benchmark workout, and after Ryan would announce the winners of Crossfit Dynamix. When he announced my name as the winner I was so thrilled, (and a little bit shocked because I’ve never been on a podium at a Crossfit gym). What I was most proud of in that moment was my ability to commit to the challenge for the 30 days, one day at a time. I went against what always felt safe and familiar, worked through my discomfort and my longtime beliefs about myself and my relationship to food, and had faith in the process.

            By committing to the Challenge for 30 days, I allowed my body to adjust, and my mind to catch up with it. I was able to make some life long changes from this point forward. I still need to keep my food, exercise, and sleep a one day at a time process. I have become more aware of reading food labels, and I am much more mindful of what I put into my body now. What has also changed for me is the idea of perfection. I can try and reach for perfection, but if I can understand that the results can be beautifully imperfect and that’s okay for today, then I have truly made progress. As I enter into my training season once again, and the mileage continues to increase, I need to remember how good I feel when I stay present, honor my body’s humanness, resist reaching for processed filler snacks and eat REAL FOOD in a loving and compassionate way.

 

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Running Coach Shelly