Making a big change
Nick Briers had been heavy his entire life, but in January 2012, the now-43-year-old stay-at-home dad — who lives in the Federated States of Micronesia and home-schools his kids — decided something needed to change when his wife was pregnant with their second child. “I had gotten to my highest weight. I was about 215 pounds, and I decided I needed to do something,” he recalls.
He did a little research and decided the paleo diet — which focuses on vegetables, meat and healthy fats and eliminates processed foods, grains and dairy products — looked like something he could stick with.
Within about six months, his weight had dropped to 185 pounds, a big weight loss in short order. “That first six months, that’s when all the weight dropped off. It’s taken me the next seven years to drop the next 15 pounds,” he says. He’s currently holding steady at about 170 and says he feels great.
Sticking to the paleo diet wasn’t always easy, but the following tips helped him.
First step, research
For Briers, a key component of his success was doing a lot of research before selecting a diet for weight loss. “I bought a couple of books,” he says, and he read everything he could find, so he could fully understand how the diet works.
Knowledge is power after all, and understanding what you’re getting into can help you decide if you’re on the right track in selecting the best approach to weight loss.
Consider whether it’s right for you.
Once he had a full understanding of the paleo diet, Briers decided to give it go. He says the meat-heavy focus was appealing, and that the diet really works for him. “I like eating meat, and I enjoy the challenge of making vegetables tasty.”
This meat-centric diet might not be the right fit for everyone though if you have heart health issues or ethical concerns about eating animals or because it just doesn’t feel right, says Joanna Chodorowska, a holistic nutrition expert and founder of Nutrition in Motion based in Pennsylvania. “Don’t force yourself,” she says of any diet you might decide to try. If it doesn’t feel right, move on to another option. “It’s got to really make sense for you.”
Think about whether you’ll miss the foods that aren’t permitted.
Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, tried the paleo diet for about a week several years ago because so many patients were talking about it. “Many dietitians often trial some diets ourselves to be able to give the best advice to patients who are following them.”
Weinandy says she found paleo to be too restrictive to stick with long term. “Cutting out so many carbohydrates like pasta, bread and beans was too much for me. These can be very healthy foods and add nutrients to a balanced diet, so what’s the point of cutting them out? The paleo diet also cuts out dairy, which is hard for many people.”
Make a budget.
Briers and Weinandy both note that going paleo can be expensive, as you’re cutting out some of the least expensive calories in the super market, such as pasta and grains, and replacing them with pricier meat items.
“It’s expensive to start,” Briers says, “because you’re still used to consuming so many calories per day. But over time, that goes down. It’s not as expensive now as it was in the beginning because I don’t have to eat as much now to feel full.”
Create new cooking habits.
When you’re shifting to a new way of eating, it’s important to create new habits to replace your old habits. Certainly, in the beginning, you need to plan and think about it, but over time, eating in this new way should become less intensive and more of a habit that you can fall back on, especially in times of stress or when life gets busy. Those are times when it’s easy to slip back into old, less healthful habits.
One way to help build new habits is to learn to cook more and engage in more meal planning. This is a key way that Briers found success with the diet. “I got a couple of cookbooks from celebrity chefs. I picked out the recipes that were paleo friendly, and I cooked through all those dishes. That was fun for me,” he says, because he got better at cooking and was able to expend his culinary horizons.
When adopting a paleo lifestyle, you may find that you use the grill a lot more. A grill — whether an outdoor grill that uses charcoal or a gas flame or an electric or oven-based indoor option — is a straightforward way of preparing meat, especially chicken, pork and steak.
Many veggies also perform well on a grill. Simple recipes, such as asparagus drizzled lightly with olive oil and seasoned, can be wrapped in aluminum foil and set on the grill for a few minutes. This is a healthy way of steaming veggies right alongside the meat that takes little time or culinary skill, is paleo-friendly and delicious.
Another simple, clean and quick go-to meal option for starting out with the paleo diet is baked chicken breast or salmon filet with roasted tomatoes and leeks:
— Put the meat and veggies into a glass baking dish or a baking sheet.
— Drizzle with a little olive oil.
— Sprinkle with your favorite herbs and spices.
— Pop it all in the oven for the recommended length of time for the cut of meat.
Experiment with new flavors.
“Prior to 2012, I didn’t eat any vegetables,” Briers says. So in adopting the paleo lifestyle, he had to shift his thinking from potatoes being a type of veggie to learning how cope with “broccoli, carrots, peas and peppers. I just didn’t like them.”
But practically speaking, he had to learn. “You find ways to cook them to make them more enjoyable for you.” Briers did this by experimenting with new recipes.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with seasonings and spices when shifting to a new way of eating. There’s tons of ways to dress up veggies and meat, from common pantry staples such as rosemary and thyme to more exotic flavors like curry and coriander.
When trying to add more veggies to your life, consider looking to other cultures that use these flavors heavily. Indian cuisine, for example, offers a wide variety of exciting seasonings and flavors and a whole host of delicious vegetarian dishes that can easily be adapted to a paleo diet. Trying new things can really expand your repertoire and keep you from falling into a rut.
Experimenting with different types of veggies and cooking them in ways that made them delicious was a fun challenge and a skills-building exercise for Briers. He says learning to cook was critical to his success on the diet and his ability to stick with it long term.
Set boundaries for yourself.
Briers says that being super-strict about following paleo has been helpful for keeping him on track. He says that aside from major holidays or birthdays, he’s “very, very strict. I only eat meat and vegetables, and I only eat two meals a day.” He skips breakfast and eats just lunch and dinner.
If you’re using the paleo diet to lose weight, Briers recommends being careful when snacking. “A lot of people overindulge in nuts, which are paleo, but it has to be done in very small amounts.”
Nuts are high in healthy fats and calories. While it’s good to include some in your diet, you should be careful to not consume too many or the number on the scale might actually increase.
Plan for challenges.
Brier also notes that eating out can be difficult, so consider how you’ll work around social and family obligations where you can’t always be in control of the menu. Consider whether you’ll bring your own meals or eat before any engagement that includes food.
“Unless you’re planning on just getting a chicken salad everywhere you go, it’s a difficult diet to follow when you’re going out with friends,” he says. Instead of leaving things to chance, you could:
— Ask your friends if you can select the restaurant. Choose one where you know you can get a good, paleo-friendly meal.
— Call ahead to ask the restaurant if they can accommodate your dietary needs.
— Eat your own meal before heading out, and order a simple side salad and non-alcoholic beverage while at the restaurant. This will save you money as well as calories.
Briers also notes that “if you’re into social drinking, that can also make it very difficult because you can’t drink any beer on the diet and you have to be very careful how much wine you can drink,” he says. If social drinking is important to you, consider how you’ll manage that challenge.
Seltzer water and iced tea can help keep you hydrated without the alcohol. You can even ask the bartender to serve you these drinks in a cocktail or wine glass to make it feel more festive.
Drink plenty of water.
Chodorowska says that when you take out carbs and grains from the paleo diet, that can cause you to lose a lot of water weight and “you can be dehydrated, and that can make you feel sick.” Plan for this and make sure you’re drinking plenty of water.
The paleo diet can be especially dehydrating when you’re first transitioning into it as you eliminate a lot of carbs. Be ready for this by keeping a reusable water bottle filled up an at the ready at all times. Sip as your thirst dictates, and if you’re exercising, increase the amount you consume.
Make it a lifestyle.
“In the end, most diets are just temporary ways of eating that restrict something — carbs or protein or overall calories — and rarely work for the long haul,” Weinandy says. For many people, the paleo diet falls into the category of short-term fix because it’s restrictive.
For Briers, however, paleo has become a lifestyle, and that’s the key to his success.
No matter which diet you adopt, “it has to be a diet that would fit within your lifestyle, and it has to be something that you can do basically forever” for it to truly work, he says. “You can do a strict calorie-restriction diet, and that’ll work in the short term. But it’s not sustainable in the long run. You have to find something that’s right for you, and paleo just happened to be right for me.”
11 tips to succeed on a paleo diet:
— First step, research.
— Consider whether it’s right for you.
— Think about whether you’ll miss the foods that aren’t permitted.
— Make a budget.
— Create new cooking habits.
— Experiment with new flavors.
— Set boundaries for yourself.
— Snack mindfully.
— Plan for challenges.
— Drink plenty of water.
— Make it a lifestyle.
More from U.S. News