BY REGINA GONZALEZ
Being from New York and growing up with an Italian mother and Dominican father, eating well has never been an issue. Fluffy, warm bagels loaded with cream cheese from 24 hour bagel delicatessens on Long Island are out of this world. Sunday dinner with a menu of mom’s chicken parmesan, flank steak, penne ala vodka, bread baskets and chocolate covered strawberries with cheesecake for dessert was a staple in my house. I was an athlete all through high school and took good care of my body, but always caved when it came to a killer meal.
Take away fast food, dairy, processed food, sugar and artificial preservatives and you have what’s known as the Paleo diet. “Paleo,” coming from the term “paleolithic,” means exactly what it sounds like: only eating what would be available to cavemen. Being an active member of the CrossFit community for about six months now, the intense workouts are made to challenge the strength and endurance of the body, and if seeking the best results, clean healthy eating habits are necessary.
I accepted the challenge. After years of eating so many bagels that I basically looked like a bagel, it was time for change. I agreed to participate in a “Body Test Challenge” that my CrossFit gym was holding, which required extensive exercise and eating paleo for eight weeks. At first, I could barely reconcile the hell I’d just subjected myself to. However, it ended up becoming so much more than eating fruit and vegetables, it became a learning experience.
I had done extensive research on the paleo diet before taking the trip to the grocery store. Everyone kept telling me what I couldn’t eat, but what I really needed to know is what I could eat. Very limited and pretty straightforward, I was happy to see that paleo is way more than just snacking on celery and eating salads. Essentially, all paleo approved foods tend to have the same characteristics of being high in protein, low in carbohydrates, low in sodium, and high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Meat is key in the paleo diet. You end up eating so much of it you crave it. The reason why it is so popular among CrossFit athletes is because all the meat you can consume allows for high protein intake to produce enzymes and tone/build muscle. Steak, chicken, turkey, lamb, pork chops, bacon, and beef burgers are all approved to eat for paleo. However, processed meats such as hot dogs or spam do not count. Fish is a fresh addition to the menu as shrimp, salmon, trout, shellfish and anything that is not a chowder or fried fish stick is okay to eat.
Fruits and veggies are key in Paleo, whether adding them to a meal for some extra color and flavor or snacking. Careful though, vegetables such as any legumes (beans, peas,peanuts) are not considered paleo since they contain lectins. These are carb-binding proteins that are relatively “sticky” when digested and difficult for our bodies to break down therefore causing indigestion. White potatoes are not considered paleo because they provide a lot of starchy carbs and not much protein, fiber, or healthy fats. All fruits eaten can be fresh or even dried fruit is acceptable, but the artificial strawberry or blueberry syrups you put on pancakes don’t make the cut. All raw nuts besides peanuts are great for snacking too, by the end of my eight week paleo trial I became a certified squirrel always walking around with my bag of raw almonds. Almond butter is even okay to spread on fruit, as long as it organic and has no added sugars.
As you can see, it’s a lot of homework to make sure you are following the plan correctly and getting enough nutrients to stay healthy.
After taking a trip to Publix, week one was underway. The quirks that come with shopping paleo is definitely expensive, and the cooking can be awfully time consuming. Since you’re eating and working with fresh foods, it is a lot of steaming or grilling chicken, peeling and chopping up fruits and veggies, and turning your ingredients into a meal that follows the guidelines. Cavewomen definitely had much more time on their hands for cooking. Being a college student taking sixteen credit hours while balancing an internship and job on campus didn’t always leave much time for cooking, but many meals I were able to make rather quickly.
It’s honestly a blast experimenting with different recipes and making your own meals with fresh ingredients. I learned how to make killer omelets, colorful salads with so many vegetables or sometimes tropical salads with fruit, and I even learned how to grill salmon and make almond baked chicken. So what’s a typical paleo-approved day of meals?
In the morning I usually start off with an omelet loaded with sauted veggies. I use two eggs and throw peppers, spinach, onions and tomato in there with some chopped up turkey breast for a little extra protein. With the omelet I’ll have three slices of turkey bacon, slice an orange and slice avocado on top of the omelet. Avocados are my life on a paleo diet. They’re so flavorful and high in healthy fats. They are usually present in my lunch too, which I mix up a lot, but my favorite is my experiment of spinach salad with grilled chicken, avocado and sliced mango. Mango is delicious in a salad and gives it such a refreshing taste. A quick fix for dinner that I noticed myself making is chicken stir fry, which is exactly what it sounds like; chopped chicken chunks with tons of vegetables thrown in. I prefer zucchini, asparagus, peppers, onions, eggplant and tomatoes. Another favorite of mine is a turkey burger with guacamole on top, eaten with a lettuce bun. Snacking throughout the day, I always have almonds, sometimes carrot or celery sticks, and with the heavy CrossFit workouts, protein shakes or protein bars that are paleo approved. To satisfy my sweet tooth for dessert, sliced apple with almond butter or a fruit salad always does the trick. Especially doing CrossFit once a day five times a week, drinking a gallon of water a day was required for the body test, and is surprisingly a lot easier than it sounds.
For someone that lives religiously by pizza and quesadillas, this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but I was proud of myself for being very diligent with it and sticking to it for eight weeks. Following paleo while working out, after eight weeks of the body test I had impeccable results already. I feel toned, thinner, and so much healthier. If not the most important thing I learned, it is that paleo was not just some fad diet to help people lose weight, it truly became a lifestyle. I had never realized all the crap I used to put in my body. I can’t promise you that I could live everyday of the rest of my life strictly paleo, but I truly did become more aware of how to take care of my body.