It’s a question that many people new to paleolithic nutrition ask either while they are going through that initial adjustment period (especially when jumping into paleo with both feet but also with gradual transitions) or as the months wear on and the difference is not as magical as anticipated. How do I know when it’s working? When will I start to lose tons of weight and have lots of energy? When will my health conditions miraculously disappear?
Well, the answer is “it depends”.
How different did you eat before committing to paleolithic nutrition? Generally, the more different you are eating now to before you discovered paleo, the harder and longer your adjustment period. This is especially true if you ate a lot of carbohydrates before. It can take up to a month for your body to switch over to a metabolism that runs better on fat and in the meantime, you may feel tired, lethargic, have headaches, and generally feel pretty terrible. But, this isn’t true for everyone. And of course, the opposite can also be true: some people are made so sick by the foods they were eating before that they notice an instant improvement to their health.
What health issues are you challenged with? In my personal experience, most gut health issues will improve dramatically the first couple of weeks on paleo and then continue to improve slowly over the next six months as your gut continues to heal (for more posts on gut health, see here and here). Issues relating to inflammation typically take longer to show significant improvement depending on how well you are sleeping and managing your stress (typically another month or two). Remember that for many health issues, you need to address all of the tenants of a paleolithic lifestyle (get good sleep, manage stress, get outside).
Are you in autoimmune denial? I was. While out-of-the-box paleo tackled most of my health issues, I still had unresolved autoimmune issues even after four months of strict paleolithic nutrition. I had to do the autoimmune protocol (I’ve written about the autoimmune protocol extensively and this is also the topic of my book), in which you also exclude all the gray area foods. If you have been eating a strict paleolithic diet for two months and are still dealing with health issues, you might have to do this too. The good news is that after a few months of no eggs, no nuts, no seeds, no nightshades, no alcohol, no NSAIDs, low caffeine and no cheating, with a concurrent focus on eating extremely nutrient-dense foods (lots of vegetables, grass-fed meat, organ meat, fish and bone broth), most people can add at least some of those things back in.
Is your gut in REALLY bad shape? It is possible that your gut was very leaky before you started paleo, so healing is just plain ol’ going to take a while. Especially, if you suspect that you have Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth or extensive gut damage, you’ll need to focus on Repairing The Gut, which can take 6 months to 2 years (although you should see continuous gradual improvement). For all of the posts I’ve written on gut health, click here.
How is your digestion? You might need to add some digestive support supplements for a little while to help your body heal. These include digestive enzymes, ox bile, and stomach acid supplements (which are contraindicated for those with ulcers, blood clotting disorders, or taking NSAIDs). Digestive enzymes and ox bile, while they can be expensive, are generally very safe to take as directed on the bottle (just make sure you actually eat once you take digestive enzymes because taking them and then not eating can cause damage to your gut). If you are interested in a stomach acid supplement, check out my post on stomach acid here and this post by Steve Wright.
Do you have unknown food sensitivities? If you’ve had a leaky gut for some time, you may have food sensitivities that you are unaware of. Many alternative health care practitioners will order an IgG and/or IgA antibody screen which tests for food sensitivities. The good news is that if you leave those foods out of your diet for a while, you can usually add them back in after your gut has fully healed. If you have symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (like diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, acid reflux), another possibility is a FODMAP sensitivity. Other potential culprits include salicylate sensitivity and food allergies (such as latex allergies, citrus, fish and shellfish, tree nuts, eggs, and dairy).
Do you need liver detox support? If you had/have an overgrowth of bacteria or yeast in your gut that are now dying off in great numbers, your liver might be working in overdrive. B-vitamins (rich in red meat and organ meat), sulfur (rich in cruciferous vegetables and vegetables from the allium family), selenium (rich in seafood and organ meat) molybdenum (rich in organ meat) are important to support the liver. Milk thistle (extract or tea) may also be helpful. Choosing foods rich in these substances (or supplements) to help support liver detox is also useful for anyone losing weight, especially if the weight is coming off quickly. This is because the body uses the fat tissues to store some toxins and excess hormones like estrogen (which gets them safely out of the body’s circulation) and rapid weigh loss has the potential to release these putting an additional strain on the liver.
Are you sleeping enough? Yes, this has nothing to do with diet. But sleep has a profound effect on every system in your body and if you are not getting enough of it, you can’t heal properly. Aim for 8-10 hours per night in a pitch black room (see this post if you’re having trouble getting good sleep). You can read more about the importance of sleep on the immune system in this teaser excerpt from The Paleo Approach.
Are you stressed? If you are not taking adequate measures to manage your stress (like getting activity but avoiding excessively strenuous exercise, spending time outside, having fun, getting enough sleep and developing strategies to manage psychological stressors), then your stress hormones might be out of whack. If you have been under high stress for a long time and have trouble sleeping, you may have adrenal fatigue. Both www.RobbWolf.com and www.BalancedBites.com have lots of great suggestions for healing from adrenal fatigue.
Did you go too low carb? What types of carbs (fruit versus starchy vegetables versus both versus neither) and how many carbs we should eat (varying from ketogenic diets and 20g per day to plenty of “safe starches” and upwards of 300g per day) is probably the most hotly debated topic within the paleo community. One of the reasons for there being no clear answer as to what is best is that the carb intake of historically-studied and modern hunter-gatherer populations varies wildly. On one end of the extreme are the Eskimos, who consume a diet composed approximately of 50% fat, 35% protein and 15% carbohydrate. On the other end of the extreme are the Kitavans, who consume a diet composed approximately of 20% fat, 10% protein and 70% carbohydrate. And of course, everything in between. This probably reflects the fact that macronutrient ratios are not as important as food quality and nutrient density. So, if your introduction to the concept of paleo was through a resource that expounded on the benefits of low carb, it is important to understand that this view is not representative of the entire paleo community and no consensus exists. It’s also important to understand, that while blood sugar regulation is extremely important, going too low carb can be tough on your thyroid and can decrease leptin sensitivity (see this post and this post). Also, eating adequate carbohydrates and especially insoluble fiber is important for proper regulation of ghrelin levels (see this post). So, what is a good carbohydrate intake? That’s actually highly individual (you can read this series of posts about optimizing your carb intake here, here and here), but if you are not feeling very good on a standard paleo diet, adding a little fruit or starchy vegetables is a good idea to try.
Are you inappropriately IFing? There are many enthusiastic supporters of Intermittent Fasting, but it’s important to understand that this is only appropriate for very healthy people. If your sleep is not great, if your stress in not managed, if you are substantially overweight or if you have any kind of chronic disease, skipping breakfast (or breakfast and lunch) can cause dysregulated cortisol and undermine your other efforts. This is not something to experiment with early on in your paleo journey.
What are your goals and how far away from them are you? If you have a lot of weight to lose, you will probably notice a big drop in weight fairly quickly. This will be mostly water weight, but don’t worry, fat is also being burned and you should eventually settle down into some nice steady weight loss (slow and steady wins the race, so there is no reason to be frustrated with weight loss if you are “only” losing a half pound per week-that’s actually very healthy!). When your body seems resistant to weight loss, try addressing sleep quality and stress levels, but also be aware of the impact of female hormones and hunger hormones (levels and sensitivity). For more tips and tricks for losing weight, see this post.
Are you truly complying with paleolithic nutrition? There are few things worse than being “almost paleo” (depending on your health challenges and what “almost” actually means for you). While many people can successfully navigate the murky waters of cheats and occasional gluten consumption, if you are asking the question “when will I feel fabulous” while not actually following a paleo diet as strictly as you can, then you might be a person who just can’t cheat or tolerate occasional gluten exposure. And from a metabolism, hormone and taste-bud adaptation standpoint, allowing yourself the occasional slice of pizza or pie a la mode can really derail your efforts to get healthy and perpetuate cravings, food addictions, and feelings of deprivation. I advise eating very strict paleo for at least a month before you play with eating small amounts of dairy or legumes or allowing yourself cheat meals (and I recommend a lifelong avoidance of gluten for most people). If strict paleo isn’t enough to make you feel great, look at the gray area foods in your diet (eggs, nuts, seeds, nightshades, alcohol, caffeine). Maybe one of them is the culprit (nightshades are my number one suspect). But if you are truly sticking to it, my guess is you are already feeling much, much better!