Are you paralyzing others with Paleo Perfectionism?

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I visited my local lululemon athletica shop last week wearing my “WILL WOD FOR PALEOKITS” T-shirt and was kindly greeted by the cashier,

“Are you Paleo?”

Am I Paleo? Hmm… well, I certainly eat Paleo, at least according to my own set of standards. I quickly informed the lovely cashier (whose name I did ask for but now forget, darn it!) that I do, in fact, eat Paleo. And that I teach Paleo-oriented workshops around the country. And that my book on Paleo nutrition will be released in a matter of weeks now! I think I blindsided her a bit.

She explained to me how one of the managers of the store had recently “gone Paleo,” but that she had tried it for a week herself but that she just couldn't do it. I asked her why not (of course). She said it was too expensive. I continued the conversation, asking her what about this new way of eating it was that she found expensive.

It was the grass-fed, pasture-raised, all-organic food that was too expensive.

I quickly explained to her that she absolutely did not need to be eating the most perfectly-sourced foods 100% of the time if it's not affordable for her. I assured her that, yes, she could in fact glean the vast majority of the health benefits of eliminating processed and refined foods from her diet without buying 100% perfectly raised and sourced food all the time.

This lovely Lulu was paralyzed by what I like to call: Paleo Perfectionism.

If you are a Paleo Perfectionist, your approach (and, subsequently, how you explain Paleo to others) may look something like this:

  • Never touch a grain, grain-derived food, grain-derived ingredient or even something that ever touched a grain.
  • Never eat meat that hasn't been raised perfectly on its original and evolutionarily appropriate diet.
  • Never eat produce that is not organic and locally grown.
  • Never eat refined seed oils.
  • Never eat sugar, or anything that looks, tastes, or or acts like sugar.
  • If you break any of these rules, you're doing it wrong, you fail, and you may as well not even bother.

That's a whole lotta nevers!

I was both saddened and encouraged by this exchange. I found it sad that whoever explained this way of eating to her neglected to mention (perhaps because s/he wasn't taught):

  • That the foods you eliminate or avoid as part of a Paleo approach are the ones that are doing the most harm to your body. So, the first steps of simply eliminating grains, beans, refined seed oils, sugar/sweeteners, and grain-fed/pasteurized dairy products takes you at least 80% of the way towards achieving optimal health on a Paleo diet.
  • That Paleo is more about eating foods that are real, whole, unrefined, unprocessed, and nutrient-dense than it is about striving for some (non-existant, if you ask me) level of perfection.
  • That the largest benefits of Paleo are not about having access to food of optimal quality 100% of the time.
  • That fussing over the minutia of optimizing every aspect of your diet (some call this hacking) may actually do you more harm than good. You do realize that stress can undo everything you do nutritionally, right? No? You didn't know that? Well, now you do. It can. Stressing over your diet may actually be making you far less healthy than those few bites of dark chocolate or that non-organic banana. Or that (gasp!) grain-fed flank steak. You likely take great pleasure in that dark chocolate (or insert other imperfectly Paleo food here). Life is about not just being healthy, but being able to enjoy being healthy!
    (Yes, I'm a gluten-free purist to a degree, but I eat sub-par quality meat when stuck in an airport or on the road when I'm out of PaleoKits (again, gasp!) or my travel-sized EVOO and my usual sourcing efforts are side-swiped in an effort to Just Eat Real Food.)
  • And last, but not least, that if you create a list of rules for people that seem so overwhelming that they just can't imagine turning their lives upside down to adhere to them, you ‘ve likely lost any chance you had at helping them. (Note: I talked about this in my recent Paleo Magazine article entitled “Mind the Paleo Gap.”)

I was encouraged because the conversation gave me the motivation to (finally) write this post.

Let me be perfectly clear: I'm not saying that you should humor someone and allow them to think that gluten-free oats are healthy, because they're not.

But, in the context of their lives to this point, making a switch from a donut, Pop-Tart, croissant, or boxed/highly-processed/additive-laden cereal covered in pasteurized milk from grain-fed cows every day to that bowl of something they had to take time and effort to prepare, well, it's likely a huge first step. Even if it's not “Paleo-Perfect.”

It is not your job to create rules for someone else to eat and live by.

If you're a nutrition or health coach and they've hired you to do so, well, then that's different (duh). If you're a writer on the topic and someone finds you, your teachings, and a nutrition program you've created and wants to follow that information, that's their decision. And, guess what? When people choose to take on changes for themselves versus rules being forced upon them, they typically stick to the plan a lot better. Imagine that.

I can't stress this enough: You have to understand where people are coming from before you can throw a list of rules and dos/don'ts at them thinking it'll be possible for them to “just do it.”

Of course I love a strict, go-for-it kind of plan. I wrote The 21-Day Sugar Detox with this idea in mind: Ditch the sugar, sweets, (most) dense carbs, and sweet fruits. JUST DITCH THEM. But, in the overall landscape of a person's life, it's a lot to change. And so, I have a graded approach and levels people can choose to buy-in on based on their own level of commitment to themselves! This doesn't mean that people are not strong enough to make big or even huge changes, and to really commit to themselves to be healthier. It simply means that you are not the boss of them, and if you try to be the boss, you had better be sure that you're not setting them up to fail.

Know this: When you're sharing information about healthful dietary and lifestyle changes with other people to whom this may all be super shiny and new, it's about them. It's not about you.

Ask more questions than you think you should. Offer some information, then ask them how they think they might be able to incorporate (even small) changes into their daily routine – if they want to! Forcing the issue won't help. I don't even force 1:1 clients into changes they aren't ready to make. That's a recipe for failure at least nine times out of ten.

I hope this post serves as a wake-up call for some of you who have made people feel alienated by your approach, or perhaps, who have tried and “failed” to follow the rules you've given them. Be aware of when your Paleo Perfectionism is doing more harm than good, and try to see the benefit in small changes here and there that a person may make if they're not the type who wants to go cold-turkey on their pack-a-day-like grain habit. Not everyone makes changes at the same speed, but if a person wants to change, they will.

A person has to want to change before change will begin.

In that process if change, Paleo Perfectionism is often alienating and unnecessary. Find out where you can, and should, bend in what you teach others about this way of eating. Have compassion. Listen, listen, listen – and then ask strategic questions. Then, present ideas for change rather than hard-and-fast rules. People come around if they want to.

You did, didn't you? 


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