Most diet books describe an implicit process that works like this:
Read Book → Miraculous Habit Change → Perfect Health Forever
Mostly, the Miraculous Habit Change part is not described in a whole lot of detail. The author typically makes a few suggestions, such as removing all food that isn’t on the diet from your pantry, but mostly assumes that you will simply do whatever the book says to do. Most authors of diet books know about diets, but they don’t know about getting people to change their behavior. All they know to do is be as logically convincing as possible that the plan they give you is a really good idea.
The books relevant to a paleo style of eating that I’ve read—let’s see: Primal Blueprint, New Evolution Diet, Paleo Solution, Paleo Diet, Everyday Paleo, Good Calories, Bad Calories, and, back in the day, Neanderthin—are not really any different. The diet is different in that it works very well. Many people, if they can just get a solid start on it, will find it less difficult than others to stick with it, because it often generates rapid improvements in health and body composition without being hungry all the time, with resistance to yo-yo patterns of weight loss and regain. Of course, most diet authors would make similar claims about their plans (plus, hearthealthywholegrains!). Following almost any diet plan that isn’t completely ridiculous is so much better than eating an industrial Western diet that, if you follow the plan, you’ll probably begin to look and feel better. (In many cases the nutritional deficiencies or hunger may eventually catch up with you, but that will probably be after a period of improved health and better body composition).
The problem is getting people to follow the diet. Some paleo authors and bloggers dismiss the concept of willpower and diet because it leads to blaming people for being malnourished and obese when surrounded by unhealthy food. “You are not obese because you eat too much and are sedentary, you eat too much and are sedentary because you are obese.” The idea is that some people with a genetic predisposition to having a broken metabolism when they eat a Western diet get fat while others without such a predisposition do not. It’s not your fault. I agree with that. I don’t blame people for succumbing to the food culture and confusing health advice that surrounds them.
“Just read my book and follow my plan,” say diet authors (paleo proponents included), and you’ll get better.
Switching to paleo, however good an idea it is, involves a drastic change in eating behavior. The very idea of giving up bagels, sandwiches, breakfast cereal, microwave burritos, cupcakes, happy meals, and 90% of everything else in grocery stores and restaurants is simply inconceivable to many people. Switching from those foods to real food is really, really hard. Doing so not just to lose weight for a period of time, but as a new way of permanent eating—actually committing to eating in a completely different way, forever—is huge. Food is deeply meaningful to people. It means:
- Providing for friends and family
- Being cared for
- Relief from hunger
- Relief from emotional turmoil
Making radical changes to that set of rewarding events because you read a book or a blog post is not a simple thing. Once you’ve changed your diet and found that paleo really works for you, you may find that you simply don’t understand why others can’t just do what you do. You’ve found ways to meet those needs without all that bread and sugar. Most people haven’t and frankly, most people simply won’t. Many of those who try paleo will go back to their usual diets after a relatively short time. Some will even know that paleo works great for them, but still find it impossible to stay with it.
In a future post I’ll talk about some of the things that affect habit change. I hope that might help a few people get a little closer to eating real food, forever.