This is an excerpt from Matt Stone’s ebook 12 Paleo Myths that I thought people here would appreciate and could totally relate to, only, the guy whose telling his story isn’t talking about raw veganism: he’s talking about the health disasters that happened for him on low carb paleo. The parallels are amazing, and the conclusions he comes to are fascinating. The bolded bits are my emphasis. Read on:
Here is my story. I tried to keep it as related to low-carb paleo as I could.
Getting sick is easy. All you have to do is read some books and websites on health and nutrition, create rules for eating based on what you think is “good” or “bad”, and follow those rules at all costs even when your body screams at you to stop.
One of the most harmful rules I ever adopted was the “carbohydrates are bad, or at least suboptimal from a longevity and health standpoint” rule. This rule was based on the belief that our paleolithic ancestors did not have access to significant amounts of carbohydrates and so they subsisted mostly on fat, protein, and non-starchy and non-sweet carbohydrates.
The first dietary decision guided by this rule was to remove all grains from my diet. Over the course of a few years I went through periods of temporarily avoiding other carb sources like fruit and dairy while eating a predominantly raw food diet that included ample amounts of animal products, fats, vegetables, and all the other “paleo” foods. I acknowledged that most of my foods would not have been found in the wild habitats of my paleolithic ancestors, but my intention was to approximate the macronutrient ratios that I believed were ideal.
For the first few years after having gradually shifted from SAD to a mostly raw paleo diet I felt great. Benefits included clearer skin, more energy, better digestion, the ability to easily gain weight, a very light and clear feeling often associated with raw diets, and lessening of asthma symptoms. I was 18 years old at the time I started experimenting with diet, and I didn’t have any major health problems to begin with, aside from cat dander-induced asthma (which diet never healed). So my intention was to become even healthier.
I wasn’t too strict about avoiding carbs in the beginning, but upon noticing the development of some dental caries after eating lots of fresh summer berries, and having experienced many blood sugar swings from eating too much fruit, I decided to largely eliminate fruit from my diet. I figured I could get all of those nutrients from vegetables and without the sugar. My teeth stopped getting worse.
Around that time, I was experimenting with intermittent fasting and alternate day fasting. I loved the focused feeling fasting gave me. It was strikingly similar to the effects of a cup of coffee, like slow-release coffee, which I now realize was due to my adrenals pumping out extra stress hormones in response to the lack of food. Also around that time I started to notice my hair was falling out more than usual and was changing its texture. There were other minor changes like dandruff, brief periods of poor digestion and gas, inability to focus, and low energy.
After I graduated from college I started working a full time job-that I hated, which was a major source of stress. I would bike to and from work and I would often skip lunch. I was eating very few carbs. At that time, I started to experience more digestive problems which included lots of diarrhea and incomplete digestion of foods in general. I found it increasingly difficult to focus especially in the stressful environment of work and couldn’t think clearly. My brain wasn’t working well, and I felt like I was getting dumber. I was extremely emotional. My energy fluctuated greatly throughout the day, and I was exhausted most of the time. I wasn’t sleeping well and having very strange dreams when I did sleep.
My health fell apart over the period of a few months. In response to these health problems, I switched from eating mostly raw foods to mostly cooked foods, which seemed to digest better and not make me feel as ill when I ate them. At one point I ran out of money and was living on free potatoes and vegetables from a farmer’s market along with some high-quality organ meats and coconut oil. I had been avoiding carbs entirely except for a little fruit and so my body did not handle the starch in the sweet potatoes well. I had more bouts of diarrhea and all my problems worsened.
At that time I realized I had some serious gut dysbiosis, despite drinking copious amounts of EM probiotics and eating the standard list of fermented foods so popular among WAP folk, and so I thought the solution was to go even lower carb. After all, my symptoms got much worse when I tried to eat potatoes or if I ate too much fruit, and all the candida fear mongerers said starches and sugars were the problem. It made sense at the time. So I ate nothing but fat (butter and coconut oil by the spoon), animals (mostly organ meats, bone marrow, stocks/broths, and other WAP-type foods of the low-carb variety), and cooked vegetables. I eliminated all dairy (except for butter) and all sugars and starches.
After about three weeks of this diet all my digestive issues completely went away. My energy was way better, my skin was perfectly clear, and my hair stopped falling out. I did notice that I would have heart palpitations every night, and that cuts on my fingers would get infected and take a very long time to heal, and that I was peeing like crazy around noon and throughout the night, but those problems were minor compared to the major digestive disturbances I was experiencing before.
I began to read stories similar to mine, and I knew that carbohydrates were not the root of my problem. Besides, I used to eat all the carbs I wanted before I was concerned with this nutrition stuff and I felt great. Something had changed in my body and it could no longer effectively utilize carb-rich foods. I started to reconceptualize what health meant. Health is what I had when I was a kid — a robust body that can handle a wide variety of foods, a reservoir of energy. Health is not avoiding a bunch of “bad” foods and attaining a magical state of dietary perfection.
So I began eating more carbs, and slowly my health problems returned. They returned with a vengeance. Since eliminating all carbs helped me before, I tried it again out of desperation, but my condition worsened with this second attempt. I couldn’t digest anything, I couldn’t focus, and often I felt so bad I didn’t want to interact with other people. My heart would race and my brain would fog after every meal I ate. My lymphatic system was clogged up to the point of pain. I’m sure I was on my way to ulcerative colitis.
With every diet I tried and every rule I followed, low-carb or high-carb or whatever, my health worsened, aside from temporary improvements in some areas. I lost all trust in my mental ideas about health and diet because each one failed me miserably, and certainly, no external authority could tell me how to get healthy.
So what was the alternative? I abandoned everything I thought I knew about nutrition. I started to listen to my body and only my body 100% of the time. I really had no choice.
That was the first time in my life I ever did that. It’s not that I never listened to my body before; if I was thirsty I would drink water. Duh! But until that point I was always operating within the framework of some dietary dogma I created for myself. It was quite something to let go of all that mental garbage, and learn to actually trust myself. To trust that my body knew exactly what it needed.
Everything that went into my mouth was judged, not based on what I read was “good” or “bad”, but how it reacted in my body and what my body was craving. Since I made that change, it’s been a slow, but steady healing process. All of my health problems have vastly improved. I’m hardly in a state of robust health, but I’m no longer on a downward spiral of disease. Not quite a fairy tale ending. My guess is it will take at least as long to regain my health as it did to lose it.
At one point, I thought I knew a lot about nutrition. I knew what caused disease and what created health. I fanatically pursued those practices for many years in an extremist fashion. And then life kicked me in the nuts. If there is one thing I do know, it’s that no food or macronutrient is inherently good or bad. The “goodness” or “badness” of any food can only be determined in relationship to the body of the person that is consuming that food.
Dietary rules are static, the body is not. Health has nothing to do with the amount of “good” foods you consume and the amount of “bad” foods you avoid; it has everything to do with how your body uses those foods, which is based on a long list of variables entirely unique to you. Give me any “good” food or any “healthy” habit, and I’ll give you a protocol to ruin your health with it.