By: Michael Kummer
For many people, maintaining a Paleolithic diet is especially challenging over the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holiday celebrations — known and cherished for their bounty of sweets and other unhealthy treats — provide plenty of opportunities to cheat on and derail an otherwise healthy dietary lifestyle.
My wife and I have been on a paleo diet since early 2015, and over the years we’ve learned a few tips and tricks that I’d like to share with you in a series of two articles. My hope is that the lessons we’ve learned will help you stick to your healthy eating habits — regardless of how big the temptation to indulge in sugar-laden holiday treats might be.
Paleo Diet – Dos and Don’ts
For those of you who are new to paleo, let’s quickly recap what this ancestral form of eating is all about and what foods you should avoid.
In a nutshell, the modern paleo diet attempts to mimic the food our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate before they developed agriculture and started domesticating animals about 10,000 years ago.
That means that while on a paleo diet you can eat animal meat and fat (ideally from pastured and wild-caught animals), most seasonal fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and healthy oils.
What you should avoid is processed foods, grains, legumes, sugar, some starchy vegetables and dairy — which are all things our paleo ancestors had little or no access to.
How to Eat Paleo During the Holidays
The bad news is that traditional holiday food is often packed with all the stuff you shouldn’t consume while on paleo. Just think about the stuffing in your Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas cookies, or pretty much any dessert you’ve ever had — they’re all loaded with processed carbs and sugar that make your blood sugar levels spike. Consistently high blood sugar causes insulin resistance, which is a major contributing risk factor to the development of metabolic diseases.
In my next article, I’ll share some practical tips on how to substitute unhealthy ingredients with paleo-friendly options. But first, I think it’s important to talk about why we adopted a paleo diet in the first place.
Make Healthy Eating a Core Value
Here’s the harsh truth: if you started eating paleo to drop a few pounds with the intention of resuming your old diet after a few weeks or months, don’t bother because it won’t work.
Temporarily changing your eating habits to achieve a short-term goal is why most diets fail. If you want to eat paleo, you better be prepared to do it for the rest of your life.
Eating healthy, sleeping well and exercising are things you have to do every day in order to reap their benefits. The good news is that if you do, making exceptions becomes an effortless choice that won’t derail anything.
But to make eating paleo your dietary strategy for life, you have to make eating healthy a core value. You can only do that if you sincerely believe that eating a standard Western diet will make you sick and increase your risk of developing the types of chronic diseases that kill most Americans.
If you don’t make healthy eating a core value, you won’t succeed. Exceptions will become rules, and eating low-quality food during holiday get-togethers will bleed into the new year. Before you know it, you’ll be back eating all the junk you know will degrade your health.
So it’s important to constantly remind yourself why you started eating paleo: to give yourself the best chance possible to live healthier for longer. If you’re able to stay focused on that goal, following these tips will be much easier to implement.
Tips To Eat Paleo Over the Holidays
Below are my top tips and lessons I’ve learned over the past few years that make eating paleo during the holidays a more manageable task. In fact, most of these tips also apply to when you’re traveling, eating out, or enjoying dinner with friends or family who don’t share your dietary values.
The tips below are in no particular order, as their importance varies based on your individual situation.
1. Decide What Exceptions You’re Willing to Make
If you have limited or no control over the food you’re going to be offered — for example, when you’re invited to someone’s home or when you plan to eat out — decide ahead of time what exceptions you’re willing to make.
That way, you’re not put on the spot and forced to make a decision you might later regret.
For example, most restaurants cook with inflammatory vegetable oils, which cost less than higher-quality options. So when I eat out, I don’t expect to get meals cooked with pastured beef tallow or avocado oil. I’m OK with that.
Another example is when I’m invited to have dinner with friends or family. These days, many hosts inquire about the dietary restrictions and preferences of their guests, but if they don’t, I either have to tell them or be OK eating whatever they serve.
Many of our friends go out of their way to try and accommodate us — but that doesn’t mean they get it right all the time. I remember one time that we were served a “paleo” soup with white potatoes. Our hosts figured that if sweet potatoes are paleo, then regular potatoes must be as well.
Guess what? The soup was delicious. We ate it and were thankful for the effort our hosts made.
2. Communicate Your Dietary Restrictions
If you’re invited to someone’s home but your host doesn’t know that you’re on paleo, they won’t have an opportunity to accommodate you. So if your host doesn’t ask, I’d recommend politely explaining that you’re trying to stay away from certain foods.
Most hosts will have no issues working with you and your dietary restrictions. Of course, don’t forget to treat your guests the same way you expect to be treated the next time you host.
3. Feel Good About Making the Right Choices
Every time I’m offered an opportunity to eat or drink something I shouldn’t, but I decide not to, I feel great about it. That’s a skill I had to develop — much like feeling good about saving money rather than spending it on something on my “want” list.
4. Share What You Know About Food, Instead of Being Embarrassed About It
Remind yourself that the reason why most people eat low-quality food is because they don’t know any better and they’re bombarded by misinformation and half-truths from all sides, including our own government, news outlets, friends and family.
Don’t feel like you have to be a missionary and convince everyone that your way of eating is the only right way. But if the topic comes up, don’t be shy about sharing what you know, and encourage others to question the dietary decisions they’re making.
That can quickly change the perception that people have of you. My wife and I used to be the weirdos who made — in the eyes of others — unreasonable dietary decisions. These days, people, including medical doctors, come to us and seek advice on how to change their eating habits.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Substitute
Almost every time I eat out at a restaurant, I order something that’s different from what’s on the menu. The same goes when I have lunch or dinner at my mom’s house in Austria, and when my wife and I prepare a Thanksgiving meal at home.
If you want to, you can make pretty much any meal — including cakes and desserts — paleo-friendly by substituting ingredients.
In the next article, I’ll talk more about paleo-friendly ingredients that make great substitutes for their unhealthier counterparts.
A diet is effective only if you make it a dietary lifestyle. That’s because there are no shortcuts to healthy eating, quality sleep and regular exercise. Once you’ve realized that truth and made paleo your dietary lifestyle, maintaining that way of eating — even during the holidays — becomes almost effortless.
I’m on a Paleolithic ketogenic diet, which is even stricter than “plain” paleo. But I have zero trouble maintaining it. At the same time, I have no concerns eating the apple pie that my almost 90-year-old grandmother makes when I visit her. Being healthy doesn’t mean you have to be a fanatic — it’s about reorienting your relationship to food so that the vast majority of your decisions fall into a healthy dietary framework, as opposed to the other way around.
Eating healthy has become one of my core values, and I truly believe what evolution and scientific research has proven: you are what you eat. So find joy in making the right choices, and stay tuned for the next article in which I’ll show you practical tips on how to make almost any meal paleo-friendly.
About the author: Michael Kummer was born and raised in Austria. He speaks German, English, and Spanish. Since moving to the U.S., he has lived and worked in the greater Atlanta area. In his 20s, he was a professional 100-meter sprinter. These days, he’s an avid CrossFitter and an advocate for healthy living on his blog, which reaches over 150,000 monthly readers.