A Case for Baby Steps

*Note from Sarah: I’m so excited about this most recent post by Jason Seib.  It’s truly epic.  Thank you Jason for writing such an eye-opening and thought provoking article.  I hope you all enjoy and take from Jason’s post as much as I did.  For more of Jason, find him here on Facebook and also check out his soon to be released book, The Paleo Coach available for pre-order on Amazon!

I’ve been doing a little brainstorming lately.  I can’t stop thinking about why so many people seem to have a terrible time getting from zero to paleo despite the fact they they clearly believe it will work for them.  If you would have asked me a year ago, I would have told you that lack of belief was probably the primary force keeping most people from success.  It still sounds logical – if you don’t think something will work for you, or if you think the people that it worked for were special somehow, you will probably have compliance issues.  However, these days I seem to encounter a lot of people who appear to be fully convinced of the merits of eating like a human, but they still can’t make it to the finish line.  “I’m starting my 3rd 30 day challenge,” is a phrase that I seem to hear daily.  All I can think is, “Why didn’t it work the first time?”  My frustration has led me to do quite a bit of research outside the realms of nutrition and fitness and into the intriguing world of psychology, and more specifically, willpower.  I feel like I’m just getting started, and every question raises two more, but I have already learned some amazing things.

As per our discussion from a couple of posts back, sometimes when we set goals we may not really intend to change anything.  Instead, we might just be trying to escape our own hypercritical inner voice for a moment.  As such, we tend to set massive goals to make ourselves feel as good as possible for a short time, which tends to make failure even more imminent.  Once I understood this basic concept, I formed a new hypothesis that I have yet to disprove.  Maybe you can help me if you know something I don’t, but the following seems more obvious to me the more I think about it:

Long term goal setting isn’t human nature.

Follow along with me if you will.  You are a hunter/gatherer in the late paleolithic, let’s say 20,000 years ago, living the way your ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years before you.  Can you describe a goal you might set that you would expect to accomplish one month from today?  Or six months?  Or a year?  When I asked myself these questions, I could not come up with a single thing that my cumulative efforts over an extended period would finally bring to fruition after a specific, predetermined amount of time had passed.  Acquiring food would happen on a day to day basis, and staying where the food is would be key to my survival since food storage was not an option.  Material possessions are not amassed by nomadic hunter/gatherers, and there was no need for currency, so there would be nothing for me to save.  And since none of the foods I would have hunted and gathered would have been unnatural in my diet, I would have had a healthy, lean body without even knowing what it means to be overweight.  Maybe I could aspire to be a better shot with my bow, but daily hunts would likely negate the need to say, “By the next full moon I will be able to shoot a rabbit at 30 paces with 9 out of 10 arrows.”  Most people don’t set goals like that today; we just practice and get better as fast as we can.  Unless I’m overlooking something here, setting long term goals the way we do today would have served no real purpose to our hunter/gatherer ancestors.

So, if long term goal setting is not something we did for almost all of the time that we have been on this planet, is goal setting a purely psychological choice that we are perfectly capable of making, or are there physiological aspects to it?  In other words, are goals hard to achieve because we are too weak minded, or are there other factors involved?

As it turns out, willpower comes from a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex and our modern capacity for self control appears to be a late development in human evolution.  Since most of the things we did on a day to day basis prior to neolithic times were best done right away and with no waiting, we didn’t need a lot of self control.  For example, if there was a massive pile of food in front of you, you ate until you couldn’t eat anymore because the next meal might not come at the exact moment that you first felt hungry next time.  Willpower was mostly used for social interactions, like not being rude to tribe mates even when you want to be.  Interestingly, the prevailing theory among researchers, at least as far as I have seen, is that the prefrontal cortex is exhaustible and that willpower is a limited resource.  This means your willpower gas tank is not bottomless and your mental fortitude is irrelevant.

This eye-opening study (full text here), demonstrates how the prefrontal cortex can be exhausted and willpower depleted.  You should read the whole thing, but I’ll paraphrase it for you.  Researchers baked chocolate chip cookies in their lab just prior to their test subjects’ arrival so that the tantalizing smell was undeniable.  The subjects were told they were participating in a taste study and they were seated at a table with cookies and radishes.  Half were told to eat at least two cookies and no radishes while the other half were told to eat at least two radishes and no cookies.  15 minutes later, all the subjects were asked to trace a complex geometric design without letting their pencil leave the paper, but they were not told that the task was actually impossible.

Okay, here comes the cool part.  The subjects who were required to abstain from eating the chocolate chip cookies gave up on the tracing task in an average of about 8 1/2 minutes, while the cookie munchers persevered for about twice as long!

What does this all mean?  It means your willpower truly is exhaustible, AND it is not specific to any one subject.  It means trying with all your might to get through your work day without telling your boss he’s an idiot will make it more likely that you will stop for fast food on the way home.  It means making responsible decisions about saving money at the mall will leave you with less self control in the food court.  It means coping with your day to day stress is tapping the same fuel reserves as your desire to lose fat and get healthy.  And it probably means your goals are WAY to big.

As a professional in the paleo community, I have been guilty of prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach to beginning paleo, but I think I have been wrong.  Our world and all the demands it places on us will not be changing anytime soon.  Therefore, the shotgun blast approach is probably not going to be effective for a great many people.  We have basically been saying, “Everything from the way you move and sit, to the way you sleep, to the way you deal with stress, to the food you eat is completely at odds with what your body expects.  So, the way to reach your goals is to change absolutely everything.  Ready?  Go!”  While this may work for some, the research is telling us that it will be tough, maybe nearly impossible, for most.

I don’t have any definitive answers for you just yet.  You might be tempted to set a big goal and make yourself feel good like we discussed in the post I linked above, but maybe it will make more sense to your hunter/gatherer brain if you tackle this major lifestyle change in baby steps.  Using sugar as an example, you could address your biggest vice first instead of immediately trying to remove all sweets.  You might simultaneously try getting to bed a half hour earlier and try to fit a brisk 10 minute walk into each day.  These small steps will likely be much easier than going for full blown paleo, beginning a comprehensive new workout program, and dramatically changing your sleeping patterns all in one day.  These are just ideas off the top of my head and I am only beginning to test this stuff in the real world.  All I know at this point is that my perspective has changed and I am no longer married to the all-at-once paleo standard.  Hopefully sharing this with you has given you some insight into your own struggles so that you can create a better plan if the old standby has left you wanting.

Maybe you aren’t weak.  Maybe you’re just human.

There is a lot more help coming on March 5 when my book is released, but stay tuned because, as I said before, I feel like I’m just getting started on this subject.

Go forth and be awesome.

Comments

  1. JMH says

    That’s why it’s easier if you ditch stuff out of your house, rather than have “the shelf for the kids”. If it’s not there, you can’t have it. It’s not a decision, it’s a fact, and you can use that energy to go for a walk instead.

  2. Heather says

    You know Jason the more you write, the better I feel about myself. :) Since last March I’ve been chipping away at all of the “stuff” that keeps me from change and little bit by little bit it comes. Great post!

  3. Kate says

    Great post! The reason I have not gone completely paleo despite believing it is the best way to live is that I am intolerant to eggs. I went for a Whole30 and made it 27 awful days. I was so excited for life to be so grand on paleo because I have heard so much about how wonderful life can be when feeling good. I had been nauseous on a daily basis for about 9 months (post pregnancy). Instead, it got much worse in those 27 days. I eventually figured out that I was egg intolerant (and yes, I did try fresh off the backyard eggs from happy chickens, but I am still intolerant). I haven’t gone paleo minus eggs yet, but I am planning on it. I find it to be interesting that the “paleo community” has seemingly failed to acknowledge that there are people out there who may feel worse on paleo as defined due to intolerances things like eggs or coconut.

    • Jason says

      Kate, paleo is more about the foods that we remove. The paleo community has not acknowledged that some people may feel worse due to intolerance to things like eggs and coconut because those things are not required on the paleo diet. If you are intolerant to a certain food, simply remove it. This will not mean you are not eating paleo.

      • Kate says

        Jason, I understand what you’re saying about paleo and that coconut and eggs are not required. However, there seems to be no guidance or discussion out there about what to do if you do a 30 day challenge and you feel worse. All the discussion is about how you will be on top of the world. Since you are taking on a mission of helping more people to become paleo, I think this is one area that could serve a small population of people who actually feel worse after a 30 day challenge. You can encourage them by acknowledging that this is possible and to try to remove eggs or coconut or nightshades or any other things that might possibly be causing the problem. I told a paleo friend that I was intolerant to eggs and his answer was “You’re probably not intolerant to eggs. You’re probably intolerant to the grain the chickens are eating.” That seems to be the thought of the community. I hope this idea helps someone get past an intolerance and become paleo by their body’s definition.

        • says

          I think there is help, but you have to ask. Since 99% of the people who do this do feel like they are on top of the world, the rest are going to have very specific needs and questions. But, there are paleo blogs and forums more numerous to count and almost all of them elicit some sort of open discussion or at least have a place to ask questions.

        • Jaime says

          Practical Paleo by Dianne Sanfilippo provides more restrictive plans inside the Paleo framework for those who are nightshade sensitive, want fat loss, etc. etc. Might be worth a look for you.

    • Bria says

      Kate – I had the same problem. I went paleo and a few months later I was having stomach problems so bad I ended up at the doctor. We eventually figured out I am allergic/intolerant to eggs (something I had been eating a lot of daily). Once I stopped eating eggs, eating paleo started working really well for me. Besides coming up with things other than eggs for breakfast, I haven’t run into any trouble being paleo without the eggs. :)

      • Kate says

        Bria, Thanks for sharing your story. I am happy to know I am not the only one. Paleo with eggs would be so much nicer than paleo without, but I understand it can (and will) be done! I have taken the baby step of going gluten free first. I’ve already lost several pounds in a short time. It is building my motivation to make a full jump into paleo without eggs and my hope that I can experience the awesomeness of paleo that others have as long as I am egg free.

        • Alexandra says

          Kate- I had the same issue as well. I have hypothyroidism and besides all the typical stuff you have to remove when doing a full 30 days, they recommend (which I did) that you remove eggs, nuts, seeds, nightshades. I can tell you that I was pretty miserable for the first couple of weeks and after that, it got much better, thankfully. What helped me was not thinking about what you should typically eat at breakfast (eggs, bacon, typical SAD diet) but what my body was telling me. If I was hungry for fish, then that’s what I ate :)
          It’s fantastic that you’ve already removed gluten and, though it doesn’t seem like it now, you will eventually feel good when you remove all the others as well. I’ve found (when baking) that replacing the eggs for applesauce works well :)
          Keep it up! You’ll get there and you will feel awesome because you know you did what you could :)

        • Kathie says

          I am the same…I was eating tons of eggs when I went paleo, it was very convenient, but I found out that I’m intolerant. I have to follow the AI version of paleo, and now I feel on the top of the world :) Don’t give up, it’s totaly do-able without the eggs.

          • Kate says

            Kathie,
            What do you mean by AI version of paleo? I looked it up a bit and don’t see much out there. I see posts about paleo helping with AI conditions, but I don’t see what “the AI version” is.

            Thanks so much!
            Kate

        • Missy says

          I have had the same problem with eggs, and other typically paleo foods. It’s all do-able and better than how I was eating before (which got me into this situation to some degree). I was allergic to them as a kid, but as an adult my allergy tests always turned back negative. So I thought that was my green light for them. I’ll have eggs on occasion now, but it is not a staple food by any means.

          I had the similar situation with fermented foods increasing allergy symptoms like sneezing etc this fall. I took the foods back out of my diet and I was fine. I hope I’m paying more attention now, and healing up my gut and improving health so maybe in the future I wouldn’t have these problems.

          • Erika says

            I have to chime in with a ‘me too’ here. I started eating strict paleo a year ago due to all kinds of other issues that had left me lacking energy and feeling crappy.
            My husband and I did it together and while he felt really great and started dropping weight. I felt a little better and stayed exactly the same in weight. I was frustrated but was determined to continue and push through. During this time, I slowly started noticing I was having a high histamine response to things that usually didn’t bother me. When I broke out in hives everywhere after having a bite of cake (I thought it was just a dark chocolate souffle…yes, a cheat but an oh so good one!), I knew something was really wrong. I later had a massive allergic reaction to anti-malaria meds while on vacation, yay me. I finally had the blood based allergy test run and found out that not only am I allergic to both egg yolk and whites but also dairy, casein, almonds, cashews and cataloupe. I have a proven sensitivity to soy and gluten as well.
            I had been eating eggs at least once a day and was using almond meal as my flour replacement on a LOT of things, not to mention using almonds and cashews in my trail mix. *sighs* I had done some good by dropping gluten and dairy but added more of things that I had a strong reaction to.
            After 5 months, I’m still trying to reduce the inflammation in my body and have found there are a variety of other issues I’m now trying to resolve. I haven’t been able to eat strictly paleo during this time but I do the best I can to eat clean.

            I believe Paleo works and agree that for some, baby steps are a wise choice. There are those of us out there who have bodies that are more sensitive or reactive and in choosing paleo force certain issues to come to light. The positive to that is we find them, fix them and (hopefully) move on.

  4. Melissa says

    All I can say is “AMEN!” This truly explains why, when I set my healthy eating goals for Monday, I start cheating by Wednesday. And, why, when I try to control my eating, the control over my finances takes a hit and vice versa. I’m glad there is research behind this. I thought there was just something wrong with ME. Thank you for information and I look forward to what else you find out.

  5. says

    Jason,

    What I have found is that the pain of discipline has to outweigh the pleasure of instant gratification. People are ok with letting themselves down because there is a major difference between someone who is “interested” in change vs. “committed” to it.

    Great article and I can’t wait to hear more from your findings. It was nice to meet you Sarah when you were in Kirkland and I really appreciate your hard work!

    • Gabriele Hawthorne says

      I agree with Scott you have to be comitted to change your ways. Two years ago I had a very demanding job in Seattle worked 17 – 18 hours a day barely saw my kids and we eat 80% junk, fast food and processed food packages. The I started reading books and articles online it it opend my eyes. I did alot of research I started changing my families way of living. Quality food and lifestyle is my number one priority now not money and work and my family of five is much happier and healthy.
      We eat some eggs but we eat alot of raw fruit and veggies and grass fed meat. I gradual removed all the junk food out of my house and replaced it with fruits and veggies. I changed my families sleeping habits slowly removed all tv’s out of the bedrooms installed dark curtains and got rid of nightlights. I always workout alot so that was easy for me and my family.
      Everybody can do it but it takes commitment to you, your family and your families health.

      AMEN

  6. Miss B says

    THANK YOU for writing this. I have tried the 30 day challenge and loved it and then…yeah. This time I thought to myself that I would just do small things, a little bit at a time. And so much in the Paleo-verse said that was not the “best” way. But I had to have it work for ME. And, frankly, I’ve always been the odd-person out so it wasn’t all that different to be the one taking things slowly when lots of others were doing it in one fell swoop.

    Thank you for acknowledging that baby steps can work for a lot of people. I am here to tell you they do work and, for me, have made this change in my life feel easier to handle. I’ve cut all soda, almost completely off grain, cut processed foods, started hitting the gym two to three days a week and I’m seeing such positive things from these “little” changes made over a space of time that taking the next few steps seems MUCH simpler.

    There are still days that I take things meal by meal for a Paleo life, but I do know that the small victory of keeping one meal completely within what I WANT to be eating adds up. And adds up…and adds up… :)

  7. Phoebe Hogeland says

    You know, I always read everything you write because while I often have to *cringe* while I am doing it, I know you speak truth and I want the truth (even if it makes me feel like a loser). I absolutely LOVE this post, not just because it makes me feel better about my failures, but because it resounds with me as TRUTH, just as much as everything else I have heard from you. I buy it! :~) Great point, well worth considering.

  8. Cassandra says

    And there will still be a million people who say that you are a moral failure because you were too lazy to just DO IT. Or too dumb to approach it the right way. Or had the wrong attitude. Or whatever. There’s a reason fat people see so much hatred from society – they didn’t have enough whatever to just be skinny, and are therefore weak and deserving of judgement, harrassment, and discrimination.

    I started making changes 2 years ago and I’m still not there. I knew after so many failed diets that if I was going to commit to this, it meant baby steps. I didn’t need a study to tell me that was the key to success and that I was human for not being able to make drastic changes and control myself. People who say it’s a matter of willpower and pass judgement on others for failing are people who live charmed lives, free from the struggles the average person deals with.

    Just yesterday was a perfect example when I spent hours on the phone talking with my mom about issues with my brother. I was so emotionally drained I had absolutely no energy to make dinner and told my husband to pick something up. He finally got home at 8pm, where I inhaled everything (stuffing myself to sickness) and went to bed 1.5 hours later. Didn’t care one bit, I was just done with that day.

    • Cassandra says

      I should point out that I write about nutrition on another blog and frequently feel like a hypocrite because I’m not the picture of health. Then I remember that I’m the best person to be talking about nutrition because I make it realistic for the average person. Again, perfect example where I KNOW about nutrition and what’s best, but it’s not realistic to live it all day, every day when LIFE gets in the way.

    • Jason says

      Cassandra, I have to ask, what does anyone’s opinion have to do with your journey? I think the most important thing you could ever do to reach health and fitness goals is to make sure your motives are intrinsic. Not to pick on you, but the majority of your comments here are related to how you might be being judged or perceived. This is just my opinion, and I can certainly understand why you feel that way, but your health and the opinions of others are not related subjects. I have a post coming up about this very soon. Stay tuned.

      • Cassandra says

        Why do 5 year olds have eating disorders? While the opinions of others might not be important, they do have an impact on wellbeing and habits. Try living your whole life with people telling you that you’re worthless because of your weight, family members bringing it up at every gathering, people whispering and laughing at you, little kids pointing and staring with mouth agape, doctors harrassing you and tsking and shaking their head at every single visit. It doesn’t take long before your view of yourself is totally destroyed, no matter how great you are at ignoring things. Of course it’s something that each individual has to overcome, but don’t dare say that being judged doesn’t matter.

        • says

          Well, I can’t argue with any of that. I have built my entire career working with overweight people and I have never heard a life described like that. I feel for you, but I think you have a rather unique situation. I don’t think any client has ever told me that they wanted to escape people whispering and laughing. Not in our modern world where overweight is the norm. I’m sorry this has been your experience.

  9. Cindy says

    Great article Jason. I wish I were closer to you for more advice. I’m only a few hours from Chico and I may make it there soon.
    I have a question about vacation eating. I am at day 46 of the whole 30. I am leaving for Cabo tomorrow morning and am fearful of how I will keep control of my diet. If you have been to Mexico, the menus are not so paleo friendly.
    I was planning on introducing corn tortillas while there, but other than that I’m I’m stumped on eating correctly. Veges seem to be in only the high end restaurants.
    Any suggestions?
    Thanks.

    • Jason says

      Good news! You don’t have to live close to me because a book full of the stuff in my head will be released on March 5!
      Vacation eating is tough. If it were me and the veggies left a lot to desire, I would go total carnivore and stick to as much meat as possible for the whole vacation. It will be more expensive that way, but it’s the best option for me in bad conditions.

  10. Jacey says

    I think you are absolutely right on the head when you talk about our finite amount of willpower. My husband and I have recently been examining the ways in which our past struggles with finances and health have been so interlinked. The state of our health, and pursuing health-related goals, always seems to be tied up in the state of our finances, good and bad.

    These last four years we have been college students raising two young children. To say that things have been financially tight would be an understatement, and there have absolutely been times when we have had the mental capacity to work on our health over other, more stressful, times. Now that being said, I am not using my lack of wealth, and seemingly abundant stress in other areas as a scapegoat for not improving my health. However, it is helpful to identify where our willpower is running out, why it is running out, and ways in which we can put things in place to make Paleo not an issue over willpower and just something that we do.

  11. Diane M says

    Jason,

    I can’t tell you how touched I am that you have done this research (literally I have tears on my cheeks) and that you are willing to take a more gentle and gradual approach to how one is to accomplish/incorporate healthy choices into their lives.

    I admire and respect you more than you know or would believe, but I’ve often felt like you were disgusted by me, and people like me who continually have to start over, or can’t find their way, that I really had no place to turn, if I slipped or failed because you would judged me as unmotivated and therefore unworthy.

    In this moment, I can say that I’m proud to know a man that doesn’t stop searching for better answers.

    Blesses,
    D.

    p.s. If you ever need a volunteer of the overstressed, weak-willed sort, I’m your gal.

    • Jason says

      Wow, those are some harsh conclusions to jump to, but I’m glad you are getting past them, however they came about. Do we know each other?

      • Diane M says

        Yes, Jason, you know me. I’ve pissed you off more than once. :) Once for sweating on a chair and once so much that you put me in Jeromie’s hands.

        But it’s nice to think that you might’ve forgotten that you dislike me (or at least I’ve felt that you dislike me. Since I’m not inside your skin I can’t swear to it).

  12. says

    Willpower definitely has serious limitations. That’s why Tim Ferris’s Slow Carb Diet, for instance, is so brilliant. It’s not technically paleo, but it creates the conditions that make relying on willpower a non-issue. I think if we can create enough similar caché around paleo nutrition, there’d be great compliance rates. And baby steps definitely move in the right direction. :-)

  13. Nancy says

    Hmm interesting concept……..I’ll have to really think on this .Right now I’ll be honest and say I go with my prevailing thoughts that this is not a good idea. Since most foods people “cheat” on are highly addictive sweet or bread /pasta foods that mess with the blood sugars and send you back wanting more ……..every smoker wants just one more cigarette and an alcoholic a drink. I wonder if it isn’t a case of wanting your cake and eating it too………is it will power or in our society of I want it now have we lost our understanding of commitment ?I went whole hog (or bacon) or none myself but then I was very ill and searching desperately for answers to my illness and found answers for my wellness but that’s MY experience . I’ll be interested to hear if baby steps works for some folks guess the jury’s still out…….
    but best of luck to all of you struggling to find your path to Paleo :)

  14. says

    I am a HUGE fan of baby steps. I have come a long, long, long way by doing those in many areas of my life, including health! And hopefully knowing that will give people hope that doing one hard thing until it becomes autopilot will allow them to go to the next baby step with a big sense of accomplishment, and it actually becomes fun to see yourself progress like that. And P.S. backwards steps occasionally are ok, too. The idea of that seems very natural to me, too, in the Paleolithic World. But you just pick up & move on.

  15. Britt says

    We started eating Paleo about 2 months ago to help relieve my (32 year old) husband’s arthritis. Its so much easier for me to give up foods when I am doing it for him. I didn’t want to disappoint him so I stuck to the diet much better than any other time I’ve tried to improve my diet. The first month was not the easiest. But after eating little portions of my usual non-Paleo Thanksgiving dishes and getting a stomachache, its been so much easier for me to stick to the diet. I have no cravings for anything sweet (other than very dark chocolate) or carbs.

    Its also been easy for him since I make sure he has something to eat for Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner. He doesn’t have an opportunity to cheat since there is always lots of Paleo foods around to choose from.

    Now, if I could only get my 2 year old on board…

  16. Clayre Thompson says

    Thank you for your post. I have lived a Paleo lifestyle by choice for a year now. In March I began a 12 month chemo treatment for a medical condition. Our Paleo lifestyle has made it easier on my body but two months ago (6 months into treatment) my “willpower” could not conquer my cravings for sugar. I have discussed this with a counselor I am seeing and we were able to figure out the root cause. The past two weeks I have been back on track. It was so timely that you posted this. Maybe it will help some of us to put down the club and pick up our walking stick! Have a blessed holiday season!!

  17. JNKCMD says

    I disagree sort of…not entirely. Will power runs out for sure but relying only on willpower to get to the other end of a long term hard thing is nearly always a recipe for disaster. You need and used more than just willpower to get a new choice to become a habit and then simply a part of who you are. Major researchers are just starting to dig into this part of how our brain works to change, real permanent change. Check out the book Change Anything for a look at why you need more than willpower and how to move forward. At this point I would be the outlier in the radish study because the smell of fresh cookies does nothing for me. I’m over wheat; it’s gross. Radishes on the other hand I love and eating only 2 would be hard.

    • says

      Again, if these things were character traits, they would not be predictably measurable in so many experiments. If, as you suggest, there is something more than willpower here, it will eventually be measurable.

  18. NJ Paleo says

    This is a fascinating post with regard to a fascinating subject. In our society, the virtues of willpower are extolled to the extent that most of us think that the lack of willpower is a character flaw. It’s interesting to think that perhaps our physiology is not hard-wired to be conducive of willpower.
    For myself, I went into paleo as a choice, not because I had a medical issue, and I went into it 100% from the get-go. But for my family, I have been taking the babysteps approach because it is a decision that they did not come to of their own accord. Some members of my family are more compliant than others based on their own opinions and choices.
    Thanks for the great posts as always!

  19. says

    Jason, great post! Speaking for myself, I could never have gotten where I am in one big step. I have been slim and fit for 8 years. Prior to that I was obese for about 20. I have cured myself of Type 2 diabetes and beat the statistics that predicted I’d have gained back all my weight and then some within a couple of years.

    But it takes consistent “hard work”. And I don’t mean shovelling gravel! I mean the hard work that comes from saying no to the brownies that someone’s offering at work (and I love brownies). Or going grocery shopping week after week and filling my cart with vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, and eggs, and avoiding the aisles and packages filled with lousy things I’d happily eat if they suddenly became good for me. My life, my self-esteem, my body, my soul, my destiny are so much more important than any food I can ever put into my mouth! In fact they’re more important to me than anything.

    But I didn’t get “here” overnight. I’ve reached a point where eating cottage cheese and yogurt, much as I love them, feels wrong. My mouth goes “yum” but my brain goes “this ain’t healthy; you can do better”. (No guilt though – that’s a waste too.) Back when I was fat it felt wrong because I thought it was just GROSS! I couldn’t imagine not having peanut butter and toast or my “healthy” Vector cereal or a bun and ketchup on my burger or going to the movies to just watch the movie. For example, my first baby step was sneaking in my own microwaved popcorn.

    I’m by no means a “perfect” paleo eater however I think if we strive for perfection we’re destined to fail since it’s at best unsustainable. But I eat great and I’m always working on doing better in everything I do. It’s a process and it’s exciting.

    I think your idea about rolling out good habits one at a time is exactly right! Dr. John Berardi and his Precision Nutrition Lean Eating Program does exactly this (tackling it all from the psychological angle, too!) and it’s truly extremely effective.

    The psychological aspect to eating is everything. If anyone doubts it, I challenge you to give up your favorite food – say, go a month without anything sweeter than 1 fruit a day – and see what your mind tells you. It’s REALLY fascinating. The more we find ourselves trying to justify why we don’t need to give it up the more we know we need to and the greater our rewards will be from doing so. :-)

    Keep up the wonderful work Jason!

    Danielle, Montreal

    P.S. I hate the word “cheat”. It sets up a dichotomy: Good/bad, on/off. It’s like “getting back on track” – I had an a-ha moment a year ago when I realized quite vividly **THIS** IS THE TRACK! Even when we make a mistake it’s all part of learning and growing. So “the track” is perfection? Nope; the track is life. So let’s stop browbeating ourselves and move forward! One baby step at a time.

  20. Miki says

    This is great. I am guilty of judging others. Since my family of 5 has adopted Paleo, it feels like we have found the “Holy Grail”. My 15-year-old son has his life back. So, I look around and wonder what the heck’s wrong with everyone else. How could they possibly not get on board? This helps.

  21. Kathleen says

    There is so much wisdom in this post. I have been trying to do paleo for about a year. I love how I feel with it and I love the science behind it. However, it is so hard to be “perfect” with it, but beating yourself up about not doing it perfectly sets you up for failure. Tonight I was so tired, I didn’t have easy to make foods in the house and we ordered pizza. Other than 1/2 cookie, that was the most gluten I’ve had in several weeks. Instead of beating myself up, I will be planning my meals tomorrow and getting groceries that are easy to prepare. I will learn from my mistakes.

  22. Tracey, Apex NC says

    Such an interesting topic. It makes a lot of sense that willpower is a finite resource and not a character trait, although a stubborn personality probably doesn’t hurt. I have a hard time picturing willpower ever being measurable though. It seems like it would always have to be a measure of an action in relation to a want, and what is wanted is not static and certainly not consistent across people. In my house I could have a dozen donuts sitting on the counter all day and they don’t call to me at all, but that bag of almonds in the pantry gets way to many visits when my stress level is high.

  23. says

    Jason – Your post hit home with me for sure. I first learned about the paleo diet in May and it immediately struck me as the way I should be eating. After years of struggling with my weight, my self-esteem and my internal critic, I’ve finally started realizing that my brain and my emotions have so much more to do with my journey than just the food I eat or don’t eat and the activity I do or don’t do. I started working with a wellness coach in July and the biggest piece of what we work on is mental – focusing on quieting the mental chatter of my inner critic and changing the things I say to myself. The fact that we PERCEIVE that others judge us can affect how we feel about ourselves, but we have to change that! What the heck does it matter what someone else thinks of us? Ultimately, will we ever even know that they think? I love the saying “What other people think of you is none of your business” – so true, right? I’m working on what I think of myself. Life is short – why should I waste anymore of my time thinking I am anything but awesome! I want to continue doing more of what I think makes me awesome…trying again when I fail, not being afraid to try something new (spin class!), working hard, and sticking to what I believe in even when someone offers me a brownie.

    Thanks for your post. I look forward to reading your book! :)

  24. says

    “Maybe you aren’t weak. Maybe you’re just human.”

    THIS was the most powerful line of your post, for me. I am a 36 year old wife, mother, and lawyer and in almost every facet of my life, I have been able to bring my intelligence and diligence to bear on my “goals” and achieve success. But my WEIGHT and the desire to go Paleo has been a CONSTANT battle for me. I’ve never been able to figure out why my desire to be at a healthy weight and live a healthy LIFE doesn’t FEEL more important to me than [insert food here] in the moment I am eating it.

    I look forward to reading more about this from you, Jason.

  25. says

    I agree that change is often made in small increments, not all at once, as it is much easier to sustain that way. I eat Paleo/Primal style because my metabolism is so extremely sensitive to carbs and sugars that they make me very ill – over the course of about twenty years I figured out little by little that this was the only way I could eat and function like a human being. It was definitely a long process of gradual change, as I had to come to realize that many of the “normal,” “healthy” foods that everyone else ate, i.e. whole grains, were simply not acceptable to my body on a regular basis.

    So about 98% of the time I eat almost no grains, carbs, or sugars to speak of, even including most fruits. But I really can’t stand to eat that way every single day, so once a week and on holidays I allow myself to eat whatever I like for one meal (or a bit more if I’m on vacation), and this keeps me feeling sane and not overly deprived (and keeps my weight from getting too low). I call this a “planned indulgence,” and I find that I can get away with it more and more easily as my body is healing on the stricter part of the diet. Moderation in all things, as they say. :-)

  26. Shannon says

    Jason – this is a fantastic article. Your line about holding in work stress all day and then eating junk food after work, in spite of health goals, hits the nail precisely on the head. I can’t wait to read your book.

  27. Shannon says

    Jason – this is a fantastic article. Your line about holding in work stress all day and then eating junk food after work, in spite of health goals, hits the nail precisely on the head. I can’t wait to read your book.

  28. Esther Spanjer says

    Great article Jason. While I am known to have an extremely strong willpower compared to other people, I cannot say that I have completed a single Whole-30 without little “cheats” here and there. I am on my 3rd one right now (great timing for your article!), and my biggest challenge is to find the right foods when I am traveling. When I am at home, I know its just my dedication and commitment to cook food and eat well. But when I am traveling for work (and that happens a LOT!), I am at the mercy of what I find on the road. And unfortunately it is incredibly difficult to find good and nutritious food. So on many occasions I have the choice to either go hungry or cave in and “break” the Whole30. In a country where grain-related carbs are the biggest part or our diet, its incredibly hard to stick to it. Even if you have strong willpower. Love to hear your thoughts about it!

  29. says

    Makes absolute, perfect sense. Explains why, on days when my kids are completely crazy all day, I just want ice cream when they go to bed. (Normally, I have some slices of kosher salami instead. Generally, that works.)

  30. Camilla says

    Oh, thank you for this post. I am sitting here stuffing my head with potato chips and thinking about the exact same thing! Why am I completely unable to get a grip, stop eating the crap and just do the job my body and mind are begging me to do!? I have managed the paleo diet in periods and know how to, but somehow I can’t make it last… Baby steps…will go to bed 30 minutes earlier tonight. And stop stressing about this. Obviously the added stress will make me even more lost in my “unpaleo” ways. Looking forward to your next post on this subject.

  31. says

    Standard paleo gave me cholesterol numbers 50% higher than upper reference limit probably as a result of having an Apo E4 gene present in 14% of population. I got them back by modifying fat intake. I still believe in eating whole unprocessed foods the diet however needs to be adapted to every individual.

  32. Paula says

    15 years ago a kinesiologist told me I was intolerant to wheat and that I had candida. I went on the candida diet. Never felt better! Did not stick to it once my health improved. Over the past years I have stayed away from wheat but sugar has been a problem. The last few years I have been sick all the time and struggling with losing 20 pounds or so. I tried WW, counting calories, a nutritionist, all the time focusing on my weight(I’m a Pilates instructor) and not connecting my diet to how crappy I felt because I ate healthy most of the time. I saw a special about the Virgin Diet on PBS and decided to eliminate all allergen producing foods from my diet. soy, corn, gluten, sugar(including artificial sweeteners), eggs, diary and peanuts. I feel fantastic and lost close to 10 lbs in the first month. I have not been sick since.

    I am going to have the blood test to see what my actual intolerances are and then do the paleo lifestyle but eliminate those foods. I fear eggs will be one of them!

    What I wanted to say though, is that I think the reason some people do better with baby steps is because there is often a huge learning curve that goes with making those changes. Skills have to be learned and integrated into our everyday lives. Organizational skills, timing, planning, cooking in a new way are all things that some people have to actually LEARN to do. If your life is busy and stressful as most people’s are, you can’t learn all that stuff at once. So you end up feeling life a failure when you were simply lacking a particular skill set.

    I could totally do 100% paleo right now if someone did it for me and I think that is true for many people. But since I have to learn the skills, oh and don’t forget habits!, it takes a little longer to get it all right. It is impossible to learn to swing a bat like a pro in one session if you don’t know how. The same is true for this. But if you move forward, address your mistakes and learn from them and make your corrections you too will be a pro!

    And to those of you who got it right straight out of the gate, awesome job!! but I’m guessing you had some pretty good skills and habits to start with.

  33. Jeannie says

    Holy Moly!! I am just starting to transition to Paleo and I see myself in EVERYTHING you said. I TOTALLY believe this will work for me. 100%. I have been beating myself up that I can make great Paleo meals and be completely satisfied yet still get off track with sugar..aka the devil in my mind. Thanks for making it ok for me to have a set back and know that maybe thats just human nature. You’ve just given me more motivation to keep on keeping on. I will master this! Thanks so much!!

  34. Jess says

    I know this article is a little old compared to this post date, but I wanted to add a little about my experience, and the transitional tools I am using to help myself change my ways. Because, as other people have mentioned, it is a total lifestyle change, not just a change in diet. We must learn to think differently about food and activity, and that takes time – time to research, develop habits, etc. I hope that one day, it will be “life as usual” but I am not there yet.

    I began this trek because I was feeling terrible. I am 33, and would feel like I’m 70. I have always been active, and martial arts training is a major part of my life. But I still felt awful. I woke up every morning with nausea (definitely not pregnant, by the way), and food in general disgusted me, at least until early to late afternoon. I always ended up with a headache by the afternoon, as well. I was always fatigued, and definitely have noticed a significant loss of willpower to do the things that I love or even to do the minor chores necessary to maintain my home. I researched my symptoms, and found threads where people were having the same issues, but no doctors could really figure it out (I myself have been tested for so many things I don’t where to start, with no results that would indicate what is wrong). Then I started seeing a pattern in the threads – people who had decided to go gluten free or make other dietary changes were getting better, even when they were not able to actually find a diagnosis.

    My mom went back to school and recently became a nutritionist, so I called her and talked to her about it. I always felt like I loved the way she ate, but it seemed like I just didn’t have the time and energy to do what she does. (Energy being the main factor these days.) Her solution for me was easier to swallow, so to speak, meaning that I could start feeling better sooner and slowly change my way of eating, as well as pin down what may be making me ill.

    Here is what she told me to do: she prescribed an “elimination diet”, where I remove a lot of the common allergens for 30 days. For breakfast and lunch every day, I will have a nutritional shake. She gave me a specific list of things to include in my smoothies, which also includes a vegan protein / nutritional shake mix (I am not vegan, but this mix is “everything free” that it needs to be – gluten free, soy free, dairy free, etc.). These “pre-designed” smoothies make it really easy to avoid the foods I need to avoid while still getting the nutrition I need. To me, especially since I have a really hard time in the mornings, this is awesome, and actually requires very little thought or energy (or willpower, for that matter). Then, for dinner each day, I am to prepare a paleo type meal. This way, I only have to figure out one meal a day (plus snacks). This also allows me to slowly learn how to cook this way, and to have time to do a lot of research about the diet. She also sent me some links that have been an invaluable resource for recipes that follow my plan. There is so much out here on the internet! One link I find leads me to another and another (which is how I’ve ended up here).

    I hope someone can use this. I’m not through the 30 days yet, but it doesn’t seem so overwhelming this way. Another point to make – since I’m sticking to paleo meals, they are actually EASIER to plan for and to create grocery lists, as I’ve found that a group of recipes can contain a lot of the same ingredients. My grocery list has actually been simplified. I am also lucky to live in an area where I can have local fresh organic fruits and veggies as well as great meats (like grass fed beef or bison) delivered to me (www.greenbeandelivery.com). And, actually, they don’t charge a fee for delivery and their prices are quite reasonable (unfortunately, eating well is often much more expensive than eating poorly – I am a BIG believer that if that were to change, and if good food choices were to be more accessible, it would affect the overall health of our population). Good luck everyone!

  35. Eva says

    Jason,
    Your humility allows us to learn along with you in a way that actually seems doable! I tend to pile on HUGE goals – and a lot of them at a time – and then just give up. Your psychological explanation of why this approach fails really helps me to understand myself better and gives me the tools to move forward in a more meaningful, more successful way! Thank you and keep ‘em coming!

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