Plateaus and Problems with Paleo

This is where I come clean and tell you about some of the problems I have had with the paleo diet.  These problems go beyond added expense (and it is more expensive, especially if you have a big family) and can become rather serious.  At least, in my case they might have.

When I finished the Whole 30, I was a little disappointed.  I didn’t have the fantastic increase in energy as advertised, or a super-re-charged weight loss, or a feeling of better health.  In fact, when I went to a previously scheduled doctor’s appointment in the middle of the month, my thyroid levels were low enough that the doctor wanted to put me on medication.

Now, I have never had thyroid problems before.  I have 7 children.  Fertility — which is one of the areas most influenced by the thyroid — is not my problem.  But ever since about the middle of October, and worsening to the end of January, I could run down the list of low thyroid symptoms and check off a lot of them.  Most worrisome were the digestive symptoms, because — you will all think this is weird, unless you’ve read the GAPS book — my problems with depression, anxiety, and worrisome dreams all seem to be connected to what goes on in my stomach.  This in turn really affects how I am able to care for my family. 

So I thought it must be because I wasn’t doing something right.  I had eaten too many carbs and that was why I was gaining weight again.  I had cheated once too often on pizza, the cream in my coffee was not good for me, adding dairy back into my diet in the form of yogurt and kefir was a bad idea, etc., etc. I just needed to be on an increasingly strict diet. 

I was not happy with this idea, because, frankly, I am really bad at “strict”.   I was not happy with the idea that I might need to be on medication indefinitely either.  Reluctantly,  I started taking it, but I had heart palpitations on the lowest dose imaginable, and the toddler was cranky and waking up a million times a night to nurse but my milk supply seemed to be going nowhere.  The pharmacy had replaced the doctor’s prescription with a “generic” which was actually replacing the wrong hormone according to the test results I had pieced out of the phone static when the nurse called.  I stopped taking the medicine.  I hemmed and hawed about calling the pharmacy or the doctor.

I think that after you have broken away from the mainstream to the extent that we have — homeschooling, Catholic, open-to-life, and eating food the government says is bad for you — you start to wonder if maybe you ought to trust your instincts occasionally.  That was what my feet-dragging was about.  I didn’t think that my thyroid had suddenly decided to go haywire for no reason.  I thought it probably had to do, ultimately, with food.

My prayers grew a little weepy.  I have a habit of flipping open the Bible at random after I say my nightly prayers.  I kept opening it to passages about food.  (Jesus liked to feed people.)  Mostly the message of those passages was, “Stop worrying about what you are going to eat.  God knows your needs, and you will be cared for.”

And — I feel like I have been!  Let me tell you why.

A couple of days ago I was reading blogs over breakfast, and I opened this book review from Nourished and Nurtured.  The book is Diet Recovery by Matt Stone, who blogs at 180Degree Health.  (I haven’t read the book yet and if you read through his site, be prepared for some bad language and crude humor.)  I remembered that I had read a guest post of his about raising basal temperatures, so I went back and read that, plus the post and comment thread on his site relating to his guest post. Buried in the comments, I found a reference to this book:

  The Don’t Go Hungry Diet by Amanda Sainsbury.  Thanks to the miracle of Kindle, I downloaded it and started reading in “less than a minute”.  In this book, Dr. Sainsbury (who is Australian) talks about the importance of the “Famine Reaction” in diets.  Basically: whenever you start losing weight, you will come to a point at which your body thinks it is dealing with a famine.  It will therefore slow down its metabolism in order to conserve energy (and fat).  At this point, you will be hungrier than usual and your weight loss will slow down.  Maybe it will even stop — or reverse.  The more you try to resist the increased hunger and cravings, the more convinced your body becomes that this is indeed a famine.  Your metabolism slows even more.

That list of thyroid symptoms I linked to above?  Yep.  All symptoms of a Famine Reaction, too.

The cure for a Famine Reaction? Eat as much as you need to satisfy your hunger.  

So basically, a “plateau” in weight loss is really your body’s way of trying to save you from a famine.  In order to get around this, you must eat more in order to bring your metabolism back up.  When you eat more, your body gets back on the level, allowing you to lose weight once again.  According to Dr. Sainsbury, however, the nearer you get to your ideal weight, the more frequent and intense your Famine Reactions will be. 

This all fits with my experience.  When I first stopped eating grains (except for the odd piece of pizza here and there), I lost weight very quickly.  This was probably water weight at first, but I did end up losing 40 pounds between late January and late September.  At that point, I figured I had about 8 more pounds to lose to get down to my college graduation weight.  I was excited! But as time wore on, the weight loss stopped and then reversed, even though I was eating the same way.  I thought maybe I needed to revise the amount of carbs in my diet, so I went lower by cutting out honey and most of my fruit, but this was obviously not what my body needed.

After reading about famine reactions and metabolism on Wednesday morning, I consciously made an effort to eat more the rest of that day and Thursday.  I didn’t stress about having to go through a drive-thru on Wednesday afternoon when we forced into an emergency errand to take care of the unexpected (again) arrival of baby bunnies (who sadly died again, after living a day longer this time).  I ate a chicken wrap and tater tots.  That afternoon, I made myself a banana smoothie with almond butter and prunes (sounds bad, but was actually pretty good).  I also ate a big hunk of almond flour bread with butter and honey.  That night I had a decent dinner — pork roast, brussel sprouts, and purple sweet potatoes — but I was hungry before I went to bed, so I ate some cheese.  In the morning, I did not worry about the orange juice I use to take all my vitamins.  I had two big slices of grain-free French Toast (almond flour bread dipped in egg and sprinkled with cinnamon), a banana, and cream and honey in my coffee.  I had a Naked mango smoothie and the insides of a bacon/sausage breakfast croissant later that morning when I was waiting for Gareth at the Linguistics Olympiad.  It seems like a huge amount of food, but it kept me from getting hungry when we weren’t able to eat lunch until 2 PM.  I was forced to have chicken strips for lunch.  Then I had a regular dinner of gluten-free sausages and green beans.

The result?  Friday morning my basal temperature was in the normal range.  It’s been low for a month.  Raising it took 2 days and no medication, just adding more carbs and calories to my diet. A fluke? I took my temperature again this morning.  It’s a little lower than yesterday, but still better than it was throughout January.

I’m not saying that all thyroid problems can be fixed without medication, or that I regret giving up grains.  What I am saying is that without all the pieces to the puzzle, it’s easy to make mistakes.  For myself, I doubt that I’m going to go back to eating cereal and pasta on a daily basis.  When I ate lots of grains, I also had lots of problems.  But I think there’s a happy medium, matched to my individual needs.  I feel better when I eat fruit and drink my coffee with cream and honey.  A bit of rice or potatoes every now and then will probably not kill me.  And carrying around a few extra pounds for a while longer would be a small price to pay for better thyroid health. I’m sure my family would agree.

The key, I think, is to listen to your own body.  There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, even outside the mainstream, so that sometimes it feels as if it would be easier not to eat at all.  At some point, I think that it’s probably better to just shut all the voices off.  There may not be that many “supposed to’s” after all.  Maybe it all comes down to how your body processes food, and how you feel after you eat.  I still think it’s best to focus on eating nutrient-dense food unaltered by modern science, but beyond that… well, we’re omnivores.  There probably isn’t a perfect, one-size-fits-all diet, no matter how often we (I) wish for one.


  1. It’s great that you are figuring out what works for you! I hope you continue to have success with what you are doing. I do wish I had some kind of computer that would just TELL me what I should eat vs. years of trial and error though, lol.

  2. This is SO interesting! I recently read something very similar in an issue of Woman’s World magazine. It was a diet plan that called for low-carb on one day and high-carb the next to avoid triggering problems with the thyroid. It also recommended eating whatever you wanted on Sundays. I’m going to check out that book you mentioned…

  3. Angela

    Fascinating!! Wow I’m going to be thinking about this for ages now!!

  4. Great observations. I do start to think while you can have recommendations for healthy eating, we all need to adjust to what fits our needs. Our bodies have different needs and can handle various foods differently. My mother found the same result that her body thought she was starving.

  5. Just read this post and it sounded very familiar to your story.

  6. Dear Anela,
    THis is very interesting as we are about to start a elimination of grains and sugar from our diet. However once again as you know large family cost is a factor. I am hoping it dies help as we have some problems with depression in the family. We also have at least one very active- possible ADHD child, and some anxiety ridden people.
    Thanks for the up date as I have been watching your posts although not much time for commenting

  7. One thing I notice you didn’t mention in your post was how much protein and healthy fat you were taking in during this process. If you’re going low-carb you’re trying to do one of two things. You’re either trying to stop pounding your body with so much glucose or you’re trying to transition from being a sugar-burner to being a fat-burner. Both of which result in better health and weight/fat loss. I’m not sure which you were trying to accomplish but in either case you can’t drastically reduce carbohydrate intake without greatly increasing your fat intake. You’re body requires energy in some form, fat or carbs. If you are going to take one away you must replace it with the other. A lot of people miss this when they are trying to transition to a paleo way of eating because they’ve been told for 40 years that fat is “bad”. It doesn’t surprise me your body was thinking it was starving if you weren’t taking in a much higher percentage of fat as you greatly reduced carbohydrates. You can’t operate on no energy. I’m surprised your doctor didn’t catch that or maybe he/she didn’t really focus much on what you were eating other than you may have told them you cut out carbs.

  8. I came over from Good Cheap Eats’ blog and then I read “Mostly the message of those passages was, “Stop worrying about what you are going to eat. God knows your needs, and you will be cared for.””

    And I had to do all I can to stop shouting Halleluah! Lol!

    Seriously, I have to keep telling myself that “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the Lord”. But I think all of us needs to go on a journey to come to this point and stop angsting about food.

    At the moment I am dealing with eczema on myself and my 4 year old. It is so easy to go crazy and stop her from eating everything and make from scratch everything, if these health experts are to be followed. But I also know that that is not the total cure.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this post. Will go nose around on your other posts soon :)

    From another large family mom (7 children), who homeschools as well :)

    Serene in Singapore

  9. Glad you figured out what works for you. Our family of 8 has numerous issues, and some of us are dabbling with cutting out various foods. I, for one, can handle corn and potatoes but grains bother me in many ways. It all boils down to doing what works for you!

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