I LOST three inches off my waist by sticking to the foods of our ancient ancestors, writes Jillian Bolger.
Before I started working out regularly I'd never heard of the Paleo, or Caveman, Diet. Based on the foods that early man ate, namely meat, fish, fruit and nuts, it's a modern nutritional plan that cuts out sugar, grains, legumes and polyunsaturated fats from your diet.
Unlike other diets it's a lifestyle choice, not merely a quick fix to drop a few pounds. The idea's been around since 1975 when gastroenterologist Dr Walter L Voegtlin published The Stone Age Diet, extolling the virtues of the cavemen's eating habits. In some ways, he was ahead of his time and it wasn't until the Noughties that the movement gained momentum, following the publication of books such as S Boyd Eaton's The Paleo Diet.
As a food lover and restaurant critic, I've very little time for diets. I'm fortunate to have a slim build and fast metabolism, and eat what I consider a healthy enough diet. We cook everything from scratch, rarely get take-outs, drink modest amounts and limit our treat intake. (When I'm reviewing restaurants the rules go out the window!)
At 39, with three small kids, I noticed my body shape had changed. After having my last baby two years ago, I somehow held on to my pregnancy weight. It was only 5-6lb, but enough to affect how my clothes fitted and give me a wobbly little belly. Last autumn, I got up off the sofa and joined my local CrossFit gym. After 18 months of inertia, it felt great to be getting fit again. CrossFit is about working out together doing varied strength and conditioning workouts, including sprinting and weightlifting, kettlebells and skipping, pull-ups and push-ups.
Within weeks I was hooked, loving the positivity and camaraderie of my fellow Ronin CrossFitters and coaches (www.ronincrossfit.org) and quickly seeing real changes. My arms were looking toned, I could run faster than before, and for longer distances, and my energy levels were up. But that belly was still there.
I talked to my coaches and they suggested trying the Paleo Challenge for six weeks. "But I can't imagine living without porridge!" I declared in horror, "Or cheese, or milk, or chocolate." But then I looked at my midriff and decided enough was enough.
The guys gave me lots of information, including a shopping list and links to the websites of primal/paleo gurus such as Robb Wolf (www.robbwolf.com) and Mark Sisson (www.marksdailyapple.com). I logged on tentatively, expecting to find healthfood nuts pedalling extreme views. Instead I found a huge online community of advocates, bloggers and CrossFitters sold on a paleo lifestyle.
In order to crack the brief, I needed to ditch all traces of sugar, dairy, grains, legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans), polyunsaturated fats and processed food from my diet. Instead I needed to focus on anything that could be hunted or gathered. We're talking nutrient-rich meat, eggs, seafood and non-starchy veg, and, in small amounts, fruit, nuts and seeds. It sounded daunting. Unlike a calorie-controlled diet, fat is encouraged, once it's the right kind. (Things such as coconut oil, avocado oil and extra virgin olive oil.) The more active you are, the more carbs you can eat (foods such as sweet potatoes and vegetables).
Many of my gym-mates follow a predominantly paleo lifestyle and swear they've never felt healthier. Another friend who's been eating paleo for 18 months has lost three stone while almost eradicating her Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
The week before I began to eat like a cavewoman, I started a food diary. After seven days my entries included porridge, wholemeal bread, rice cakes, cheese, yoghurt, hummus, pizza, chocolate mousse, shortbread and red wine.
Maybe a flatter belly was more attainable than I'd imagined ...
Day 1 Breakfast is a banana and a cup of hot water with limejuice. I can't stop thinking about porridge and am snacking on a raw carrot by 9.30. Then it's on to fruit salad before lunch of lamb's liver with balsamic onions and scrambled egg.
I'm not sure if the vinegar is allowed, so need to check. Am thinking of food constantly, so snack on almonds, pears and cups of tea. Rich dark chocolate is allowed so I munch two squares of 85pc cocoa solids. I sandwich them together with peanut butter, which I later discover is contraband: peanuts are not actually nuts -- they're legumes! I have much to learn about this caveman lark.
For dinner I serve fajitas, and eat mine minus all the good stuff: tortilla, cheese and sour cream. Loading up on guacamole and jalapenos I look enviously at my kids' plates. Surprisingly, I'm not hungry later and go for a run, though I only manage 6km, as I feel very tired.
Day 2 A banana smoothie with coconut milk and frozen berries is my brekky. Sunday brunch is a mixed grill at my in-laws. I stick to eggs, mushrooms and tomato. Surprisingly I don't mind skipping the brown bread. I usually eat a treat afterwards but settle on olives, sticks of celery and a few almonds. Dinner is pan-fried fish with a nice salad. After dredging the fillets in seasoned flour I realise that's contraband too.
Day 3 Life's getting easier. Breakfast is poached eggs and limejuice in hot water. I drink lots of South African rooibos tea, a favourite of mine that requires no milk. Lunch is salad with smoked salmon and seeds and I snack on prawns in the afternoon. Dining out later I make mostly paleo choices -- mullet to start and sea bass with green peas and bacon. I skip the bread rolls but falter with mash, aioli and, ahem, chocolate tart. This caveman diet has really highlighted how often I pop food into my mouth without really needing it.
Day 4 I'm wondering when the novelty of poached eggs will wear off. Have homemade tomato and basil soup for lunch and grilled sea bass with ginger chilli stir-fry for dinner. Turns out the sweetcorn and mangetout elements aren't strictly allowed as they're from the grain and legume families.
Day 5 Poached eggs and watermelon for breakfast followed by veg and prawn stir-fry for lunch. I tuck into a steak with salad for dinner, then skip CrossFit and head to bed with a splitting headache. Could this be the effect of my detox?
Day 6 Eggs for breakfast, salad with smoked mackerel for lunch and grilled turkey with veg for dinner. I'm definitely getting the hang of it, but find my body struggling to adjust to the changes. I also feel hungry a lot. A woman on a mission, I find paleo treats in my local SuperValu in the form of kale crisps, but I can't bring myself to hand over €5 for a snack-size bag of veg!
Day 7 I bake a birthday cake for my son and hungrily munch the dough and buttercream icing. It tastes so good. At the party I eat pizza, chips and cake, though less than normal. What a mess -- I feel like I've undone all my hard work.