Food for thought: nutrition is paramount to optimal health and fitness. Whether it’s Zone, GOMAD,
primal, or paleo, for better or for worse, I have witnessed the contagiousness of diet in many athletic
communities: it’s mentioned, it peeks interest, it drives experimentation. After personal observation,
experimentation, and even more observation, you can add me to the list of those driving the rapid
contagiousness of the paleo-based diet.
The winner of our challenge, who was voted on by all coaches and participants (yep, democracy),
was a guy named Steve, who showed unrelenting dedication from day one. In fact, I think we
decided to do this challenge because of people like Steve who were coming into the gym armed with
diet questions and ready to make changes. At the beginning of the challenge, Steve weighed 221lbs
with a 41in waist. He was doing pull-ups with the thickest assistance band (you’ve all seen the black
band) we have available, and maxed out at 10 reps. It took him almost 5.5 minutes to complete 50
burpees. Meet Steve:
When the challenge came to an end, everyone was talking about Steve’s remarkable changes. He looked
like a different man, worked out like a different man, and most importantly, felt like a different man.
Steve lost almost 20lbs and reduced his waist by at least 2 inches. He performed 33 unbroken pull-ups
with the black band, which he’s proud to say he no longer uses for workouts. In fact, he can even do
a few unassisted pull-ups now. It’s also worth noting that Steve improved his ring dip strength as well
as PR’d multiple lifts (e.g., press by 15lbs, back squat by 25lbs, clean by 30lbs, deadlift by 75lbs). When
completing the post-challenge burpee assessment, he completed all 50 in just over 3 minutes…the guy
shaved off 2.5 minutes! Check out Steve now:
So what does Steve himself have to say about all this?
1. What was your typical diet before learning about the paleo diet?
So about a year ago my diet was pretty bad to say the least. I would rarely eat breakfast,
and when I did, it was usually along the lines of a butter croissant to go with my latte from
Starbucks. I would typically go out for lunch with a bunch of guys from work, and order either a
sandwich or a burger with fries. Dinner would include some kind of pasta or meat, and almost
always include bread. The majority of nights, I would have a snack before I went to bed ranging
from a pack of fruit snacks to a small bag of chips. I would typically drink a few beers every night
to top it all off. Naturally, I continued to gain weight with these eating habits.
Around August of last year, I decided to give MyFitnessPal a try after one of my co-workers
recommended it. The concept of counting calories seemed to fit, and it stressed the importance
of portion control. My typical breakdown would be a protein shake with a banana for breakfast,
a ham and cheese sandwich on wheat bread & a pack of apples for lunch, and some kind of
meat or pasta for dinner. I would still have my late night snack, but chose things with a much
lower calorie count like a popsicle or a 100-calorie pack snack. Along with this diet change, I
would run about 2-3 miles every morning and walk another 2 miles at lunch so I could gain some
room on my calorie goals for the day. I lost a decent amount of weight with this eating pattern,
but I knew it was not sustainable just by how tired I constantly felt.
2. What was the primary reason you decided to join the paleo challenge?
I really wanted to get rid of the extra fat. I had been doing CrossFit for several months, and I
could see a ton of improvement from when I started, but my weight loss had plateaued.
3. What was the most difficult part of the challenge for you? What was the easiest?
The first week of the paleo challenge was an absolute nightmare. I felt sick, weak, tired, and
completely unmotivated. My workouts were terrible all week, I was in a bad mood, and I just
felt like this might not be for me. The best way to describe it was as if I was hung over for a week
straight, even though I did not consume any alcohol.
On Saturday that first week, I went to the gym in the morning as usual even though I felt
horrible. I remember completing the workout, but I could barely stand up afterwards. That
afternoon while I was out, I continued to get worse and worse. At one point I looked in a mirror
and saw that my eyes and turned yellow and I started to get a little worried. I thought about
going to the hospital, but decided to go home instead. I called my one sister on the way and I
still remember her exact comment, which was “You need to stop this bull-shit diet right now
and order a pizza so you feel better. If you don’t, I’m ordering the pizza for you!” I brushed her
comment off and decided to just drink a bunch of water, eat a little something, and go to sleep.
Fourteen hours later, I woke up on Sunday morning and I felt incredible. My eyes were fine,
but more importantly, I had gotten over that feeling of being hung over. I had heard from some
people that the first few days were tough while your body went through this transition period,
but I certainly did not expect anything this drastic.
The last 3 weeks was probably the easiest part of the challenge. By then, I had seen some great
results, I had established some good eating habits, and I understood why I felt so much better
from attending the seminars. I noticed my workouts to improve at a much faster rate than
they were previously, and it just gave me the motivation to finish strong. I was getting a lot of
support from everyone at the gym, and it really helped me on some of those tougher days. I
remember in the beginning I had to resist having a cupcake or whatever else someone would
bring into work, but towards the end, I didn’t even think twice about it.
4. What resources, if any, did you turn to for guidance?
My sister Alicia was probably the best resource I had during the challenge. She had been eating
paleo for several months already, and helped me out tremendously with recipes and simple
ideas that made eating paleo much easier. On top of the seminars, I listened to Robb’s podcasts
occasionally, and used the list from “Everyday Paleo” by Sarah Fragoso for my first “paleo” trip
to the grocery store.
5. Were other participants/coaches supportive throughout the 8 week challenge? Explain.
The coaches and the other participants went above and beyond to support me through the
8 weeks. Almost every day I would come into the gym and someone else would come up and
tell me how good of a job I was doing, or how great I looked. It really was such a good feeling
to have so many people supporting me along the way. As my workouts improved, the coaches
continued to push me.
6. Do you feel the ‘paleo nutrition’ seminars were beneficial? Explain.
The seminars made the challenge much different than most diets people ever go on. Most
people just read about a diet and it just says “don’t eat this” or “only a little bit of that,” but
with the seminars it was really about why we should avoid certain things and how our body
reacts. Having that understanding about what was happening on the inside made avoiding
certain foods much easier. It wasn’t simply about how hard you try to avoid grains, legumes, etc.
because they weren’t part of your diet. Each time I looked at something non-paleo I understood
why I did not want to eat it. It allowed me to use logic instead of simply will-power.
7. What was your favorite part of the challenge?
My favorite part of the paleo challenge has to be the change in the way I feel. Each day, I feel
like I have more energy than I ever had before. Before the challenge, I was typically tired by
3:00pm at work. I had gotten my carb craze for lunch, got a small burst of energy, but I would
typically burn out around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The only way I stayed into it was to have
enough coffee in the morning to make it through the day.
8. What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment over these past 8 weeks? Why do you
believe you were voted on as winner?
Looking back, my greatest accomplishment over the course of the challenge had to be my
improvements in overall strength. I know a lot of people voted for me to win the challenge since
I lost a lot of weight, and shed a few inches, but to me, the challenge was not just about losing
weight. Compared to most of the other participants, I knew I had the most to lose, so I didn’t
want to just drop pounds and not improve in other areas. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact
that I dropped a few inches, but to me, I’m very proud of how much I’ve improved in all of my
9. Do you plan on adhering to the paleo diet now that the challenge is over?
I’ve continued to adhere to the paleo diet even though the challenge is over. I feel as though
there are so many benefits from it that I would be foolish to give it up so quickly. I’ve found
it fairly easy to stick to the diet compared to the first few weeks, and even when I have the
occasional cheat meal, I don’t have the urge to switch back to my old eating habits.
10. If you could give someone else interested in trying the paleo diet advice, what would it be and
The one thing that I would tell anyone is to not be afraid. Yes, I know it looks scary on paper that
you can’t eat that pasta, or you can’t have one of those cupcakes your co-worker made. I know
it sounds so hard to stick to a diet that goes against almost everything we’ve been told growing
up, against what your parents and your grandparents ate, against what your doctor may think.
Yes, there will be a transition period that is extremely difficult for some, but in the end, it’s all
worth it. You’ll find new foods that may taste even better than some of the old ones, you’ll find
your own reason as to why you eat this way, and you’ll find that you feel better doing it.
About the author:
Elke S. Nelson holds a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Iowa. She is
currently the Associate Team Leader of Health Technology Forecast, a clinical writing group, at ECRI
Institute in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Outside of work, she coaches CrossFit, designs personalized meal
plans, eats mainly paleo, and procrastinates on writing in her blog: www.paleoscape.com.