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Trying the Paleo diet? Be prepared for Caveman crankiness

Six weeks ago, I would have smashed you over the head with a club and dragged you by the hair into a cave if it meant I could eat a chocolate bar. Don't even ask what I would have done for a bowl of ice cream.

I had been warned that the first two weeks of the Paleo diet would leave me feeling, shall we say, sub-optimal.

"You're going to feel like shit," said Dhani Oks, director of programming at Academy of Lions/CrossFit Gyms in Toronto.

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He was right.

Two weeks into eating like our Paleolithic ancestors, a diet that the body takes time to adjust to, I was feeling terrible. There were headaches. There was a general feeling of ickiness. There was a lack of energy. There was a G.I. incident it's best we not talk about.

But after I'd pushed through the wall with all the strength it would take to wrestle a brontosaurus, I found myself with more energy than I'd had in a long time. And I was 10 pounds lighter.

"People think it's a fad diet," Mr. Oks says. "Yeah, it's about a two-and-a-half-million-year-old fad diet." It's become popular with CrossFit aficionados and athletes.

One of the main appeals of the Paleo, or Caveman, diet is that it's easy to understand, Mr. Oks says.

"The premise of Paleo is that we've evolved a certain way, and we've evolved to thrive on foods that have been around the longest."

Sadly, chocolate bars have not been around the longest. Nor have a long list of other foods that are prohibited under Paleo: potatoes, starchy and sweet vegetables, alcohol, legumes, processed foods, grains and ketchup among them.

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Good luck not eating bread or ketchup in the summer. I mean, it's barbecue season, people!

Thankfully, I was told that during my 30-day experiment I could make the occasional exception to eating meat, eggs, wild fish and more broccoli than I care to think about.

"If you go out to a friend's house and his grandmother is there from Italy and she's made you a wicked meal that's got cheese and pasta and gluten or whatever," Mr. Oks said, "you better damn well eat it. Enjoy life. But when you have control of your life, eat the food you know is real."

While I didn't have any run-ins with Italian grandmothers, I did gorge myself on a burger and potato salad at a friend's barbecue. It was good.

But for the most part I remained vigilant. I didn't drink pop. I didn't eat chips. I didn't eat sandwiches, which made packing a lunch for work extremely difficult.

At the two-week mark, I checked in with Mr. Oks. The check-up is a regular part of the Paleo challenge.

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"I have to talk people off ledges during this two-week part of the diet," he said. With the body's metabolism adjusting to the diet, the first two weeks can be rough.

"What's in store for me in the next two weeks?" I wanted to know. I'm not going to lie: There was a whininess to my tone that I'm not proud of. And it wasn't a lone incident. The journal I kept during the Paleo challenge reads like the diary of a six-year-old girl who's been banned from playing with her dollies.

Don't worry, Mr. Oks told me, I was going to begin feeling a lot better.

Midway through the third week, I started feeling good. Really good. I was getting out of bed without groaning and was saying goodbye to my gut.

When I started the challenge I weighed 208 pounds. By the end I had dropped to 198.

There isn't really much magic at work here, as Mr. Oks acknowledges. Cut out pop, chips and other processed foods and your health is bound to improve. Once the body adjusts to burning the fuel it was designed for, you'll feel an energy boost, Mr. Oks said.

But it was still hard to resist whipping up a tuna sandwich for lunch or scarfing down a bowl of cereal for breakfast. Most mornings I found myself thinking: "Me want Frosted Flakes."

While people may easily understand the basic idea of the Paleo diet, many will find its restrictions too hard to abide by, says Nicole Fetterly, a Vancouver-based dietitian.

"The difficulty is putting the theory into practice," she says. For example, by cutting out dairy you put yourself at risk of not consuming enough calcium.

Going on Paleo may be hard at first, but it becomes easier to stop focusing on all the things you can't eat, Mr. Oks said.

"When you start to emphasize things like good-quality protein from animals and some vegetable sources, and eating as much as you want from these categories, people forget about it quickly," he said.

Not quite, in my case at least. Even though it got easier to be on the Paleo diet, and even though I was feeling and looking much better, I would still wake up with a caveman voice in my head saying: "Me want burger and fries for lunch. And me want ice cream."

But I did my best to ignore it, and for a very good reason: Me like being thin.

Still, I'm not a complete diehard. Me had a sandwich for lunch today, and me liked it.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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