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Originally published Friday, March 8, 2013 at 11:01 AM

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Limiting, yes, but the Paleo diet can help you feel better

CrossFit gyms have made the diet even more popular, touting it as a complementary nutrition program to the clubs' workouts.

Special to The Seattle Times

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IN THEORY, I like to eat clean. I have quit sugar a bunch of times. I will cut out wheat. I will scale back on alcohol.

I go on cleanses because I always feel better and leaner; it reminds me that I can find healthy ways to satisfy cravings.

But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

When I tackled the Paleo diet, sugar and wheat were just the start of food that had to go. See ya later, legumes. So long, soy sauce. No grains, not even quinoa and brown rice? Well, shoot.

The Paleo diet advocates eating real food like cave men used to. According to the Paleo experts, our bodies evolved to process meats and vegetables and digest those well. Grains came later, and our bodies still struggle to digest them. Modern grains such as wheat are particularly troubling, and hard-to-break-down legumes contribute to the problem, experts say, all of which can lead to inflammation and intestinal issues.

CrossFit gyms, which have sprouted up all over the Seattle area, have made the diet even more popular, touting it as a complementary nutrition program to the clubs' intense cardio-combined-with-strength workouts.

Curious to see how it compared to other cleanses and diets I've done, I picked up the book "Practical Paleo" by Diane Sanfilippo.

At first, the diet seemed straightforward, if restrictive. No grains, sugar, soy, poor-quality fats like canola oil, limited dairy and no alcohol. Eat meat, vegetables and fruit.

Then I started reading the Internet and got confused. Was I allowed to eat cashews? Yes to potatoes or no to potatoes? Some versions banned alcohol while others said yes to tequila and red wine. (I, naturally, chose the latter interpretation.)

I learned everyone does Paleo a little differently. Some people have cheat days. A lot of "Paleo" dessert recipes are on the Web. I think many Paleo diets are too lenient with sugar if you really want to end a sugar addiction, but I wasn't about to deny myself dark chocolate.

Cutting out legumes and quinoa also was a big adjustment. With eggs as the only vegetarian protein, I ate quite a bit of meat. The diet advocates eating grass-fed and organic, and most types of meat are allowed. I love meat, but it still felt a little carnivorous.

It's also tough to cut out all sugar and soy, especially at restaurants; prepare yourself to be a little anti-social.

But if you are new to Paleo, Sanfilippo recommends going "squeaky clean" and then reintroducing foods after a month to test for food sensitivities. I've cleansed enough to know what triggers me, and this diet reminded me, yet again, not to mess with certain foods.

I stayed strict about no grains, and, surprisingly, the legumes. After a few weeks, I was in a rhythm of choosing food that was not always perfectly Paleo, but felt perfectly manageable and good for me.

And compared to how I was eating right before Paleo — a lot of pasta and cookies were happening — my diet was unquestionably healthier. I can't promise I'll keep it up forever — I am still haunted by my favorite morning croissant — but it has brought me back to a world where my stomach is happier, my skin is clear and on most days, I pick fruit over chocolate.

Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: papercraneyoga@gmail.com. Susan Jouflas is a Seattle Times staff artist.

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