My journey into a paleo eating style occurred over several years. It wasn’t something that happened overnight. I didn’t read about it and just decide to try this new diet I kept hearing about. For me it was an evolution over time. I’m evolving again, and I thought it might be time to share my story it the hopes that it might help anyone else out there struggling with health issues. Get ready for a rather dry rendering of my life …
I grew up during the 70s and 80s … and my diet was pretty typical to start. Breakfasts were sugary cereals, topped (unbelievably) with spoonfuls of sugar … occasionally cantaloupe or grapefruit topped with sugar. Lunch was nearly always peanut butter and jelly on Homepride Buttertop Wheat bread usually with some chips (potato or Fritos or Doritos) with cookies for desert. Dinner was almost always a protein, vegetable, and starch. I was a VERY picky eater … the only veggies I really liked were frozen wax beans. I was an active kid and always pretty lean (until puberty). But I wasn’t healthy. I got strep throat several times a year and was on antibiotics 2-3 times per year. I had horrendous room-clearing gas (my family joked about not wanting to be on long car trips with me). As lean as I was, my belly was never flat.
The summer I was 15, I came down with mono. I ran a 102-plus degree fever for weeks. I ended up with strep throat on top of mono. That fall, my liver and spleen were still so swollen that I wasn’t allowed to play sports. That winter I developed several allergies (cats, milk, dust) and had a lot of trouble breathing and was diagnosed with asthma.
Shortly after that, my family became vegetarian. It was the early 80s and my parents were very health-conscious. Vegetarianism was promoted as the most healthy option. Fortunately, my father is a really good cook, and meals were interesting … lots of beans and vegetables, recipes from the Moosewood Cookbook and the Enchanted Broccoli Forest. We at tofu and seitan and tempeh. (Fortunately, my tastebuds had matured!) Of course, since I was a teenager, I still ate all the usual fare like pizza, cheese and crackers, chips, french fries. A favorite after-school snack was nachos made in the microwave, or wheat thin crackers slathered in cream cheese. Not surprisingly, despite still being very active playing sports, I started my lifelong battle with my weight. I began to have bronchitis several times per year, requiring antibiotics, sometimes multiple rounds. I developed black circles under my eyes that never went away despite sleeping 9-10 hours nightly.
I went off to college, and instead of gaining the Freshman 15, I lost 30 pounds between the start of classes and Thanksgiving. This was partly due to the large campus and walking everywhere. But mostly it was because the food in my dorm was not of the quality I had been eating at home. I lived on iceburg lettuce salads. By Thanksgiving, I had had bronchitis twice and my mother decided to send me to an allergist. He did skin testing and found that I was allergic to beef, milk, animal dander, dust, pollen, etc. etc. etc. I started a regimen of allergy shots (6 shots per week x 4 years) without any subjective or objective improvement. I continued to struggle with asthma and allergies. I continued to get bronchitis several times a year. Then I became vegan. I did love my veggies, and I was learning to cook and had roommates who were willing to eat my experiments, but still at lots of bread and pasta.
This went on for several years, until I was in my late-20s and read The Zone Diet by Barry Sears. I read the book looking for a method to lose the 20 or so pounds I always seemed to be carrying, but it started me questioning my dietary choices. I slowly added animal protein sources back to my diet; however, I was still eating dairy and legumes and grains. I did lose weight, but there was no improvement in my health.
Over the next few years, my diet reverted to a pretty typical low fat, high grain American diet, sans beef and milk (I was still eating cheese, and yogurt). I had a massive sweet tooth. I would get frustrated with my weight and do a “diet”. I tried them all … Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, The Zone, etc. I would lose the weight and then gain it back over time. I continued to have asthma and allergies. I developed white bumps all over the back of my arms. I continued to have a rounded belly even when I was lean. My energy level fluctuated wildly, and I was tired all the time.
When I was in my mid-30s, I got pregnant with my first daughter. When she was 9 months old, I got pregnant with my second daughter. When she weaned at 9 months old, I basically had gone 3 years without sleeping more than 90 minutes at a stretch. I couldn’t lose the pregnancy weight from the second pregnancy, and I was exhausted all the time. I went to my primary doctor who ran bloodwork, pronounced me healthy as an ox, and was prescribed a sleeping medication. I went to a rheumatologist because I started to develop pain in my hands, ankles, and knees. She said I was fat and needed to exercise (I was already exercising an hour daily) and diet (I was already “dieting” by Body for Life principals). I saw an endocrinologist who proclaimed me the healthiest person he had seen all week. He read over my (obsessive) food and exercise logs and told me that the weight would come off eventually, as long as I kept doing what I was doing. I wasn’t sleeping much at night, and I was needed 1-2 naps during the day. I was eating 1200 calories, and exercising for an hour each day and struggled to lose weight.
Eventually I found a doctor who tested my cortisol levels (bottomed out all day) and other hormone levels (all out of whack). She put me on bioidentical hormones. When I didn’t recover after several months, she referred me to a gastroenterologist and after testing, we finally had a diagnosis. Celiac. Within 3 days of eliminating gluten, my pain was gone. Over the next few months, my flatulence disappeared, my stomach became flat for the first time in my life, and I started to effortlessly lose weight. My energy levels started to rebound, and I felt fantastic for the first time in my life. But, I was still getting sick fairly often (sinus infections, needing antibiotics) …
I did a lot of research, and found a functional medicine practitioner in my area. I had tried to see her a few years back, but she wasn’t taking new patients then. This time she was, and I got in as soon as I could. She listened to my entire story, then explained to me about why I needed to stop eating dairy in addition to gluten. She wanted to get me off the bioidential hormones, and put me on a bunch of supplements. I eliminated all dairy (cheese and yogurt), and within a week noticed an improvement in my asthma and allergies. Within 3 months, the white bumps on my arms went away, and my black circles disappeared. I continued to slowly lose weight without any efforts.
I was eating gluten and dairy free, but was eating “gluten-free” baked items, like bread, pastas, and treats like cookies, pretzels, and brownies. I indulged in naturally gluten-free snacks like chips and salsa, popcorn, and potato chips.
My improvement tapered off, and I continued to struggle with intermittent abdominal pain, and constipation. My GI’s recommendation was to increase my grain consumption and to take a fiber supplement (by my obsessive dietary tracking I already knew I was getting about 40 grams of fiber per day mostly from vegetables). More fiber didn’t seem to be the answer as far as I could tell, so I started to look for additional answers. I bought and read Loren Cordain’s book “The Paleo Diet”. I bought and read Rob Wolf’s “The Paleo Solution”. I read everything on Mark’s Daily Apple. And it started to make sense.
I eliminated legumes. I slowly eliminated gluten-free grains (rice, quinoa, corn, etc). I eliminated sugar (except occasional raw honey and real maple syrup). And I started to improve again. I started following many paleo blogs (see the sidebar) and I read Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig. I added in fermented foods and bone broth and organ meats, and I continued to improve. My digestion has improved significantly, especially when I consider where it was when I started this journey. But I continue to struggle with some issues. I am still carrying about 20 extra pounds. I have flare-ups of eczema on my face.
I’ve become interested in something known as The Auto-Immune Protocol. Several books talk about AIP: It Starts with Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig explains it a bit, and Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo goes into further detail.
Sarah Ballantyne, PhD has a wonderful blog and is known as The Paleo Mom. I’ve learned so much about Auto-Immunity from her blog, and think I have reached a point in my journey where I am ready to dive in to further eliminations and see if I can eliminate the last few nagging issues.
So, in a nutshell, I’ll be following a strict Paleo diet (as always) … eating only meats and veggies and healthy fats. I’ll be eliminating nightshade vegetables (including pepper based spices), all nuts and seeds (including seed spices, coffee, and chocolate), and eggs. In addition, I will be eating lower carb than usual, because there reportedly is a strong link between elevated blood sugars and auto-immune disease. I will still be eating some starchy carbs, but I will be limiting them to lunch on the days I CrossFit (my post-workout meal) because insulin sensitivity is better after intense exercise.
So, I’ll be posting more AIP-friendly recipes, and I’ll be posting updates about my progress.
In the meantime, check out Sarah’s blog … and her new book (being released 9/28/13)