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Going Paleo-ish (& Gluten Free) | why, how, & what happened

It was the dead of winter. The holidays had passed & I was left with the January gloom. But this year, it was more than my usual post-holiday blues. My house no longer glowed from the Christmas lights and I was staying up late, not accomplishing much and living on lattes. Granted, this has been a really rough couple of years on our family, as anyone in their eighth year of a surgical residency/fellowship training experience will tell you, but something more was going on. & I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

I started looking at my life and what I could change. Why was I feeling so run-down? How could I make some small changes to feel better? Where could I find knowledge I could trust? How could I even find the time and energy to make my life better right now, as we’re going through one of the toughest seasons of our life as a family?

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I am a one woman show around here, and my kids deserved a better me. It was scary & felt like a lot of work to make some of the changes I had in mind. But it was time. I could not live like this any more. Latte to latte. Crashing in between. Flopping into bed feeling unaccomplished at night, then beyond irritated to be woken up in the morning by a child that really, just wanted a hug. Or a granola bar. Either seemed annoying at a pre-dawn hour, when I had stayed up too late. I was not a pleasure to be around and I needed something to change in a really big way.

The first change, as I talked about before, was my sleep overhaul. I gave up my beloved nightowl habits and started getting up early. It started with a six am wakeup and every week, I pushed that up fifteen minutes. It took some tinkering with, but I learned that for whatever reason, my body’s rhythm doesn’t like an alarm in the 5am hour. I can’t get out of bed. But 4ish? That’s my sweet spot. I get up, without engaging with my phone, and drink my 24oz cup of (sometimes lemon) water while I am getting ready. My reward is my cup of coffee (a 6oz pour-over style is all it takes anymore!) & I am ready to do what I need to before my early riser is up to join me.

These days I am a 4:30am kind of gal, who is in bed by 9:30. I know, I know. I would have laughed at myself so hard a couple of years ago. But seriously. Having quiet time to myself (and that cup of coffee!) before my kids get up has been life changing. It also provided me with the time to read. To learn. & to understand why my brain was feeling so foggy. It may seem insignificant, but this sleep change really has been instrumental to my “lifestyle overhaul” if you want to call it that. It’s when I carved out the time to learn.

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I am not going to walk you through the true “why” of a Gluten Free or Dairy Free Paleo-ish diet. I am not an expert. I have taken the time to read a lot, from sources I have deemed trustworthy. Together, they have opened up my eyes to nutrition in a way I was never open to before. Forget fads, forget the word “diet.” Healthy living is really a lifestyle, in my opinion. & I wanted to understand the WHY before I could dive into the HOW. Here’s what I read–some are books I checked out at the library & some are great articles that you can read now:

  • Wheat Belly–for a fascinating understanding of what wheat does to your body, and an explanation of the inflammation response that can be so problematic. “Inflammation” is a buzz word amongst everything I read–basically I aim to consume foods that decrease or don’t increase inflammation. This book describes, on a very deep level, how the new version of wheat we consume today, causes inflammation.
  • It Starts with Food–by the creators of the Whole30 program, which is an elimination diet that helps you determine what foods make you feel good/bad. I have not done Whole30, but I do try to eat in a way that closely mimics the Whole30 guidelines. An important quote that I LOVED from this book was “The food you eat either makes you more healthy, or less healthy. Those are your options.” and that has been a real factor in my daily food decision making.
  • Why I am a Pegan–or Paleo Vegan–& Why You Should Be Too! by Dr. Mark Hyman— This is SUCH a great article, packed with links to other articles to help understand some of the scientific findings behind why considering food as medicine is so important. I spent a lot of time on his site, reading his articles.
  • How Soy Can Kill You and Save Your Life by Dr. Mark Hyman–a really balanced overview of the claims and data. I choose not to eat much soy, if any at all.
  • Got Proof? Lack of Evidence for Milk’s Benefits by Dr. Mark Hyman–a great synopsis about recent data on dairy consumption. He has several other articles on his site on the topic worth reading.
  • 3 Important Reasons to Give Up Gluten if You Have an Autoimmune Disease by Amy Myers— A great overview. Dr. Myers has so much great information on her website. I gathered a LOT of my information from her thorough explanations.
  • 4 Steps to Recover from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Dr. Amy Myers–I like how this article is organized. She is all about autoimmune disease and gut health, and how to fix them both!
  • Calcium, Vitamin D & the Milk Myth by Dr. Christine Maren–Christine is one of my dear friends, and THE person who I credit for all of my dietary changes. She shares the most informative articles on her Facebook feed and her blog has taught me so much about all the things I care about, nutritionally. She also has a passion for childhood nutrition, which is a major bonus for us health nut moms!!
  • Wheat and Endometriosis–A super fascinating spinoff hypothesis for those of us who deal with monthly flaring of Endo symptoms. My experience below!

So…NOW WHAT. WTF do I eat?! Is that what you are thinking? Because that is pretty much how I felt. I shouldn’t eat bread and pasta and crackers or peanut butter and milk and cheese and yogurt and and and…the list seemed to go on. Um. That’s mostly, with some added meat/vegetables, all I ate. So whaaaaaat do I do?

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There was a quote in one of the food documentaries that I watched that encouraged people to make food changes with this mindset: “Instead of focusing on what you are cutting out, just focus on the really amazing things that you are adding in.” Then it went on to say that eventually you’d grow to like the new, healthier things so much that they would naturally take the place of the junk, and you wouldn’t even want it anymore.

& I believe that to be absolutely true, based on my experience.

The very first thing I did after I decided that I was going to make the big lifestyle change, was get two new cookbooks. For the first month, I ditched every single recipe in my evernote folder and ONLY cooked out of:

What this did was introduce me to absolutely delicious new foods, and in the process, cut out all dairy, gluten and sugar, because the recipes I was using were all “safe” and free from the ingredients I was trying to avoid. These two books also walked me through new ingredients to me–like coconut sugar, arrowroot powder and coconut aminos. Danielle Walker is a gifted chef, educator and photographer, so while the books are filled with BEAUTIFUL & inspiring images, They are also full of really helpful explanations of all the “new foods” that replace the old staples. My daily menu looked a little like this: Eggs for breakfast, leftovers or a meat + vegetable for lunch, dinner was a new recipe from the book.

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I gutted my fridge and pantry and sought to only buy “compliant” foods. This was going to be a huge experiment and I didn’t want to derail my results by accidentally eating something that included the ingredients I didn’t want to have anymore. I snacked on GF crackers and avocado. I carried nuts everywhere I went. I started forcing my body to live off of healthy fats, instead of so many grains.

A HUGE change for me was when I ditched my 2x/day lattes and forced myself to drink my coffee black, with a tiny splash of cream to start. Eventually I weaned off coffee completely, but I decided that I do just really, really love coffee. So once I didn’t need it anymore, I added it in a tiny bit at a time to get to a comfortable amount, daily. It’s always been my vice, but this was a cleaner version. Philz Silken Splendor, black, is my favorite!

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Over time I have added in recipes from trusted blogs like:

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Well. A lot happened. & it’s really, really wonderful to be on the other side of this lifestyle experiment. A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with Celiac Disease and she was devastated. I swore to her, up and down, that once she gets through the really hard couple of weeks of eliminating all the gluten, and emotionally accepting the fact that all those foods associated with holidays and big events are no longer part of her life, that she would not want any of the foods that trigger her symptoms because she would feel so good. I so strongly believe this to be true. I do not, for a second, miss the bread and pasta and milk that I used to consume, ever. It plain and simply, made me feel like shit. & I didn’t know I could fix it until I did. I have undergone testing, and while I do not have Celiac Disease, there is no doubt that I have a sensitivity to Gluten. & once you start really learning about what it does to the body, I think it would be safe to say it would be a good thing for most people to avoid it in its current state.

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As far as specific changes I have seen:

  • Brain Fog– mine disappeared. Like, I could finally think clearly all day. That was a VERY real symptom for me and was very present in the hour or two after I ate or drank a latte. Wheat Belly explains this phenomenon (lack of blood sugar stabilization, is the short answer). There is even a book, that I have yet to read, called Grain Brain. I am SO glad it’s gone–and is one of the first symptoms that returns if I consume something with wheat in it now.
  • Bloating–every night before I went to bed I used to look at my distended belly and wonder where the flat one I had in the morning had gone. Well. That problem is certainly not a problem anymore. Cutting gluten has resulted in pretty much no more bloating for me–all day long!
  • No Food Cravings-Since I don’t have the glycemic swings that I used to, I don’t crave much. Certainly not sweets. I will say, that I do sometimes crave vegetables though! That’s a new one.
  • Stable weight & endurance-I never started this to lose weight. I am at a good place in that department, and I exercise regularly. I used to run out of steam during my workouts and I have found that my endurance has improved since the change in nutrition. I don’t count calories and I don’t really measure portions. I eat what I eat, move a lot and everything stays pretty much the same, except I keep getting stronger. :)
  • Endometriosis-This was a shocker for me & something I didn’t read about until I was several months into this lifestyle change and noticed a marked reduction in my monthly Endometriosis symptoms. The cramping wasn’t as bad and my periods lightened up a bit. It was awesome. Since I gave up Gluten and most Dairy at the same time, I am not sure which to attribute the changes to, but I don’t want to go back to the other side!! It’s certainly worth an experiment if you suffer from the monthly endo pain that just plain sucks.
  • Tastebuds-Mine have changed. Big time. Some of the things I used to enjoy, I just don’t anymore. There isn’t a drink at Starbucks, even the coconut milk version, that I enjoy. I can taste the wheat in things that used to taste good to me if I choose to have a bite here and there. Even some fruit is too sweet for me these days. It just proved to me how much our bodies adapt to what we feed them. When sweet potatoes are enough, sugar that is often loaded on top, tastes awful. I really believe we can teach our bodies to love food in its natural state–we’ve just been consuming it in certain ways for so long that those ways, sweetened and artificially flavored, become the norm. But they don’t have to be!

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I like to call the way I run my kitchen “Paleo-ish” for a specific reason. Strict rules are hard to follow. I like some things in moderation. & my whole family is from Wisconsin…which means that I really happen to like cheese. &…we like the occasional ice cream or donut date as a family. So I have added back in foods here and there to balance it all out so it doesn’t feel so rigid. I do my best to not eat gluten and I don’t drink milk, but we have balance. Sometimes, I’ll have a little bite of something that breaks all the rules. My kids still eat whole grain crackers & bread. My husband still insists on having real milk in his hot cocoa, despite my claims that cashew milk tastes just as good. & we still use a little organic raw sugar in our favorite cookies. But mostly, we eat really, really healthy. Do my kids always love it? No. But I make them take a “no thank you bite” so maybe, a little at a time, they can learn to love the things I do.

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One of my favorite reads, recommended by my sister in law Kim (who also happens to have a business that helps overwhelmed women create a new normal & transform their lives through simple food & lifestyle changes,) is The Plantpower Way. They have a really gentle approach to nutrition that celebrates real food in a beautiful way. & what I really appreciate is the encouragement of balance. I don’t think anyone can argue that our goal should be to add as many plants as we can to our diet. That seems like a no brainer. My family adds meats and nuts and seeds, too. & sometimes, cheese. & occasionally ice cream and donuts. I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture of our life. But we do our best, and learn as much as we can, and make the choices we do with the knowledge we believe to be true and valuable.

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As we start to see powerhouse medical programs like The Cleveland Clinic roll out new ventures like The Center for Functional Medicine, I think there’s going to be more focus on preventative care that includes nutrition as a core element of treatment for disease. My husband, who is a cardiac surgeon, sees the debilitating effects of heart disease on a daily basis. He often shares his frustration about the lack of heart disease prevention resources/education & desire for patients to take their health seriously. The gap between doctors and food seems to finally be getting some attention as we see more Integrative and Functional Medicine physicians seek certification and produce data to help those of us who really care about using food as medicine to prevent whatever we can. But it does take discipline and a lot of effort, in a world that often makes it really, really hard to eat good food.

So that’s when I rely on my favorite Maya Angelou quote to sum it all up:

Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, DO better.

Do you have a favorite Paleo/Vegan/GF recipe?? Let’s get a thread going! I’d love some new meal inspiration! :)


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  • Leigh K - So great to hear such a success story. My husband and I have read Eat To Live after it was recommended by his cardiologist. We’ve had 2 false starts with switching our eating habits- I bookmarked some of your links to check out. It really is a large commitment and shift in food thinking and I just haven’t figured out how to do it for weeknight meals with 2 little kids.ReplyCancel

  • Jenn - Thank you so much for sharing your experience with this! I did a whole 30 earlier this year and loved it, but had a really hard time making a moderate transition back into “normal” eating- for me, it’s a slippery slope once I start adding sugars back in. That being said, you certainly can’t argue the benefits of alleviating them. Given that you’ve been doing this for a while now, can I ask if/how it affected your grocery budget? Do you find it grew significantly?ReplyCancel

  • Marci - Hi Shawna! I’ve never commented on your blog but wanted to say I love to see that you are back, and love love that you wrote this! We have, in the last year, started eating Paleo-ish and I want to shout it from the rooftops- I won’t ever go back. As a mom of three little kids, it is essential that I have a lot of energy, and this way of living/eating gives me that. I agree with every single thing you say above- I absolutely adore Against all grain- her cookbooks are the best cookbooks I have ever used and so flavorful and diverse. Anyways, I loved seeing that you have found this way of living too!ReplyCancel

  • -shawna- - Jenn, I think that if I look at the big picture, we are coming out even. Eating this way means that I don’t buy much in packages–I buy local, sustainable, organic meats/fruits/veggies when possible. So while that can feel expensive, I am truly not that hungry or craving the junk that eats your budget. We also hardly ever eat out–because I really don’t care for most of the offerings at a restaurant. I can make it better & cheaper myself. We may eat out once a month, maybe, so that is also huge. I no longer spend any money at starbucks, so I get that back in the budget, too. No “treats” when I am out and hungry. My groceries are pretty much my entire food expense–nothing in a restaurant. & when you look at overall health costs–I swear real food consumption keeps you out of the doctor’s office. :)ReplyCancel

  • Lea - I’ve been waiting for this post and loved reading it. Thank you for the lengthy post and all the information you provided. I, also use the same cookbooks that you have mentioned, but not exclusively at this time.

    We love this soup, my 2.5 yr old loves it too.

  • Kris - Hi Shawna,

    I feel compelled to tell you the books and sources you are relying on for your information is poor, profit driven, and contradictory to science. Feel free to email me if you want more information, but here is a link to get you started:

    I have no problem if people want to go Paleo/Gluten free simply because they enjoy the recipes. But the health benefits to these diets are no more than any healthy, well rounded diet unless you have Celiacs or true food allergies to the removed foods. In fact, if you don’t have a medical necessity to removing specific foods but you go ahead and avoid them because it’s a fad, your body can become intolerant of them down the road when you realize you want to reintroduce them. People mistake these reactions as their “proof” they have some sort of intolerance, but they are, in fact, typical. For example, science has shown there is no such thing as gluten intolerance. You either have a true allergy, Celiacs, or no reaction. And if you take anything out of your body long enough, you need time to get it acclimated again once it is reintroduced.

    My advice is to look beyond the people selling books (since they have an ulterior motive) and dig into the actual research with the real experts (such as contacts from a food science program at a research university).

    Good luck,

    • -shawna- - Kris, I hesitate to publish your comment because I am very sensitive to the tone of my blog, and that includes the comment section. Anyone who speaks in absolutes rubs me the wrong way, your comment included. I am publishing it because I think it warrants a discussion. As I said, I am not an expert and I have chosen to follow science that I believe to be valid and trustworthy. I am not sure what your credentials are that lead you to be so strong in your conviction, maybe you can elaborate? I called upon Dr. Maren, a practicing Functional Medicine Physician who is dedicating her life to this data, to take a look at what you shared. You can read what she has to say below. Books with this data are often the only reason we (the general public) learn anything about it. So to exclude anything in a book, because it earns someone a paycheck, doesn’t sit well with me. Researchers can certainly hold bias and work with ulterior motives, too. It’s hard to ever know who to trust, but we do the best we can. I wish you the best in your fact finding mission, and will close this discussion by respectfully disagreeing with you.ReplyCancel

  • Emily W. - Wow, we’ve been on similar journeys for very different reasons. I had complications after delivering our second child this summer, which western medicine completely failed to treat. Eastern medicine, though, with an emphasis on diet has really helped.

    To Shawna’s point, making changes this big require commitment and it’s easier to dig in and make the commitment when you know things cannot go on as they are for one more moment. It doesn’t work as well if you only kinda want it.

    Nicely done, Shawna! The one thing I’ll add to your list is the Vitamix. We purchased one and really enjoy it. We also really love the huge cookbook that came with it.ReplyCancel

  • Lindsay - Thank you for writing this!! I just recently went through blood work and tested for having a severe wheat intolerance. It’s changing the way I eat now and forever. I’ve dabbled with whole30 before but am not as strict anymore. I can’t wait to read wheat belly and grain brain. For now I’m still eating quinoa and brown rice since I don’t have an intolerance to that, but can’t wait to get rid of that too. Besides crackers, what snacks do you feed your babes for a normal week? I feel like I keep throwing them Annie’s crackers like I’m doing them a solid but yet I still know better and that I can do better. This article couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you once again for your inspiring post :)ReplyCancel

  • Brooke - I am so pumped up by this. I’m in a huge slump… Life….work… Family… It’s all so overwhelming right now and I have a feeling it’s mostly because I’m not taking care of myself and my health. Eating like crap… No time to exercise. Too much going on. Thanks for the insights and encouragement. Love your thoughtful approach to life!ReplyCancel

  • Christine Maren - Shawna, first of all… so glad you are back to blogging! You are an honest and talented mommy, writer, creative, cook, etc… and thank you for the mention! I love that we can learn from each other.

    I can’t help but respond to the comment from Kris. Unfortunately, food allergies and sensitivities are more common than ever. There is no definitive evidence as to why (plenty of theory, though), but there is no question that they are more prevalent. There is CDC data on this, but I think it’s pretty obvious (formal data or not)… you can’t even send your kid to school w a peanut butter sandwich anymore.

    Gluten sensitivity – whether that is celiac or non celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) – is very real. Like food allergies, it is not a fad. There has been a distinct change in our immune system and the way we are reacting to otherwise benign substances.

    Your reader says “science has shown there is no such thing as gluten intolerance. You either have a true allergy, Celiacs, or no reaction.” That is, in fact, totally untrue. Celiac is an autoimmune reaction. NCGS is not. The umbrella term is now gluten related disorders. There is a lot of literature on this. The scientist Alesio Fassano has done a lot of research in this area!po=0.510204

    All of that being said, a lot of people benefit from a Paleo style diet because it eliminates some common allergens – like dairy and wheat – which, along with sugar, can be very inflammatory to the many people who are sensitive. There is no one right diet for everyone, and I don’t think that *everyone* should avoid gluten. But there are A LOT of people who should (especially if they have an autoimmune disease).

    Thanks again!ReplyCancel

  • Kelly - For those readers out there who are looking for answers give this a try and don’t feel better there could be another reason. Gluten and dairy aren’t always the answer. I suffered for over a year unable to recover from the norovirus. It was debilitating and let a whole lot of anxiety into my brain. After western medicine had told me that “this was my new normal” I switched to a naturopath. Although I was eating mostly paleo, 100% dairy free I couldn’t kick the symptoms. An intolerance test with the naturopath revealed that my body couldn’t digest eggs. So the paleo breakfast I was eating every single day was damaging my body. It took a couple months of a 100% egg free diet for the symptoms of inflammation to subside. Today I feel as if I were in your shoes. So to the readers out there who don’t find help with the paleo/gluten fee lifestyle I urge you to get tested.ReplyCancel

  • Lisa - I’m glad this lifestyle is working well for you. I tried it at the beginning of the year and while I did feel good while on it, it became too restrictive for me, and the moment I ate sugar or wheat as a very occasional treat, it took me a week to get back on track.

    One thing to be careful about is the term “gluten free”. When eating crackers, etc. that are gluten free, the substitute they use for wheat in these are often times worse than wheat and can spike your blood sugar higher than actual sugar. This is something Dr. Davis talks about in Wheat Belly. “Gluten Free” is such a fad these days and people think that eating gluten free cracker, pretzels, cakes, etc is ok when it is not and unless they have celiac, eating the original version is actually better. You talked a lot about “gluten free”, so I didn’t want people to think that it is ok to eat any kind of gluten free product.

    Your quote from Maya Angelou is one of my favorites, among others of hers. If only it were that easy when it comes to food (coming from someone who has struggled with her weight and relationship with food since I was a pre-teen).ReplyCancel

  • Caroline’s Big Girl Rainbow Room » styleberry BLOG - […] to just that. My creativity was never dormant. It was still alive. I had just used it all to create my Paleo-ish kitchen. Food got all my energy. & back then, that was ok. I had something new to learn about and […]ReplyCancel

  • Kristina - Thanks for the interesting and informative article, I can’t wait to check out the links for more reading! I have been buying spiralized courgette at my local food store but I see you make your own- do you recommend a particular tool? Thanks for your awesome blog and positivity Shawna!!ReplyCancel

  • Kris -

    This is exactly why I don’t get advice from “experts” who don’t do/analyze real research and instead write books for profit.

    I’m an agronomist for a large research university. So maybe my point of view is biased, as I support GMOs because the science supports their safety. And while I don’t have a medical degree, I prefer to get my nutrition advice from true experts who dedicate their lives to research that will better our knowledge of nutrition. I don’t need a for-profit book to find the most scientifically valid information. I go straight to the source – the science. This is just my opinion and I probably won’t change yours. But I decided to give you a different perspective of how I feel about alternative medicine from inside the higher ed research institution system.

    Good luck.ReplyCancel

  • The Best Hot Chocolate | the Dairy Free, Gluten Free, Vitamix kind » styleberry BLOG - […] year, when I made all my big food changes, what I missed the most was a hot creamy beverage. I used to live for lattes. Weaning off them was […]ReplyCancel

  • Amy Renea - Hi Shawna! I have been dabbling in something similar fo the past month or so….mainly following THM (trim, healthy, mama). There is a strong focus on whole foods, no sugar, no wheat (though healthy sprouted carbs, quinoa, etc are used). I have definitely noticed changes and twice when I ate white products, I felt horrible for 24 hours. I was honestly shocked. I don’t think the week or two without white bread would have been enough time to DEVELOP a sensitivity….but there’s definitely was one there. I am looking forward to a doughnut date (in the future), but can honestly say I do not really want candy anymore thanks to some healthy coconut oil “candy” that THM encourages. I never thought I would be able to eat like this and even errand this post when you originally rote thinking there was no way “I” could ever go that far. Now in retrospect, I AM going that far (though I am still including some dairy, such as plain Greek yogurt and cottage cheese). Anyway…would love to hang out with you again someday and chat food!!ReplyCancel

  • Gluten Free Peanut Butter Cup Cookies » styleberry BLOG - […] think this blog was going to turn into JUST renovation stuff, now did you?!!! No way!) With my own Gluten Free restrictions, I have struggled to find edible cookies that don’t break the bank–so I resorted to […]ReplyCancel

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