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?
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.
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?
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.
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!
Over time I have added in recipes from trusted blogs like:
- Nom Nom Paleo
- Oh She Glows (being careful that Vegan recipes are still gluten free)
- Against All Grain
- Dr. Christine Maren’s Recipes
- & more random recipes on my eat | clean-ish Pinterest Board with our tried & true on my eat | clean-ish winners Pinterest Board
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.
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!
IS IT STILL WORKING?
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.
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.
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! :)