Monday, May 21, 2012

My Food Journey, Part 1: My Food Manifesto, or Why Paleo Isn't THE Answer

This post could also be called, "Why The Vegan Diet Isn't THE Answer." Or "Why The Raw Food Diet Isn't THE Answer." I could also just call it, "Why You Should Stop Listening to Everyone Else and Start Listening to Yourself." 

A (brief) background for those of you who haven't been reading my blog for a while. Months ago, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's Disease, an autoimmune form of hypothyroid disorder. I self-diagnosed myself with Irritable Bowel Syndrome when I was in high school, due to a constantly painful, bloated stomach and constipation. For years, I struggled with binge eating disorder. Three years ago, I switched to a gluten-free diet, a decision that has forever changed my life in the most amazing ways. Yet despite the positive effects of eating gluten-free, over the last three years, I've struggled with headaches, fatigue, and brain fog, and would have tried ANY diet if only it would help. I went raw, I went vegan, I did an elimination diet, I went sugar-free, low-amine, and more recently, I went paleo. I've considered GAPS, FODMAPs, and more.

Like many of you, I have scoured the web for answers when my doctors couldn't help. I have been so grateful to find blogs like Diet, Dessert and Dogs, Choosing Raw, Simply Sugar & Gluten-Free, and The Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen. Within those pages written by brilliant women, I have found snippets of the answers. But they were only bits and pieces, and I should have taken them as such, rather than thinking I needed to follow someone else's eating plan simply because it worked for that person.

Our bodies are all so unique, and it's taken months of working with a client of mine on weight loss for it to click in my own head. Whenever she is frustrated by seeing thin women eating junk food, I tell her, "Who cares what she's eating? This isn't about her and what she can or can't eat. This is about you. And no one else has your body, with your unique needs. So let's focus on you."

At the same time that I was telling my client this, I was doing the opposite. Three years ago, I tried eating vegan because it worked for someone else, but it didn't feel right to me. Neither did eating raw - I now realize this is partly due to the fact that I can't tolerate most nuts, and so all the nuts I was eating on that diet were contributing to my never ending headache. For five months, I avoided a number of my favorite healthy foods (like avocados and sardines) because they were high in amines. I eventually realized that while many high-amine foods - like tomatoes and bananas - bother me, there are plenty of other healthy high-amine foods I feel great eating. It took me five months to realize this because I'm an all or nothing person. If I'm on a specific eating plan, I follow it perfectly, and don't deviate. I become quite militant about it. If so-and-so says this is the answer, then this is what I'll do.

Which leads me to paleo. I have a love-hate relationship with the paleo diet. Something in it speaks to me and seems so right. Something else seems so wrong. I'm a graduate student in nutrition at Bastyr University, one of the few fully accredited nutrition programs that is considered holistic. We talk GAPS, paleo, and Sally Fallon. But we also talk whole grains, veganism, and staying on top of the most current research. I have written papers and given presentations on the paleo diet, and I can tell you that most of my professors are not fans. However, my own research into the diet has turned up many positive studies. I have seen enough preliminary research to believe that a paleo diet, when done correctly, can be extremely healthy and a good option for many health problems. One point that researchers have mentioned, however, is that these studies are all short-term. We don't yet know what happens when someone follows the paleo diet for years. And I'm not talking about personal case studies. We all know someone who's been on the diet for years and is healthier than ever. I'm talking validated, peer-reviewed research. To that end, the jury is still out. I should also mention that for every study touting the benefits of a paleo diet, there are ten more showing how a vegan diet is good for people. I'm going to say it because I feel it needs to be said. The paleo diet is not THE answer. It's AN answer, for some people. Just like a vegan diet is an answer to others. Just like the gluten-free diet was the answer for me, but isn't for everyone I meet.

Why am I saying this? Because the paleo community can be a bit...well...militant. I used that word to refer to myself earlier, and I'm using it again now even though I know I'm going to bother some people by saying that. But it's not just paleo. The gluten-free community can be that way. So can the vegan community. So can raw foodists. I think there's a tendency to get that way any time you feel that a lifestyle change has helped you. You want everyone around you to feel as good as you do, and so you shout it to the rooftops: Do what I did, and you will be as happy as I am! (When has doing what everyone else does ever made anyone happy?)

When I decided to try the paleo diet, I didn't mention it on the blog. Those of you who are Facebook friends probably knew, but if you were just reading the blog, you would never have known. After all, I was still posting recipes for baked goods, like my Banana Chocolate Chunk Cookies. SO not paleo! The reason I didn't mention it here was because I didn't know if it would last. After my forays into the raw food diet and veganism, I felt it might be better to just keep quiet about this until I was sure. I also didn't feel like explaining how I was still able to post recipes using grains when I wasn't eating them myself (self-restraint, tasting and spitting, roommates who taste test for me, crying, and occasionally giving in).

Despite those occasional late-night Banana Chocolate Chunk Cookie eating fests, I was able to maintain a strictly paleo diet for a few months, and when I decided to go back to eating grains and (some) legumes, I kept equally mum about it. I didn't tell some of my paleo friends for weeks because I was afraid of hearing their judgment. I didn't want to hear how paleo was the only way I was going to get better and that I was hurting myself by eating grains. I also didn't want to explain what had finally started making me feel better, something which was not at all food related. I was so entrenched in the paleo mindset that I felt like eating rice was a guilty sin. It took me some time to come to terms with my own stupidity in blindly following a diet simply because someone said it was the way to go. I wasn't even asking myself what felt right, only doing what I was told. If you want research on why the paleo diet is right, I can find it. If you want research on why the vegan diet is right, I can find that too. But there's no research on what is right for MY body. There's no book I can read to give me the answers. And so I had to listen to someone new for a change: myself.

Here's what I found out:

My body does not like gluten, dairy, eggs, or nuts. It doesn't like tomatoes or bananas. It doesn't like sugar. And frankly, it doesn't really like baked goods, even sugar-free ones. It doesn't like quinoa either. Or most beans. Or cauliflower. Or products containing corn, although local, fresh corn seems to be fine.

You know what my body likes? Gluten-free oats. Rice. Apples. Pears. Grapefruit. Chicken. Fish. Vegetables. Olives. Sardines. Grass-fed beef. Sweet potatoes. Avocados. Garbanzo beans. Peas. And so much more.

Do I follow any particular diet plan now? Aside from gluten-free, not really. I avoid dairy, eggs, nuts and sugar, but I'm not strict about it the way I am about gluten. Do I expect that how I'm eating today will be how I always eat? Nope. I used to eat dairy on a regular basis, and felt great. There was a time when I would never consider eating beef, something that I now eat at least a couple times a month. My diet changes with my life and my needs, and I'm hoping that there will come a time when I can eat many more foods than I do now. Who knows what the future holds. I could end up eating paleo again someday or vegan, or something else completely. I've learned not to be so absolutist with myself.

So here's my food manifesto, and there's only one guideline: Listen to my body, and eat what feels right, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. 

If you want to know the specifics about why I'm no longer eating paleo, what worked for me, what didn't, and what finally turned my health around (it wasn't food), tune in tomorrow for My Food Journey, Part 2: Paleo - The Good, The Bad, and The Downright Strange.


Cara said...

Great post, thank you for your honesty. I feel the same way, that it's important for people to listen to their bodies and not get hung up on certain rules. I am always telling my friends, we are all built a little differently and have different nutritional needs.

I'm kind of an oddball in that I don't believe I have any real sensitivities, but I am fascinated by cooking gluten-free, sugar-free, and dairy-free because I believe certain aspects of those diets are healthier and cleaner, even for those of us who don't react. Trying to explain to people why I create gluten, sugar, and dairy-free baked goods for the blog, while once in a while hitting up the local fro-yo shop with all the toppings can be quite exhausting!

Amber Shea @Almost Vegan said...

I am standing up and applauding right now! I agree with and relate to you in so many ways. This is why I've never given up the "almost" in "almost vegan," even when I eat 100% vegan for months at a time.
Looking forward to part 2.

Nat said...

Great post Iris. I find myself learning all the time what I can & can't handle, & that it doesn't exactly fall into the guidelines of a prescribed 'diet'. I follow mainly paleo, but with some dairy. Cause damnit, I love cheese! But there are times when my body reacts when I indulge too much, so my diet jumps around. I recently had to do a gluten challenge for some tests for celiac disease - I understand what you mean about feeling guilty! That was a strange experience, both emotionally & physically, & I'm still recovering from it. I know now for sure that gluten doesn't agree with me.

Looking forward to your post tomorrow :)

Nat said...

Great post Iris. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for another.

I too continually struggle with what works for my body, what doesn't, & I find that it changes at times. I follow a mainly paleo diet, (after following a vegetarian & low fat diet) but recently had to do a gluten challenge for some tests for celiac disease. I understand what you mean when you talk about guilt! The challenge was a strange experience, both emotionally & physically, & I'm still recovering. I know for certain that gluten is no good for me.

It's easy to follow a prescribed diet, especially if it's presented in a way that seems to deem success. The real challenge is to find a system that works for ones self. I think finding strength to follow your own path with food is needed too. A lot of people inquire as why I eat the way I do, & sometimes I need to justify it. It's interesting how food can be such a sore or fiery subject for some people.

Lalaith said...

Awesome post! Thank you for sharing it with us. :-) I can't begin to agree enough with you about listening to what works for YOU. As a fellow foodie who delved into researching diets because of a health problem, this really hit home. I had a close friend who was militant about vegetarian and even vegan food choices being the answer to my health problems, and it really hurt our friendship because she couldn't "agree to disagree." I researched the heck out of different diets and tried implementing them in various ways, but I too feel the best when I listen to my body instead of other people. I'm looking forward to reading more about your food journey. :-)

Suzanne said...

I can relate to so much of this. I haven't yet figured out what foods I can and can't tolerate yet, but I've been working on testing some foods. I'm taking it slow, but really feel like I need to expand my allowed foods. I'm starting to feel like I'm overly restricted and have been feeling unhappy. It's so tough to figure out what's right and wrong for your own body, it takes time and paying close attention, it sounds like you're doing a great job of that.

I completely agree that Paleo (and other diets) folks can come across as militant and judgmental. That's why I don't really identify myself as Paleo, I just usually say I'm on an elimination diet. That's what I'm viewing it as and hoping I've done enough healing to add some foods back in.

Ricki said...

Iris, I could not agree more! We are all individuals, no two alike, so why would the same diet work for more than one of us (unless you're talking identical twins. . . and even then, probably wouldn't work!). I feel the same way about medical treatments, medications. . . each body needs to discover what works for optimal health, and follow that. (Oh, and thanks for the shout-out!). :D

Tasty Eats At Home said...

Iris. Thank you for posting this. I feel the same way. I have had a tendency to try to figure out why my body still wasn't acting the way it should, and that's why I went dairy-free, then tried ACD, tried low-FODMAPs, most recently tried paleo, and now I'm finding I feel a bit better with a few grains here and there. I too am hesitant to share that on the blog - while I never shouted out that I was following a paleo diet, I mentioned cutting grains here and there. I even tried a week totally raw and vegan. Now, I'm finding that I can bring in a few grains, and also that my body actually does better with less meat. And some organic tofu, even. I agree with you - you should listen to your body and what it needs, and maybe it will be happy with the list of "good" foods you shared now, and maybe it'll need something a bit different next year. It's all good. I'm hoping I can learn to be that in tune with my body - sometimes, I can, and sometimes, I "make" it eat things it just doesn't agree with, even though they're "healthy". XOXO

Rebecca said...

Hi Iris,
Congratulations on this post. It is so truthful. I, too, have found the philosophy of many diets appealing - especially veganism, Paleo, and grain-free - but in practice they haven't worked for me. I need rice and low-fat baked goods to keep my IBS stable, and free-range chicken, fish and a very little red meat for my low energy levels, but sometimes it seems I have to keep learning this over and over again. When I am true to what my body nees, I remain IBS-free and my energy levels go up, and I am freer to be - well - ME! It is hard to keep out the chorus of diet-diehards, but in the end, we all have to find what makes us healthy individually, so that we can live meaningful, healthy lives. Thank you for posting so honestly. I hope it will encourage others to do the same.

Nancy B. said...

I have lupus and sjogren's, two autoimmune diseases. I have worked on diet to reduce inflammation, and I kept it under control with diet alone for 8 years (eliminating gluten, dairy, and soy) before needing to add meds. I hear people stressing over food testing results, but there's really no replacement for removing a food from your diet for a few weeks and seeing how you feel before and after adding it back. I find that, in general, eating more veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds helps me hugely. Beyond that, as long as I stay away from refined sugars and most grains, I can trust my cravings - I eat meat and grains when I feel like I need them. All those diets have some good advice, so I pick what sounds right to me from each of them. Thanks for your eloquent good sense here. Love your blog!

Stephanie said...

Iris-I love you! This is a great post and how I feel almost exactly about "diets". I have a lot of your same loves in my body! I could never do paleo though because I just can't do the large amounts of nuts and meat. I need more balance and less militance. And I have found that so much of my body just needs LESS RULES! I always eat gluten-free like you and stay away from dairy, nuts, soy and sugar almost always. It seems like there is many of us that are like this! Thanks for your wise words and grace! You are a gem! Much love, xoxo, Stephanie

Anonymous said...

Great post!!!!! I have been eating mostly Paleo for awhile and have felt better than ever BUT I have also snuck in definate NON paleo foods to see how I do with no reaction in my body. I know I will never go back to consuming the amount of grains I did before but I also know I will not completely cut them out for good just in moderation. Gluten is a HUGE no no for me and I haven't had it since I discovered it was my problem 2 years ago. Great, Great post, can't wait for the rest of the series.

Alisa said...

Iris, your post couldn't have been more timely for me! I've struggled with the same problems and have even trialed all of the same diets (aside from raw - didn't make it that far!), and none quite clicked. Like gluten for you, dairy is the only thing that I need to strictly avoid, yet I've felt myself tugged in every direction by the militant words of the different diets. None of which seem to be helping - in fact hurting. I'm trying to take a step back now and just listen to my body, but haven't yet managed to fully shut out the external words of what is good and what is bad. I think having a website on food makes it that much harder. I get ridiculed for using this ingredient or that ingredient, and feel pressure to create recipes when I can't even figure out what I should be eating. I'm moving slowly to where you are at, and can't wait to see your second post!

Gigi said...

This is a wonderful post.

When I speak to groups or individuals, and when I post on the site, I always say we are unique and the only thing I can honestly say we ALL need is balance.

Finding that is, again, a unique experience for each one of us.

There is no one-size-fits all eating regime no more than there is a one-size-fits all pair of leggings! ;)

I come to food with a feeling of thanks - thankful I am able to eat and that there are plenty of nourishing, delish foods for me to choose, in spite of being gluten, dairy, soy, and nut free. I come to food with an open mind - trying new foods is one of the best gifts my special diet has given me (besides my health back, of course).

When it comes to others - I meet them where THEY are with no expectation that they should come to where I am. We are all on a journey, but at different, unique points on the path.

I am honored to share this GF "space" with you and your open mind and knowledge.

Glad you're out there, Iris.

Gigi ;)

Jonathan said...

Two birds of a feather are we, Iris. I know we always talk about it, but it's amazing how sometimes the things you write seem to be plucked directly from my brain. The truth will set us free, absolutely. But rather than making the truth something outside ourselves, like a diet, a lifestyle change, an exercise regimen, or another person, we must find that truth within us, by respecting and honoring what *our* unique body wants & needs.

Thank you SO much for sharing, Iris. Big Hug. :)

Eryn @ Pumpkin's Pantry said...

What a great post! I applaud you for penning (or typing :) such a relevant message in today's world of "this diet is right for everybody"ness! I, too, have had a similar experience with thinking our family would go full paleo, but there was still something that didn't sit right with us about going completely that route. So now we have the "Jones family diet" that combines the best for us out of paleo, eating raw, sprouting gf grains, etc.

Anonymous said...

well done! and how!

Anonymous said...

Bravo Iris on another awesome post! Recently I came across a bunch of new allergies, but have been gluten free 2 years because gluten bothers me. When I made a comment regarding gluten being lesser of a priority vs. anaphlatic shock from nuts, a rain fire of judgement and concern came pouring down from me from a gluten free friend. It really upset me, as I clarified I was not celiac. Did she not get the dying part of the equation? I guess you are right, people are stuck in what works for them and wanting others to be helped that they miss the individual part of the equation.

I have been on a search for my sons dietary issues for most of his life. Doctor after doctor has denied anything wrong until he has stopped growing. I think we are close to finding out the nature but we will soon be starting the process of determining individual foods (fun). I say this all the time, your body is your own. You are the only person that has intimate knowledge of it. You have to go by what you feel is right. I applaud you for doing that! I really wish you lived near me, as I am needing a nutritionalist to help in this latest round of no foods and I just don't trust the regular medical community. Much love to you! xoxo

Dawn @ Cuter Than Gluten said...

Best thing I have read on the internet! I was in tears today trying to figure out what more I can do to feel better. I try so hard- eat so "perfect"... and then sort of fall apart. I know some foods that aren't great for me, but I still don't feel quite well.
Thank you for sharing.

Rebecca Magliozzi said...

I love this post. I also have Hashimoto's and go through the same thing! Brain fog, fatigue, headaches, and the mood swings suck! I have discovered a few things that help recently. I hope they can help you as well. Taking CoQ10 for fatigue works pretty well alongside regular vitamins. I also found high dose probiotics like Threelac helps with my continual blahs and depression (it comes back if I don't take it for even a day!). For brain fog, I have had luck with armour thyroid instead of synthroid, and a supplement my son with autism also takes called NeuroImmune Infection Control, by Neurobiologix. It is antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, all natural stuff. After about a week, I noticed thinking seemed much easier and clearer. A trial of low dose naltrexone pretty much cleared up almost all those issues in one shot! I am going back on it as soon as I can afford to get to a naturopath.
Like you, I am GF and often CF and try to eat a whole foods diet. You might also want to avoid anything with added iodine in it or seaweed. It will gradually make your symptoms worse by overstimulating your thyroid gland. Look up Dr. Datis Kharrazian. He is the thyroid/ Hashimotos expert and has written several books you'll want to read.

Carrie said...

THANK YOU!!! I've dealt with these very same issues and I'm still figuring it all out with my own body, but like you I know my body loves rice and oats, and beef, but not so much most beans or nuts... I can relate to this post SO very much and I wrote one similar to it earlier this year, but you stated these thoughts much more eloquently! said...

I LOVE this, not just because it's honest and great, but also because it's so tiring to explain to my friends and to cooks and waiters that I don't have specifically diagnosed needs so much as "Today my body apparently doesn't like these types of things as much as it likes these types of things, and tomorrow it might be different depending on how much of certain things I eat today." I, too, have found that gluten is a strict no-no and all other things are sometimes no-nos, sometimes little bits, and all the time ebbing and flowing. And I had a similar moment of wow-paleo-is-the-best that moved into a into okay-well-it-makes-some-good-points-but-it's-not-sustainable-for-me moment. I'm trying not to explain my diet so much now as I'm just trying to eat what feels and tastes good.


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