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.