My Evolution into a Health-Conscious (Paleo) Foodie

Fresh assorted vegetables in boxes on farmer's market

My obsession with food started as a teenager. I had busy parents who were never home and who would regularly tell my brother and me to “fend for ourselves” if we were hungry. 

I happily took up the role as house chef and started baking and cooking like my life depended upon it. I would fall asleep surrounded by piles of Cooking Light magazines (ironic, now) and cookbooks that influenced my dreams about the next meals I’d prepare for my family, whether they were home or not to enjoy it. 

My brother served as my personal test kitchen, and I remember with fondness our agreement that I would cook for him as long as he promised to stay in the living room until I was done. I messed up more cheese sauces and pasta dishes than you can imagine, and it was all part of my journey not only as a foodie and chef, but also as an individual capable of teaching herself anything.

Enter college. Somehow I convinced the school to buy my baking supplies so that I could cook for my dorm on a daily basis; but I was poor as dirt. My diet consisted of easily 50% free candy from the various on-campus offices and the Dr. Pepper refills that were part of my meal plan … and I’d finish that off with a bag of gummy worms as I stayed up until 5:30 in the morning finishing a paper. 

Like most Americans, I thought that what I ate didn’t matter.  Calories in and calories out, right? While my weight fluctuated, I was never really FAT, so what was the big deal?

I took a year off from school. I got things in order. Shaped up my appearance. Started taking better care of myself. Stopped eating candy all day long. 

And I thought, during the second semester of my junior year, that I was in the best shape of my life when I ended up in the hospital with a pulmonary embolism that almost killed me. Turns out that 5-7 days of cardio and 3-4 days of weightlifting a week coupled with a whole lotta “heart-healthy whole grains” (think Cliff Bars in between whole wheat and sliced turkey sandwiches hold the cheese) was enough to get my resting pulse down to 45 BPM but wasn’t enough to keep me out of the hospital — or prevent me from developing an autoimmune disease shortly thereafter. 

Suffering from chronic low-grade fevers, debilitating chest, muscle and joint pain, rashes, nausea, digestive problems, and a disturbing memory loss, I saw countless doctors and got little in the way of answers. ‘It’s an autoimmune disease,’ they could tell me — ‘a CTD like Lupus… that might in a couple of years become Lupus… it can take years to diagnose these things.’

Frustrated with the lack of answers and tired of being sick, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Despite being told by every doctor that ‘diet has nothing to do with it’ and that I should in ‘no way change the way I eat,’ I started experimenting with diet. It made sense to me. 

All the pharmaceutical medicines that they wanted to give me were derived from plants and natural compounds and I was supposed to take them orally; why couldn’t eating foods — the right foods — have the same effect?

Long story short, I discovered that diet has everything to do with it. 

It’s been a journey to figure out what foods do and don’t work for me — but through diet changes, I’ve knocked my autoimmune disease into remission.  After trying anti-candida, vegetarianism (didn’t help), Atkins (not enough greens), and odd combinations thereof, I’m getting closer and closer to knowing what works for me.

I know that there is no such thing as a diet that will work for everyone —but I do believe that in order to experience the best possible health, there are certain foods that should probably be avoided (sugar, vegetable and seed oils, and many grains, for instance), and others that should be experimented with (other grains and/or starches and dairy, for instance). 

And when it comes down to it, anyone is much better off eating a good piece of meat paired with some fresh vegetables than they are a hot pocket or other processed junk that likes to pose as food. Just look at the ingredients list. If you can’t pronounce it and don’t know what it is, you probably shouldn’t be eating it.

The way I eat has a name. Some call it the paleolithic diet–others refer to it as primal (if you eat cheese), the caveman diet, or the ancestral health diet.  I think I like the way that Chris Kresser, integrative medicine practitioner describes paleo: it’s a template, not a diet.  Mark Sisson describes it as a lifestyle (outlined in his Primal Blueprint). 

In essence, paleo it’s all about finding a way of eating that works for you and your particular biochemistry. With a little trial and error, or Whole9’s 30-day challenge, you might find that certain foods you’ve been eating don’t agree with you all. I think it’s especially important that sick people explore diet. I’d say that doing so saved my life.

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