I don’t really remember when it started, but I remember everything I did to try to fix it; the dozens of doctor appointments, the daily pills, and even the time I was put under anesthesia and had a camera stuck down my throat and into my stomach. I remember the gastrointestinal specialist who looked me square in my 22 year old face and told me that the only place he’d seen acid reflux as bad as mine was on overweight, middle aged men. He then told me I was a perfect candidate for esophageal surgery, and that that was likely my only hope to fix the constant pain of my severe GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
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Heartburn and GERD were things I had been dealing with for years. Almost 10 years, to be exact. I saw all the doctors, avoided acids and citrus and tomatoes, and was on a solid regiment of 2 Prilosec per day, for almost a decade.
Fast forward to 2012, a few months after I had started CrossFit. I found a Groupon on a whim and decided to give CrossFit a try, as I was decidedly in “get my shit together” mode and it seemed like my style of workout. After totally drinking the Kool-Aid, seeing myself lose a bunch of weight, gain new muscle, make huge improvements and strides and PR’s for several months, and even quit smoking in an effort to be better and healthier, after about a year, progress sort of plateaued— as it does. The time had come to take a look at my nutrition.
I gave it a shot, even though I didn't know what could possibly change, because I was already doing everything “right”. I was eating a low fat, near vegetarian diet with lots of whole grains, after all. I decided to hire a professional to help me dig to the bottom of why I had stopped losing weight and getting better in the gym.
My health coach (as some of you OG She Thrives readers will know as Morgan), introduced me to the Paleo lifestyle, and I could not believe what I was seeing. You mean I get to eat butter, bacon (and bacon fat!), and all the things I’ve been trying so hard to limit my entire life?! Not only do I get to eat it, but it’s actually GOOD for me?!
It was a revelation. A fucking delicious revelation. I was obviously really into it.
I stepped up my sourcing game and started eating meat again; meats had to be pasture raised or grass fed; I started taking a probiotic and ate things like sauerkraut; I started eating nutrient dense carbs like sweet potatoes and squash instead of rice and pasta.
But what I thought was most interesting of all, was not quite the deliciousness that I was adding IN to my diet, but the things that I was taking OUT.
I cleaned out my pantry and threw out every bag of baking sugar and flour, all the oatmeal, the granola bars and Kashi cereals. I tossed the Diet Coke, the boxes of pasta, the cans of beans, the tortilla chips. I threw out the bags of edamame and bottles of soy sauce.
I stopped eating all grains and legumes and soy; I stopped eating dairy; I developed a very discerning eye on the very few remaining processed foods left in my kitchen and only the “clean” ones stayed; I cut way back on alcohol to almost none; added sugars only appeared in my diet in a few places, and only if they were natural or naturally occurring. I completely stopped consuming any form of industrial oils, and tossed every bottle of canola oil or vegetable oil based products in my home.
And things changed. BIG things changed. I was feeling more full and satisfied after every meal. My energy skyrocketed and I started to see and feel it in the gym. I was leaning out again. And most shocking of all, my heartburn completely ceased to exist. It was just— gone. Done. Over. Not a thing. I had finally cured the core issue: a leaky gut and low stomach acid (yeah, that's right). I threw my remaining Prilosec in the trash and haven’t looked back in over 4 years.
Note: If you're interested in how mainstream science has it backwards when it comes to heartburn/GERD, and how to TRULY fix the issue instead of applying a band-aid, read this ebook from Chris Kresser.
I also realized that I was highly sensitive to gluten, and developed atrocious bloating, digestive issues and abdominal discomfort after even a bite, and I couldn’t believe I had been eating gluten almost every day of my entire life.
In fact, I shuddered to think what I had been putting my body through all those years without ever realizing it. Without so much as even questioning it! It was startling, scary, and truly life changing.
Seeing and feeling the benefits of this way of eating threw me into total fascination, and I embarked on a journey to learn every last thing I could about the Standard American Diet, the flaws in mainstream nutrition science, and how this alternative approach could change millions of lives-- and especially the entire autoimmune illness industry. I pored over articles and studies and books, and soaked it all up.
Fun Fact: This is the start of how this blog was born!
After about a year of living decidedly “paleo”, I was sold on its benefits and was profoundly grateful for finding it and allowing it to change my life in only the best ways. Eventually, though, I found myself reaching for a handful of tortilla chips here, or a sprinkling of cheese there, or a bowl of popcorn, or even a rogue processed food, like frozen meatballs or a protein bar.
I realized that I could eat these things without a negative reaction, and my body and mind handled them just fine. (Not gluten though— that one was out for good). I also realized that a different macro ratio, namely, going a lower fat and higher carb than the "paleo purists" recommend, worked best for my body.
But what I also realized was that I was eating under a label. I was in a category, following a protocol, where there were rules, and where you could do it wrong (“that’s not paleo”). I realized that I could take the valuable lessons I learned and the knowledge I gained (not only about nutrition science at large but about my own body), and using that to forge my own, more inclusive diet.
I will also say that it's widely understood in the paleo community that "paleo" is merely a template, for you to be able to build on to create your own specific plan, but:
LET ME EXPLAIN
I still steer clear of industrial oils, but don’t panic when I see canola oil on an ingredient list— I just don’t eat that thing so often, and I buy mayos made from avocado oils instead. I don’t believe sugar (refined or otherwise) is the devil incarnate, but I personally don’t eat a lot of it (some days are better than others), and I think the SAD does include much too much for most people. I find that adding grains like corn and rice to my day make me feel great, but I still steer clear of gluten and quinoa, because those make me feel terrible. I still don’t eat soy in my own home, but will definitely hit up the edamame plate when we go out for sushi (though I dip the sushi in GF tamari). I still am watchful of ingredient lists but have removed the word “clean” from my food vocabulary.
I also learned that well sourced meat is always important, that saturated fat is nothing to fear, and that I can absolutely live without some of the things I thought I couldn't live without.
I still eat with my gut health in mind, but don’t fret if I don’t do it perfectly.
And that there is the key word: Perfect. When you are eating a way that involves rules, right and wrong, and in or out, you're hoping to follow some idea of perfectionism, and you are ultimately setting yourself up for failure.
I cannot stress how valuable this template was for me and my life, and how it is the FIRST thing I recommend (or doing a whole30, same same), to anyone beginning (or is lost on) their health journey, and is also a super smart “reset”, if needed. I think eliminating the junk and the noise, allowing your body to heal itself from the inside out, and creating the ability to actually HEAR your body when it says it doesn't like something, is something everyone should do at least once. (How would I have ever known about my reaction to gluten if I didn't stop it entirely?) And I think questioning mainstream nutrition science is a good thing— a really good thing.
But I also think that unless you have a specific health condition that requires you to follow the protocol to a T, it’s not a way you’ll eat for the rest of your life.
And that’s ok.
Your happy place with your diet should fall in territory that doesn’t make you feel restricted or deprived; that doesn’t make you feel like you can do it right or wrong; like you are or aren't following the rules; it shouldn’t put you in a box or give you a label.
After a while of explaining my diet as “a loose interpretation of the paleo template”, I decided to distance myself from the word altogether. The way I eat is mine and mine alone (and the same can be said for you), and I don’t need anyone telling me I’m doing it right or wrong.
And yes, between the Standard American Diet and the Paleo Diet, my diet definitely falls much closer to paleo— that’s for sure. But maybe it’s my rebel tendencies, but I just don’t like a label on there, and I think you’d be much more likely to find your own happy balance with food if you did the same: ditch the label, the right and wrong, the good and bad.
Yes, paleo changed my life, and yes I would absolutely recommended it without a shadow of a doubt to anyone who needs a place to start in their health journey, or who is suffering from ailments that are likely caused or worsened by certain foods (like heartburn, or migraines, or joint pain or digestive issues, or acne or eczema, to name a few). If you’re on the fence about trying it, my recommendation would still be YES. It yields such valuable information about your body that you might not ever learn otherwise. How are you supposed to find your ideal diet if you don’t have that knowledge?
And that's precisely the goal: finding your own body's ideal diet. The one that makes it feel the most vibrant, the one that allows your mind to settle in to a good place, the one that keeps you feeling strong, and well fed and happy.
But I would be remiss to recommend it (or anything!) as a permanent fixture, as the only way, or as the right way. The diet that’s right for you is one that is unique to you and you only, and it probably won’t be able to fit into a neat little box.
If you are looking for help finding YOUR body's ideal diet, that doesn't involve rules or right and wrong, I am currently developing a program that will be released in the next month or two that you might be interested in!
I will teach you how to find the foods that make you feel best, the amounts of those foods that allow you to perform optimally, and also teach you to reframe your mindset so that you can CHOOSE those foods on a consistent basis.
If you ARE looking to try out an anti-inflammatory, gut healing diet or other elimination diet, these resources are my first recommendations.