Good food and healthy living have been important to me since my early teens. My mother wasn’t exactly a whiz in the kitchen (love you, mom!), so at about age 13, I started to teach myself to cook. By the time high school rolled around I was the designated family dinner chef.
Like most people though, it wasn’t my culinary excitement that brought me to the paleo world. It was my chronic digestive problems.
For as long as I can remember, things haven’t moved along properly for me under the hood. IBS, and near constant bloating regardless of what I eat have been normal for me since about age five. Doctor after doctor told me to drink prune juice and take laxatives, but (surprise!) my symptoms followed me into my teenage years. And after a while I just gave up complaining. Maybe I was embarrassed, or maybe it stopped occurring to me to question the norm.
I also suffered from severe food and environmental allergies, dry skin and eczema throughout my childhood. The round-the-clock inflammation in my nose made me a constant mouth breather, and I started popping daily allergy pills when I was in middle school. Some of them were powerful steroids. It never occurred to my parents or my doctors to attribute these symptoms to messed up gut function, but as I’m now learning, perhaps they should have.
Once I moved away to college and began taking more responsibility for my body, I realized that perhaps the bloating I was feeling after meals and my constant — ahem — constipation weren’t normal. Maybe there was something I could do diet-wise that would alleviate my symptoms.
According to the health food bloggers I so greatly admired, a “healthy diet” was one with lots of fiber, few animal products and even less fat. So that’s what I started eating. I eased my way into a whole foods diet, which morphed into vegetarianism and even veganism for a short time. After a few months I thought I’d found what worked for me: a largely vegetarian diet built around lots of fiber, not much fat, whole grains and hardly any animal products.
Soy products became a staple, as did lots of high-fiber, nutrient-poor snacks like cereal, crackers and oatmeal. I ate mountains of brown rice, fields of kale and enough fiber to keep a 75-year-old regular. And for a few months, I felt great. My skin was clear, my digestive woes seemed to be waning and my body felt cleaner. I thought I was doing everything right. But my gut felt otherwise.
Things Turn Sour
Fast-forward a few months and my situation wasn’t as rosy. Some less-than-healthy eating habits had crept into my routine, one of which was constant snacking. I couldn’t help it. It seemed like no matter how big my meals were, I got the munchies just a few hours after eating. (And no, I wasn’t slipping any “special greens” into my smoothies). Though I physically felt full, I rarely felt satisfied.
I was on the infamous “blood sugar roller coaster,” too. I felt myself on the verge of “hanger” far too often, and I’d come to accept my frequent light-headedness as normal. I started to lose weight even though I wasn’t trying.
Even more disappointing was the fact that the bloating I thought my ultra healthy diet was alleviating was actually getting worse. I felt inflamed nearly constantly. Clearly by body was trying to tell me something, but my health food philosophy was so firmly ingrained that I wasn’t listening to what it was saying.
A Natural Solution
The stress of my constant digestive ups and downs started impacting my mood, energy level and self esteem, and it finally became too much to handle. I sought the advice of a wonderful naturopath who, after a few tests, diagnosed me with a digestive disorder called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). (For a great explanation of SIBO and it’s symptoms, check out this post from The Paleo Mom.) She and I decided to treat it with a round of very specialized antibiotics, and though the treatment was pretty awful (we’re talking two weeks of full body inflammation, swollen ankles, extreme bloating, achy joints, lack of appetite, dry mouth, and other yucky stuff) the results were amazing. The daily bloating I had been feeling for years was gone almost immediately. But that was only half the battle.
The next step was to heal the damage in my digestive tract and ensure that the unwanted bacteria wouldn’t creep back in. To do this, I was to remove grains, dairy, soy, sugar and processed foods from my diet. My doctor also put me on an SCD/low-FODMAP protocol, which steered me away from a few other problematic carbohydrates. (FYI, many of the recipes I post will be SCD compliant and low-FODMAP.) It was a shock to the system, in more ways than one.
My New Normal
Food touches our lives in so many ways, and undergoing a complete diet overhaul is a major life upset. It impacts everything from our daily routines, to our dating lives, to our travel and work opportunities.
Going paleo in my early 20s as I wade through so many major life changes (graduating college, moving to a new city, getting a job, paying rent, learning how to use public transportation) hasn’t been easy. To begin with, I’ve suddenly had to accept that virtually everything I thought I knew about healthy eating and living is wrong for my body. Despite my best intentions, I’d been replacing much-needed fat and nutrients with hard-to-digest fiber and nutrient-poor filler foods for quite a while. Those foods were not only failing to feed me, but were throwing my digestive system itself out of whack.
And then there are the tricky practical demands that the paleo lifestyle puts on us. Explaining to my housemates, for example, why I would now be storing chicken carcasses in the freezer and eating grated cauliflower in place of rice was a challenge. They’re understanding, but I can imagine how ridiculous some of this probably seems to them.
The idea of spending 6+ hours in the kitchen each weekend preparing a week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners must sound crazy to anyone who hasn’t tackled an elimination diet before. And in our world of packaged and pre-prepared food, it is! I often have to remind myself that even though the people around me move (and eat) at a different pace, I’m not crazy, and this choice I’ve made is the right one for me.
My social life has obviously changed as well. When I first went paleo, I avoided eating out for at least a few months. Not as a rule, but because it was just easier and more affordable that way. (I’ve since loosened up quite a bit about this, and I hope the Eating Out Guide to Seattle will help other paleo Seattleites do the same!)
Even now though, when outings involve food, I dread having to explain why I’m not eating the same thing as everybody else, and even more, having to ask my hosts to make special accommodations for me. Luckily, my friends have been super understanding of their new Tupperware-toting friend, and I’m learning how to make diet-related conversations more natural.
The First Days
I’ll admit that for those first few days of eating paleo, I felt reeeeally cranky and deprived, not to mention isolated. I had the most intense carb cravings I’d ever felt in my life and nothing seemed to curb them, which makes sense considering well over half of my former diet was made up of gut-scraping grains. But it didn’t take long for my previous diet staples and “favorite foods” to be replaced with paleo-friendly versions. I promise you, even though you may think you can’t live without oatmeal in the morning or a granola bar in the afternoon, you can. And if your body is anything like mine, you’ll feel better for it!
Once I let go of my attachment to my former diet staples and began to truly take stock of the positive changes I was feeling, the sacrifices started to become worth it. Now, I don’t even consider them sacrifices. I no longer have a desire to eat those pre-paleo foods because I know how crappy I feel when I do.
The Good Stuff
In addition to the gut healing and anti-inflammatory benefits of my paleo diet, I’ve noticed a huge improvement in my energy levels, blood sugar regulation and mood. (My mom has noticed these changes in me too, in case that makes you any more convinced.)
“Hanger” is a thing of the past. AND IT’S BEEN LIFE-CHANGING! I’m telling you, I was the queen of hanger. I was known ‘round these parts as the girl who always had snacks in her purse. I literally had anxiety about being away from a food source for too long because I knew how detrimental a blood sugar nosedive could be.
But no more! I no longer come apart at the seams when I haven’t eaten in a few hours. Sure, I feel hungry, but my energy levels are stable enough these days to carry me through many hours without food. (If need be, that is. I don’t make a habit of skipping meals.) It might sound trivial, but this alone has been hugely liberating for me.
It’s hard to explain, but my spirit and general level of happiness have gone up a lot, too. Of course, there are many factors that could influence this (time of year, employment, stress levels, etc.), but I’m certain my diet has played a big role. I can’t quite explain it, but I feel more optimistic, easygoing and light-hearted than I have in recent years. Having a more respectful, intimate relationship with my body has freed up a lot of my energy for more important things.
Oh, and remember that laundry list of allergies I mentioned? Gone. Completely. I haven’t taken a Claritin or touched a steroid cream in a very long time. Again, my diet may not be the only factor at play here, but it certainly hasn’t hurt.
The Primal Paradigm Shift
The journey to health is just that: a journey, something we’ll all be working on and experimenting with as our lives and bodies change. I’m still getting to know my body and learning to draw connections between what I eat and how I feel, but the paleo framework has brought me leaps and bounds closer to understanding what my body needs. Plus, it’s introduced me to a natural, primal lifestyle that’s completely redefined my relationship to my body and to the world around me.
Balancing the influences and necessities of the modern world with the desire to live a lifestyle that’s decidedly un-modern is a big challenge. It’s something I’ll continue to work through, probably for the rest of my life. I hope that by sharing my paleo story and taking you along on my primal journey through this blog, I can encourage and inspire others to give this nutrient-dense, time-honored and natural approach to health a try. Not to mention prove that it can be done by a 20-something on a budget in a big city!
I’m a regular modern cave girl.