There is a lot of hype right now about the Paleo diet and eating Grain-Free. In my experience, most people fall into 1 of 2 categories when deciding to make this lifestyle and diet choice: They are either required to do so either short-term or long-term based on a food allergy, sensitivity, intolerance or chronic illness; OR they are doing so for general wellness or as a short term health challenge.
I fall into the former category and it has been quite a process to get where I am today. Despite living a healthy lifestyle for years, including avoiding dairy and processed sugars, and following vegan and vegetarian diets, I experienced chronic gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort, urinary tract infections, Candida imbalance and sinus infections. I also experienced unexplained bouts of depression, anxiety and intense fatigue that were rarely representative of my situation. Medications made things worse or caused side effects and supplements helped, but did not provide substantial relief. My symptoms often stumped my doctors and I realized I needed to look to my lifestyle and diet to heal myself regardless of a diagnosis.
Luckily, in 2012, I was advised by a holistic D.O. to get tested for gluten intolerance and discovered I have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). This changed my world and I quickly turned my lifestyle upside down to suit my new diet. I have always been willing to change my lifestyle drastically if my health or wellness is on the line, so I was all in. In addition, I was highly motivated to make any changes necessary to prevent future illness or disease as earlier that same year I witnessed my Aunt pass away, at an early age, from an advanced Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST).
I quickly researched what I needed at home to cook properly and the healthiest, and trendy, local restaurants that suited my new diet. I found eating gluten-free to be only mildly inconvenient as I was already a self-proclaimed “health nut” and, as I was already avoiding sugar, dairy and most alcohol, I was used to living with food allergies and sensitivities. With the help of online resources, within 3 weeks of my gluten sensitivity diagnosis, I managed to pull off aThanksgiving meal for my husband’s family entirely gluten-free.
Getting Off Grains
I maintained my strict gluten-free diet, and even monitored any possible cross-contamination at restaurants, for 2 years. I experienced significant improvement of all of my symptoms, yet I still was not completely well. At the recommendation of a helpful Traditional Chinese Doctor and Acupuncturist, I had additional tests performed to look for cross-reactivity of gluten, a potential culprit for someone with a gluten sensitivity who is avoiding gluten 100% and still experiencing imbalance.
These tests revealed that my body was still “thinking” it was getting gluten and treating non-gluten proteins found in foods, such as teff, tapioca, amaranth and sesame, as if they contained gluten. My body was creating an auto-immune response any time I was ingesting these foods. As you may know, a gluten-free diet still may consist of a substantial amount of breads, pastas and cereals that use these types of foods. Based on this new information, for the next 6 months I focused on eliminating all grains and reactive foods from my diet. In addition, I decided to eliminate corn and rice from my diet as many people experience cross-reactivity from these, though they did not show up as reactive on my tests. I was not surprised to find that when I ate rice and corn, even in small amounts, I felt bloated and, at times, experienced headaches. Going off of grains was a lot more difficult of a lifestyle choice than being gluten-free, but I felt better right away. The inconvenience I experienced soon paled in comparison to how much better I felt.
Full On Paleo
After 6 months of eating grain-free, I started to get more in touch with my body and what it “should” feel like. I sensed that, though I was on the right track, I still occasionally experienced GI symptoms that did not make sense and were not normal based on my extremely healthy diet. After further research and experimenting with different foods and how I felt, I narrowed down the issue to legumes. Specifically, I eliminated peas, peanut and all beans from my diet. Legumes are often gut irritants, especially for someone who has a history of gut imbalance. Eliminating legumes from my diet further improved my gut health, and though I am not allergic to them, I want to feel balanced in my gut more than I want to eat them. It was around this time that I realized I had slowly transitioned myself to the Paleo diet and that I may be one of the few people who did not intentionally one day say “I’m going to try this Paleo thing.” My diet just ended up fitting the Paleo definition! For the past 5 months I have been living a strict Paleo lifestyle and, though it is a daily journey, I feel better than I have in years.
It’s Not All About Diet
What I have learned is that, though diet and nutrition is very important, it is not the only game in town. I have spent a significant amount of time researching and experimenting with various supplements and nutrients that match my unique body and my dietary lifestyle. I try to keep supplementation to a minimum and rely mostly on real food for my nutrition, but, as someone with anemia and a B-12 deficiency, there are some things that your diet cannot fix on its’ own. This is especially important if your gut imbalance is inhibiting the absorption of the food you eat.
In addition, I have learned that regardless of my diet, if I am extremely stressed and not getting regular exercise, my body does not feel well. I have tried all types of exercise and stress and relaxation techniques and I mix up my routine regularly. I find that exercise makes everything work a bit better and stress and anxiety can cause my gut imbalance almost as much as eating grains does. Yoga, brisk walking, meditation and deep belly breathing can do wonders for your gut.
You are Unique—Learn About Your Body
If you are experiencing symptoms and want to make dietary or lifestyle changes, I recommend that you get as much information about yourself and your current state as you can. Be that through lab tests or by keeping a “food and feeling” journal for 2 weeks to see how foods affect you. Remember that you are unique and every diet should be tailored to you, regardless of what the “rules” are about a specific diet. Even with Paleo, there are some “gray areas,” as some people can tolerate dairy, such as Ghee, and others cannot. Some people can eat grain-free 3 days a week and see enough of a benefit, while others are like me and cannot have one cheat day or they pay for it for weeks. Find out if you are dealing with a food intolerance, sensitivity or allergy, or if you simply need to limit certain foods and vary your routine. The best way to do most of this is through trial and error.
You do not need to go straight to the Paleo diet within a week, or at all potentially. Look realistically at your lifestyle and your present situation. I spent years avoiding dairy, alcohol, caffeine and sugar and I still transitioned to Paleo over a 2 ½ year period of time. Similar to how I view exercise, you want to focus on consistency more than intensity. Decide what changes you can make that will be sustainable for you long-term and then make a goal to keep checking in with yourself to see how you are doing. What works for me may not work for you and what works for me now, may not work for me in a year, as our bodies and environments are continually changing.
For more information on my personal experiences or for help with your diet and lifestyle changes, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.