I’ve felt confused about food my entire life. Every kid goes through a picky phase. Unfortunately, mine extended well into my teens. As a kid my menu was mostly fries, buttered pasta, bread, and peanut butter. I went through a very brief phase of loving bananas, until I ate six in a day and couldn’t even look at them again for a decade. It wasn’t until high school when I traveled around Northern Italy that my deep appreciation of food first piqued. The fact that everything was pasta-based didn’t hurt.
In the interest of full disclosure; I’ve also had a disordered relationship with food and my body for most of my life. Whether that stemmed from, or exacerbated my confusion and interest in food, is a chicken or the egg scenario. Regardless, I put myself on my first diet in middle school, portioning out my peanut butter whole wheat sandwich just so. These controlling habits were exaggerated though the deep insecurities of high school, even continuing a bit into my early twenties, but then thankfully seemed to taper off though remaining in my peripheries.
Just when I had found a somewhat comfortable place with food, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. I was diagnosed with Hypothyroidism at age four, but for the past few years my symptoms had become debilitating and I began to look for answers. I saw a functional doctor and amongst my fistful of new supplements was the encouragement to consider “cleaning up” my diet. In hopes of alleviating some of my symptoms, I gave myself around three months to remove gluten, dairy, soy, refined sugar, caffeine, and alcohol from my diet. For a while I felt amazing, and instead of wallowing in the thoughts of foods I “couldn’t have”, I threw myself into discovering and enjoying this new world of health foods and products. I got all the collagens, adaptogens, mushroom powders, and nut butters you could imagine. The current wave of health food Instagrammer had just started to become popular. It was fun and there was a sense of community in our search for “clean eating”.
Around this time, I had also decided to go off hormonal birth control. A few months later during a trip to LA, my digestion took a serious turn for the worse. I can’t say with certainty that birth control was the cause, however I have read other women’s accounts of a similar experience. It felt like my body was rejecting everything I ate. I was constantly bloated to the point of discomfort, I had uncontrollable cravings, retained water, and rapidly started to gain weight. I felt so at odds with my body during a time when I was doing everything I could to heal it.
I became obsessed with food’s ability to both heal and cause my symptoms. I read every popular diet and wellness book. I tried every diet, elimination, and method I could find; paleo, keto, intermittent fasting, bulletproof, food combining, low FODMAP, AIP, etc. With each iteration, I was convinced I had found the answer to my problems because there was always a doctor or influencer preaching its benefits. Paleo was great because it helped me focus on whole foods rather than food products. Low FODMAP helped relieved my digestive issues, but for me, wasn’t sustainable or addressing the root cause of my symptoms. Keto was the most damaging to my body. After two months of eating as balanced of a keto diet as you can get, organic, grass fed meats, lots of non-starchy vegetables and greens, nuts, seeds, and the oils deemed healthy like coconut, olive, and avocado, I stopped getting my period and knew my body needed carbohydrates to function better. Luckily, throughout these diet experiments I had been getting my blood tested regularly. While I was on keto, my liver enzymes, inflammation markers, and cholesterol sky rocketed and my hormones were still off. During this time, my symptoms had also become unbearable. I was tired all the time and had developed debilitating joint pain. I decided to try the Autoimmune Protocol or AIP, which is an elimination diet developed specifically for people dealing with autoimmunity. While I’ve heard amazing things, I personally didn’t experience a dramatic benefit. However, the focus on nutrient density was incredibly eye opening.
I was so exhausted with eliminating food with no personalized empirical reasoning that I decided to get a food intolerance test called an Alcat test. My personal list of intolerances was a mile long, but once I removed my major offenders like avocado and beef (hello collagen powder in my morning smoothie every day!) I did start to feel better. It turns out a lot of the foods emphasized in these elimination diets were ones I didn’t tolerate well and vice versa. Recently, I realized I couldn’t remember how I used to eat without overthinking. I had stopped hearing what my body was asking for. I had tried to bully and manipulate it into following every diet and wellness trend that popped up. Why was I listening to other people over my own body? A major dilemma I faced was the emphasis on meat and protein in these diets, especially within the autoimmune communities. While I don’t have an issue with ethically raised meat, I just stopped wanting it. Everything I had read insisted upon the importance of meat, but since listening to my body, removing meat and almost anything processed, and adding back in some of the foods I was told to fear like grains, legumes, and fruit, I feel better than I’ve ever felt. My joint pain is completely gone, I have so much energy, my weight has naturally and almost effortlessly balanced out, and I don’t have the same intense cravings I once did. While I can’t say I’ll never have meat again, this feels good right now.
Diet culture has become so complicated and dogmatic. Unfortunately, it has also inextricably linked health, wellness, and weight loss. There are so many opposing viewpoints that if we listened to all of them, there would be nothing left to eat. While there was a lot of trial and error this past year or so, I learned so much about my own body. I also learned that every body is different and has different needs. Different foods do or don’t work for us, maybe even at different times of our lives. The important thing is to educate yourself enough to understand why, without blindly following. Our bodies are so profoundly complicated and food isn’t the only element. Stress, sleep, hormones, and so many other factors play their role, even in our digestion. There is no perfect diet, so flexibility and sustainability is key. Get quiet, be gentle with yourself, listen to the cues your body is giving you, and do your best to understand what they mean.