So just where do you begin when you decide to revamp your whole life?
People ask me all the time how to begin a diet and lifestyle change, motivated either by medical issues or just a general desire to improve their health. With all the conflicting information out there (how many fad diets have we seen in the ebb and flow?) it can be very difficult to decide which direction to go. With all the available options, how do you know what to throw your time, money and effort into? And when you have specific medical issues it makes the situation even more complicated. I’m not promising all the answers and my speciality is with gastrointestinal and autoimmune disease but hopefully this provides you with a starting point for navigating a new lifestyle change.
Grain-free homemade maple donuts- recipe from Againstallgrain
Step 1: What is motivating your desire to change?
If you simply want to take a healthier step in the right direction and you aren’t experiencing any specific symptoms, I would recommend starting with a Whole 30. (Click on the link for my summary and the specifics). Whole 30 is a program intended to jumpstart you towards cleaner eating for 30 days (you have to stick to the rules!) After the initial round, you can decide if you feel better, need to make any changes, and if this new way of eating can become a consistent part of your life. And let’s be honest, 30 days is not a huge commitment and I promise you’ll feel better because of it.
If you’ve done a Whole 30 or want to move towards a more consistent and/or permanent health lifestyle, I would recommend a Paleo diet which excludes processed foods, refined sugars, grains, and dairy along with a few other no-no’s. Primal is also a good option and it means Paleo plus raw, organic dairy products (because who can live without cheese forever?) and the yes and no’s are similar to Whole 30.
To jump on top of my soap box for a second, I believe everyone should eat a Paleo or Primal diet as a way of life regardless of whether you have a medical issue or not. To those of you who are perfectly healthy: I’m not saying you can’t go out to your favorite Mexican food restaurant and order enchiladas every once in a blue moon. But I believe it’s truly the best way to eat so that your body can function properly and prevent chronic diseases. Try cooking some of the amazing recipes before you judge. Eating Paleo is extremely delicious.
Step 2: You’ve got a diagnosis…now what? Do your research.
If you have a chronic disease or you’re having symptoms, it gets a bit trickier and I hate to say it but you’ll have to experiment. Trial and error is the only way you’ll figure out what works specifically for you AND your needs may change with time. What works for a period of time may suddenly not be enough or you may experience so much healing with a diet that you may be able to add foods back in after time. I’ve followed all of the healing diets at one point or another to help with my disease. (I use the word “diet” to describe a sustainable way of eating, not a temporary attempt at shedding weight or a binge approach. We’re talking health here, not vanity.) Be encouraged that there are a plethora of diet approaches out there that can help ameliorate your issues!
First, consult your healthcare provider. Now I’m a nurse but I can’t talk to every person to determine exactly how you’re feeling or make medical recommendations. I can simply offer my understanding and the expertise I’ve gained over time (and a lot of experimentation!). That being said, I think I can steer you in the right direction. There are certain diet approaches that have been found to help specific diseases so do your research if you have a diagnosis. Unfortunately many mainstream healthcare professionals neglect the diet component of a disease so you may have to sleuth it out yourself (probably why you’re reading this blog). The only reason I even started looking into dietary approaches for healing my UC years ago was because a friend told me about it! Use google as your friend but do it cautiously (and read the rest of this post first to give you some guidance).
There is some good news, especially for those of you short on time or effort. Regardless of your disease, cutting out processed foods and refined sugar helps everyone, even those people who think they’re perfectly fine. So if you want to make a change today, this instant, start with ditching the boxed/bagged/canned/drive-through foods and opt for raw, fresh, organic ingredients and hormone-free meats instead.
Over the past six years since my diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis, a gastrointestinal autoimmune disease, I’ve tried almost every diet approach out there. I’ve been in remission for almost three years now due to a combination of my medications and diet changes. In the beginning I hoped that I could control my disease without making such a drastic change to my life- like changing my diet and learning to cook. But now I’m thankful for all that I’ve learned and even if I didn’t have a medical condition I would still advocate eating Paleo! Go figure.
Italian sausage, spinach and pear pizza on a grain-free, almond flour crust
3. Take the plunge and pick a dietary approach!
I’m going to highlight three major eating strategies out there for disease, specifically autoimmune disease (AI). Here’s the thing about medical conditions: many diseases and disorders have an autoimmune component, even ones that you wouldn’t expect. So even if you don’t have an overt autoimmune reaction or pathology, I would still suggest trying the following approaches. Diseases have a funny way of shifting and changing over time, aka they’re not static.
Some notes on autoimmune disease: every AI disease presents differently. No two people will have exactly the same symptoms on the same timeline that respond to the same treatments. If it worked that way, it would be much easier to diagnose and treat. Autoimmune diseases are often insidious and vague, meaning many people wait a long time for a diagnosis or they develop another autoimmune component later on. Remember what I said about trial and error? It pretty much applies to the rest of your life but I promise once you familiarize yourself with the diet approaches it will get much easier.
I’m not going to go into detail on the three diets because I have separate pages that go into more depth for each one but here are the three I would recommend checking out and starting with:
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet
The Paleo Diet
A note on Autoimmune Paleo: as this is the most restricted of the three diets, most people don’t have to start here and I wouldn’t recommend it unless your provider specifically told you to. It eliminates MANY foods and you may get too discouraged to keep going, especially if this is all new to you. If you find that cutting out certain foods or following a Paleo diet doesn’t eliminate all your symptoms, then take the next step and try the autoimmune protocol. I tried it for a short time to see if I felt any better and when I discovered that I didn’t react to any of the off-limits foods, I went back to regular Paleo and now a primal diet that includes raw organic cheese.
As you investigate each diet, hopefully one will strike you as feasible and you can get started. Check out my resources page for specific books, cookbooks, and blogs.
Raw cocoa butter protein balls from my blog
Step 4: Be prepared to be flexible.
Overhauling your diet is neither a piece of cake, nor is it impossible. YOU CAN DO IT! And you have to start with a mindset of determination but adaptability. Not every recipe will turn out to be a tasty explosion of flavor. In fact, in the beginning, your attempts may be well-intentioned but disastrous and don’t get your feelings hurt if you family turns up their noses to a “healthy” dish. Cooking is an acquired skill for most people but fortunately because it has specific rules and steps, you have a fighting chance at succeeding. Don’t give up on yourself and stick with it. If you don’t go all in, you might surrender because it will be challenging, especially in the beginning.
You have to set aside time and effort to make it happen. Did you hear me? You have to set aside time and effort to make it happen. Unless you have a million dollars and can hire a personal chef to cook you all delectable Paleo meals, you’re going to find yourself in the kitchen trenches with the rest of us as we peel, broil, and sauté our dinners. I can’t reiterate this enough because in our fast-paced world, people just want things to happen immediately and easily. Guess what? Your body is a disaster, messed up from your disease, but there is a way to improve it and it lies in your kitchen. Don’t miss the goodness of this truth: that changing your diet is a needle-free way of healing yourself (hopefully to a great degree). Try to see this new lifestyle change as a fun adventure or hobby that will require more of your time, rather than an arduous task.
Some cooking tips: try batch cooking at the beginning of the week so that you’re not having to invent a new meal every night. Leftovers will be your new best friend. Experiment with a meal plan from a blogger you like or at least plan out your meals ahead of time so you’re not scrambling to the grocery store at the last-minute in a desperate search for something random like coconut aminos (it won’t be so random once you get familiar with Paleo cooking. Aminos are the culinary bomb). Cook with a spouse or child or if you live alone, invite friends over to share in your “fun”. Cooking for one can be very difficult because you end up eating the same thing meal after meal plus you’re stuck with a mountain of dishes to do, which is the last thing you want after you’ve destroyed the kitchen trying to make something edible. Sequester some unknowing help in the form of a friend, turn on some music, and make it fun. Read through the recipe before you make it! Not going to lie, I still fall short on this one and pay for it in the form of eating way too late and doing dishes at 10pm at night, taking out my frustration on the endless tiny pieces of the food processor. Learn from my mistakes; a little amount of preparation will prevent you from ending up with abused kitchen appliances.
Some notes on starting a dietary approach: I won’t sugar-coat it for you. The beginning is the worst. My husband and I had many frustrated evenings as we tried to find something I could tolerate to eat when I first started with the SCD diet. Also, you may experience additional or different symptoms. When you cut out all the carbohydrates or processed foods and eat only clean foods, you may experience a reaction. In other words, it will probably get worse (sometimes much worse) before it gets better. Don’t be alarmed; this is normal. You may experience a “die-off” reaction as the bad bacteria that were thriving in your gut die when you starve them of their food source (carbs, sugar, starches). I experienced this to a horrifying degree with hives over my entire body for five days as the leftover toxins from the dead bacteria came out through my skin (sounds like a horror movie, right?). Hopefully you won’t have to spend a week in bed like I did but I need you to understand how dramatic it CAN be for some people.
A note for cheaters: yes, you know who you are. Let me enlighten you. In the beginning of any of these diets if you are trying to relieve symptoms or help your disease you have to take an oath not to cheat. Because every time you do, with every bite of off-limit food that enters your mouth, you are shooting yourself in the foot. In order to heal, you have to completely abstain from the bad foods and give your body time to recover. I’m not making this up to torcher you; its medical fact. Even one bite can hinder weeks or months of hard-earned progress. It’s all about restoring that healthy bacteria in your gut, or gut balance. So weigh your fork carefully.
A note on timing: everyone is different in the amount of time it takes them to achieve some normalcy depending on your specific disease etc so I can only tell you what I’ve experienced. It took us a full year of eating absolutely nothing bad (no eating out, cooking all our meals) before I started to feel intact again. Prior to starting Paleo, even my super strong medication wasn’t cutting it but after a year on the diet, I was officially in remission and have stayed in remission ever since!
Mint chocolate dairy-free ice cream pies from The Spunky Coconut
5. Give yourself a break.
You aren’t perfect and you will fail. We have all been there and while that’s not an excuse to fall off the wagon completely, we understand. If you’re already sick, you’re probably managing medications and doctors appointments and trying to not get fired from your job. You’re trying to take care of your family and your kids on a minimal energy level. Let me reassure you: it will get better. The LAST thing you need in the midst of all this change is added stress so let yourself off the hook every once and while for annoying social events or working out or cleaning out that brimming closet. Those things can wait, and you need to focus on your priority: healing, so that you can keep taking care of those around you.
Feel free to leave your questions in the comments and I’ll add to this post over time. Also email me if you have a specific question or one you don’t want to share publicly. I hope this helps!