This week-long series isn’t about how I lost nearly 30 pounds in three months, rather this is about a lifetime battle with my body and how I’m finally traveled to a place where I’m settled in my skin and love it, from the inside out. This week, I’ll be sharing highly personal aspects of my life as well as practical tips I’ve learned–all in an effort to inspire you and remind myself that every day requires self-work and self-love. I was going to introduce this series when I hit my goal weight, but that felt pointless, because this is a journey that has no end until the end, and that’s actually really comforting. Shocking for a Type-A control freak like me. In today’s post I talk about the eating habits that got me sick, how eating the wrong foods can damage your body while the right foods have the propensity to nourish it.
I loved carbs. I worshipped at its altar, revered no other gods. In carbs, we trust, was my mantra. For years I baked cookies, loaves, pies, cakes, crumbles, crisps, crusts, and more variations on pasta pesto than I’d thought conceivable. Pasta was my creature comfort for those long nights in the office when the glare of the overhead fluorescents, married with my computer screen, became blinding. Delicate pastries were my salve on the weekends when I spent half of my time thinking about work and the other half, working. When I decided to catalog all the recipes I posted on this space over the years, I was shocked to see that nearly 90% of the recipes contained gluten.
In gluten, I trusted.
For years I was diagnosed as a binge drinker, which is tricky because on the scale from occasional drinker to full-blown alcoholic, I was somewhere in the middle. Binge drinkers are harder to treat because our behavior is sporadic, doesn’t follow a pattern or a defined reward mechanism, but when something happens or nothing happens, there’s a trigger and we drink until black. I was aware of what I was doing the whole time but I couldn’t stop; I just had to have that glass of wine even though I knew it was my ruin. Bad things always happened after the glass of wine I knew I shouldn’t have. I say this because last year something shifted and when I relapsed, after almost seven years of sobriety, I fell into full-blown alcoholic behavior. Drinkers, you know the drill. You’ve got a rotating list of shops from which you purchase because you don’t want the watchful eye seeing how often you come in, how many bottles of wine you buy. The house rules you once had as a binge drinker? Gone. They’re replaced with getting wasted during the day while binge-watching episodes of Homeland. No longer did I care about drinking during the day–I just drank. A LOT. After two months of this, I stopped and haven’t taken a drink in over a year. There was relief in that, though, the certainty that I can longer manage my drink.
When I think about food and addiction, the way I treated wine is not too dissimilar from how I treat carbs. Because, quite bluntly, I will find a way to self-medicate. The discipline now is in the awareness, in the knowledge of all that history, of the do you really want to return to that dark country? Do you remember it? How the pain swallowed you whole?
When I first met my nutritionist, I breezed in with a titanic ego. Waving my food diary, I’d show her just how healthy I’d been eating! Prideful, I wrote down when I had quinoa and kale and a list of other organic foods, and may I spotlight my morning protein smoothie, filled with banana, hemp seeds, peanut butter, rice milk and the like?
The ego makes you blind, my friends, because I was eating as if it were the end of days, rather than nourishing a human being.
On any given day, I consumed copious amounts of gluten at every meal. Barely awake, I tore into a cereal bar and ate another come mid-morning. I overdosed on nuts. Downed sugary rice milk. And that kale? It was more back-up dancer than Beyonce on the plate. And that quinoa? Mixed with cheesy beef that made me violently ill for hours. My food was “organic” but not whole. Consider a typical day: for breakfast I had oatmeal or cereal (gluten, not a ton of protein); snacks were cereal bars or nuts; for lunch I had a cheesy sandwich, pasta or cheesy beef; for dinner: rinse, lather, repeat. My nutritional intake was low and, in retrospect, I can’t imagine eating that much food ever again. Ask anyone who knows me. I used to eat lunch at ELEVEN IN THE MORNING because I was so protein-deficient. All that bread. All that white flour. All that sugar. All of it, converting to sugar.
Since I was always tired, always crashing, I drank an obscene amount of coffee (now, I have one almond milk cappuccino a week, and I’ve gone weeks without coffee at all). And those “nutritional protein and cereal bars”? Read the label. Take the total carbs, minus the dietary fiber and divide that number by four. That’s how many TEASPOONS of sugar you’re digesting in a single serving. All that low-fat food you pride yourself on eating? What do you think they’re adding when they’re deleted the fat? Sugar, fillers, carbs, gluten.
Over a lifetime of eating this way–where my plate was composed of 80% carbs (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes) and the remainder protein and vegetables (I rarely ate anything beyond carrots, spinach and kale)–I developed a host of food sensitivities, saw my insulin levels skyrocket, and my GI tract was in disrepair. At this rate, I was on my way to celiac and diabetes, my doctor said. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, my poor diet was responsible for the following symptons: exhaustion, fatigue, mood swings, unfit sleep (I slept an average of 5-6 hours a night, now I’m at a minimum of 7), bloat, gas, stomach cramping and adominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, foggy brain–many of which are also symptons of gluten intolerance.
A few things, first. There’s a lot of talk vilifying gluten, as it’s become fashionable in some circles to eschew it. Scientists don’t quite understand how a post 1950s consumer can’t seem to tolerate gluten like they used to, and with all the modifications to our food supply and all the chemicals that are so abundant in our food, I’m not entirely shocked that our bodies (and the science of them) haven’t quite caught up to the chemistry. But I’m telling you that this thing with gluten and me (and dairy, too) isn’t some fad or some diet, it was making me sick. Really sick.
Secondly, know there is a definitive difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity. While both exhibit similar symptoms, allergies can be life threatening whereas intolerances can lead to a host of other health-related illness and severe digestive problems over time. My primary care physician tested me for celiac as well as conducted genetic tests to see whether I had a disposition to an allergy or a specific disease. The first level of testing relies on simple blood work, but extensive testing, especially for celiac, may require a visit to a gastroenterologist. I also saw an allergist (more on that in another post) who performed skin testing to see if I had any food allergies. I don’t. Separately, my nutritionist had my bloodwork sent to ALCAT for sensitivity testing. The test usually takes two weeks to complete, and it was further delayed because New York State no longer allows for sensitivity testing so my blood had to be courried to New Jersey. Seriously. All of this back and forth took a month, and during that time I had one small bowl of cacio e pepe.
And that SHIT CHANGED MY GAME.
The easiest way to detect a food sensitivity is to either get a blood test (recommended) or eliminate specific foods from your diet for a period of time (at least two weeks to as long as six–some call this an “exclusion” or “elimination” diet) and then slowly reintroduce them, one by one, to see if and how your body reacts. While I was waiting for my blood work, I thought, how much harm can one bowl of pasta do? PEOPLE. YOU WOULDN’T EVEN BELIEVE.
Within 48 hours, I developed massive burning, prickly hives on 90% of my body. The scars of which are STILL HEALING. I felt feverish and weak, and when I text’d pictures to my doctor he told me to come in immediately. The reaction was so severe that he put me on a week-long cycle of steroids and antihistamines and I can’t tell you how painful it was and how horribly I reacted to the steroids (I experienced aggression, vomiting, and I almost fainted in my apartment after throwing up in a trashcan at 1:30 in the morning). My nutritionist immediately put me on additional supplements and L-Glutamine to repair my GI tract and leaky gut.
I was incredulous. That little bowl of pasta, that motherfucker, did all that? No, my doctor said. It was an inflammatory response to years of my GI tract serving as a punching bag for the bully otherwise known as gluten. Your GI tract is like the bouncer in a club keeping all the undesirables from entering your bloodstream, and gluten is like a bunch of drunken kids who just want to play Rage Against the Machine and punch people, willy-nilly. So in response, my body went all war metaphor on gluten and dairy–because WE’RE NOT GONNA TAKE IT, ANYMORE!–in an effort to expel the invaders from my system.
Do you know it took two months for the hives to completely disappear, and for the itch to go away? I was the most extreme case my doctor and nutritionist had ever seen, and every time I unknowingly consume any of the litany of foods of which I’m sensitive, I start to itch. For the next seven months, I can’t have gluten, dairy and yeast, and for another 4-5 months I can’t have many of the foods you see below under the columns “Severe” and “Moderate.” I pick my battles and live my life and I’ll have lemons and a vinaigrette (garlic is a false-positive), but even when this time passes and I’m given the green light I can never, ever, eat how I used to again.
Gluten and dairy will be relegated to the “occasion” meal. So instead of having the bagels, croissants, cereal bars, oats, pasta, any kind of dessert that isn’t vegan on the regular, I will have an occasion meal once a week. Pasta becomes a twice a month treat.
At first I had the reaction most addicts have. WHAT? YOU’RE TELLING ME THAT I HAVE TO ABSTAIN FROM/MODERATE/NOT BINGE ON/OR ABUSE X FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE? SURELY, YOU JEST. However, after living without these foods and enjoying a diverse diet rich in nutrients, textures, tastes and flavors, I actually don’t mind it. I kind of like the idea of enjoying a great bowl of homemade pasta with pesto in a restaurant instead of hoovering a third of a box in my home. Because right now I feel so good, so healthy, that I don’t want that itch, that ache, that sickness.
I don’t mind a life that doesn’t depend on gluten or dairy to exist. It feels good to lay down my armor for I no longer fear food. This isn’t a diet, a juice cleanse (STOP WITH THE BULLSHIT CLEANSES ALREADY; THEY’RE CLEANING NOTHING!!!)–it’s the way I have to live my life and once I accepted that, I was golden.
Since I’m a Type A control freak, I needed books, films, websites that educated me about my body and food production in the U.S. These resources kept me sane, even on the days when I wanted to scream into pillows.
Next Up: How I eat now. You’ll see my food diaries, sample recipes, and tips on eating out without tearing your hair out. I’ll also talk a little bit about my workouts and how I stay fit + balanced.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on TV. This post is meant as a means to inspire, not directly emulate. I’m sharing my specific food journey and interaction with experienced medical professionals who know my medical history. Don’t self-diagnose or play doctor with WebMD. If you think you may have allergies or intolerances, please consult with your doctor.