Sometimes I feel like I’m joining a cult. It started before our trip to Morocco, but Morocco was the tipping point.
When I was 18, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. It’s an autoimmune digestive disease that affects my colon. It’s not fun, but I take my pills every day, and aside from a few bumps in the road, I’ve lived the past 16 years pretty much like anyone else. I’ve heard horror stories of what can happen to people with this disease, but I’ve been lucky, mostly healthy, and I went along thinking I’d be fine as long as I kept taking my medicine.
But last summer I started getting sick here and there simply from what I was eating. Nothing major like what happened to me two years ago, but enough to make me worry. I started doing research to find out what I could do to keep myself healthy, mostly with regard to food. Whenever I’ve asked my doctor (whether here in Germany or my previous doctor in the US) if there are certain foods I should or should not eat, the response has always been along the lines of, “If it bothers you, don’t eat it. If it doesn’t bother you, eat it.” Um, thanks, helpful.
My research taught me that food intolerance isn’t as simple as that. It’s not like having a peanut allergy where you eat peanuts and almost immediately have a strong reaction. Apparently people with colitis, other digestive diseases, and other autoimmune diseases often have trouble digesting gluten. Often they also have trouble with nightshades, which are tomatoes, potatoes (except sweet potatoes), peppers, and eggplant. But if you eat gluten and tomatoes and potatoes all the time, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong.
My friend and fellow travel blogger Heather has been dealing with her own digestive problems, and she told me about something called the GAPS diet that she tried. After reading about it and asking her some questions, I decided it was too extreme for me, at least at the moment, but it started me down a path towards better nutrition understanding. Heather also introduced me to a video series about digestion that ran in November, and I was fascinated.
I learned just how much our bodies are affected by our gut. That digestive problems can greatly affect your mental state and lead to mental disorders. That digestion problems can lead to autoimmune diseases and other ailments you might not associate with digestion at all, like sinus problems. (Light bulbs going off for me left and right, as I have also been suffering with sinus problems since I was about 23 years old.) It all makes sense really. What you eat affects your body and how it functions. I just never realized the full extent of it, or that certain foods I thought were healthy might not be.
When Andy and I got so sick in Morocco and went back to Spain early, I decided to try eliminating gluten from my diet. Within just a few days I felt so much better. I realize this wasn’t an entirely scientific experiment since I simultaneously stopped eating the Moroccan food that was bothering me, but other symptoms I didn’t even realize were symptoms went away as well. I never realized the bloating I feel after eating most meals was not normal.
Eating gluten free is not easy. I’ve slipped up a few times without even thinking about it, and even when I’m making a conscious effort to avoid it, it’s really hard. Like when we stayed in a hotel without breakfast in Córdoba and the only things I could find were pastries and sandwiches. I caved and bought a sandwich, of which I ate all the meat and half the bread. I had a few other foods that weekend that had small amounts of gluten, and I could feel the difference. Ugh. But for the most part, I have avoided gluten since the beginning of December.
As I continued to research this topic, I started seeing a lot of articles and blogs about the Paleo diet. Apparently it has helped tons of people with digestive diseases and other autoimmune diseases to reduce the severity of their disease or even eliminate the disease altogether. According to the hours of reading I’ve done, this idea of eating a low fat, high carb diet has only been around for about 30-40 years, and along with that push came a drastic increase in obesity. And that our bodies were never designed to eat grains, that grains have only been a part of the human diet for about 10,000 years (as opposed to the 140,000 or so years before that when humans did not eat them).
I always thought it sounded crazy because you can’t eat any grains (so no rice, pasta, bread, etc.) and eating tons of meat seemed unhealthy. Well, it turns out it’s not a meat heavy diet, it’s a veggie heavy diet, and the nutrients in the veggies replace the ones you’re not getting from grains. Plus it turns out many grain products are fortified with those nutrients anyway, so they’re not even naturally occurring. And despite cutting out grains, it’s not really a low carb diet. There are plenty of carbs in starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, butternut squash, plantains, and several other things. Plus lots of non-starchy veggies have low amounts of carbs, which add up, and eating a little bit of fruit every day also adds carbs.
my first experience with butternut squash
The Paleo diet has a heavy emphasis on humanely raised animals, animals that are allowed to eat what they would normally eat, animals that aren’t given hormones and antibiotics, and basically eating organic meats and veggies. It’s more expensive, more so than I realized, but it’s worth it to know there aren’t hormones, antibiotics, chemicals, and other bad things in my food that are making me sick. (There’s also an emphasis on organ meats, but I am NOT ready for that yet.) In case you missed the announcement in our newsletter, we’re spending this month in Berlin, and I’m enjoying going to the fresh markets, including one market that sells only organic meats, fruits, and veggies (plus other organic things that include gluten that I’m not buying).
There are a few other things I never realized about the diet until I did this research. Most people on a Paleo diet don’t eat potatoes. It’s not necessarily because they’re high in carbs, it’s that potatoes have a high glycemic load which causes a spike in blood sugar, which can cause inflammation. Most people also don’t eat dairy, mostly because dairy allergies are so common. Like grains, dairy isn’t something humans ate beyond infancy 50,000 years ago.
Bone broth is another thing I learned about recently. Obviously I knew soup was made from bones, but I didn’t know just how powerful and beneficial it is. Bone broth can help heal the gut and it provides so many important nutrients. I’ve only made it a few times, while we were in Sevilla in December, but it was delicious once we got the hang of it.
Then there’s fermented foods. Sounds gross, but they provide so much good bacteria that our bodies need. We actually have more bacterial cells than human cells, and if the ratio of bad to good ones gets out of whack, it can cause all kinds of health problems. Which is basically what happened to me two years ago when I took antibiotics and ended up in the hospital. (Because overuse of antibiotics is also pretty bad.) So I want to start adding fermented foods, like sauerkraut and pickles, to my diet. But homemade, since the store-bought kinds don’t have all that beneficial bacteria. Andy is kind of excited about this part, I think because it feels like a science experiment.
So sometimes I feel like I’m joining a cult by changing to a Paleo lifestyle. But I haven’t felt so strongly about something like this in a while, and everything I’m reading makes so much sense to me. Do I want to give up pasta and pizza? Hell no. But if it makes me healthier, makes me feel better, and reduces my chances of cancer (people with colitis have roughly 10 times higher chances of developing colon cancer) then I have to try it.
Right now I’m working on adding more veggies to my diet. I’ve already eliminated gluten, and I’m close to being ready to eliminate rice and potatoes. I recently made cashew nut butter (because legumes, which includes peanuts and peanut butter, are also not allowed) and learned how to cook butternut squash. I don’t eat much dairy anyway, especially now that I’m not eating cereal anymore, so I’m not too worried about cutting out the little bit of cheddar or feta I eat now and then. One of my biggest hurdles will be cutting out sugar. I don’t eat tons of it, but I get my caffeine from Coke, which means I need to break that addiction. I drink about 250ml (less than a can) a day but I’m still not looking forward to the withdrawal symptoms. And let’s just ignore the box of Girl Scout cookies I just asked my mom to order for me. Hey, normally I get three boxes. Baby steps.
bacon from 100% pasture raised pigs with no preservatives or additives, garlic, red onion, orange pepper, zucchini, and butternut squash, plus some herbs and turmeric
My goal is to have at least one month of strict Paleo at first. There is actually an even stricter version of Paleo designed for autoimmune diseases, and it includes eliminating nightshades, nuts, dairy, eggs, and a few other things, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet. And of course, most of what I read strongly recommends seeking the guidance of a medical professional, which I would love to do as soon as I can figure out the right words in German to find the type of doctor I need for this.
Andy joined me on the gluten free diet in a wonderful show of moral support, which was so helpful when we both went through horrible gluten withdrawal for a few days. Even though he is not a fan of veggies, he’s been great about trying them with me. If they’re well cooked and in with a bunch of other stuff, he can tolerate them a lot better. I don’t expect him to fully follow along with me on all of the Paleo changes, but I’m hoping to find ways for us to both feel good about what we’re eating. And since there is some cheating allowed in the regular Paleo diet (about 3 meals a week seems to be the max) I’d love to be healthy enough for an occasional cheat meal to not bother me.
I’m not turning this into a food and health blog. But it is a blog about me and my adventures. It just so happens that one of the biggest adventures in my life at the moment involves nutrition and food, plus figuring out how to travel while eating this way. I might write about it from time to time and I’ve added a food and nutrition category, but I will still write about travel and expat life. I still have lots to write about Italy and Spain, we have some vague travel ideas for 2015, and we have another exciting announcement coming up soon.
I’m not an expert on any of this, and I’m not giving out medical advice here. I’m just interpreting what I’ve read. In no particular order, here are just a few of the articles I’ve read about the Paleo diet, nightshades, digestion and other autoimmune diseases, the connection between the gut and the mind, and lots of other nutrition info. I highly recommend reading through these if you have digestive problems, mental disorders, or other autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and more.