I have felt hopeless. Worse, I have felt helpless. And, I have felt hope.
I am follower. A follower of food. I follow food because it is the one tangible thing I can control and get meaningful results. I need some sort of control because, let’s face it, I was (am) a perfectionist. A Type A. And regardless if I have spent the last two years shedding that part of my ego, it is still a part of me. A part of me that I can admit, I can recognize, and I can accept.
As many times as I have sat down to write this, I find myself inserting “my opinion”. And that isn’t right. There is no judgment here. No one can walk in your shoes except for yourself. I am not a doctor, a nutritionist, a scientist. I am however a human, I have a body & mind and I know that when I changed my eating habits, my body & mind changed. I also didn’t set out on this journey alone. I sought the help two different nutritionists, spoke with my doctors, did my own research and read books & articles by experts in this field. And I experimented. Not with supplements, not with products. I experimented with real food.
I can only share what I have done to help myself. If you are identifying with what I am saying, I encourage you to read my story. The reason I am sharing my journey is because I want someone to feel less overwhelmed or spark a trigger for an idea or provide encouragement or a meaningful place to start. You can take charge, just like I did. Even small adjustments will yield big gains.
Food has become my medicine. Food is my medicine because I have nowhere else to turn. There are no medications to help me. To fix “this”. My body, my immune system, is raging on the inside. It is pissed off and it has let me know.
The one fundamental truth is the way that I view food has shifted. You either live to eat or eat to live. I eat to live. It is survival. Food has always been about survival. We need to eat to survive, to nourish our bodies. This is why I am confused that we have taken our food and added chemicals, preservatives, and genetically modified ingredients such that it is no longer real food. The evolution of food has surpassed our human evolution. There is a reason that people feel better when they remove certain foods from their diet. This is not coincidence. Your body is a machine. What you put into your machine directly affects how your machine operates. Fueling your machine cleanly means less maintenance and better output. Growing your roots in clean soil with clean water produces a strong, healthy vibrant plant. I could go on with cheesy metaphors. I won’t. This article is not about getting you to change your mind. This article is about how following food has helped me. Changed me. This is my personal evolution. This is not judgement. A real life account of change. Am I cured? No. But I am better. Healthier to focus specifically on my mobility instead of combatting that and ten other things. I may not be able to walk <yet> but I am not totally in a wheelchair either and I attribute this directly to how I feed my body. Nutrient density. Write it down.
When I was a child, we lived on a small farm with some fruit trees, a sizeable garden and chickens. I would say a decent portion of what I ate was homegrown. But this was also the late 70’s/early 80’s and boxed meals were becoming popular. Save time cooking dinner! Ramen noodles? More please! A vivid memory I carry with me was how one time when we were moving and my parents were painting our new house instead of having the builder do so to save money. The best part? We got to eat Wendy’s for dinner on several nights because the new house didn’t have a functioning kitchen and my parents needed all the hours they could get in the evening to paint. When I was in high school we could go off school grounds for lunch. What is cooler than that at 16 years old? You know what was across the street from the high school? McDonald’s. Wendy’s. Little Caesar’s pizza. All the fried and fake goods. And they all had a $1 menu. I ate fast food as much as possible. It was so good. It was good until I went to college. Add beer to that and poof, there came the good ol’ freshman 15. Despite the way this all sounds, I was interested in exercising. I was a runner. I was also vain so I was running to keep my weight in check and when I realized that eating what I wanted and running wasn’t a great balance I did change my eating habits. Low-fat and no-fat became my middle name. Fruits and veggies, those come in a can right? Fresh food was a bonus. I still needed my shortcuts to get me through my class schedule and studying.
I was young. I was invincible. And I stayed that way until my early 30’s. Russ and I wanted to start a family but had trouble doing so, plus I spent a year figuring out that several temporary health issues were a more serious auto-immune illness. Multiple sclerosis. I was tired. And even after all of this – fertility treatments, the MS diagnosis, fatigue, thyroid dysfunction, and so on, I still didn’t get it.
For a few years I continued to eat a “normal” diet which, to me, meant I ate the foods I wanted to eat in moderation. There were no self-imposed restrictions nor did I have any food sensitivities or allergies that I was aware of. The point is, I just wasn’t aware. The signs were there. When my MS starting showing outward signs of physical deterioration and I started to experience real issues with my mobility, I began searching for answers outside of the conventional medicine community for ways to help myself, and this included taking control of my food and paying a lot more attention to what I was putting in my body. I was following my doctor’s orders but holistic, natural health exploration was not discussed.
One day in 2011 I had been gardening on a more humid New England summer day and my legs went numb. I barely carried myself to the couch to rest my legs. It was clear, whatever I was doing wasn’t working. I lay there on the couch with my laptop and somehow I found the book Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis by Dr. Jelinek. I was intrigued by his approach and research on how food has a direct effect on multiple sclerosis, specifically with regard to the amount of saturated fat you consume. I decided to take a his vegetarian-ish approach with some modifications. I kept eggs and fish in my diet, and cut out meat & dairy to start. The simple basis for my diet was actually vegan, and from there I built upon the list of yes’s and no’s for my personal eating plan. That is how I shopped in the grocery store. Plant based first, supplemented with fish and eggs. The immediate gains were more energy and an almost immediate 10 lb. weight loss, although that wasn’t really intended. It happened naturally because I cut back so far on saturated fats.
I had also ordered the book Prescription for Nutritional Healing. The chapter on multiple sclerosis recommended a totally vegetarian diet including the elimination of caffeine, chocolate and alcohol and a two and a half page listing of supplements. That protocol was honestly a bit much for me. All veggies all the time felt like trimming a mullet. All business and no fun. No thank you. If you over indulge in these things, maybe. Not this mama. There is a particular enjoyment in my morning coffee, having A glass of wine while cooking or dark chocolate as a treat. I mentally agreed with myself to be earnest in my healing process and reduce or eliminate consumption if necessary in the future.
In 2015 after meeting with a nutritionist, I cut back further and eliminated gluten and peanuts as those were thought to be causing inflammation and creating a block to optimal wellness. In 2016 I met with another nutritionist and began to eat more organic foods, another effort to reduce toxins in my body. For almost six years I stuck with plant-based eating but I found it hard to keep weight on and my hunger was hard to satiate. More opportunities to cheat. Cheese, anyone? Even though I was slowing down physically, I still could not gain weight. While my MRI scans had remained stable since 2012, my mobility was continuing to decline. Any exercise that I can do is critical to maintaining muscle mass and I needed the energy and weight to keep pushing myself while I am still able. This last winter I began to research other food options and found autoimmune centered plans and was drawn back to the research of Dr. Terry Wahls and nutrient density. I had seen her TEDx talk many times, Minding Your Mitochondria. I highly recommend you watch it here. Her approach does not only apply to folks with MS, it applies to many other health issues. After reading her latest book, The Wahls Protocol, finding some well-followed social media influencers and a couple of great cookbooks I decided to make some adjustments. I didn’t want to reach a point of no return and that is exactly where I felt I was headed. Self-doubt is a terrible feeling. And with that, I did not have anything to lose. I needed to surrender to my body. I needed to give it the ability to transform.
Today I am transitioning to a paleo-ish structure. I am:
- Bringing back grass fed and organic meats such as beef, chicken, and pork (so happy to have bacon!),
- Keeping wild caught fish & local, pastured eggs,
- Loading up on richly colored fruits & veggies, leafy greens and sulphuric vegetables like cabbages, mushrooms and onions,
- Eating whole, real foods with a short ingredient list and
- Eliminating all grains & gluten, including cereals, pasta & rice, soy, legumes, refined sugar and processed foods.
Sometimes I get a blank stare and a follow up with “what do you eat then?” I stay plenty full! This plan is not about what has been eliminated, it is about what you are adding! In place of the rice, pasta, breads, cereals, and oats I fill in with more fruits & vegetables, nuts & seeds, dried fruit and other protein sources. Although the exclusions seem to work well for me, this is about what is gained. A much shorter list of supplements to fill in any gaps, although they are not necessary. And by supplements I mean cod liver oil, algae, vitamin D3 and B-complex. Healthy fats, 9 cups of fresh veggies & fruits, and other plant based foods such as seaweed and algae. In the 3 months I have been following the Wahls Protocol I have sustained energy, clear skin, less brain fog, and I am starting to move my body more easily. I gained 4 lbs. in the first 30 days but have maintained a stable weight since, although I wouldn’t mind an additional 5 or so lbs. I am hopeful that I will gain that in muscle mass. My MRI’s remain stable.
My journey is not about whether being a vegetarian worked or didn’t work. Or even sticking to one particular way of eating 100% of the time. That is unrealistic and truthfully, not even fair. My belief is that it helped put me on the right track toward getting my body back to neutral. It stabilized the disease progression and then helped me find the right path. I have stopped looking at food as purely enjoyment. I love food, I truly do. And I eat a lot of it. But the food has to serve a purpose and that purpose is nutrient dense fuel for my body. I will repeat: nutrient density. If it does not serve that purpose, I will not eat it. And you may argue that dairy from a cow or goat has great nutritional benefit. It does have nutritional benefit, you are right. But it does not nutritionally benefit me. When I eat poorly, or when I eat something that I am sensitive to or is known to cause inflammation, it directly affects my mobility. This is a dramatic example because for me it is the difference of dragging my legs or having to literally lift my legs to get them to move. I prefer to move on my own, I do not think that is unreasonable? It is dramatic because I focus on eating 3 cups of vegetables at every meal, with a serving of animal protein. I eat what nature provides me to eat. I do not feel good otherwise and since I have made that transition, it is starkly noticeable. I do not view breakfast in a traditional American sense. I think dinner for breakfast. If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, shouldn’t it be the most nutrient dense for your body? Many breakfast foods lack the nutrition you need for energy, muscle support, reduced sugar cravings and proper digestion. I personally start with a green smoothie every morning which includes 2 cups of raw greens and a cup of fruit and some form of protein. Anything from hemp seeds in my smoothie to leftover dinner from the night before. I have been known to snack on roasted chicken from the fridge. Glamorous, I know!
My life is crafted around food. I work from home full time so I am afforded the time to meal prep. A lot of meal prep can also be done on the weekends in just a couple of hours. The need is dire for me so I must make the time. I have also learned to stock my home with food and pantry items that help me achieve success on my food journey. Transitioning a pantry always takes time, effort and a small investment to ensure that what you need is accessible. Since smoothies are an easy way for me to jam pack in fiber, vitamins and minerals in the morning, I focused my energy on stocking my pantry with ingredients for this purpose. Bee pollen, milled flax seed, chia seeds, hemp seed, reishi mushroom powder, collagen peptides, pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, dates. Many of these items can also be used in paleo recipes and baking.
You will find success. Be real with your expectations. By researching what or how you want to eat, you will begin to learn about the flagship foods in your preferred diet. Everyone has something they would like to improve, even outside of a chronic illness. Better skin, better mood, more energy, less fatigue, fighting the afternoon slump, eliminate headaches, eliminate brain fog, increase strength and mobility, reduced joint pain, lower cholesterol, blood pressure, stronger nails, longer shinier hair, improved organ function, reduce and even eliminate irritable bowel syndrome, improved gut health and no more stomach upset.
Success in a lifestyle is not one big win and game over. It is wins, ties, losses every single day. Every single day. If you’re not seeing forward progress, ask yourself: am I feeling good or bad? If you’re feeling good then what you’re doing is working. At least for the present. You will level off from time to time but that doesn’t mean you should stop or give up. It might be a difference of opinion between you and your body and what you’re aiming for. Remember I mentioned expectations? For me, I just wanted to regain my mobility. Everything I was doing was focused on improving my walking. I had been following the plan of a nutritionist for several months however my mobility was declining. Eventually I became discouraged and quit the plan because it “wasn’t working”. A week later I was exhausted throughout the day, stumbling more, my body was heavy and I just didn’t feel good. Duh! The plan had been working but my expectation didn’t align with reality. The reality was, mobility gains are a long, slow, arduous process. The other improvements I was making, but didn’t realize, were necessary in order to optimally set my body up for (hopefully) bigger future successes. This may seem intuitive for some, but I needed to learn and observe the long way. Don’t quit, make small steps. Alterations that swap one healthy item for another. Keeping a journal is critical to evaluating your peaks and valleys. Journaling will show you that your body is talking to you. You can always course correct (corporate term, ew!) as I have done. Most importantly, keeping a journal will uncover progress that you will forget over time. Progress takes time and having it written down will help you remember WHY you started to begin with.
Food alone will not conquer all. Clean eating in addition to a whole wellness program is ideal. Exercise should be your minimum if you add nothing else. Exercise is stretching, strength training and a cardiovascular activity. Do one, do all. It does not matter. Something is better than nothing and you know your limits. Always consult your doctor to understand your personal limits. If you can only handle stretching, which for me is all I can handle most days, then stretch more.
I want to finish by repeating that I am not perfect at this. Far from it. I’ve made mistakes, I have abandoned other perfectly good ways of eating and I have also found my stride. We all have choices and you will not regret tomorrow what you do today. Just simply ask yourself what you can do to feel your best today.
Check out the recipes throughout my blog – they are real food focused and many of them note substitutions and suggestions for your preferred way of eating. I wrote on this topic last year and you can find my favorite real food snacks here. And if you read the article last year, you will know that I have made adjustments in my diet since then even. Follow me, follow food! You can find additional food inspiration from me on Instagram @edible_monster.
Be well friends 🙂