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All right. Time to get personal.
I've had eating issues in the past.
From ages 12-14 I battled anorexia. I remember nights lying in bed with my stomach concave and rumbling with hunger, sneaking into the kitchen multiple times in an hour just to smell the brownies my mother had made instead of letting myself eat one, and eating literally five bites of the chef salad prepared at school and truly feeling full. I remember getting hooked on a Pilates video my mother had and doing it so often that I could perform the routine, script and all, if asked. I remember getting in the habit of lifting my shirt up every time I passed a mirror, just to monitor the expansion of my stomach.
Needless to say, it wasn't easy.
But that's another story. Going Paleo is what I'd rather talk about.
I decided to go Paleo a little over a month ago. I decided to do it once and for all on a post-Thanksgiving whim.
What is Paleo, you might ask? It is choosing to eat only what our ancestors from the Paleolithic period did. Some call it the Caveman Diet. It consists of meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and good fats, which is found in olive oil, avocadoes, and nuts. Grains? Out. Even unprocessed grains, such as quinoa and steel-cut oatmeal. Dairy products? Out; although, some Paleo folks, after approximately a month of sticking hardcore to Paleo rules, begin to integrate organic, whole dairy into their diets. Legumes, such as beans and peanuts, are also not allowed.
These foods, according to Paleo, offer little nutritional value and can strip away nutrients instead of providing them, are irritants to our digestive systems considering our bodies weren't originally created to handle them, and are overprocessed, which loads our bodies with toxins and added sugars that add to weight gain and illness.
I decided to go Paleo for several reasons. First, I heard it completely eradicated any sign of hypoglycemia (symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, mood swings, sweaty palms, etc. occur when blood sugar levels get too low and need stabilization), which I have had to deal with my whole life and would rather have done without. Second, I agreed, and still agree, that processed foods don't do anything good for our bodies, and would rather have done without.Third, one of my best friend's parents had been Paleo for over a year, had lost approximately thirty pounds each, maintained a weight that fluctuated within a three pound range, and had banished the father's arthritis.
But most of all, the monster I'd dealt with ages 12-14 wanted more from me. And I was tired of worrying, day in and day out, about what I ate, how much I ate of it, and how often I exercised.
I figured that if I had a strict diet plan that I knew consisted of all healthy food, I would simply have to make fewer choices and therefore think about it less. I thought that maybe I'd found my way out.
Well, I was wrong.
It started out well. I had eaten very healthy previous to my Paleo stint, so I only suffered approximately three days of what they call the low-carb flu. For me this consisted of a mild headache one day, fatigue, and one evening of feeling like perhaps I was getting a cold because of small backaches and sinus congestion. I craved odd things, such as green peas (a legume--off limits), peanut butter (my favorite indulgence, right next to chocolate), and the occasional bowl of Kashi GoLean cereal, which had previously been a staple. All of these foods are relatively healthy, according to everyone else. But to caveman eaters, it was poison.
By day three, I felt my body start to change. My stomach was rapidly shrinking. I didn't work out a lot during this time period, seeing as I had no energy to do anything but go about my day, and yet I was getting smaller. Immediately, I was hooked. How many toxins were left in my body? I became eager to cleanse myself completely.
On day four, I panicked. I felt as if my choices of food were extremely limited. I had doubts about what I was doing. After all, weren't whole grains recommended? To keep myself fueled, I had to eat so much healthy fat. I wondered if I was hurting my heart.
I got encouragement from a coworker who had done the Whole30 (a plan where you eat Paleo for a whole month and then slowly integrate anti-Paleo foods to see how your body reacts) and from the parents of my friend, who had seen such success. Their words made me relax; after all, as they said, Paleo wasn't about never having those foods again, or denying yourself of anything. It was about committing to clean eating, giving yourself a month to get rid of carb and sugar addiction, and going from there.
A month, I decided. A month wouldn't hurt me. I could see how it goes, and then go back if I wanted.
For about another week, I was raving about Paleo to my friends. Although still tired and unmotivated to get myself to the gym, my body otherwise felt at peace with the food I ate. I never had indigestion, I rarely craved "forbidden" foods, my hypoglycemia was gone, and I ate when I needed to and didn't think about it much otherwise. I felt freed, and from what I'd heard, it would only get better from there.
Well, not for me.
I went to my sister's basketball game one night. My dad took one look at me and said, "You're looking twiggy again."
I realized he was right. And for some reason, it crushed me.
I cried all the way home. I thought about all the food I wasn't allowed to eat--not because I missed them, but because I didn't understand why I couldn't just eat like a normal person and not think about it. I thought about how it hurt to sit down because the bones in my backside had no cushioning. I thought about my arms, how they felt different, looked different, and how my stomach and hipbones were a flat plain. I thought about my roommate, who could eat cinnamon rolls for breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and a salad and pasta at dinner, and still look and feel great. And I wondered why I couldn't be like that, why I couldn't think like her and the majority of other college students who were living off of on-sale rice and Top Ramen.
I panicked. There was no right way to do this. If I went back to eating grains, even the healthy ones, I felt I'd be feeding myself toxins. Poison. But if I kept eating Paleo who knew? Maybe I'd get sick if, say, I were on vacation and decided to deviate from the Paleo diet. Or had to deviate. Then my trip would be ruined, all because of a freaking piece of bread. Maybe a new study would come out, like it always does, recommending against the Paleo diet. Or, maybe, I'd just keep shrinking until there was nothing left of me.
Then again, why had my friend's parents been so successful?
And why was my roommate equally as successful, just by eating what she wanted when she felt hungry?
None of it made sense.
I went to bed. The next morning, calmed, I decided to keep eating Paleo until I got it all figured out.
I spent hours--I mean, hours--on the Internet, searching for answers. I had so many questions about the way the body works. I read about several different diet plans, from Victoria's Secret models to Mark from Mark's Daily Apple (a popular pro-Paleo blog), from nutritionists experimenting in their basement to a blogger who decided after two weeks that Paleo just didn't work for her. I researched body processes, about exercise and argument over whether or not the body needs carbs. I learned so much, I felt I could write a book.
And yet, I continued to stress.
Paleo had turned me into a full-blown orthorexic (best defined as a disorder that makes people obsessed with healthy eating, feel superior to others through making healthy choices, and stress over the quality and nature of their food to irrational degrees.) I agonized for forty minutes in the meat section over which type of chicken breast to buy. I avoided dinner plans with friends or family in fear of being the "freak" who couldn't or wouldn't eat certain things. I would ask how someone made a dish and avoid it anyways, because who knew how deceptive their information was?
I was miserable.
Now, maybe this happened to me because I have a history of being obsessive-compulsive and eating-disorder prone. Obviously, there are people in this world who go Paleo and love it so much that they stick to it. Clearly, the absence of certain foods helped my friends' parents. But it certainly wasn't helping me.
One day I made my friend Paleo pancakes with some chocolate chips in it. I helped her eat some, and she says she witnessed the moment I felt the sugar rush. I was standing up, and my body literally swooned.
Three hours later, I was in bed, afraid that if I moved, I would vomit. And the nausea faded into the next day.
I felt even more trapped.
One day I chose to eat a piece of bread, just to see what it would do to me. I remember feeling that rush of insulin. Luckily, that time, I didn't get sick.
I decided to slowly integrate these foods back into my life. After all, if I ate a little here and there, I could maintain a tolerance to these foods without fully losing the benefits I felt I'd gained from Paleo (less processed food, peaceful body functions, stabilized body weight, etc.)
Despite my decision, I went into a catatonic, three-day panic over food. It was all I could think about. I could barely stand it.
I made an appointment with a doctor. I wanted blood work and a referral to a nutritionist.
When they weighed me at the doctor's, I had lost 7 pounds.
In 2 weeks.
"5'9" and 127 pounds," the nurse said, jotting it down on her clipboard. "That's not much."
"No," I replied, shocked. "It's not."
I asked the doctor for blood work so that I could see if I actually was allergic to anything; after all, perhaps I had had a preexisting intolerance that made my hypoglycemia soar and my body not function as peacefully as it was now. I also asked for a referral.
Test results: no allergies. Blood work: all within good range, except for slightly low iron levels. Referral: signed.
I met with my nutritionist and learned even more about food and what it does to our bodies. It took me a while to believe her, but what I found most interesting was that I would have to go through a refeeding process, which essentially is the process those deprived of food and/or carbs in general must go through. They gain a lot of water weight at first, because for every carb gram, 4 grams of water attaches to it. This is why low-carb eaters have to be mindful of hydration.
"It might be kind of scary for you," the nutritionist said, "because initially it'll seem like you're gaining a lot of weight. But you just need to remember it's not fat you're gaining, it's water."
I also learned about ketosis. Our ancestors were always in survival mode. Because they knew that the next meal wasn't always guaranteed, their bodies knew to fuel themselves through provided fat, their own body fat, or their own protein in order to survive and be in starvation mode in a way that was not painful. This, according to my nutritionist, was why I rarely felt the need to eat, but was able to polish off food when it was in front of me and be satisfied. My body was in ketosis, and the ketones were blocking my hunger signals.
It has taken some time, but I'm not afraid of food anymore, because I feel as if I am the one in control. I have not returned (and probably won't return) to eating nearly as much grain-based foods or dairy as I used to, and I rely mostly on fresh, unprocessed foods, and that's what works for me. Because I have upped my carb intake to a couple servings a day, I have enough energy to go to the gym, and my body is starting to feel strong again.
I am thankful I tried Paleo. I think there is a lot of value in ousting processed foods. I think it's important to focus more on nutrient-rich fruits and veggies and get a good amount of protein. It taught me how to cook (there is so much preparation when it comes to Paleo. No convenience foods!), how to separate emotions from food (I never feel the need to reward myself with food or binge anymore in fear of never getting to have that food again), and got rid of old cravings. I eat a very, very clean diet; not necessarily because I feel like it's a have-to, but because it's a want-to. I want my body to feel its best, but I also want to not have to worry about it.
Today at the grocery store, I heard a lady say to her husband, "Well, you don't have to go full-Paleo. I will, but we can buy you rice."
I wanted to tell her not to do it, just to make better choices. To stop buying Lucky Charms and white bread and Yoplait yogurt. But I kept my mouth shut. After all, maybe her body will like it. Maybe her mind will, too.
It's just that mine didn't.
I'm going to go to the gym now. Afterwards I'll probably have a slice of rye bread to replenish the glycogen stores, so that protein from my afternoon snack of avocado and chicken can do its job unbothered, and build muscle. Then I'll be able to run faster, do more crunches, lift heavier weights, and burn more calories.) After all, last year I had cereal for breakfast, a wrap for lunch, chicken and veggies for dinner, and more cereal after my daily workout. One night my dorm mates and I drifted in a parking lot, went and bought a small, fudgy chocolate cake, and ate it all. And you know what? I was in the best shape of my life.
Yeah. I think I'll be fine.