My entire life I can remember having an obsession with food and exercise. Whether it be eating or exercising way too much or way too little. It has been a lifelong struggle to find a happy medium. Health and happiness are my driving factors in life. I strive to be as healthy as possible and live everyday with as much happiness as possible. The balance comes in realizing that what the media and world feed you with respect to health might not truly be accurate. We have been told our entire lives that whole grains are essential to good health and that fats are bad. So, naturally the majority of us seeking health opt for lots of multi-grain foods and eliminate as much fat from our daily nutrition as possible. Yet, at the end of the day a lot of us do not feel that we are as fit as we could be. After meals we are bloated, just to be hungry 30 minutes later. How is that possible? I wondered the same thing day after day. How, if I was eating minimal calories, very little fat and exercising 4-5 times a week – how was I still not happy with my body? Not happy with how I looked and most importantly not happy with how I felt. I was always hungry because I wasn’t eating enough and exhausted from exercising without the appropriate fuel for by body. I knew I needed to make a change, but I just didn’t know what the change needed to be.
I have always thought of food as a relationship. I struggled with trying to conquer the idea of the “everything in moderation” balance of life. The concept never worked for me. Either I couldn’t stop at just 1 cup of spaghetti, 1 scoop of ice cream, or I couldn’t just work out for 20 minutes because I thought I needed the 90 minute workout. It felt like I spent 90% of my day obsessing about the number of calories and fat I put in my mouth and the number of calories and fat I burned off. It was exhausting. I was sick of thinking about it. I needed a change.
I came to the realization that I constantly felt the need to make a change in my diet, so finally I opened my heart to the lifestyle my fiance (then boyfriend) was living. No grains. I sat there in my living room wondering how I would possibly live without bread. As I began to research to fully understand what I was undertaking, I became more and more intrigued and decided that the only way to fully embrace this new life was to dive right into a 30-Day Paleo Challenge. Who was I challenging, no one but myself. I will take you on my primal journey and all that I have learned along the way. I hope you enjoy.
Growing up I was always very active. I played baseball and soccer all year, and swam on the swim team every summer. In high school I decided to focus on soccer alone and played competitively through college. I could run all day long and considered myself in pretty good shape. Despite all of my activity, however, I would never have been called “thin.” I was more the stocky type. This was tough for me- I mean, I worked out as hard as my friends and teammates and ate the exact same food as they did, in fact I ate better than most of them, Why was I always carrying a few more pounds than they were? My family was always good about eating “healthy” -whole grains, low fat, lean meats, etc. So what gives? I convinced myself that this was just how my body was and I would have to deal with it.
Toward the end of college I paid less attention to my health and, needless to say, it suffered because of it. My weight peaked at just over 200 lbs (at 5’8 or so I was technically obese!). Always in the back of my mind was the realization that I had to start killing myself in the gym again- for hours at a time- to get back to being just a little overweight (which was the best I assumed I could ever be). The thought was exhausting.
As many can probably relate, I lost some weight after college- eating more salads and less fast food as I settled into young adulthood. Shortly after, I left Tucson for the first time in my life, off to medical school in Missouri. Missouri! I didn’t even know where it was on the map! That turned out to be a non-issue because I didn’t have time to explore the area much anyway. Medical school was fun and exciting, in an “I’m really glad I did that but I would never want to do it again” kind of a way. At this point I was eating “healthy” again and exercising regularly, even getting into triathlons. Despite my re-commitment to a healthy lifestyle, my weight plateaued around 175. I was stuck.
There were some things we were taught along the way in medical school that I never fully understood. I can clearly remember sitting in class, listening to the professor tout the importance of cholesterol and saturated fats to membrane fluidity and function and wondering why are they so bad for us then? Why do we store energy as fat if it’s not the ideal source of fuel for our bodies? Anyone could tell you that two plates containing equal calories- one from broccoli and the other Twinkies- were not equally nutritious, so it couldn’t just be “calories-in equals calories-out” and “everything in moderation,” right? There were so many questions in my head regarding all the things I held to be true about diet and nutrition all of my life and the more I learned the less it made sense.
My medical education prepared me for residency better than I could have ever hoped. We were bombarded with facts and figures from the medical literature regarding every disease known to man but the one topic that was glossed over in a short 2 week summer session was the one that I thought was most important to maintaining health- nutrition! It wasn’t until my second year of internal medicine residency at the University of Iowa that I started to really investigate all my questions (don’t even ask about the first year of residency!). I knew that what we , as medical leaders, were recommending wasn’t working. During the low-fat era of the past 30+ years, obesity rates have increased out of control, along with all the comorbidities that go along with it! How does that make sense?
I started to review the literature myself. What I found was that the evidence against fats- even saturated fats- in cardiovascular health and mortality was lacking. In fact, the literature on diet didn’t provide much guidance for the healthiest diets at all. We were basing all our medical recommendations on interpretations and presumptions of poor data.
At that point I decided to look for a diet that made the most sense to me. leaving all of my preconceived notions about a “healthy” diet behind. During my exploration, I came across the Paleo diet and Primal Blueprint. As I read more and more, this way of eating just seemed to resonate with me. In addition to that, the biochemistry seemed to fit. The most striking feature for me was the idea of embracing such a huge variety of foods- with vegetables at the center of plate- and avoiding the processed foods so ubiquitous in our kitchens. Certain fats were not only permitted but, in fact, welcomed and carbs were found as healthy components of fruits and vegetables.
I adapted the lifestyle straight away and started to notice changes immediately. The first thing I found was my core- always an area of weakness- became stronger. Over the next few months I lost weight and gained muscle following the Primal Blueprint lifestyle as a roadmap, dropping to a weight I hadn’t been near since high school- 145 lbs. This time though, I felt stronger and leaner than at any point in my life. I could just tell that this was the way my body always wanted to eat. My parents adopted a version of the diet also (with some gentle nudging and after they could see my results) and both lost a significant amount of weight, enough that my mom had to cut back on her blood pressure medications!
Hard to believe that was over two years ago now. I’m glad I found a lifestyle that was right for me and my hope is to help others find healthy diets that work best for them and their body’s needs. There is still much to learn about how certain types of foods impact different people and the medical profession as a whole is slow to change, but I am optimistic about the changes I have already started to see.