Nutrition is the process of getting the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals out of the foods you eat and into your body. Food is fuel, and if you eat things your body can’t digest, you aren’t getting the nutrition you need.
When I found the Paleo diet, I thought all my dreams had come true. After several months of eating a strict Paelo diet the inflammation had gone down in my body along with the pain in my joints, the constant indigestion, the brain fog, and a bunch of other issues. My gut healed and I had more energy and felt better than I could ever remember. I read a whole host of supporting studies and testimonials supporting the idea that living a Paleo lifestyle was the way to go for people with autoimmune issues. And it was. It worked.
At around the three year mark things began to change. I physically felt good, I’d lost about 100 pounds, my blood work showed my inflammation numbers continued to stay low, but my cholesterol was starting to rise. And I was tired of eating so many animals. Really, really tired of it.
I started looking into other ways to eat. I experimented with sprouting grains, cutting back on meat and animal products, adding in beans, making whole wheat bread with sprouted flour, and eating more fruits and vegetable. The results were abysmal.
I started slowly gaining weight, my joint pain starting coming back at intervals, and I sometimes had indigestion with acid reflux, all pointing to my digestion not working correctly. I began to feel I was going to be stuck depending on animals to survive for the rest of my life.
This was about the time I had genetic testing done and found out I was compound heterozygous for the MTHFR gene mutations. I found a local specialist who basically told me that sticking to a strict Paleo diet was the only way to work with my mutant genes. I reluctantly went back to it for several months while I continued studying.
In my research I found two reasons my body was responding the way it was and they both have to do with energy conversion and nutrition.
First, let’s talk about stomach acid. When we eat animal proteins, our stomachs create a highly acidic environment by releasing hydrochloric acid and the enzyme pepsin. Pepsin breaks down proteins into peptides. Peptides regulate metabolism and provide structural support to our cells among many other things.
When starches like potatoes or grains hit our stomach, an enzyme called ptyalin from our saliva needs an alkaline environment to continue breaking them down. If our stomach is too acidic, that doesn’t happen.
Combining foods together that can’t digest at the same time means poor nutrition and putrefying foods in our guts. And in my gut, that’s a serious issue given my mutant genes and autoimmune issues. Here’s an enzyme list. For more on the food combining principles, look here.
Second, let’s look at our blood, animal proteins, and fats. When we eat lots of oils, fats, and animal products, our blood gets slick and thick with cholesterol. Our bodies make all the cholesterol we need, so adding more means work for our bodies to store or eliminate. This is a job it can do, for the most part, if nothing gets in the way, like pesky sugars and starches.
Here’s why the Paleo diet works: you eliminate processed sugars, fruit sugars, starches that turn into sugars, and grains that turn into sugars so the insulin/glucose conversion process can work even in a high-cholesterol environment. You don’t gain weight because even though you’re eating a lot of fat and animal products, there’s nothing getting in the way of your energy conversion.
However, the longer you eat strictly Paleo, the more cancer-causing foods you’re putting into your system. I highly recommend the book, How Not to Die, by Dr. Michael Greger. He breaks down the top 15 disease that cause early death and shows you why our bodies get them and what you can do to slow them down or eliminate them. Spoiler alert: the majority is caused by too much animal product consumption. Don’t take my word for it, or his for that matter. The last 1/4 of his book is a complete list of studies used to back up his conclusions.
My theory, such as it is, is that I can’t eat both ways at once. I’ve either got to choose to eat a high-animal food diet and no grains or fruits, or mostly plant foods with very little animal products or extra oils. I can have reasonable success with either, but given the drawbacks to eating so many animal products, I’d prefer to eat the other way. When I tried to transition slowly from Paleo to more plant foods, which is what I thought I needed to do, I was combining sugars, starches, animal products, and oils which cause my body to go boom. When I switched completely over, my body responded much better.
That being said, I don’t think my gut could have healed without eating a strict Paleo diet for at least six months. I’m going to continue recommending that to my clients with the caveat that it should only be used until the gut heals, at which time it’s time to switch to a plant-based, whole foods way of eating with limited animal products and fats. That includes the “good” oils, which we use way too much of thinking that because they are “good” we can’t go wrong.
The goals should be to heal the gut and then move to a diet that can sustain that health for a very long time. Update: Dr. Hyman has something similar he calls Pegan.
Meals – Simplicity is your friend during the initial healing time. You need a protein and two cooked vegetables, one of which might be a starch, at every meal. If you get fancier than that, your machine gets slower and slower trying to digest. For right now, keep things simple. If you’re one of the lucky ones that can eat soaked or sprouted nuts, seeds and/or legumes, they can be your protein.
Spices and herbs are great, especially when used for medicinal purposes. For example, turmeric has a wonderful natural anti-inflammatory component, similar to what’s found in pineapple. Rosemary can relieve muscle pain and supports the circulatory and nervous systems. Basil has been shown to support the immune system. Fresh ground black pepper helps with digestion and is an antioxidant.
For right now, stay away from the super spicy things that inflame and are too invigorating. We’re aiming to cool things down, not heat things up. Well cooked onion used in moderation is quite different than some fresh chopped jalapeño peppers, as delicious as those might sound. Just put them on hold while you heal your gut.
Eating out – You still can. It’s harder. They will put grains like quinoa and corn in your salad or cook your proteins in “vegetable” oils or put refined bread on your table and you’ll wish you could stuff it in your pie-hole. You’ll pick the guts out of your sandwich and tacos and leave the bread and shells on your plate and people will wonder why. You’ll get tired of explaining and maybe you’ll start to make up reasons, like you only eat food that’s red and green.
And the corn chips. Oh, the salty corn chips and pico de gallo salsa you’ll make eyes at but never eat.
You might say no to it all, be strong, and go home a little sad and cry yourself to sleep because it’s just not fair. You had fun and all, seeing your friends, but it’s just not fair that you’ve had to change things so much to try and heal your body. Or maybe you’ll give in and just eat whatever you want because it’s just one night, right? It’s the weekend, and who cares, anyway? One night won’t matter. And probably you’ll be ill that night and the next morning. And maybe all the next day, too. Maybe longer. I’ve done both of those and everything in between.
Whatever happens, just know I’m on your team. I know it’s hard. This is a process and you’ll keep trying. It will get easier. I found a few places that were willing to work with me or that advertised that they only cooked in real butter or oils I could digest and I just kept going to those places and invited friends to meet me there. The longer you feel well, the more you want to feel well and making choices that support that become easier. It becomes less, “Why can’t I eat those things?” and starts to be more, “I’m choosing to eat only these things and I feel so much better,” and that feeling of denial and feeling left out goes away. It just takes a little time. Remind yourself this won’t last forever.
Buy what you’ll use – It does no good and it’s a waste of money to stock up on things on sale or things you should eat that you won’t really eat. I’ve done it. All that beautiful eggplant just goes bad. I don’t really like it that much, no matter how many times I tell myself I should try harder to love it.
There is this thing that happens when you first start changing your eating habits. You think, “Well, here we go! I’m going to do this right! I’m going to get all the good stuff and buy every type of fresh fruit and vegetable out there and eat so well! And I’m so going to get healed fast, like nobody’s business!”
Then you go to the store with wings under your feet. You flit from display to display and you do actually buy about five bags worth of carrots and celery and cabbage and eggplant and what is this one? Jicama? And you pile all these things, foods you may not have eaten much of in the past few years (or ever) in your teeming cart. The excitement you’re feeling – it’s contagious. Other people in the store are excited for you!
You put it all away at home in your fridge and in pretty bowls on the counter. You look at it admiringly and think about how you are going to kick the butt of this illness. You are going to kick its butt like no one has kicked its butt before! And then you wonder what’s for lunch because you are simply exhausted from all the awesome grocery buying-and-putting-away and you look in the fridge for some leftover pizza.
It’s ok. That’s how we do it. One step at a time.
If that’s day one, day two can be actually eating the food. It’s already in your house, so then it’s automatically easier to get it into your system. Way to go, you!
Getting started – Make a list of what foods you like to eat. Then, make a list of companion foods that are beneficial to you. Check the Alkaline and Acidic Food Lists and keep in mind that we need both.
You can try to make a radical change and just throw out all the foods that you think are “bad” and put in all the foods you think are “good,” but human nature is a tricky thing. We don’t like to feel deprived and when we do, we go into a little depression, physically.
You might take a look at your recently vacated, empty pantry shelves and think they look awfully lonely. Then you might go to the store and repurchase some of the very same things you just threw out. You might eat them in the car if you don’t want them to make it all the way to the shelves of your pantry, because that feels like too much of a “bad” thing. A “failure.” In a way, this was set up to fail from the start.
Humans get used to a system. When you take a piece out, it needs to be replaced. We don’t want to see or feel a hole there or it makes us sad. If there isn’t something there that we feel good about that’s replaced the thing we removed, we’ll go back to the thing that used to be there. Only now, we’ve attached shame to it. Some of this will be a physical dependence to chemicals in our processed foods and some of this will be dependence on the soothing and safety we feel from traditions and habits.
Weaning off things a little at a time would be a kinder and gentler way to help our body machines work through this time of transition. And changing our language from “bad” and “good” to beneficial and less-beneficial would be kinder and more accurate. Some things are neither good or bad. They are just a natural, chemical process.
Remember, the healthier and more stable your body machine gets, the easier it will be able to handle things like the occasional sweet or grain or other favorite food that right now causes you pain. If you choose to indulge in a flourless chocolate torte after a week of having no sweets, and you have it on a day when you didn’t also indulge in something else that might stress your system, you’re probably going to experience limited non-positive effects. If you did that two days in a row, your system would still be working out the kinks from the day before and you would feel more of an impact, including inflammation.
But the choice is yours, completely free of shame or “bad.” It’s biology and chemistry. Your body is reacting on a biological level to the chemistry of the foods you are putting in there. If you are making a calculated choice that the limited amount of discomfort, if any, you will get from a particular food is acceptable from the pleasure you get from eating it, that is your choice to make. It doesn’t make you “bad” and it isn’t “cheating.” It’s simply a choice.
On the other hand, if you are continuing to make that choice days on end, you may want to speak with someone about why you feel compelled to make those choices when it’s hurting you. Perhaps doing some CranioSacral work and clearing your energy would be helpful. Your body doesn’t want to be in continual pain. The choices you are making, you have been making for a reason. You’ve been doing the best you can and now maybe it’s time to learn how to make a different choice. If you want more help in this area, check Emotional Healing and Healthy Energy Ideas.
Meal Ideas – I’m going to give you some recipes, but please just take them as a jumping off point. For me, simplicity and relative consistency was what I needed. When I was in this stage of healing the gut, I ate the same basic foods every day, week in and week out, in different varieties because that is what my system liked the best. For me, it wasn’t boring, it was safety. I completely understand those of you that feel like they are the most boring meals in the world and need more variety. Please, improvise.
Just keep in mind that for the first few months, keep the hot spices out, raw to a minimum and the food types in one meal together to a few. The more types together in your stomach and intestines, the harder it is for your system to digest and get the nutrients out and that is the whole point right now.
There isn’t going to be an amount listed by some foods because this is where you need to learn to listen to your body tell you what it needs. I’m not going to say 5oz steak. Eat how much steak you need. Then stop. Save all your leftovers for lunch the next day.
When you fix your plate, look at it and try to make the ratios 2:1 vegetables to protein. This is pretty easy to figure out because you’re going to have 2 vegetables and one protein at every meal.
That being said, sometimes my body just wants one thing. There are no hard and fast rules. You’ve got to learn to listen and your body will tell you what it wants.