Following my diagnosis of an autoimmune disease and many years of seeking healing, I finally landed on a diet that gave me my life back. In 2012 I found the paleo diet, and I haven’t looked back. Here’s a look into my personal journey.
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I’ve always had a passion for health, fitness, and eating good food. I played soccer in college, and have spent most of my adult life studying academic literature on diet and nutrition (for funsies!).
I guess you could say I’m a lifestyle hacker. I geek out about the intersection between human health, nutrition, exercise, resilient local food economies, and regenerative and humane agriculture (Yes! They are connected!).
The Autoimmune Diagnosis
For most of my life, though, my level of health didn’t actually match my passion for it. I spent my first 30 years feeling tired, sick, and in pain. However, I thought what I was feeling was normal, so I didn’t complain much. But around age 32 it all seemed to worsen.
Excruciating pain in my joints seemed to radiate to all points of my body. Intense migraines were a daily occurrence, and my seasonal allergies had suddenly become severe. Random flare-ups kept me bedridden. I felt much older than I was, which led to an emotional meltdown.
After many years of tests and doctors, I was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
I quit my job, which was how I started homesteading. I felt like a failure, but little did I know that “…disability occurs in 50 to 70 percent of people within five years after onset of the disease, and half will stop working within 10 years.”
As with many people living with autoimmune conditions, I felt hopeless about living a normal, active, healthy life. I wondered if this was what it felt like to be dying. Worse, my family and friends didn’t seem to understand the severity of my pain.
My nerdy passion for nutrition and scientific literature continued on. I knew in my heart that food would heal. Or maybe my diet was the only thing I felt I had any control over.
As a 20-something, I was interested in how human health intersected with environmental health. When I could afford it, I ate organic foods and bought from local farmers. When I learned about the inhumane treatment of animals in factory farms, I became a vegetarian.
At the height of my diagnosis, I became a strict vegan. The literature said I should experience supreme and vibrant health, yet toward the end of my three years of veganism, the opposite was true–even while growing most of my own produce and cooking most meals from scratch.
Still, I clung to the idea that what we eat literally becomes the cells of our body; the quality of our blood; the nourishment of the digestive and nervous systems; the presence or absence of inflammation.
But I was stumped: If a vegan diet wasn’t the answer, what was it? I couldn’t find any literature that indicated another way of eating that would help me heal.
My body was rejecting what I was feeding it and my immune system was attacking itself.
By this time, Mr. TAF (who was following the vegan experiment along with me) was also experiencing some questionable health conditions, so we started asking, “What if the vegan diet isn’t the solution for us?”
The question, “What if it’s not?” is an invitation to become an investigator and look for evidence.
Low Carb Miracle?
It was Mr. TAF who first initiated a search into the realm of animal protein and low-carb diet possibilities. I begrudgingly went down this road because I had already decided being vegan was awesome. But I admitted, as a self-proclaimed nutrition-scientist-nerd, I needed to look for evidence and question what I think is true and obvious.
We discovered that the following things cause systemic inflammation, which leads to the onset of disease:
- Grains can cause gut irritation in many people, including gluten-free grains, and lead to inflammation and disease. (Reference)
- Sugar is deadly. Carbohydrates break down as sugar in the body. This includes grain-based foods (even gluten-free grains) like breads, pastas, cereals, fruits, legumes, vegetarian proteins, starchy veggies, and of course, sweet treats. Of course, nobody wants to come to terms with how serious the sugar epidemic is because sugar is more addictive than cocaine. We are all addicts, and as we know, addicts must admit there’s a problem before they will do anything about it. Cravings are hard. They actually entice us to replace more nutrient dense foods with sugar, causing inflammation and nutrient deficiencies.
- Industrial seed oils (like corn, cottonseed, soybean, canola, or rapeseed) contain scary high amounts of omega-6 fats, which cause inflammation and all kinds of gastric distress and disease. (Reference)
- Poor gut health is becoming more of a focus as the commonality among many modern conditions and diseases. Poor gut health stems from poor diet and lifestyle choices, but what many people don’t know is that our gut health is transferred to us by our mother in the womb and birth canal. In other words, poor gut health can be hereditary, although it can also be improved. Unchecked, it contributes to inflammation and improper digestion. More conditions every day are being found to be reversible when gut health is addressed. (Reference)
All of this can end up as a perfect storm in certain individuals to create a cycle of blood-sugar issues, sugar cravings, autoimmune diseases, and nutritional deficiencies.
The above are simply things that I’ve found in my nerdy hunts through medical literature. I don’t proclaim to know what’s true for everyone, but I can share my own story and results.
After years of veganism, Mr. TAF and I did a 180 and completed a 2-week low carb diet challenge. If you’re not entirely familiar with this type of program, it’s basically eating small amounts of animal proteins with copious amounts of vegetables, healthy fats (like coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, or fat from pastured animals), a tiny bit of fruit, some nuts and seeds, and absolutely no grains, legumes, or dairy (at least at first).
I felt completely out of my element; like I had failed as a spiritual being.
YET I FELT ABSOLUTELY AMAZING. Mr. TAF did, too.
By the end of the two-week challenge, EVERY SINGLE SYMPTOM was gone. Allergies–gone. Excruciating joint pain and inflammation–gone. Migraines–gone. A condition for which no known cure exists had simply vanished.
Suddenly I had more energy than I knew what to do with, I was sleeping through the night, and I could go on with my day without having debilitating discomfort, pain, drowsiness, or extreme sugar cravings. And now I know that gas is not normal! Passing gas has sort of a comical appeal in our culture, but now I know it’s a sign that food isn’t being digested well and nutrients aren’t being absorbed.
Call it a fad if you wish, but having all of my health problems completely disappear was all the evidence I needed. I felt like a queen, like I was finally expressing my humanness!
The Paleo Diet: Only for Cavemen?
The paleo scene may seem to the uninitiated to be all about meat, neanderthal weight lifters, and weight-loss-centric activity. Have you asked “What if it’s not?”.
Medical, pharmaceutical, and agribusiness industries stand to lose a lot of money if the general public knew that factory farmed meat, dairy, and grains were causing much of the health crises of modern society. I’m quite sure they don’t want you to know that the solution is as easy as eating differently, so discrediting paleo experts would be the logical step for them to take.
Leading paleo nutritional practitioners are actually focused on finding evidence-based nutritional solutions that are rooted in sustainable agriculture. A factory farmed animal is not healthy.
The paleo lifestyle is a low carb approach, but while Atkins and other low-carb diets are primarily used for weight loss and have no problem with fake food snacks and fake frozen dinners, Paleo is rooted in unprocessed vegetables and pastured animals.
I later went on to connect with many folks with autoimmune conditions who had healed themselves using their own versions of the paleo diet.
Since I am not a nutritional practitioner, here are some of my favorite resources for the paleo diet:
I couldn’t have made it without these books:
- Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole-Foods Lifestyle
- The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet
I’m not making any claims that the paleo diet is for everyone, or that everyone with an autoimmune condition can experience the healing that I did. Indeed, most of us tweak the basic diet to find what works best for our own individual needs. I’ve had to make adjustments over the years. But if you’re feeling discouraged about your health, giving it a try couldn’t hurt.
Diet is a deeply personal journey. No matter where you are on the journey or what kind of diet you follow, I believe that you’ll be able to be your best human if you collect evidence of good health and whether your diet is serving you, and dare to make changes so you can thrive. Life is short, and you deserve to live your best life!
I still follow a paleo diet, and I’ve been autoimmune-symptom-free since 2012. What I know is that I feel awesome and am excited to live a healthy and active live.
What diet hacks have helped you be your best human?