I have been on the Paleo diet for three years. The way I came to it is this: I started off with terrible acid reflux, then discovered the Paleo diet, then found out I had an eating disorder.
It started in the fall of my junior year of high school. I was burping constantly. It wasn’t cool burping either, like “HAHA let me burp the ABC’s.” It was involuntary, like a tiny croak that went on for an hour after eating. I described it to my gastroenterologist as the sound a baby dinosaur makes, like in Jurassic Park. I called the incessant croaking my “dinosaur noises,” and it became a family joke. Sometimes it stopped for months at a time. Sometimes it got worse. Sometimes when I drank alcohol, it would go on for three to four hours. In college I got depressed when I tried to drink and started burping after one sip, and my friends didn’t understand. My junior year, while abroad, I was sidelines with disastrous food poisoning three times. But it wasn’t until my first year in “the real world” – seven years after the “dinosaur noises” started – that I found the answer to what was going on.
One night in my new apartment, a week after starting my new job, I threw up three times. It was the month after my graduation. This was the fourth time in three years that food poisoning had hit me so violently, and I wondered what might be wrong. I called the gastroenterologist who had diagnosed me with acid reflux my senior year in high school. His nurse (I never even talked to the doctor) said, “Let’s book you for an endoscopy.” My mom drove me to the hospital.
When I woke up, I was screaming at the doctor and at my mom. “You did this to me, you hurt me!” My anesthesia-raddled subconscious knew something I didn’t: he really didn’t know what he was doing. He prescribed pills and a low-fat acid reflux diet. Within a month of following his prescription of a low-fat diet, I was too scared to eat anything but oatmeal. My throat still burned anytime I swallowed. The pills gave me migraines so bad that I found myself holding my head in my hands for an hour each afternoon. My parents told me, “Just keep following the doctor’s advice, he’s Harvard-trained.” People at work reached out to touch my waist and said, “Oh, I’m jealous – you’re SO SKINNY!” It wasn’t until my sister came home from college and said, “What is WRONG with you – you look like death” that I blurted out my first ask for help.
“I think I have a self-induced eating disorder,” I told my therapist. She said, “Have you heard of the Paleo Diet? You shop the perimeter of the grocery store – just buy meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit.” She gave me the name of a nutritionist she had seen. When I called, the nutritionist spoke to me herself. After listening to my symptoms, she said “I can help you.” I had seen about 10 doctors recently, and this was the first one who said that she could help me – that a burning throat and a diet of oatmeal were not my only options for the rest of my life. She put me on the Paleo diet – no inflammatory foods – no grains, sugar, or dairy. I told my sister, “This woman is crazy.” My sister said, “Just try it.”
Within two meals on the Paleo diet, all my symptoms were gone. Adios. No more. The first day on the Paleo diet, for breakfast, I had duck breast and asparagus (my brother likes to hunt and, when I wailed that I didn’t know what to eat, he told me to eat some of the duck breast in the freezer). For lunch, I had eggs and yellow squash scrambled together with spinach. For the first time in two months, I had no burping. Nada. Looking back, this should have been my miracle “aha” moment, but I still needed some convincing.
That summer of 2012, my first summer on the Paleo diet, I discovered I had a power-struggle relationship with food – sugar, in particular. And gluten, the gummy protein that makes flour-based products so addictive. My entire life, I had always eaten sugar and carbs whenever I wanted without thinking twice about it. Suddenly, I was obsessed with when I would eat the two forbidden foods. Around mid-July that summer, I did a Paleo cleanse for two weeks, and on the last day of the cleanse, my office celebrated my boss’ birthday with a gluten-filled carrot cake. Aw hell yeah, I thought. I ate three slices. About an hour and a half later, my head was buzzing from the sugar and my limbs felt like they were stuck in molasses from the gluten. Back at my apartment, unable to do much more than sprawl on my bed, I watched Bradley Cooper in Limitless, the movie where he takes a drug (NZT) that makes him, well, limitless. It gelled with me. I felt so out-of-my body that I texted everyone I knew, “I THINK I’M ON NZT!” It was scary how much my body reacted to those substances.
My second year on the Paleo diet was more about learning what my body tolerated and what it didn’t. I found that dairy, grains, and sugar didn’t upset my stomach in small quantities, but enough of them over a period of two or more days would make my skin break out. I was always doing what I called “3 days strict Paleo,” trying to get my skin to calm down.
By my third year on the Paleo diet, I was starting to understand the effects of my emotions on my eating habits. Unexpressed emotions, specifically. By December of 2013, I was having a difficult time at work. I was constantly doubting myself and angry at everyone around me. I was convinced I was doing a horrible job, which made me actually mess up more than once. I didn’t want to tell anyone how I was feeling, least of all my superiors. So I started eating gluten on purpose, knowing full well it made my nails crack and my hair fall out. Not to mention the emotional beating I gave myself after I did it. I over-ate sugar too, making myself break out horrifically. One day I realized I was either going to end up in the hospital or leave my job. My boss knew about my food allergies, but she had no idea – no one did – that I was making them worse on purpose. When I finally said I needed to leave, I didn’t give details. At the time, I didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe what I was going through. I just knew I needed some answers.
The year since I left my job has been filled with lessons, not just about my physical and mental health, but about how I can manage a career without letting my health go by the wayside. Though I wasn’t sure how I’d do it, I knew how much I owe the Paleo community and that I needed to share my story to remind others that a health journey is just that – a journey. Finally, in the last year, I have really opened up to people about what was going on. Sometimes I read Paleo success stories that sound like, “I started the Paleo diet and my whole life improved and I do Crossfit all the tiiiiime!” That’s great, and I can’t wait to be at that point, but it’s not the whole story for everyone. After 25 years of thinking I needed to just “buck up” and deal with my problems myself, I am finally learning how to ask for help.
In fact, after this year’s Paleo f(x), I opened up for the first time with two fellow volunteers about disordered eating. I began researching possible treatment centers to address my emotional relationship with my body and with food. I made a list of treatment centers, then reached out to two friends who had dealt with substance abuse. We had never talked about their experiences (I wasn’t the type to say, “Let’s talk about ADDICTION!!”) but their willingness to be forthright with me gave me lots of hope. Even this summer, since being open with my friends about seeking treatment, I have treated my skin better than I have in the last eight years. It has to do with the accountability. And whether I end up seeking treatment or not, I will share what I learned from my research of treatment centers. I was overwhelmed by how many avenues there are for seeking help, so I will write about how I approached the process.
One thing I do know for sure is that the Paleo diet is the most important part of my life. Yes, the Paleo diet saved my life, but it still took me three years to even get close to determining the best foods for my body. In the words of Paleo blogger extraordinaire Lauryn Lax, there are “50 shades of Paleo” – just as there are 50 shades of everything. I look forward to sharing all of the ups and downs and nuances of my story. I also hope that anyone reading this will be inspired to share their story with anyone who might need help. Here’s to health journeys with happy endings.