When we put labels on our diet, we may create unnecessary limitations for ourselves. After many years of defining myself by what kind of diet I was following, I found a sort of liberation in the stripping away of those labels.
I can tell you the precise moment I decided to stop labeling my diet. I was standing in my kitchen near the refrigerator, making a chocolate cake - a recipe of my favorite TV chef. It was December and I had been binge watching her shows, getting some rest on the couch.
She is one of those celebrity chefs who uses every ingredient with wild abandon, without apology. Butter…heavy cream…bacon: all of the foods that had become "evil" in my mind.
But here I was, whisking together white flour and sugar with the butter and cream and feeling something I hadn’t felt in awhile: free.
LETTING GO OF THE LABELS
That moment was pivotal for me. It was in that moment of abandon that I saw how caged I had become in my own dogma around food choices. I realized that I never felt free because I was always judging every ingredient as good or bad, and respectively, myself and my choices around them.
Immersed joyfully in the moment of making a cake, it became clear that all of these self imposed labels were no longer serving me. Having been vegetarian for 12 years, then a carnivore, then South Beach, then a vegan, then vegetarian again, then Paleo for awhile, I was exhausted from trying to fit into a mold.
None of them fit anymore.
The truth is that the label itself rarely kept me within the confines of the diet anyway. I strayed often no matter what particular regime I was following at the moment. In retrospect, this was just another sign that the restrictions weren’t working for me.
The story doesn’t end, unfortunately, with me discovering that I, too, could cook and eat like the uninhibited TV chef without consequences. I gained 8 pounds in the month after that initial liberation.
Luckily there was another profound experience around the corner…..
THE ROLE OF FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE
When you visit a functional medicine doctor, you are signing up to have them look at almost every aspect of your life in their quest to understand your health. They will never give you a pill and send you away.
What sets functional medicine apart from conventional is the belief that all aspects of our lives, as well as all systems of our bodies, are inter connected. Each one influences the other.
So a functional medicine doctor may test your blood, order diagnostic testing like X rays or prescribe a necessary pharmaceutical. But they will also look at your sleep habits, any emotional traumas you may be dealing with, how much exercise you get, food sensitivities and much more.
It is a truly holistic approach to health.
In January I finally got an appointment with one of the country’s renowned functional medicine clinics, after being on a wait list for over a year. Both my daughter and I had been struggling for a few years with a set of strange symptoms that none of our local doctors could diagnose. Between us, we had seen over 20 doctors up to that point.
So aside from taking 14 vials of blood, assigning me a health coach and prescribing various supplements, the functional medicine doctor insisted I do an Elimination Diet as a part of her discovery process.
WHAT IS AN ELIMINATION DIET?
A typical Elimination Diet works like this: you take out the “questionable” foods for a period of time, two weeks or so, and then one by one, you reintroduce each food group. The process takes up to two months because you need space between each reintroduction.
Within the reintroduction phase, you pay careful attention to any symptoms that may come up. Those could be digestive problems, skin breakouts, itchiness all over, brain fog, headaches and so on.
So while we waited for all of the lab tests to come back, I dutifully began the two month diet that restricted the following foods: eggs, dairy, gluten, soy, alcohol, sugar, caffeine, shellfish and corn.
The plan allowed gluten free grains like brown rice; other elimination diets may restrict grains completely.
IT’S NOT EASY….
The first couple of weeks were hell. I was irritable, hungry all the time, not happy. I called my health coach and complained. But around the third week, things started to shift. Weight started to drop off. I felt more alert. I felt less inflamed in my body.
And I completely immersed myself in discovering foods that would make me as happy as the ones I wasn’t eating. Food is my craft; I am not going to eat plain food.
THE ROLE OF INFLAMMATION
Smack in the middle of my elimination diet experience, blood results came back and my daughter and I were both diagnosed with Chronic Lyme Disease with a few little co-infections alongside. Tick born illnesses are bacterial in nature and there is some thought that they dwarf into an autoimmune type syndrome when left untreated.
Following the diagnosis, I began to understand the connection between certain foods and the symptoms I was experiencing.
That connection is inflammation.
In a perfectly healthy body, food sensitivity will also cause an inflammatory response. It is often subtle or it can be pronounced enough that the person can easily identify the connection.
So someone with a sensitivity or intolerance to say, milk, may experience some gastro intestinal issues if they eat it. This may lead to a period of discomfort; but it may be something that is manageable over a lifetime.
But for someone dealing with other health issues, food sensitivities can intensely flame the fire of inflammation the body is already fighting. I realized that certain foods were exacerbating my symptoms. The Elimination Diet helped me discover that.
DISCOVERING THE “ME” DIET
But I also found something else after that two month commitment: the eating routine that works best for me cannot be easily defined or captured in one or two words. In other words, there is no perfect label for my diet.
When you do an Elimination Diet, your biggest obsession becomes: what food will I introduce back into my diet first? This is always the food you miss the most, the one you depend on most in your daily life. (Another valuable piece of information you get from this experience.)
My first food back: eggs. I couldn’t wait. Against the advice of my health coach, I knew that eggs were not causing me harm; but on the other hand, that eggs were a serious source of nutrition for me. And as I cook, I love them as a versatile ingredient.
As the weeks went on and I tested one food after the other, I was learning invaluable things about myself. My body is ok with corn. Great! I can go out for tacos once in a while with friends. My body is ok with shellfish. Great! Shrimp tacos.
I found that my body would have strong cravings for red meat every few months or so; and if I obliged it for a day or two, I would feel more energetic and the cravings would stop and I'd not need it again for awhile.
I found that my body is not ok with dairy, however. I finally understood what made my joints hurt randomly. My body is not ok with soy. Shocking! I had no idea that it was soy making me feel itchy all over and seriously inflamed.
So one food group by one, I crafted my own best diet, for my body, at this time. It doesn't fit into a neat little label. It may not look like someone else's perfect diet. It doesn't require me to pass judgement on myself for choices I may make in the moment. If I choose to have something with soy once in a awhile, no grief. I know my symptoms may flare. And I know that tomorrow is a new day and that soy is not bad and neither am I for enjoying it.
TEMPLATE FOR LIFELONG EXPLORATION
Going through a journey like the Elimination Diet teaches more than just what foods are best for your body, it gives you a template for continual discovery. Once you have learned how to clear out your diet for a period of time, reintroduce a food, pay attention to your body’s reaction and adjust your eating accordingly, this is a process you can use throughout your life.
In fact, the first phase of the Elimination Diet may just be the beginning for you, if you continue to deal with symptoms. You may get through the Elimination Diet and discover one or two sensitivities or none at all, and yet all of your problems may not resolve.
There may still be underlying sensitivities. For example, it was several months after my own journey, that I discovered I have a strange reaction to black pepper.
It is the deeper connection to my body through the Elimination Diet work that allows me to make these discoveries.
Would you like support through your own Elimination Diet experience? Next week I will be introducing a six week coaching program to guide you through the Exploration Diet, my pet name for the therapeutic Elimination Diet. It is truly a journey of discovering food sensitivities, decreasing inflammation and crafting your own personal best way of eating. For more information ahead of time, email me at email@example.com
prana is the common thread running through everything i love....the sun on my face...the sunlight through my camera.... breathing the ocean air... the sound of my breath...laughing with family + friends.