I grew up in quite a health-conscious family. Both my mom and dad had a parent who had heart disease (although not lifestyle-related!) so my childhood was full of home-cooked meals, fresh veggies, family dinners and little junk. Although I was a picky eater, I always loved vegetables! One of my favourite meals was tacos because after everyone was done, there was inevitably a bowl of shredded lettuce and tomatoes leftover which I couldn’t wait to polish off! And salad dressings? Hated ’em. All I wanted was an undressed salad! I was very lucky to have had such a wonderful foundation for healthy habits.
However, as far back as I can remember I always seemed to be suffering from some sort of stomach ache. These aches seemed to get worse as I entered high school. I remember begging my mom to have dinner ready by 5pm so I would be able to eat and not be nauseous for my basketball practice. Practice was at 8pm. As a nutritionist now I know that this is not optimal timing for a competitive athlete, but if I ate any closer to practice I would be nauseous, sluggish and likely throw up. Looking back now, it is clear that my digestion was totally on the fritz!
Then came university where suddenly I was no longer practicing hours a day for basketball and fuelling my body with home cooked, healthy meals. Luckily I never liked anything greasy (nutrition 101: inability to digest fat = entire digestive process is not functioning!) which ended up preventing me from gaining the freshman fifteen. I lived off chocolate milk and chocolate chip muffins for breakfast, caesar salad (no bacon) and rotisserie chicken (white meat only, no skin). Not to mention microwavable KD, microwave popcorn and Campbell’s chunky chicken soup. While not ideal, it could have been a lot worse! My dietary choices combined with an incredible amount of stress (school, poor relationship / friendship choices, working at a bar) and my perfectionist tendencies set me up for a health crisis. By 4th year, raw vegetables caused me to double over in pain and be so bloated I looked 5 months pregnant (seriously – I would have to unbutton my jeans). I would have days where I would sit down on my bed for a few minutes and not be able to get up until the next morning. Definitely not ideal when you’re trying to complete an honours biosci degree!
Towards the end of my university experience, many of the external stressors were out of my life but unfortunately I replaced those with a slight obsession for becoming the best version (read: skinniest) of myself possible. What followed was calorie restriction and exercise for calorie burning. While it was never too out of control, I did do everything possible to have a total net calories of 1500 per day. So if I ate more, I just exercised more and ate less the next day. The one great lesson I learned from this restricted-approach to eating was which foods were worth spending calories on. Nutrient dense foods were much more satisfying and kept me full way longer, so without even realizing it, I had started my journey towards a quality over quantity, nutrient-dense approach to nutrition.
At this point in my journey, I was doing everything right. We’re talking low-fat greek yogurt, chopped veggies and hummus, canned soup, whole wheat bread, Kashi cereal and limited meat. But my body was falling apart. I was experiencing debilitating digestive pains on a regular basis. The number of dates my then-boyfriend (now husband!) and I spent with me curled up on the couch, him rubbing my belly, is really ridiculous. As a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, he couldn’t help but start searching for the root cause of my pain. He casually suggested one day that I eliminate dairy from my diet for a few weeks. Boy was I irritated. I LOVED dairy. Obsessively loved it. Cheese, yogurt, milk – you name it, I loved it. As a kid I would desperately chug glasses of milk – often 2 or 3 with a meal. To this day there are certain meals that seem incomplete without a glass of milk. Little did I know that a common trick for determining a food sensitivity in a child is to find out which food they absolutely could not live without. I fit all the criteria – mild eczema and chronic ear infections as a kid, digestive pains, fatigue, bloating. Alas, I could not ignore the signs and I caved – mostly because I was desperate for some relief. This former dairy-addict became dairy-free and lo and behold, I started to experience more and more days that were symptom-free as well!
I totally embraced the concept of food sensitivities and I threw myself into learning everything possible about nutrition. I enrolled in a Holistic Nutrition program. I did some IgG food allergy testing – no food allergies came up (turns out I’m a non-responder), but it did reveal antibodies for Candida albicans, so I started experimenting. I followed an anti-candida protocol that did wonders for my health, went mostly gluten-free and dabbled in vegetarianism/veganism (I had been told it was the healthiest way of living and I was already dairy free, so why not?). My digestion continued to improve and I was starting to feel pretty darn good. However, a new concern popped up.
About 5 years ago I started experiencing migraines. I had just started working in admin at a hospital and associated it with poor ergonomics, bad lighting and the need for glasses. I had made it through 4.5 years of university without needing glasses, so something about that idea didn’t resonate with me. In hindsight, the development of these migraines, and their progressive worsening from occasional to 3-4 times per week, flat on my back from 3pm til I went to bed, coincides perfectly with my experimenting with vegetarianism.
Fast-forward 3 years.
I was working with a naturopath, was entirely gluten-free and completed a second anti-candida protocol that was much stricter and included a very slow food-reintroduction phase. Maybe it was because I was desperate to figure out my migraine triggers and had already ruled out all of the typical ones (weather, hormones, coffee, chocolate), or maybe I had finally developed that mind body connection that would allow me to really listen to what my body was telling me – whatever it was, I was ready, I was listening and my body told me what was hurting it. Drumroll please….
What??? I was so excited to reintroduce beans after my anti-candida cleanse take 2, because I was hell bent on being mostly vegetarian and couldn’t wait for a beans and rice dish! Within 10 minutes I had developed a devastating headache that had me curled up in a ball in tears, desperate for relief. I was shocked. But I was also excited and empowered. I thought it was crazy to be allergic to something so healthy. I thought I must be the only one in the world allergic to beans! I hopped on Google to start searching dairy-free, gluten-free, bean-free recipes and (insert glass-shattering noise here) I discovered a way of eating that would forever change my life.
The Paleo Diet.
I had heard of it, but had thought it ridiculous, because they ate too much bacon. It was really an excuse to eat copious amounts of bacon in my opinion. Saturated fat and no whole grains? Come on. That is SO not healthy. But I stayed open minded, started making healthy paleo recipes, and started feeling better. The more research I did, the more I realized that all of these nutrition truths that I had learned in school (vegan = healthy, saturated fat = heart disease, whole grains = best food ever) were based on professional opinion and not rooted in science.
So where am I at today? I am currently obsessed with fuelling my body with the healthiest (for me), most nutrient-dense, natural foods possible. For me that means a mostly paleo diet – green veggies galore, starchy veggies, grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, some fruit, nuts, seeds and a TON of healthy fats (coconut in all forms, grass-fed lard, bacon-grease, avocados, some olive oil). Most importantly I don’t stress about being a perfectionist. That is no way to live! Yes there are some foods that are non-negotiable for me such as cow-dairy, beans and gluten. But there are other foods that I can absolutely enjoy in moderation such as rice (white works better for me!),
quinoa, corn, sugar and even small amounts of chick peas and lentils. (UPDATE: whole grains and legumes are no longer food I dabble in. Check out this updated post on my health journey. Including my take on eating ethically raised meat.)
My health journey certainly had a lot of ups and downs, and I continue to heal my body from years of unintentional damage. But I wouldn’t change a thing. Health is just that – a journey. The experiences I had, and continue to have, make up a huge part of me. Little did I know they were guiding me towards my calling. Thanks to everything I went through, I now have a successful holistic nutrition consulting practice, located in Whitby Ontario, where I coach others on healing their body through food and most importantly, learning to listen to their body and what it is asking for. Out of that, this blog was born. The purpose of this blog is to chronicle my on-going journey with my health; catalogue recipes that I have developed or tried from other sources; review new research and clinical experiences; and share my experiences with living the healthiest, most environmentally-friendly, sustainable life possible.