In part one of my blog kickoff series, I talked a little bit about what drove me to my current health crazed state, starting with my childhood. Now, I’m going to walk you through my college years and beyond, and share a few of the various food “diets” I’ve tried, including paleo, raw and vegan.
In 2010, I graduated from high school and accepted an offer to attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (go Niners, not Tarheels). Part of the reason that drove my decision was that I’d be joining the Charlotte cross-country/track and field team as a D1 athlete.
Unfortunately, my college running career was cut short when I started having a lot of back pain, including numbing in the back of my legs, and feet. At first I ignored it. Then there was a mis-diagnosis, and eventually, in the winter of my sophomore year, I found out I had a 75 percent slippage between the discs in my lumbar (lower spine). The medical term for this is Spondylolisthesis (try saying that even one time, let alone three times fast — I can’t!). I’ll spare you the details, but it was congenital, meaning I was born with something not properly fused on one side of my lower spine, and I didn’t know it, or else I may have rethought all of the gymnastics and dirt biking. The pain was excruciating, I was barely able to get out of bed in the morning, or attend classes, so running was off the table completely. Within a week of seeing a doctor back home in Pittsburgh, I was scheduled for surgery (a spinal fusion + bone graphs), and would have to take a semester off school.
The recovery was long and mentally taxing, and with a mix of medications and steroids, the inability to workout or exercise beyond physical therapy, and some emotional eating, I naturally gained some weight and spent the next two years in a spiral of self loathing.
Eventually, I was able to start slowly easing back into a regular workout routine, but running, as persistent as I was, was no longer a reality for me. So I turned to other forms of physical activity like HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts, swimming, weight lifting (something I grew up doing), and low impact cardio like the elliptical and stationary bike.
It was during this time in my life that I began to take an interest in my diet and began noticing all of the junk food I was eating, and could no longer eat with a semi-sedentary lifestyle.
I had a part-time babysitting gig in college, and the family whose son I watched on the weekends were very active and into health and wellness. I noticed a book on the Paleo diet in their den.
I asked to borrow it. They gladly let me. From there I was sucked into this very primal mindset of eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors. I read “The Paleo Diet for Athletes,”by Loren Cordain, an American scientist specializing in the fields of nutrition and exercise physiology, and “The Paleo Solution” by Robb Wolf, an American research biochemist, health expert, and author. Both are advocates of the Paleolithic diet and very influential among the Paleo community.
With my newfound knowledge (and obsession), I began bookmarking Paleo recipes like it was nobody’s business. You can read more about Robb Wolf and the science and research behind the Paleolithic diet here. I’ll share some of my favorite recipes on this blog. The diet consists mostly of, as I mentioned, eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, so lots of meats and healthy fats like ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, tons of veggies, and good carbs like sweet potatoes, ancient grains, brown rice, beans and legumes, etc. I also ate dairy, mostly Greek yogurt ( I was addicted). And only things that are seasonally available since our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of importing produce from other parts of the country or world. You also limit your sugar intake and processed foods. I actually did a caffeine and sugar detox at the same time one year in college (I’ll share a separate post on that experience later – it was nuts).
During this time I also did the Whole30 diet. It’s more of the same, except you cut out beans and legumes, as well as a few other things like alcohol. More on that in a later post.
Things were going fine, but I wasn’t seeing the weight loss and lean muscle gain I was hoping for, probably because I was over compensating on the carbs, with lots of oatmeal, sweet potatoes, lentils, quinoa, etc. Hey, I’m only human. But all in all, it was a good experience, and I followed this diet, er, style of eating, throughout college as well as into my first year as a working woman.
Moving from one period of transition to another, I decided to pick up my life in Charlotte, North Carolina and move to Baltimore, Md. to start a new job and also continue to “find myself.” The south was not for me, and I was desperate for something new and exciting.
Nothing says new and exciting live moving solo to a new city where you don’t know a single soul.
Things were going well with the Paleo thing, I did cut weight, lean out and gain muscle, but similar to my current life, I was bored of it. I was also partially influenced by my new roommate, who was not a fan of meat, especially how industrialized meats in the U.S. are processed and then fed to us without a care or concern for our well-being. Under her recommendations, I went on a Netflix documentary binging extravaganza, flicking through films like Fed Up (one of my all time faves), Cowspiracy, Forks over Knives, Food Inc. Vegucated, What the Health, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead (parts one and two), and perhaps some others I am forgetting.
Anyway, I became repulsed by anything cold, dead and red. I had previously not been keen on veganism, with my belief that our bodies were meant to live on animal proteins, but, youthful minds can be swayed.
Not only did I go vegan, but I went raw vegan, which means that for almost five months I ate NOTHING COOKED. I started a new Bookmark folder in Chrome, labeled “Raw Food/Vegan” and so it began. I invested in a dehydrator, a food processor, and a new attitude that could sniff out red meat eaters a mile away.
At this time I also became intensely interested in juice cleanses, first starting with the “Master Cleanse” (where you drink nothing but a mixture of water, Grade A maple syrup, cayenne pepper and lemons for an extended period of time) and then doing a three-day all juice cleanse.
Talk about mental endurance. If my goal was to push myself past my mental limits, I certainly succeeded.
But, I found it challenging to get in all of my daily nutrients and calorie intake by eating raw vegan especially when working out six days a week. I would cut corners or not meal prep and end up eating heaps of nuts, bunches of bananas and cartons of strawberries a day to try and reach my needed calories. And a lot of the recipes for raw veganism rely heavily on seeds and nuts. Cashew-based lasagna or cheese sauces, nut-based milk alternatives, nuts were in everything (and that does not bode well for the digestive tract). It also relies heavily on meal prep, and when I continued to fail at that, I was lucky to find a place in Baltimore, Zia’s cafe, an entirely raw food and juice bar that sold weekly meal plans. Their raw vegan desserts were heavenly.
I did that for a few months, but it was costly, and although I felt great for the first month or two, I started having a ton of health problems, saw a decline in my energy levels and was generally moody. Not good. And as I slowly but surely discovered, not the right food fit for me.
I found a breaking point and decided to eat some goddamn cooked foods! Enter my journey with veganism. Let me start out by saying that I am talking about my personal experiences and preferences here. I know people that are vegan and absolutely love it. I have nothing against people who follow a vegan lifestyle, that is their own right, and choice and I respect that, even if what I believe is different. OK? OK. Moving on.
There’s not much to say about being vegan other than it was fine, but heavy on the carbohydrates. I began, once again, eating a lot of chickpeas, lentils, sweet potatoes, quinoa not only because I liked them, but also because I had to meet my protein quota.
While I know that there’s plenty of protein in green leafy vegetables, and legumes/beans, I never felt like I was truly satisfying my body. Most people scoffed at my “non-meat eating habits” and for some reason, everyone loved to throw bacon in my face (not literally…that I can remember), but my fellow meat loving, bacon chomping Americans were perplexed that I could give that up.
I spent about two years being vegan, and over the course of this time, developed a variety of digestive problems and food allergies that to this day, I do not understand. For example, by a long, frustrating process of elimination, I discovered I had developed an allergy to nightshade vegetables (eggplants, all types of peppers, except for black peppercorns, which are in a different species, potatoes, and tomatoes).
I was again nutrient deficient and had seriously messed up my gut. So I started adding things back into my diet like fish and eggs to make up for my deficiencies. And eventually chicken, and grass-fed lamb, beef, and occasionally — gasp — bacon!
It’s been a long, hard journey, and I am still not completely cured of my health issues. But the one thing that has kept me going over the past four years has been intermittent fasting, a series of gut healing supplements and adaptogens, and of course the support of my friends, family and boyfriend.
I’ll stop here for now. In my third and final part to this series, I’ll spend some more time going over my experiences with intermittent fasting, why I absolutely love it, and tell you a bit about the Keto diet, and what I’ve learned about myself and about food over this nearly 26 year journey.
I’ll leave you with a delicious recipe for coconut flour pancakes that I posted on my Instagram last week. They are Paleo and Keto friendly — loaded with lots of good fats and protein and low carb thanks to coconut flour.
Step 1: Mix all your wet ingredients in a mixing bowl
Step 2: Heat your skillet while you wait
Step 3. Add your dry ingredients to the mixture, give it a good whisk/stir, but not too much. It’s better if its a bit lumpy.
Step 4: Spoon (or measure a 1/4 cup serving) the pancake mixture into your pan. Wait about 2-3 minutes. Flip and repeat.
Step 5: Remove from pan, add your desired toppings, and dig in!
Disclaimer: I am not a certified nutritionist, nor do I hold any PhD or degree in any health or fitness-related field. My blog will focus on research from other credible sources, and my personal experiences over the years being a professional collegiate athlete and a health and nutrition enthusiast. I am also not formally endorsing or receiving royalties from any food companies or brands mentioned throughout my blog.