My Journey to Food Freedom
By: Brooke Adams Law
Brooke Adams Law is an experienced copywriter and consultant who works with online business owners to optimize their web and sales copy so they can attract and engage their tribe. Find her at www.brookeadamslaw.com.
I’ve never really had a problem with my weight (except for the common experience of newly-minted college students, where I gained ten pounds freshman year of college, and lost it sophomore year). And I’ve always been confident about how I look … at least, when I’ve been thin. Although I lost all my baby weight fairly quickly after having my son two years ago, lots of things (namely, my boobs, tummy, and hips) never went back to how they looked pre-baby.
But back in 2012, when I was commuting nearly four hours a day from my home in Long Island to my office in Long Island City, I started having problems with my energy. Simply put, I was completely exhausted when I got home at 7 p.m. (or 9 p.m. on Tuesdays, when I worked late for a weekly event). I was hardly working out, and I felt like I had to spend the whole weekend recovering from the work week, despite the fact that I’d negotiated working from home on Fridays. There was no real explanation, but I was beyond wiped out most of the time.
So when I heard about the book It Starts with Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways, by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, I ate it up, especially because it promised a huge increase in energy, which I desperately needed, among all of the other positive results it touted.
You may have heard of Whole30: it’s a 30-day strict paleo reset diet where you remove all grains, dairy, legumes (including soy and all soy products), added sugar, and alcohol from your diet for 30 days with no cheats and no excuses. The Whole30 has some additional strictures: constraining fruit intake to 1-2 servings per day; no fruit juice, except as a sweetener; three meals a day with no snacks in between; and no paleofied treats (i.e., no paleo fudge, no paleo brownies, no paleo pancakes - not even if they’re made with Whole30-approved ingredients).
This was wildly radical to me. At the time, I was eating what I thought was a pretty standard American “healthy-girl” diet: Kashi cereal with fruit and skim milk for breakfast; turkey sandwich or leftovers for lunch; granola bars, pretzels and yogurt for snacks; and pasta, rice, veggies, meat, cheese and fish as ingredients for dinner.
But I plunged into the Whole30, telling myself that this was going to make all the difference, particularly, again, with my exhaustion.
I was miserable for the first week. On day three, I was sitting in a meeting, and my co-worker brought in a bowl of cookies for everyone to share...and put them on the table right in front of me. I almost started drooling from the smell of the chocolate and butter. But I stood firm.
I completed the 30 days like a true soldier - not a single slip. I avoided alcohol when we took my cousins beer tasting and brought my own lunch to a staff meeting where I knew the options for my diet would be slim.
And I felt amazing. I was on top of the world! My skin was glowing. I was sleeping better. I had energy at the end of the day to start running again.
I resolved to basically skip the reintroduction period, which is the protocol in which you add back in each food category to test how your own body reacts to it, and keep eating Whole30-ish for the rest of my life (which, by the way, is not recommended by the program creators). I felt so amazing that I just wanted to hold on to that feeling, no matter what. But this desire to control every eating choice so I could control my health so closely would, I learned, definitely backfire.
Over the next four years, I would complete four more strict Whole30s, but I never had the same great results again. And I started feeling guilty about eating off-plan foods - even if I didn’t have any adverse effects. I felt bad for enjoying ice cream or chocolate, something I had never struggled with before. (My motto once was, “I never say no to a piece of cake.”) I felt bad for eating my mother-in-law’s dumplings or rice with my Thai takeout or chili that had beans in it.
I also became way more judgmental in my own mind. When I heard someone was on Weight Watchers, I’d sniff and think, They just need to eat paleo. I was completely convinced that paleo was the only right way to eat for everyone.
I was becoming a fundamentalist when it came to diet.
During this time I also continued to struggle with some health concerns that had my doctors stumped. Eating a strict, “clean” paleo diet was my way of controlling one aspect of my health. I noticed that I didn’t always feel great after eating certain things, like a restaurant meal with pork that was technically paleo, or short ribs (which I loved). But adhering to the diet - rather than to my own body and what I felt was right for me - felt like the only control I had over my health in a situation where no doctor could tell me anything constructive that would help me to feel better.
I knew things were OUT of control, though, when I did one more Whole30, in January 2017. At the time, I had an eight-month-old son who had a bad case of eczema, so cooking every single meal was a serious commitment. But I was convinced that if I just ate perfectly, I would be able to address my health concerns.
I became stricter than I’d ever been, refusing to eat out at all during the whole month so I could control every single ingredient, and throwing out vinegars that had sulfites in them. Looking back, it’s very concerning how rigid my eating plan was, but I was doing it all in the name of health - and I was certainly eating enough, so it was all fine, right? When the month finished and I didn’t feel any different physically after all that work and white-knuckled control, I knew it was time to look for a different path.
At that time, I was finally diagnosed with chronic fatigue caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. The virus, which causes mono (which I had in high school), can in some patients partially reconstitute itself as chronic fatigue.
I did some research and found a suggested diet protocol to address some of my symptoms. The protocol recommended essentially the opposite of the paleo diet: a vegan, low-fat eating plan, including beans and some grains, with a ton of fruit.
I remember tensing up when I read the recommendations, which included green smoothies, eating every few hours, and literally eating a bowl of fruit for breakfast. I can’t do that!! Against the plan! Plus I’ll be starving if I don’t eat enough fat and protein! But then I thought: what do I have to lose? The answer was, nothing.
So I made myself a meal with no animal protein for the first time in literally four years. I ate a giant salad and then, remembering the encouragement to eat more fruit, ate two or three figs. Then five or six more.
The whole time over the prior few years that I was feeling sick and super fatigued, I needed to rest periodically throughout the day - but I could never actually nap. That afternoon, when my son went down for his nap, I fell asleep and slept hard for about an hour. I woke up feeling more rested than I’d felt in years.
The protocol recommended a 30-day reset, which I flat-out refused to do and have still never done. I’m finished with any kind of strict reset. Instead, I changed my diet little by little, trying a fruit-based breakfast, adding some fruit and veggie snacks throughout the day.
My health improved day by day. But more than that, my mindset improved.
I no longer let anyone tell me what I can and can’t eat. I no longer feel guilty for indulging in ice cream or chocolate. I eat white rice whenever I feel like it. The only “rule” I follow now is that I eat gluten-free - and that’s simply I’ve decided to do that, because every time I eat gluten, it has side effects that make me miserable (headaches, sinus congestion, irritability, and digestive discomfort).
Here’s the truth: I’ve gained about five pounds since going off paleo. If I eat strictly vegan and avoid alcohol for a week or two, I tend to lose that weight - but I’ve decided that I’ll trade an extra five pounds to be able to eat my husband’s home-smoked char siu (Chinese barbecue pork), take my son out for ice cream once a week, and have an occasional glass of wine. In other words, the quality of my life is more important to me than the size of my waistline.
Food freedom (for me) looks like this: I drink a green juice most mornings and eat a fruit-based breakfast. I eat produce snacks throughout the day and have a salad every day for lunch. For dinner I’ll make gluten-free pasta (an amazing luxury after all those years of more cooking-intensive paleo meals), vegetarian taco bowls, or the occasional meat dish. And whenever the opportunity arises to eat something that looks delicious and that I want to eat, I eat it. No guilt, no calorie counting, and no judgment - either of myself or the people around me.