Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Let Food Be thy Medicine

I've made no secret of my health struggles over the years, although I tend to share after the fact instead of when I'm in the midst of them. Realistically, I've been in the midst of one health issue or another since I was 22 years old when my thyroid broke.

Since my thyroid broke (and probably even before), I've always eaten with one thought in mind: the size of my butt. When I eat a vegetable I feel virtuous and my butt shrinks a tiny bit. When I eat a piece of cake I feel like a louse and my butt grows three sizes.

I realize this is a disordered way to think about food. To make matters worse, I understand nutrition. I write nutrition articles professionally. Years ago, I provided nutrition counseling as an adjunct to the personal fitness training services I offered. Because I often write about diet and nutrition professionally, I have stayed abreast of all the latest nutrition news and studies.

Therefore, to me, my difficulties with food have always felt like a huge personal failure. While I would counsel my clients that there aren't "good" and "bad" foods, I made that distinction in my own thoughts about food. While I can write about the best ways to eat for good health, I wasn't doing it myself. The convenience of a processed diet when I was too busy to cook overrode what I knew to be true about the effect of processed foods on health.

Because I've always eaten with only my weight in mind, I haven't always made the healthiest choices. When I was eating a low-carb diet to lose weight, dairy products, and aspartame were common ingredients in my meals. When I was eating low-calorie/low-fat to lose weight, my diet was high in processed starchy carbs that didn't have a lot of calories, but didn't have much fat either. For snacks I would eat the chemical-laden, low-calorie, low-fat munchies that contributed nothing to nutrition. In my quest for flavor, I turned to diet sodas.

I've known for years I have a problem with dairy products. I am allergic to casein, which is the primary protein in milk. Dairy consumption for me results in constantly clogged sinuses. I've been allergic since I was a child, although I always consumed dairy products believing the calcium in the dairy overrode any discomfort of a plugged up nose. What I didn't realize was that consuming dairy products was doing far more than plugging up my nose. That was just an outward sign of what was occurring on the inside, which was widespread inflammation in response to something my immune system had deemed an attacker.

I also have a problem with gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and some oats (those processed in plants that also process wheat, barley, and rye.) For years I've struggled with IBS, which often calms right down with a dairy-free, gluten-free diet. When I was on a low-carb diet, I naturally stopped eating gluten and a number of my health issues disappeared, including the IBS. When I returned to a "normal" diet, however, they returned. Gluten is difficult to avoid when you eat processed foods.

For the past six months, I really struggled. Daily, I experienced pain levels throughout my body of at least 5 on a scale of 5 to 10, and often much higher. I had the pain points associated with fibromyalgia. My muscles throughout my body were incredibly tight and guarded. My sinuses were plugged. My IBS was off the chart. I could barely move, and when I did, it was slowly and painfully. My energy levels were ridiculously low because I struggled with chronic anemia.

I couldn't take another moment, and I knew I needed to change.

Fortunately, all that information I had about nutrition and food finally became something I could do for myself. In the past few weeks, I've switched to a mostly non-processed, dairy-free, gluten-free, aspartame-free, soy-free, chemical-free diet. While I suspected these things were negatively affecting my health, I had no idea how much they actually did. Within a few days, I noticed changes. My sinuses cleared up (I expected that). So did my IBS, something I also expected. What surprised me, however, was how quickly everything started to feel better. As I type this, I am relatively pain free. Nothing hurts at the moment, and that's a statement I wasn't able to make for years. My energy levels are rising. I'm needing less sleep at night. My muscle tension is waning.

Food did this to me.

One one level, I knew processed foods were affecting my health to some extent. What I failed to realize - and perhaps it was denial - was that the processed foods were causing 90 percent of my pain and muscle tension. It is only now in their absence I realize just how negatively processed foods affected me.

I used weight management to justify some of the foods I ate, but I think I also used another justification, as well. I figured if our government agencies determined these chemical-laden foods were safe, surely they couldn't be doing that much damage to me. After all, I know many people who live on processed foods and energy drinks, and their health is just fine.

Just as there are people who can eat thousands of calories of junk each day, never exercise, and never gain an ounce, it appears there are people who can eat chemical-filled processed foods to their heart's desire and never experience a moment of ill health. It turns out I am not one of those people.

For the first time in my life, I realize that eating with only my weight in mind is a silly thing to do. I've changed my diet to one that is about my health and not my weight. For the moment, I physically feel so much better that my desire for processed foods is virtually nil. I've been able to turn to a diet of organic fruits and veggies, raw nuts and seeds, and small amounts of pastured animal products. I make smoothies that have greens in them. They don't make me want to throw up. I've reduced my caffeine consumption (which used to include at least two energy drinks per day just to keep me going) to a half-cup of tea per day.

While these changes have been positive, however, I realize that the most important change I've made has been how I think about food. My relationship with food has always been complex. I've always turned myself into the villain every time I took a bite of "off limits" food and the heroine when I ate the "virtuous" foods. I gave food a lot of power without ever acknowledging the true power of the foods I ate. Instead of understanding that the power of the food choices I made had to do with my health and how I felt, I believed my food choices reflected personal emotional and character weaknesses. Food, for me, was emotional instead of physical.

Hippocrates wrote, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."

Food is physical nourishment, and that is the only power it should hold in my life. If I occasionally choose a potato chip (gluten-free and dairy-free, of course), it should say no more about my character or value system other than I felt like eating a potato chip. Just as a consuming a green smoothie doesn't mean I'm a wonderful person, eating a piece of dark chocolate doesn't mean I'm a horrible one.

My thoughts about food were wrecking me physically and emotionally. Once I recognized that, it no longer became acceptable to think that way, and I made a change. The me of a few weeks ago could not have conceived how well the me of today would feel. While the choices I make about food still reflect my mental state, they are now more currently indicative of my own self-image. I deserve to be healthy, and I deserve to feel well. To me, those are far better criteria for choosing foods than the size of my butt.

1 comment:

Pamela Potter said...

So glad to hear that you're finally in a good place with food and you've found the diet that your body needs. It can be very hard to figure that out.

It is astonishing the things that the government has categorized as 'food' that our bodies realize is no such thing.

I have friends who are mothers of young girls and one of the things they all have in common is that they want to find a way to teach their daughters to have the healthy relationship with food that they've never had. I hope they are successful. Letting value judgements about the food you eat determine your self confidence is as poor a choice as letting the size of your butt determine your self worth. I want a better future for those little girls than the path we have walked. I guess it made us strong, eventually, but it's sad to have such a bad relationship with something we absolutely must have.