My Journey of Healing with Food
Many people have asked why I chose to change my diet. And since our culture seems to be addicted to dieting, clamoring to one said diet can cause puzzling looks from friends, and even family.
For me, it started when I was a pre-teen. I started experiencing food intolerances, intense seasonal allergies, severe acne, digestive issues, menstrual issues, mood swings, weight fluctuation, and anxiety. My trusted doctors assured me food allergies, pimples, cramps, and cravings were just part of being a teenager, and that I should get used to it, or take hormonal birth control, or cocktail of prescription medications.
I grew up eating "everything in moderation"; everything being pasta, fresh mozzarella with garden-grown basil, homemade cookies, fresh vegetables, soppressata, ciabatta bread, minestrone soup, ice cream, and the list goes on. One of the deeply held beliefs I grew up with was that Italians are healthy because we cook with garlic and olive oil, and because we eat a wide array of meat, fish, vegetables, and carbs. I used to pride myself on my detachment from soda and fast food, and I feel lucky that my parents cooked a meal for us to eat together every night. In reality, I had no idea how much the foods I was relying on for nutrition were actually depriving me of living my life to the fullest, but you just don't know until you know.
There is nothing more jarring than experiencing firsthand the illness of a family member. My mom has suffered for so many years with a rotation of multiple autoimmune diseases. She has seen countless doctors, suffered many afflictions, and felt crazy half the time, as if it were all in her head. She finally found a doctor who was able to reduce half of the symptoms she had for years in just a few weeks, and the doctor ordered a change in diet.
Our entire family freaked out. We are Italian Americans, after all. No pizza on Friday nights? No pasta on Sundays? Blasphemy! Seriously, it was difficult to accept this news at the time. It was as if a piece of our heritage, the very fabric of our traditions, was forcibly rejected. And then, suddenly, my mom looked younger, and had enviable energy. The simple elimination of a slew of so-called inflammatory foods, and supplementation with crock pots full of bone broth and additional vitamins, minerals, and herbs, and she said she felt better than she had in her entire life.
During my engagement to Stephen, he was deeply supportive of finding the root cause of my health concerns and severe PMS, so he accompanied me to an Ob-Gyn who was known for helping women with similar symptoms. After some blood work and other tests, I was diagnosed with endometriosis and the very next words out of the doctor's mouth were, "so, when do you want to schedule the surgery?" Something in my gut was telling me not to go through with it. I didn't like the manner in which he recommended it, and I had to trust that. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed, discouraged, and indignant. That was the moment I decided I had nothing to lose. I could test a change in diet in hopes of seeing the slightest difference in how I felt, and if it didn't work I was going to schedule the surgery. Right around then, paleo / ancestral diets were beginning to resurface. The only problem was revolutionizing the eating habits I had spent a lifetime forming.
Lucky for me, I was able to learn about health and its relation to food, really for the first time, after reading Dr. Loren Cordain's book The Paleo Diet (2010 revision) to prepare myself for the journey ahead. Yes, I had seen the change in my mom's symptoms, but I was still skeptical and a bit pessimistic. To my surprise, there was a wave of research backing claims that an ancestral, paleolithic, traditional food diet, which eliminates sugar, alcohol, conventional dairy, gluten, and processed foods, could not only reduce inflammation, but renew fertility. More than anything in the entire world, I always hoped to have children, and I determined the diet change was worth a shot [RIP, penne alla vodka].
After 2 weeks of going without gluten, dairy, soy, and processed foods a.k.a anything in the center aisles of the grocery store, my clothes fit better, my acne went away, and I had incredible energy. I felt like a kid again, with spitfire confidence that sends children running around for no apparent reason. After just 1 month, I stopped having headaches, food cravings, mood swings, and felt rested after sleeping 8 hours, rather than exhausted after sleeping for 10. 1 year later I stopped experiencing PMS symptoms altogether; no cravings, no cramps, no bloating. Everyone commented on my clear skin, slimmer figure, and overall cheery attitude. 2 years after eating a mostly gluten, grain, soy, dairy, sugar, nightshade, and alcohol-free diet (unless it was a special occasion), I was able to conceive my daughter (without the surgery).
I never thought my health was something I had a role in, since I spent much of my life feeling victim to an endless list of symptoms, and I definitely did not believe that food was culprit. Sure, any lifestyle change comes with challenges, whether personal hurdles or external pressure from our communities, "you can't have just one bite?" or "are you just doing this to lose weight?". And yes, I miss the foods I grew up eating. Not only that, but I had to learn to cook an entirely new cuisine! There is a silent vulnerability in sharing a dish made with love by a friend or family member, and the bonding that comes with eating together. I cringe when I have to reveal what I can or can't eat in social settings, but I've gotten accustomed to hosting at my own home or bringing food with me to social events.
So you may be left wondering, what do I eat? And how on earth am I not hungry all the time? Through a lot of trial and error, research, and support from my friends and family, I have found foods that I can still share and bond over, without the disabling side-effects. You will see the recipes I share here reflect that. Artful cookbooks that support my dietary restrictions have been immensely helpful, and I wrote about those here. My journey of healing is just that, and it is on-going. There are times I indulge and it sets me back, or I unknowingly eat something that triggers my symptoms, so do not picture me as the epitome of health. What I do know, is that something as trivial as removing a few foods to see if it changes how you feel is definitely worth a shot.
If you, like I was, are skeptical and want to know more, feel free to reach out in the comments or send me a private email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I only share my stories to encourage, inform, and bring light to issues that so many people, especially women, are living with without knowing a work around. Find a doctor who can work with you, who is trained well and knows both conventional and alternative methods of healing. The resources below are websites and books I learn from. Please share any others you recommend in the comments below!