It was well over a decade ago. She had just had an operation for breast cancer and was radically changing her diet to exclude sugar and other processed foods that feed cancer. When she handed us a book called Potatoes Not Prozac, we thanked her and kept the book around the house, unread.
We thought that she may benefit from a radical diet change, but we were doing ok with our brownie mixes and fresh egg knot rolls and pecan pie. After all, we ate fruits and vegetables and considered ourselves fairly healthy eaters. Lots of people ate what we did and didn't have cancer, and we frankly didn't believe we needed to change such ingrained habits. Sometimes you just need a...cookie, glass of wine, bowl of cereal, cone of ice cream, bagel...fill in the blank for you. Her diet evangelism sadly fell on deaf ears.
It wasn't until an integrative medicine MD from the Cleveland Clinic told me to try cutting out sugar and most carbs that I ever thought of making such a brutal transition. I was desperate after 5 years of severe POTS and debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to try something new that would improve my quality of life. I remember asking skeptically - "Have your CFS patients really gotten better doing this?" The doctor nodded and offered me a potent prescription anti-fungal and a diet change. I chose the latter, the one least likely to put me in the hospital.
I won't lie; it was terribly hard at first. I had no idea what to eat, so I ate very little. After all, I had previously survived mostly on cereal and juice and macaroni and (fake) cheese. So without any experience, this new diet basically looked like a grilled chicken breast and steamed broccoli every night. Not. Very. Appealing.
But the results were unreal. I suddenly had some clarity of thought. The clouds of constant dizziness began to part. I thought back to Brian and his wise mom Carol, years before I crashed and burned with POTS. I finally read the book she gave us. They had had the answers to my problems then, and I hadn't listened. But why?
Now that years have gone by and people hear about my progress or see the color back in my face as I dance at my own wedding, they marvel - what has caused this? And when I say mainly my diet - when I say that sugar and gluten and grains and processed foods are doing you no favors, they smile and think it's great for me. They smile just like I smiled at Brian's mom. "She's chronically ill. She needed it," they think. They don't want to change their own diet because eating sugar feels good, because it is safe and comfortable. It helps them cope. It's easy. I know because it's how I felt and limped along for years.
What is the best diet?
There are a number of "diets" out there that claim to be the one to follow. No one diet is perfect or best, but these all have the central idea of gut healing in common:
GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome)
SCD (Specific Carbohydrate Diet)
FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols) - I had to look that one up!
These options are great because you can pick the diet that fits your lifestyle best and build off of it - meaning use it as a skeleton and find what foods in that plan work for you and which ones don't. (I still don't do well with chia or quinoa, but there is nothing wrong with eating them if you can.)
So what if you MUST have a pancake or a muffin?
The diets give you recipe ideas, and the people who follow them form an automatic online support community that can help you find substitutes and alternatives. Cookbooks are written about these diets that give you options for treats you crave but won't send your blood sugar soaring.
My favorite baking recipes are written by:
Danielle recovered from severe chronic illness by changing her diet and healing her gut. She shares her grain-free recipes to help others trying to do the same.
What are some typical breakfast options?
Breakfast (if I'm up that early! ha!) has been notoriously difficult for me. I usually combine breakfast and lunch and just have eggs and Applegate turkey bacon and some low-sugar fruit. I completely avoided fruit at first but added small amounts of low-sugar fruit (berries or Granny Smith apples with almond butter or cashew butter) back in as I was able to tolerate.
Homemade cranberry relish is a great immune booster: blend organic cranberries, orange, pineapple, and green apple in a blender or Vitamix until chunky relish forms. As for juice, I didn't drink any at all for years. I finally got unsweetened cranberry juice to make Great Lakes Gelatin, and if I dilute it, that has been ok to drink sparingly.
Brunch can also be leftovers - anything from stir-fry to meatloaf. All of these make great first meals. A breakfast scramble with butternut squash and chicken sausage is satisfying for brunch or dinner.
An almond flour muffin (like these I adapted from Elena's Pantry) will give a great start to the day with a cup of herbal tea. [To this recipe, I added a 1/4 cup coconut oil (or organic palm shortening) and 1/4 teaspoon salt with lemon zest and blueberries]
Recently, I've also been enjoying this Paleo cereal with unsweetened almond milk and some organic raisins (though raisins are high in sugar, so I try to use them sparingly!) It is an expensive cereal, so I found it on sale through a free trial at Thrive Market. (If you want to make your own, this granola tastes great as a cereal.)
So how much will this cost?
Cost is an issue when eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Wild salmon is 19.99 a pound. Organic produce costs more than conventional. What if eating grass-fed meat isn't affordable?
This is a valid concern. When I started eating this way, I was not able to work, so I could not pay for my food. I had to have family support to buy groceries, find recipes, and do the physical prep work with these healthy ingredients so that I could gain the strength to start doing it myself. Now that I am buying and preparing the produce and specialty foods, I can try to offer some suggestions to help with cost.
- Look at the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists to find out which foods you should always buy organic and which ones you can compromise on.
- Load up on local, in-season, high-fiber produce more than meat. Make the bulk of your meal vegetables, and if possible, have meatless days. The fiber from the veggies and the healthy fat used to cook them will fill you up more than you think! (Check out the cauliflower crust pizza below which can be made without meat.)
- Buy fish like Verlasso salmon that is well raised but doesn't cost what the premium wild fish does. When you do buy the wild fish, you can buy it canned or fresh, remembering that divided up into individual servings, it breaks down to the cost of a burrito from a local chain restaurant but with powerful health benefits!
- Avoid processed shortcut foods out of a box or jar and avoid restaurants to cut down on costs and to avoid digestive setbacks.
- Buy a whole organic chicken (which may seem like a lot) but then after roasting, use the leftover meat in a new dish the next day, like a paleo pot pie with some celery and carrots. Or you could add the leftovers with canned tomatoes and spices to whip up some chicken tacos or enchiladas. The carcass can then be used for bone broth or soup. Once you factor all these meals in, the purchase of the chicken stretches over the week.
- Intersperse cheaper cuts of meat like humanely raised Gerber chicken thighs.
- Eat smaller portions of meat or use meat in stir fry so you don't have to buy as much to fill up.
- Whenever you see a treat or specialty item, think about whether you can make your own. Buying some raw almonds and making your own almond butter is a lot less money than ordering an expensive jar.
- Finally, realize that the investment you make in your food and your body will help you avoid costly medications and doctor visits down the road. I look at food as my medicine, and when that is my motivation, I cook more and make it a financial priority to eat well.
What do anti-inflammatory dinners look like?
I have relaxed my strict Paleo standards a bit so you will see a little (organic) rice in these pictures, but when I started, I ate the recipes without the starches entirely and doubled up on veggies. Here are some favorite meals at my house:
Grass-fed hamburgers with roasted potatoes (or yam) with turmeric, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Frozen organic broccoli.
Baked spaghetti squash with browned grass-fed meat mixed with jarred organic tomato basil sauce from the local store.
Organic salad greens from a box with sauteed chicken tenders, sliced avocado, tomato, and cucumber. Dressing mixed in a small bowl: organic olive oil and raw apple cider vinegar with garlic powder, Dijon mustard, Himalayan salt, and pepper.
Pork or turkey tenderloin (with fresh rosemary, salt, pepper, and garlic powder) in a grill pan with frozen organic peas
Wild salmon (or Verlasso) baked in parchment paper (15 minutes!) with garlic powder, lemon or lime zest/juice, salt and pepper. Baked yam and steamed zucchini.
Grass-fed meatloaf with cauliflower "mashed potatoes" and peas
Blackened cod with avocado/mango salsa and asparagus from this recipe
Using the leftovers of a roasted chicken for a Paleo (almond flour biscuit) chicken pot pie with Brussels sprouts and spaghetti squash
The Daniel Plan
this recipe but using arrowroot powder instead of cornstarch and Tamari (gluten-free) instead of soy sauce
corn tortillas*, (*I have avoided corn until just recently and may continue to avoid it. This can also be put on a Paleo Wrap (haven't tried yet!) or a rice flour tortilla, or a bed of lettuce for taco salad.) Seasoning mixed by us rather than using a packet:
2 Tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 dashes cayenne
As you can see, there is a wide variety of food that will make an anti-inflammatory diet a joy rather than a burden.
Green Soup - parsley, swiss chard, and collard greens blended with caramelized onions, garlic, lemon, and chicken broth - an awesome dinner. All of these meals came through trial and error. I am constantly finding new recipes, reevaluating what agrees with me and what doesn't, and keep coming back to the core of bone broth, green veggies, and healthy protein and fats. Some known inflammatory foods will likely stay out of my diet forever (gluten, high sugar/processed foods like candy and cereal, conventional dairy). Some foods I have experimented with adding back in - gluten-free Udi bread, organic fingerling potatoes, and organic rice. Ultimately, I want to keep healing, and so I press on with creative ways of eating what I can while living happily without what made me ill. It's worth the cost, time, sacrifice, and energy to eat better in order to promote true healing.
And if I want a sweet bite at the end of a meal, I can always turn here. After all, a little quality chocolate can make a big difference!