Yesterday morning a friend wrote to me via email and asked lots of questions about my recent sugar detox. I thought it made sense to answer in a blog post, because I’ve had interest from quite a few others throughout the three-week process – as well as before I started the detox – regarding my newfound Paleo lifestyle.
This post is meant to inform others who might be interested in making similar lifestyle changes, as well as to remind me of the progress I’ve made, and to keep myself on track mentally. One of the greatest pieces of advice I can give to anyone attempting major dietary or health changes is to figure out the answer to “why” before anything else. If you aren’t able to positively state your motivation, how can you stay motivated? Below, I’ll explain why I’ve made the changes that I have, what those changes are, what I’ve learned from it all, and what differences I’ve seen in my health as a result.
I’ve lived with frequent migraines and unexplainable fatigue for years. I’ve had every test done that you can imagine – thyroid, hormones, blood sugar, sonogram, MRI – and each more than once. My tests have always come back with normal and even “better than normal” results. I’ve been told that the cause of my symptoms is depression and/or chronic fatigue syndrome – neither of which I actually believed that I had, but that I agreed to take anti-depressants for because “the doctor knows best.” The medications never seemed to help, and most likely caused more problems each time I’d switch and start a new one. I’ve popped 3 Advil for everything from headache to joint pain to general feeling of unwell several times per week for as long as I can remember. It’s always made me so angry that I’m a perfectly healthy, young, active (okay, not so much in the past year or so, but I always had been!) woman but I have to feel like crap much of the time. Why? No one could answer that. I’ve had doctors tell me to take a vitamin, so I’ve tried that, along with other supplements. Even when I was 15 lbs lighter and running marathons – nothing ever changed.
Around January of 2013 I started experiencing additional, new symptoms. Bloating, painful stomach cramps, gas all day long, and rarely a “normal” bowel movement. I would go 2 or 3 days with diarrhea and then 1 or 2 days completely constipated. Some days, the pain was so severe I’d feel dizzy and nauseated. I couldn’t imagine what was causing it and started to fear that something was really wrong with me.
Last July I had a nine-day migraine that ended on July 5th. The very next day, I ordered The Paleo Answer by Dr. Loren Cordain. I had read a few articles about Paleo, and had seen photos of delicious meals prepared by a friend who follows the Paleo lifestyle on Facebook and Instagram. What really caught my attention was the focus on phrases like “whole” foods, “clean” eating, and the elimination of processed foods. I knew after years of hearing doctors tell me that I was perfectly healthy, the only other answer to my feeling lousy had to lie in the foods I eat. I’d just never been ready to cut out any of my favorite foods before then. It took those nine days of excruciating pain to finally push me to drastic (what I viewed at the time as drastic) measures. When the book arrived, I read it in one sitting, and for about six weeks, I barely strayed from the plan. It was somehow very easy for me to follow and maintain, and I experienced very few cravings. I lost 8 lbs over the course of 6-8 weeks, felt more energetic than usual (although not exactly bursting with energy), and the frequency and duration of my migraines decreased.
I thought for sure that switching to the Paleo diet should have cured my recent digestive issues, but it didn’t. By August, eating Paleo had reduced the frequency and severity of my migraines and given me noticeably more energy – but my gut was out of control – and it hasn’t stopped since.
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around in 2013, my gut symptoms were at their worst. I started falling off the Paleo wagon, mostly due to the holiday feasts all around, but also because I was discouraged about how poorly I was feeling with regard to digestion and intestinal discomfort. I finally decided to see a gastroenterologist in December. At the same time, I ordered Diane Sanfilippo’s 21-Day Sugar Detox and decided to read it slowly, more than once, and seriously prepare mentally and materially to embark on this program after the holidays – and that’s what I did. I started the detox on Monday, 1/6 and ended it on Sunday, 1/26.
There is no short cut to reading everything you can get your hands on before changing your diet. Understanding the science and history behind what you’re doing will make the difference in whether you ultimately quit or not. Knowing just what happens to your body as a result of eating the wrong foods is the best motivator for eating well. Also, each person is different. You may choose to continue to eat certain things that I won’t – it’s all about finding out what works for you and your optimal health. I suggest reading several books that appeal to you based on the various dietary guidelines and then pick and choose what makes the most sense for you, personally.
Everyone keeps asking how I did it, and whether or not it’s been easy. The truth is, there’s no magic answer to this. All I can do is share my experience and hope it helps in some way. If I had to put my main thoughts and findings into a few bullets or categories, here is what I’d come up with:
I’ve cut out from my diet entirely:
- Cheese, yogurt (I still eat milk, cream, butter, eggs)
- Peanut butter
- Refined Sugar
- Packaged meals or any pre-made sauces, spreads etc. – some items like chicken sausage, broths, etc. are unavoidable, but I just read the ingredients and make the best choices.
- Grains of any sort
What I do daily:
- Eat vegetables with every meal, and eat a wide variety in each meal
- Eat more starchy vegetables like sweet potato, parsnips, yams
- Eat fruit (I’d always hated fruit before going Paleo) – but be mindful of the amount
- Eat healthy fats with every meal – coconut oil, olive oil, butter, avocado
- Prepare on the weekends so that I’m not left starving and too tired to cook during the week
- Avoid sugar!
- Read ingredients – NOT labels!
- I will not eat anything that has an unnatural or chemical ingredient on the packaging.
- Buy organic whenever possible
- Buy grass-fed whenever possible
I will allow myself to eat certain things on my “No” list from time to time, but I’ll always make the best attempt to limit these to special occasions. I’ve learned that I am completely capable of passing up my “favorites”, even during my period, which has always been a struggle.
My skin – over my face and entire body – has never, ever been so clear. I’ve always had cystic acne, and even when there were no visible zits, I could always feel bumps just below the skin waiting to come out. For the past two weeks however, I feel nothing under the skin – I’ve never had so many compliments on my complexion. This month, I had no PMS breakout (truly groundbreaking!), and I’ve stopped using my prescription topical medication for acne entirely.
I do not see this experience as over – I’ll be learning and making adjustments as time goes on. I’m now 4 lbs away from my first weight loss goal – a goal I haven’t been able to reach in at least 14 years, and which would put me just below my 2011 wedding day weight. I know I’ll continue to be strict until I’ve reached that goal, but as time passes, I find it easier to see myself making these changes permanently, rather than just steps I’m taking to reach a set goal.
Today I had a colonoscopy as the final test in a series run to determine the cause of my “gut” issues. Everything went very well. The doctor took a biopsy from two sections, but he feels confident that nothing will turn up. From what he could see today, I’m cancer, colitis and polyp free – which is all fantastic news. I’m convinced that staying on track with this diet, and finding better ways to deal with emotional or mental stress, are the keys to my digestive health.
Here are the answers to a few specific questions asked in the email from my friend yesterday:
- How hard was it?
It hasn’t been hard for me – not back in July when I started Paleo or since January 6th when I started this 21-day detox. The reason is simply because I was ready. I was sick of feeling tired and in pain, and sick of being 10-15 lbs overweight – just enough to not be comfortable wearing certain things I wanted to, and enough to keep me feeling consistently lethargic. You have to figure out what your motivation is and remind yourself of that. You have to prepare mentally by reading, and making sure that you have a good support system around you. I’ll be honest – I think this whole process was easier for me than it will be for others for several reasons:
a.) I don’t have kids. I don’t think I need to explain to those of you with kids why it’s easier to be on a diet without kids around! The temptation to eat their snacks is the least of it.
b.) My husband is fully supportive and eats the same diet.
c.) I live in NYC where it’s very easy to find whole, organic, gluten-free, dairy free whatever…whenever.
d.) I’m very happy in my life – I feel extremely satisfied and grounded, and have an amazing relationship with my husband. If you’re dieting because you think it will help you to reach some goal (find a partner, look good on vacation, etc.) other than living a more healthful life, you may have a tougher time staying motivated and may set yourself up for failure. If you have major sources of emotional pain or stress in your life, you might find something like this difficult to do. If that’s the case, I’d suggest taking steps toward mental and emotional health – therapy perhaps – along with the lifestyle changes.
2. Was there a lot of prep each day?
No, not each day – but yes, on the weekends. On Sundays, I make a pot of soup or chili for the week, a big salad (“you know, like a regular salad, only bigger, with a lot of stuff in it”), and a breakfast quiche – these all take care of breakfast and lunches for 5 days or so. We try our best to cook dinner at home each night. For the detox, we were strict about this. Now that it’s over, we’ll dine out again more often.
3. Are there enough recipes to keep you going? Interested?
Absolutely! There is no end to the amount of Paleo/Sugar free cookbooks out there, and the Internet has everything you could imagine. Just plug in “Paleo” before any recipe you’re missing, and I guarantee you’ll find a substitute that will satisfy.
4. How different was the food from what a normal person not eating the Paleo diet would eat?
That’s hard to say –everyone’s diet is so different. Saul and I started eating a diet very similar to the South Beach plan several years ago, so cutting back further on carbs wasn’t difficult. The reason Paleo is so much better for me than South Beach is that it allows you to eat a much higher number of carbs, so your energy remains higher. You can make loads of bread, cookies, muffins etc. with nut flours and get the same satisfaction, and you can have sweet potatoes and carrots galore…very high carb foods that provide energy but are not allowed on South Beach. The biggest challenges for me were cutting out cheese and mayo – two staples I used to literally eat with every meal. I don’t miss them. The more you eat whole, healthy foods, the less you crave things that you know aren’t doing you any good.
5. I assume you read the book – is it easy to understand? Motivating?
I’ve read several books, and do not recommend that you try any of this until you read them too! They’re all very easy to follow and extremely motivating! The three essentials are the two I’ve linked above, and also Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo. Read these three before even shopping for this plan!
I’ll be happy to answer any more questions you may have in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!