(Created as a guest post for TheLife and Times of Lucy in Da Sky With Diamonds)
I did not use a Paleo Diet to lose 120 pounds. Instead, I lost the first 100 pounds following a standard Low-Carb Diet. In fact, I lost those 100 pounds twice. In spite of working so hard to lose weight, depriving myself of foods I craved and getting plenty of exercise, I was not healthy. Even though I looked better on the outside, I was getting sicker and sicker–until I found Paleo. I lost the last 20 pounds following a Paleo Diet; but more importantly, I regained my health.
My name is Sarah Ballantyne. I was a medical researcher before becoming a full-time stay-at-home mom and the blogger behind www.thepaleomom.com. I blog about my own experiences following the Paleo Diet Autoimmune Protocol, transitioning my husband and two daughters to a Paleo Diet, and the amazing recipes that I come up with. I am also passionate about providing approachable explanations of the science concepts behind the Paleo Diet. I spend much of my free time researching the many nuances of the paleo diet, as well as the other aspects of a paleo lifestyle; including: exercise, sleep, stress management, support networks, and sun exposure. This accumulating knowledge has helped me form a better understanding of why I wasn’t healthy following a Low-Carb Diet. And it has helped me to see the links between the different health issues that I suffered in my early twenties to early thirties.
As a self-conscious and solidly-built kid, I thought I was fat long before I actually was. It was my attempts to lose weight by following the conventional diet wisdom of the late-eighties (low-fat, high-carb, calorie-restricted) that really did me in. I constantly felt deprived while my weight yo-yoed more up than down. Overall, I gained 10-30 pounds per year throughout my entire teen years, until I hit my heaviest weight in my early twenties of 265lbs (I’m a little shy of 5’6” so that made me a plus size 26).
I was first introduced to the concept of Low-Carb Diets in the summer of 1999, when I was 22 years old. It worked very well for me, and over the course of about a year, I lost 100 pounds. I became very active, ran two marathons, and although I always wanted to lose 30 more pounds, I believed that I was healthy. But, I was evaluating my health using solely my weight and activity level as the metric.
In the years before, during and after my weight loss, I developed a number of health conditions, which at the time seemed unrelated to each other. I suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, frequent migraines, anxiety and mild depression, allergies, eczema, mild psoriasis, chronic colds and strep throats, and I started to suffer a skin condition called Lichen Planus (similar to psoriasis). At the time, I blamed the stress of graduate school and my weak genetics. I used to joke that the only reason that I was alive was because of the miracles of modern medicine. Little did I understand at the time that it was the detrimental effects of my modern diet (combined with high stress, excessive exercise, and a genetic susceptibility) causing a cascade of ever increasing inflammation, hormone disregulation, and autoimmunity.
Although in hindsight, I see the major health crisis that I suffered in the summer of 2002 (when I was 25 years old) as the linear deterioration of my health. But, when I was diagnosed with severe adult onset asthma, I was shocked. My lungs became extremely reactive and the inflammation was so severe that I was coughing up blood. Practically overnight, I became apartment bound, was put on extremely high doses of inhaled and oral steroids, and my entire world came crashing down. Uncontrolled weight gain is a side effect of those oral steroids and I gained 50 pounds in the first 6 weeks on them. I ended up suffering severe depression and reverting to bad eating habits (lots of sugar and lots of carbs). I gained the other 50 pounds (that I had worked so hard to lose) more slowly over the next year. I got married in that year and weight 235 pounds at my wedding, which was absolutely crushing for my spirit.
After that, I continued to battle weight and many health issues, all of which I thought were unrelated to each other and which seemed to make it so much harder to lose weight. I weighed 255 pounds when I got pregnant with my first child in 2006. I had gestational diabetes and developed high blood pressure when I went into labor. As a sleep deprived first-time mom, I lacked the mental strength to control my diet. I took six different prescription medications on a regular basis in addition to many non-prescription medications and supplements. I was severely overweight, sick, tired, and had borderline high blood pressure.
Shortly after my daughter’s first birthday in early 2008, I noticed a familiar feeling of dizziness after eating. I still had my glucometer and testing supplies leftover from managing gestational diabetes. So, I tested my blood sugar. It was high enough to qualify me as pre-diabetic. I never went to a doctor about it because I was too embarrassed. Fear now motivated me to follow a strict Low-Carb Diet and I was again successful at losing weight. Over a year, I got back down to 165 pounds, which is when I got pregnant with my second daughter. I had a much healthier pregnancy, no diabetes, and no blood pressure issues, although I did develop some pretty dramatic varicose veins. And through it all, I was still struggling with IBS, acid reflux, migraines, stress and anxiety, asthma, allergies, eczema, psoriasis, lichen planus, chronic colds, and low energy.
My metric for evaluating my health started to change. It was no longer enough to have simply lost weight. I still wasn’t as thin as I wanted to be. And I was sick. It was the lichen planus that got me researching diet changes (I had recently learned that eczema is essentially caused by food sensitivities and wondered if lichen planus is too). This is when I learned about the Paleo Diet.
A Paleo Diet is one that avoids foods that cause gut irritation and inflammation in the body, typically foods introduced since the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago. A Paleo Diet focusses on eating quality meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, while achieving a balanced intake of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. A Paleo Diet avoids foods that cause inflammation, including: grains, legumes, dairy products, modern vegetable oils, refined sugars, and processed foods. By avoiding foods that cause inflammation, which is the root cause of most chronic illness, the paleo diet is known for dramatically improving a huge variety of health conditions.
At the end of August 2011, I decided to commit 3 months to trying the Paleo diet for myself. The difference in my health was revolutionary. Within two weeks, my symptoms of IBS, my acid reflux and my migraines were gone. I went off medicines that I had been on for 12 years. My moods improved, my anxiety disappeared, my ability to cope with life improved. I started having fun. I lost 20 more pounds and am now a size 6. I discovered that lichen planus is an autoimmune disease and started following the Paleo Diet Autoimmune Protocol, which further eliminates eggs, nuts, seeds, and vegetables form the nightshade family. My lichen planus is now healing. My asthma and allergies are gone. I feel better than I have felt at any point in my adult life and my health continues to improve noticeably every day. I am now committed to eating and living this way for the rest of my life.
It was not the Low-Carb diet that caused my health issues. Many of my health complaints started before I reduced my carbohydrate intake and lost weight. Other health issues started after I gained the weight back and stopped following a Low-Carb Diet. It was likely the foods in common between those phases of my life that are the culprits. Throughout that time, I consumed many proinflammatory foods; such as: cheese, soy, peanuts, vegetable oils, conventional meats high in omega-6 fatty acids, eggs, tomatoes, and aspartame.
As I reflect back on the health conditions I suffered, I now see the links between them. I clearly see the linear progression of one pathology. I see that my gut was getting progressively leakier, that my body was getting more and more inflamed, that my hormones were increasingly poorly regulated, and that auto-antibodies were being formed in higher and higher quantities. Everything seems connected, from the high doses of ibuprofen I took for my migraines to my birth control injections to the strain on my body from marathon training. Even the stenosing tenosynovitis, carpel tunnel syndrome, and mild arthritis that I suffered during that time (which I blamed on the repetitive motions of my research laboratory work), I now see as indicators of growing autoimmunity and uncontrolled inflammation. I used to get rashes from sun exposure after eating processed foods. I couldn’t function in the morning without my coffee and had to pee several times during the nights. I had a flakey scalp, dry skin and constant mild acne. My eyesight was getting worse every year. I had varicose veins in my legs that made my legs ache so badly that I opted for laser ablation and schlerotherapy. I thought that I was getting cynical as I got older, but I realize now that inflammation was affecting my moods. Even though I was able to successfully lose most of the weight I wanted to lose, my body was crying out for help. I’m glad I finally listened. I’m glad that I finally found Paleo. Thoroughly researched and self-consistent in its overarching principles, a Paleo Diet is a sustainable way of eating to achieve our best health. Even more, it is a comprehensive approach to health that is steeped in solid science. And best of all, it has worked wonders for me.