My 120-Pound Journey to Paleo

June 7, 2012 in Categories: , by

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(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.

Comments

Good morning Sarah…

Thanks for this post… for sharing your story.

We’re currently trying a dairy and gluten elimination diet with our daughter to see if it helps a ‘contact dermatitis’ rash that she has suffered for the past year. Her doctor recommended that we try it for a month… but after reviewing your story – it seems like it might take more that a month to see potential results.

I don’t need convincing… I’m all for converting her to a strict paleo diet for her long-term health. I’m hoping that this experiment will convince my husband that it’s worth it… I don’t want to give up too soon for lack of progress though.

Yes, skin conditions are typically the slowest to see improve with dietary changes (because so much internal healing has to take place before the skin heals). Six months would not be atypical, but I would think you should see some improvement within 2-3 months. I would also look at gut-healing foods at the same time, like bone broth and coconut oil.

Your husband still isn’t convinced? Maybe just replace his peanut butter with almond butter and see if he notices… ;) You can also try the Lorain Cordain argument of paleo foods being uniformly more nutrient-dense, so it’s an optimal way of eating just in terms of getting enough micronutrients and the right balance of macronutrients.

Hi thanks so much for your blog! it was like finding a diamond in the paleo rough. I love your autoimmune protocol recipes but i notice that you cook a fair deal with nuts eggs and potatoes. Are you no longer on a strict protocol? i would love to see more of your creative nut free egg free recipes if thats possible. Theyre so helpful!! thank you for sharing your experience with us!

Actually, it’s more than I’m just getting into more egg- and nut-free recipes. There are certainly more coming! But, I also cook regular paleo food for my family so my recipes will always be a mix.

So, are you saying I need some polish? ;P

haha not at all! thanks for the reply. i’m excited to read your future posts. I react very poorly to nightshades, eggs, and nuts, which seem to have a staple place in almost all paleo recipes and cookbooks, and I’m terrible and figuring out baking ratios and such on my own, so I was thrilled to find your recipes. Do you find that if you keep nut, egg, nightshade consumption (when you eat with your family) to a certain number of times per week, you are able to manage your sensitivity to them?

I really try and isolate my egg/nightshade/nut consumption to a bite of something I am thinking about posting on the blog. I seem okay with that typically. I still don’t think I’ve healed enough to play with it beyond that.

Congratulations on finding your way to true health. Your story is so inspiring – thank you for sharing it.

I’m wondering what kind of role exercise plays in your life now. On one hand, I can see the advantages from a stress reduction standpoint. On the other, though, I can’t help thinking about all of the oxidative stress and inflammation.

I’ve got three kids under four, so I’m trying to figure out where to get the most bang for my time-starved buck!

I go to three 75-minute yoga classes per week that tend to be on the challenging side. I find these absolutely essential to my mental health, but I also love that I am getting stronger and more flexible too. I really love yoga because it’s mild cardio, strength training, flexibility and mobility training, and meditation all rolled into one. Other than that, I play actively with my kids, go for a couple of (typically slow) walks per week, take my kids to the pool (more trying to stop them from drowning than actual exercise for me) and sometimes manage a rigorous hike on the weekends. I would love to do more but this is really all I can manage now.

Oh I should mention that the oxidative stress caused by exercise causes some very important adaptive responses in the body. It can actually help protect you from oxidative stress caused by external factors (like dietary oxidants).

Great to read more of your story fleshed out! I am frustrated with American health care/culture using weight as a sole metric of health…hopefully stories like yours will help turn this tendency around. You have come an incredibly far way and should be very proud of yourself! GO PALEO MOM! ;-D

Thank you for this post Sarah. I know the Paleo diet is saving my life and making it richer but you have inspired me to help my Daughter and her family pursue it. My middle Grandson is 11, an athlete (LaCrosse / Football) but has recently developed asthma. I think the diet is part of it and your article has motivated me to motivate her. Thanks

Hi from the UK.

Just noodling around for a paleo offal stew recipe, yours was the first google hit.

Glad to hear you’ve identified what works for you.

Essential to read the views of research scientists on anti-inflammatory eating – ned koch, chris masterson etc. So I’ll noodle through the rest of your posts for insight.

ps. your blog pic is humana-humana.

Hello, just found your blog. Very inspirational. Would you mind answering, what is the biggest differences between how you ate when low carbing and how you eat (now) on Paleo? I know the dairy is a difference, and I see someone commented on potatoes (?)? Any info is greatly appreciated – thanks.

I really should do a whole post on this. Some of the non-paleo things that I ate: alot of soy, alot of peanuts and peanut products, alot of conventional meat and cured meats, hard cheese, cottage cheese, alot of conventional bacon, low-carb bread (which is high protein because they add extra gluten to it!), diet soda, low-carb ice cream, diet jello, low-carb protein bars, alot of tomato sauces, alot alot alot of eggs (these are paleo but I already had signs of autoimmune disease when I was eating these), I was also popping advil like it was going out style for headaches, and I was in grad school so I drank a fair bit too. I didn’t eat potatoes when I was eating low-carb (or rice or regular bread or much fruit or starchy vegetables). Now, I have a big focus on food quality in addition to avoiding some key pro-inflammatory foods.

Hi
I am trying to follow gluten free and dairy free diet.
I have neuropoathy. i get burning sensation if eat spices or any kind of meat. So i started 1/4 cup of quinoa for lunch and dinner with my vegetables. But after reading your website it looks like that i should not eat that too. then what should i eat to fill me up. please give me some advise.

Wow, tricky. How do you handle fish or eggs? Quinoa is quite high in saponins. Polished white rice would be a better choice. If you need more protein in your diet, non-meat sources of protein to consider would be fermented non-GMO soy products like tempeh or natto. You could also try well-soaked well-cooked beans/legumes (soak at least 12 hours, 24 is better and boil for at least 15 minutes, 1 hour is better). I hope this helps!

No i can’t eat even fish and eggs. Doctors are not sure wether its MS So they diagnosed me with neuropathy because of burning and tingling sensation in my head, legs and hands. I am trying to go legumes free also. what is tempeh and from where i would get it.

Well, tempeh is soy-based so it is a legume. I have no idea where you would find it (maybe an Asian market or something like Whole Foods?). If MS is a possibility, you need to read up on Dr. Terry Wahls’ work. Her website is terrywahls.com and her famous TedX talk is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLjgBLwH3Wc

Can you do fish oil as a supplement (I’m thinking about omega-3 sources to reduce inflammation)? Or an algae based supplement?

I think the best fillers would be starchy vegetables like sweet potato, yucca, taro, turnip, rutabaga, and squash. Good luck!

To Anonymous,
Have your doctors tested your B12 levels and other B’s. Because I am healing a leaky gut on Paleo, and am gluten and dairy intolerant, my body just doesn’t absorb vitamins well. I was found to have low, low B levels, especially B12 (which causes the tingling and burning in my feet and finger tips) and once I got onto a sublingual B vitamin, no more burning and tingling. I am not a doctor but this is what I experienced.

yes i did check my VitB12 levels they were low but now its ok but if i stopped taking vits then within one month they go down i do not why. Hoe do you diagnose leaky gut. i will ask my doc. to do it.

Namaste from Kathmandu!
I suffer from lichen sclerosis, along with other autoimmune issues and other general health issues. But it’s the LS, quite similar to LP, that really got me going on diet research.

When I read your post a week or so ago about having a flare up I decided it was time to finally try going a bit paleo, as in omitting ALL wheat and ALL dairy; I’ve been slowly adding “healthy” eating to my life for decades, such as little/no sugar, only yogurt, a bit of cheese and milk in homemade lattes.

Anyway, I cannot get good quality meat here in Nepal and my vegetable choices are more limited. So I am just doing no wheat or dairy. After two weeks, I had pizza and homemade, low-sugar/hi-fat/hi-vanilla ice cream last night. Within 20 minutes of beginning the pizza my stomach was telling me that I’d made a wrong move. I decided I might as well have the ice cream since I was going to suffer anyway!

So, I just want to say that the LP/LS is awful and I can empathize with your feelings about having it. If you learn of any healthy meat providers willing to ship on dry ice to Nepal please let me know. I don’t have access to good alternative medical advice so am going it all alone. My friends have thought I’m crazy for a long time and now just write this latest move off as one more of my crazy fads.

Also, if you know of any good advice-givers who are taking on new clients (I’ve been turned down) via Skype/email, please let me know about this also.

I admire what you’re doing and wonder if I can wean my teenage kids from pasta. Off to google offal stew ;-)

Shanti (peace)

Namaste!

Even if the meat you are getting is fed some grain and isn’t organic, it’s better than eating protein alternatives like legumes. Can you get fish where you are? I wonder if you would have some luck getting jerky or some other less perishable meat sent to you? I guess it depends on import laws because alot of countries don’t allow you to bring meat from other countries across the border.

Have you tried submitting your name on BalancedBites.com? Diane has a team of people that can do skype consulting.

I hopet this helps! :)

I’ve been a regular meat eater since 1995, when I read about the blood type diet. I’m an O, which turned out to be lucky because the theory has now been debunked. Prior to that I’d been more or less a vegetarian for many years, probably party why I developed problems.

I’ve thought about raising chickens, and also about eating local goat meat. We can buy all kinds of meat that is “german technology processed”, but I don’t think it’s grass-fed at all.

Never heard of BalancedBites before, but it will be my next internet stop.

It’s odd because we eat such a “healthy” diet here, in that we eat almost no processed foods and lots of veggies and fruit.

Thanks for your reply and please keep writing your wonderful blog posts. Your scientific slant is so helpful.

I’ve been following your blog for a while but I never really read your “about” section until today. It’s very moving. Right now, I’ve been paleo for about 2 months. I am 5′ 9 and hovering between 181 and 183 pounds. Prior to going paleo, I was 185-189 pounds. Before that, I was gluten free for 9 months and went from around 230 to 189 pounds. Like you, I stopped weighing myself at my heaviest and I probably am underestimating what my top weight was.
The weight is just a side effect. I also suffer(ed) from IBS-C, in addition to anxiety and depression, chronic pain (I used to call it joint pain but now I realize it was bone pain from my Vitamin D deficiency), allergies, sensory overload, and other issues. Numbness and tingling in my feet (Vitamin B12 deficiency) etc. But all people see when they see me is I am lighter. And if I am lighter, I must be “better.” I am not better yet. I am much better than I was but I am not at all where I need to be. I am so thankful that there are people like you sharing their stories and educating others about these issues. Congratulations on your health achievements and keep up the good work!

I just found your blog after joining a Paleo Pregnancy group on Facebook (I’m due in about 4 1/2 weeks) and someone shared your chocolate chip cookie recipe. I really can’t wait to make them! I read your “about” section and was floored – it was like reading a story about myself. I don’t know why I never made the connections between my so-called “good diet” with whole grains and low-fat dairy, and my symptoms of autoimmunity and inflammation. I am committed to Paleo now more than ever – I’ve been loosely following it for several months now, still consuming some dairy and cheating probably more often than I should, and while I feel a little better, I am not 100%, or even close. I now know that I have to truly commit to this lifestyle change, not just for me, my husband and daughter, but for the new baby on the way. Thank you for creating such an accessible site!

I have so much admiration for you, for taking the journey that has brought you good health. It has been through reading your blog and other paleo people that I finally “saw the light” and put it all together- I have been gluten free, sugar free non- processed food for a year with just minimal dairy. I still need to add in the autoimmune protocol as I still have rosacea ( which I developed after bilateral knee replacements) put my arthritis is so much better, I have more energy than I have had in years . I I have lost 37 pounds in the last year, I feel great. am a licensed massage therapist for 14 Years, still practicing and see about 18 clients a week. I love my life, and I can tell you enjoy helping others as I do!!

Thank you. Sometimes I just feel so overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Then I quit and I eat, and eat and eat.

Hi Paleo Mom! I’ve just stumbled across your site and I’m so glad I did! In trying to control/eliminate terrible IBS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME, migraines, anxiety, depression and weight gain I changed to a paleo/Fodmaps (for IBS)/low carb diet at the start of the year. Unfortunately I’ve developed a violent reaction to eggs, and my diet on the whole is depressing me, so I slip up and comfort eat. I need to rethink the whole thing, but have no idea now where to start. The IBS is only mildly relieved by following the Fodmaps exclusions, and so anxiety is confirmed as its main trigger. I wondered if you knew anything about egg allergies (especially as this came on quite suddenly), and if you have any ideas for my new eating plan?

Thank you so much :)

Have a look at the autoimmunity tab. CFS is a suspected autoimmune disease so the autoimmune protocol might be something you want to try. If you want to stay on the paleo/FODMAP route, focusing on increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake would be the next thing I recommend, as well as adding organ meat and seafood (for the vitamins, minerals, glycine and tryptophan). Also, I think adding digestive support supplements (discussed on the autoimmune protocol page) may be helpful. Lots of sleep and stress management strategies like mindful meditation should help too.

Thank you Paleo Mom and Tara :) I’ve read lots more on the website now, and I think the logical step will be to go down the paleo/low FODMAP route and ditch the low-carb idea for now. I’m not losing any weight anyway :P I’ll check out SIBO and digestive support supplements too.

You also may want to read up about SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) as that is an issue that often goes hand in hand with this stuff and diet alone doesn’t seem to cure it.

Merry Christmas,
I have one quick question…When you lost your last twenty pounds, did you have sweets ie. fruit and paleo desserts?

Thank you for sharing Sarah! I was diagnosed with severe UC about five years ago and have been struggling to find the elusive “remission.” I recently suffered another small flare after doing well for about a year. I’m excited to see how implementing the AIP will help heal my gut and reduce my systemic inflammation. After reading through you material, I’m pretty positive I’m intolerant to nightshades! Who knew?

Thank you for doing all your research and conveying it to us. It’s incredibly helpful and, as a nurse, I appreciate the science behind it. Keep up the good work!

Natalie
thirtyeightfive.com

Hi Sarah,

Your story is truly inspiring, and has got me seriously thinking about starting a paleo lifestyle. I’m 26 years old, and have always been pretty healthy, but about a year ago I started suffering from severe anxiety, panic attacks, and now a little depression, I think mostly from being fed up with my anxiety symptoms. I recently started an antidepressant, which hasn’t helped yet. I’ve been wondering if changing my diet would help. Do you believe your anxiety and depression was cured solely bc of your change to a paleo diet? I’m ready to try just about anything bc my physical symptoms from anxiety are so bad and they last all the time, with no relief. I guess I would just like your insight into how your diet cured your anxiety and depression. Thanks

Oh Sarah,
When I read your story today it was like looking into a mirror. From the migraines and worsening eyesight to the asthma, I have had had quite the time. I tried JJ Virgin’s elimination diet with some weight loss but not alot of success as far as my autoimmune symptoms. I will try the autoimmune protocol and see what success I have with it. Thanks for sharing your story!

I agree with the others… your story was like looking in the mirror, only I lost that same 100 pounds THREE times. In the past 5 years I had lapband surgery, which didn’t address my sugar addiction and binge eating. Next, I had gastric sleeve surgery. This did reduce the amount of food I ate at meals, but not the craving for sugary foods, so again, I did a “work around” to eat what I wanted/craved. Finally, I stumbled upon the Paleo lifestyle and joined a 2 week Blitz to get me past the detox stage. Wow.. did it work. I have been eating clean since July, and I have lost 28 pounds while getting enough protein. I have lost the urge for sweets… I don’t know if that is permanent, but it is working for me now.

You are a great example and teacher, and I have read virtually everything on your site. You make me feel great about what I am doing for my health… no, this time it wasn’t about weight loss… I just got tired of being tired, of being depressed, of my fibromyalgia.. I am definitely less exhausted, I am taking less sleeping med, and while I haven’t stopped my lyrica, I am going to try to at least lessen the dose and see how that goes.

Thank you… thank you, thank you, thank you!

[…] My 120-Pound Journey to Paleo – The Paleo Mom – Sarah’s post on her own weight loss journey “My 120 Pound Journey to Paleo” […] Reply. TPV Episode 2 Show Notes: The Autoimmune Protocol | The Paleo Mom says: … I tried JJ Virgin’s elimination diet with some weight loss but not alot of success as far as my autoimmune symptoms. […]

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