Growing up, I have wonderful memories of meals with my family.
My parents taught my brother and I to cook and be part of the meals we were making from an early age: how to select ingredients to make a meal, how to cook them on a grill or stove, how to prep them. I enjoyed everything I ate, and was so excited to always try new things of any kind.
The only thing I knew I couldn’t try in my childhood was cashews. Everything else was fair game.
As time went on and I grew up, I began to take notice of how I felt. Some of it was stuff from childhood, like rashes or cashews.
But others felt new.
I would get migraines often, sometimes having vertigo to the point it felt like I was in a spinning carnival tunnel. Fatigue, knotted or anxious stomach, and shakiness all became part of my normal.
I would joke about ‘hulking out’ when I became hungry. Or rather… ‘hangry’. I didn’t think anything of it, because once I ate a sandwich, I seemingly felt okay.
I noticed a severe allergy to pistachios about this time. We didn’t eat them often because I hated the texture of nuts anyway, so I can’t say for sure if this was new or not.
In other cases I would break out in hives from head to toe. One time I remember this being so severe that in one moment I looked as if I rolled in a fire ant bed from head to toe, and by the time we arrived at the doctor’s office, the flare up would be nearly gone.
I was no stranger to allergies.
In terms of food, I ate vegetables and whole foods semi-regularly. What else was there to do but avoid the ones I knew I was allergic to? When it came to the outdoor allergies, I put up with them. These were all things that were my normal. I would deal with them when they came up, and move on with life.
Fast forward a few years to when the Whole 30 diet was in full swing.
For this purpose in my personal story, I’ll credit this simply with using it as a tool.
What I ended up doing was more modified. Because of allergies I had nuts and seeds, and also because I solely relied on the cliff notes of a friend, I mostly just focused on completely cutting out processed foods for that period of time.
In the following couple weeks, my energy levels are what I noticed first. My issues with fatigue and focus improved also. I was connecting with a genuinely positive relationship to what I was putting into my body and how it made me feel.
It’s important for me personally to distinguish positive relationships here because I only had a mental association with food affecting my body negatively.
For example: avoiding a food that caused an allergic reaction. This new experience was positive in that I could add foods that made me feel strong, and not just take away the ones that could hurt me. More than that, I was aware of how these foods made me feel strong.
I enjoyed how I was feeling. I was curious about the idea of experimenting with these foods and what connections they had in my body. So, I continued!
A few more weeks into this process, I had a deep discussion with my friend about a growing hot topic: gluten. He shared with me some articles and research, and this is when it first clicked and I had a name and hypothetical face to work with.
Having connected so deeply with experiences in the articles I read, I took the principles that served me well from Whole30 such as minimizing processed foods, and ran a longer experiment on myself.
In the early 2000’s in Alabama, this probably meant you were mostly eating whole foods anyway!
My goal: let’s see what happens when I just cut out gluten.
These first few steps started me on a journey that would affect the rest of my life in ways I never imagined.
A few more weeks passed. My migraines and headaches stopped completely, and I was no longer experiencing nausea or vertigo at random points in the day. The feeling of ‘hangry-ness’ and sudden drops in energy during the middle of the day, were no longer an issue.
I became empowered by the idea I could generate such profound change within myself, all by understanding the food I ate and how it affected my body.
This wasn’t a foregin concept to me growing up, as dietary and gut issues ran in my family. But having a personal relationship with it, and taking that step towards experimenting on my own way of eating, was the pivotal point for me.
I could have a conversation with someone about how if cashews gave me an allergic reaction, I wouldn’t eat them, and that makes sense.
You don’t know you feel bad until you feel better
But something like gluten or simple processed foods having such a big impact on my body was so odd to me. To me, I wasn’t having an allergic reaction, I was eating vegetables and home cooked meals, and knew how to make a plate. But at the end of the day all of those feelings were simply normal.
I had no idea how I could feel until I played with my food (pun intended). One of my first thoughts after some months of this was a surprise: “This is how I can feel?!”
As someone with a lot of allergies, being able to have control over at least a few of the things that were making me feel poorly by a few manageable changes was a eureka moment.
This idea of healthy food and what that could be for me turned into a full dive into the field of nutrition over the following years. I knew I could affect the way I felt, now I wanted to know exactly what was going on and why.
Food, memories, and emotions
Of course, it isn’t so simple.
It was easy for me during this journey to end up on the other side of the spectrum and become too involved and critical about the food I was putting into my body, often worried about how it would affect my gut or allergies.
Navigating away from the foods I knew made me feel terribly was also very difficult. I had memories, history, not to mention convenience and cost associated with these foods.
After a lot of time, some stumbling, and self-exploration, I arrived at the idea that there is a little more to it than just “cutting out x food”. Or adding “x amount of food” for a daily dose of “y nutrient” because it has “z effect”.
It became deeper than that to me. It became about understanding how it made me feel, and how it can be a pillar of support for the health and lifestyle I wanted.
To me that meant sustained energy, a happy relationship that’s anxiety free with my food, continuing to use food as a centerpoint to gather and socialize with those I love, an active life with minimal sick days, and longevity.
A mental shift
When I started thinking about my journey with food less as restricting foods that make me feel sick, and more incorporating foods that I knew would serve me well, I opened up a dialogue with myself.
I asked myself “what did I want”? How did I want to feel every day? What things did I love that my body could do and how could my food support that?
This made it easier for me to understand I wasn’t putting myself in time-out for not eating a certain food.
Knowing the way it affected me, I was just choosing the way I wanted to feel over the way that particular food used to make me feel. That mental shift, for me, was gloriously empowering.
The magic of that mental shift was two-fold for me. I did not miss the foods I was leaving behind because I took the power of choice back into my hands. If I did choose to have something sweet, or fried, I didn’t feel that sling-shot guilt that had always followed me before.
My diet was no longer a shackle or something to keep in the shame pantry. In fact, it became less of a diet at all.
My journey became about exploring all the things I can and love to eat, and discovering more ways to add new things every day!
Finding a path that fit into everything that I loved about food and how it fit into my life took time, especially when food allergies and sensitivities got thrown into the mix.
But with curiosity, patience, and understanding, I defined what mattered to me most about food, and how to use it to support my life in all the ways I love.
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