The world of nutritional health is such a complicated one in our modern society, yet this statement seems like the type that I would have crossed out if I saw it as the opening line of one of my students’ essays 10 years ago. How could nutritional health be complicated, especially here in the United States, the land of plenty? Unfortunately, the answer is simpler than it seems. We have “plenty” of things to eat, but most of it isn’t real food.
the chronic illness and processed food connection
Let me be clear up front. I am not judging. How could I? I grew up eating lots of vegetables from cans, enjoying some of my favorite treats like boxed macaroni and cheese, ice cream sandwiches, Chicken in a Biscuit crackers, squeeze cheese, Ovaltine, Starbucks lattes…and writing this list out used to make me hungry, but now it just makes me cringe. When I was a kid, I struggled with all kinds of things like OCD, occasional depression (which I didn’t realize at the time, but understood later), anxiety, constipation, and upset stomach.
As an adult (age 24) I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis after a long period of unexplained illness. (You can read that whole story elsewhere on my blog.) Even after I was diagnosed, the medical care surrounding the treatment of the illness was confusing and weird. Doctors told me I was in a waiting game because until my thyroid actually “did something” (what a terrifyingly vague warning!) there was nothing they could do to treat me. Meanwhile, I asked what I should do about my diet and activity levels, and I was assured that since I was skinny, I was probably fine. So I carried on as always, going merrily along on my own unhealthy way, eating some real food, but a whole lot of fake, processed food as well.
In 2013, my health hit a wall. I started experiencing those stomach problems that had always plagued me, but with even more intensity than ever before. I had acid reflux almost every day, and I could never decide what was causing it. Over time, I started to realize that the acid reflux generally followed food consumption, so eventually, I stopped eating almost entirely and subsisted primarily on my daily Starbucks chai and any other small amount of food that didn’t make me feel too full. Sure, I ate salads and things like organic chicken, but I was consuming more sugar than anything else. (Back when it was still funny, my friends affectionately called me “the hummingbird,” because I lived on sugary beverages and was always jittery with anxiety.)
My doctors had no idea what to do with me. I was diagnosed with GERD, chronic acid reflux, and an anxiety disorder, but these issues, they assured me, had nothing to do with my Hashimoto’s diagnosis. Of course, that wasn’t reassuring in the least! Over the following 2-3 years, I stopped eating gluten, which is recommended for anyone who has an autoimmune disease, took food allergy tests, got back on a serious exercise regimen, and minimized the sugar intake in my diet. I started feeling better, but still, I didn’t feel good. Even though I was now 100% gluten-free, the acid reflux occurred regularly and without warning or any identifiable triggers, I spent nights lying in my bed having inexplicable panic attacks, and I spent an entire winter focusing all of my energy on the simple task of not ending my life.
How was I so sick, so desperate, and so unhappy, and yet no doctor seemed willing to admit that I had a problem? I convinced them to do an upper GI scope and they happily told me that my stomach was incredibly inflamed, but there was no sign of any apparent “cause,” and they sent me home. This was when the depression reached its peak. How could I go on with my life when I was suffering so much and there was no explanation about why?
The simple answer? I was suffering from malnutrition and no one caught it.
baby steps: Treating illness with nutritional medicine
When I found Kelly Brogan’s book, A Mind of Your Own, I had been searching for information about alternative treatment options for depression. Even though my depression was so deep that I was continually envisioning my own death, there was a little part of me that still wanted to believe I could get better and could live a life where I felt good, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I started with baby steps, trying Kelly Brogan’s 30-day reset diet. It was fairly simple and at first, if I’m being honest, absolutely nothing happened. On that diet, I was still consuming some sugar through natural sources like honey and maple syrup and berries, but with the removal of other potentially inflammatory foods like grains and dairy, I did start to notice some physical changes. It wasn’t until I bit the bullet and cut out my favorite vice that things really started to happen.
Breaking up with processed sugar
Breaking up with sugar was the best thing I could have done for myself.
Within the first few days of quitting sugar completely, I went through a few normal mood swings. They were far less than they would have been if I hadn’t already been significantly reducing my sugar intake in the 6 months that preceded this. After getting off sugar, I started feeling less of that groggy, sad feeling and instead, I started feeling calm happiness, energy, and confidence. I thought that it couldn’t be just the sugar, but by then, my body had become pretty accustomed to the clean diet I was eating so the only major change had been to cut the last little bit of sugar out of my diet.
Now, when I slip up and have sugar, I feel those unpleasant sensations in my body starting over again. I realize now that underneath what sometimes felt like my body completely rejecting me, there were subtler elements that I often didn’t recognize, like the achy feeling that occurred with a sugar crash, and the depression feelings that would often occur because of the ongoing body aches.
I’d been dizzy and nauseous and achey and unhappy, because I didn’t realize that I was riding a nonstop rollercoaster of sugar spikes and crashes.
Should you stop eating sugar?
I’ve talked with a lot of people who seek me out asking for advice. They see my food pictures and admire me for eating healthy, but often I start losing them as soon as I tell them what’s actually required.
“I can’t eat dessert anymore?”
“What about Starbucks?”
“How much sugar per day can I have?”
And before you know it, they’ve gone MIA. It happens, I’m not judging. In fact, I usually recognize my old self in their actions and, if anything, it strengthens my own resolve.
By the way, if you’ve asked me for advice and not been able to follow through, don’t cut off communication with me because you’re embarrassed. I know it’s hard to follow through, but that’s why I’m here to help you. I didn’t have anyone to walk me through it and that would have been helpful.
It’s okay to be “not ready,” to perhaps “not believe” that it’ll make a difference, or even to “feel fine” and therefore be willing to put it off again and again. It’s okay to live your own life and make your own decisions, but before you do, I recommend that you at least look at the information that’s out there and USE WHAT YOU LEARN to make your decision.
I’m dying to help everyone. As soon as I hear someone feels sick, I am there trying to preach the gospel of good nutrition, but I’m learning that I can’t save everyone. Some people need to be convinced with facts and evidence, other people need to get their hearts ready, and still other people may never change their minds.
The best I can do is share the information that I find most useful and hope that it will help someone else, or help someone else help someone else they love.
Take baby steps, if you must. One. Little. Step. At a time. Just never stop moving forward.
Educational resources about nutrition
It’s no secret that I love listening to Chris Kresser, whether in his books or his podcast. He collects the most interesting data on nutrition and shares the world of other knowledgeable experts, and he presents the information in the most educational and applicable way. While this podcast might not be the best choice for your START on a nutritional journey (for that, I recommend the reading suggestions at the very end of this post), if you’re already taking your steps toward better health and finding yourself struggling, this podcast may help put some things into perspective regarding supplemental nutritional support.
Chris Kresser’s mantra is “Eat real food,” and I’ve taken that for my own as well.
By the way, this resource is mentioned on the podcast. I’ve explored it a bit and so far, it’s extremely robust and helpful. It details tons of important nutritional facts all in one handy “cheat sheet.”
(If you listen to the above podcast, there’s a COUPON CODE that can be used until, I think, March 26, 2018, so hurry up!)
Crystal’s Healthy reading list
The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health by Justin and Erica Sonnenburg