For my 27th birthday my grandfather gave me a freezer full of pheasant. Actually, the pheasant was left over from a South Dakota hunting trip, and that Christmas anyone was welcome to it.  I don’t have a great penchant for pheasant (there is a reason the chicken was domesticated), but it was the perfect birthday present. Evan and I were about to start a rather extreme elimination diet, and conventional meats were not on the list of ok foods.


Prior to our driving back from Wisconsin with three coolers of pheasant, I had been sick on and off for about eighteen months. We had drastically cut the stressors back. I left a PhD program. We had prioritized rest and sleep and diet. But even the yoga and the freshly ground and soaked homemade bread weren’t doing enough.  I had some good days, or rather good parts of days, but it was hard to make plans. How would I know if next Tuesday I would feel up to something? It is hard to create when you feel sick all the time. It takes sustained energy and stamina to work well.


Ironically, it takes a lot of effort and tenacity to try to get better. I had a lot of visits to a lot of doctors, a lot of blood work, and a lot of diagnoses thrown around: possible mononucleosis, eczema, sinusitis, rhinitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, generalized anxiety and/or depression.  But no matter the course of medication, nothing had really helped me shake the fact that I was really tired all the time. I had a headache and acid reflux most afternoons. I was almost constantly getting over some cold or secondary infection.


In the Spring of 2012, an ENT thought that the sinus headaches and accompanying rhinitis/sinusitis were likely caused by an “uncommon allergy” that standard allergy testing hadn’t tested. So when in mid-December I read about an elimination diet, it seemed like a creative way to possibly find the mysterious “uncommon allergy.”



The idea that food could make someone seriously sick wasn’t a new concept to me. My husband, Evan, had childhood lactose intolerance that made a comeback about when we started dating, about the same time he grew out of a caffeine allergy. My dad discovered ten years ago when he tried the South Beach diet that he was gluten intolerant, and suddenly a host of digestive issues cleared.  And I had gone to the ER my junior year of college on no less than three separate occasions when a roommate, Liz, had an accidental peanut exposure in the cafeteria.  I, myself, had even tried to cut gluten out a couple times for a week or so, but hadn’t seen or felt much of a difference.


But the January 2012 elimination diet was considerably more than skipping morning toast for a week. This was a month-long, strict elimination of all conventionally raised meats, all grains, all dairy products, all alcohol, all legumes, all seed oils, all nightshades, all sweeteners, and a handful of other common allergy causing foods (no eggs, coffee, tea, apples, oranges, or grapefruit). Then after the month of complete restriction, there were to be several months of slowly introducing new foods every four days.


Evan agreed, graciously, to do the whole elimination diet with me. It was easier for me to stick to it if he was on board. It was easier just to cook up one (pheasant) dinner. And he wanted to be a sort of control, to see how someone, who felt fine most of the time, would feel cutting out so many things.



The first week was hard. We were hungry and came home from vacation to an empty refrigerator.  We made a lot of coconut-milk berry smoothies and watched old episodes of The Office to take our minds off the paltry meals. The second week, I was too busy studying and interviewing to become an SAT tutor to think to notice that I was starting to feel better. By the end of third week, I did notice that I felt stronger and more like myself. The headaches were gone. That week, I agreed to be a nearly full time nanny in addition to tutoring.


By the end of the month I was feeling great, and my consumption of over the counter antacids and pain relievers was way down. I was excited to add some of my favorite foods back.  I had suspicions about gluten, because I had an upset stomach after taking regular communion.  (Our Church has gluten free wafers, which is what I now receive.) However, I was unprepared for how strongly I would react to the full first reintroduction attempt.


January 30th, exactly four weeks after we started, I cooked up some delicious organic cardamom brown rice. I had it with lunch and dinner. The next day, I had severe stomach flu-like symptoms, which lasted for the rest of the week.


After nearly two years of confusing signals, my body was incredibly clear: Grains were not working.


The rest of the Spring, eliminated food re-introductions fell out along paleo lines. Those in the not ok category included all grains, dairy, and legumes. Those in the ok category included organic meat and eggs, and apples, citrus, and nightshades in moderation.  Evan felt better too; it wasn’t as dramatic as my own experience, but he started to notice that an occasional beer or sandwich made him feel bad enough to avoid them all together. And he really used to like good beer.



Looking back at the way we did the elimination, we ate too many nuts, dried fruit, and sweet potatoes. We also didn’t eat enough protein, due to the fact that we had tried to eat only wild game. For most people doing something considerably less restrictive would work just as well—i.e. just switching to all organic meats.


But that is how we fell into Paleo, which can be defined as a whole food, nutritionally dense approach to eating that allows no grains, dairy, legume, seed oils, or artificial additives. The Paleo approach to diet has a great community of people I’ve enjoyed getting to know online. They eat delicious real food and do wonderful research on why eating this way works so well.


My food philosophy is to eat the most nutritionally dense, real, sustainable food you honestly can.   An elimination diet is a good tool to help you be honest with yourself about what you really feel like after eating a particular food.


Eating this way gives me the energy to make time for creativity.  I can know that next Tuesday chances are very high that I won’t have a headache, or acid reflex, or crippling exhaustion. Next Tuesday, I will roast a chicken with some lemon and thyme, and I will be able to write.  It is one of my main means of self-care, enabling me enjoy life and pursue the good and beautiful.


Have you tried an elimination diet? How is food part of your self-care?


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