By Abbey Smith
Diets are polarized today. Vegan. Keto. Carnivore. What if you eat veggies, healthy fats and meat? I am sure my daughter could come up with a witty riddle to answer this question. It feels impure in these days of dogmatic dining practices to not have a hero macronutrient and a villain macronutrient. Carbs are bad. Carbs are essential. Fat is the hero. Fat is bad. And the cycle continues.
The root motivation to embark on an intentional eating journey is good. Most do so to increase health, to feel better, to reconnect with the source of their food, to get to know their own unique body. This is wonderful.
But there is an unintended consequence of elimination diets for some people. It happened to me. I see it happen to others too, and I am glad there are leading voices in the health and wellness community speaking about it now. It is important to talk about because the promise of health and vitality at the end of the elimination rainbow is a moving target. This can be so defeating to those of us Type As that do it all by the book and expect to experience the promise of health. Our bodies are complex systems. Reducing them to parts, our diet to a formula, will lead to unintended consequences. Holistic Management taught me this about the land, and turns out it’s true for my health too.
After almost one year on the Bull’s Eye Diet (eating locally and seasonally),I’ve found it is the opposite of an elimination diet–there is constant diversity, seasonal abundance, creativity—so much that I wish the word “diet” wasn’t included in its name. Many factors contribute to overall health, but for me a few key indicators stand out. First, I’ve been working to reverse an autoimmune condition, amenorrhea, migraines and heavy metal toxicity since 2012. I began work on this with local practitioners, the Back Doctors and the Finley Center, when we lived in Reno, and then became a patient of the California Center for Functional Medicine in 2015, where Dr. Amy Nett and I began working together. Over the course of eight years, these conditions became so much part of my identity, that when my symptoms all resolved in late 2019 and 2020, I felt almost at a loss. They had been my focus for so long, I now thought, “well what now?” The joy, peace, satisfaction and pure happiness at reaching this milestone was second to a momentary sense of loss. I never would have expected that to be the order of emotional response.
The first elimination diet I did was a 30-day Vitaliti Cleanse by Ti Caudron, facilitated by Dr. Amanda at the Back Doctors. It focused on cleansing the organs and increasing overall energy. At that time I ate what I thought was a healthy diet, but included food that does not agree with me such as dairy and grains. Two weeks into the cleanse and I felt like a whole new person. I went into it to address migraines and amenorrhea, and experienced many positive unintended consequences of cleaning up my diet. My mental clarity was incredible, my energy was through the roof, I was sleeping well, breaking my running PRs and overall feeling amazing. I was hooked. There are many great habits I adopted during that first cleanse in 2012 that I keep with me today. Since that time, as my health journey continued, I stayed on the Autoimmune Paleo and Low FODMAP protocol for two years (which was severely restricted, but made me feel great so I stayed with it, and I still believe it was key to taming my autoimmune condition), I’ve done a keto cleanse and ate basically keto for two years along with intermittent fasting, and a Whole 30. I believe each was an important step in getting better. I learned something about myself with each one. I developed a good habit with each one. I would have done a month of carnivore just to experiment, but I stopped elimination diets for now. Here’s why.
The uncomfortable position of challenging ideas you love
I realized as I further restricted my diet, my body was reacting to more and more foods. Why? Dr. Nett asked me to try a program created by Annie Hopper called Dynamic Neural Retraining System. It helps people with multiple chemical sensitivities, chronic fatigue syndrome and other unexplained conditions. The theory is that the limbic system (our lizard brain) gets stuck in a flight or fight response and is overactive. It happens subconsciously, meaning people don’t realize it is happening. It literally is brain damage. And it takes the focus, dedication and work of stroke recovery to heal from it. I spent 2018 practicing the program for one hour each day, and it changed my life. I actually rewired my brain and I was able to eat foods I hadn’t in years–like garlic, eggs and chocolate (I hadn’t eaten chocolate since I was eight when I got my first migraine, and I’ll never forget the first chocolate I had as an adult while in Costa Rica. I finally got what the fuss was all about!).
Recently, I virtually met through my work at the Savory Institute, two dynamic, amazing young women who call themselves the Strong Sistas. They spent a lot of time at White Oak Pastures, a Savory hub. They follow and promote the carnivore diet as a healing tool for autoimmunity. I learned so much from them, and I love their work. They teach us about nose-to-tail eating (brain quiche, anyone?) and wrote a book about how to do it. However, I worried that the fear-based decision making that can creep into long-term elimination diets would impact their, and their followers, overall health. Then, they started talking about exactly that. How they are strategically adding certain carbs back into their diet and honoring the uniqueness of their own bodies. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I am so proud of them for tackling this subject. Fear-based decision making is not a long term strategy for health. It rewires our brain to constantly look for fear until it literally makes us sick.
So what is my position, you may wonder? Are elimination diets important to health? Didn’t they help you heal? But then didn’t they also contribute to an overactive limbic system? Ah, the joys of complex systems. The truth, my friends, is that there are no villians and heros. That thinking, those stories, are ruining our health. Just ask one of my favorite authors, Charles Eisenstein.
If someone adds another chapter to a story that you thought had ended, thank them. Challenge and criticism are part of the evolution of knowledge and information in society. Just as Dr. Sina McCullough criticized the popular practice of taking probiotics (which can create a monoculture in our microbiome with extended use), doesn’t mean that she thinks probiotics are bad, or they shouldn’t be taken. It is more nuanced than that, more complex. Under certain conditions, for a certain time they may be beneficial. Other times they may not help.
I held back from saying anything about elimination diets to the Strong Sistas and others, because they do so much good. That was silly of me. Let’s all speak up and have the courage to contribute, even when most people want the story to end with the hero winning. They don’t want to hear that the hero could be a villain sometimes. That is just confusing. But it’s the truth.
The abundance of the Bull’s Eye Diet, or eating locally and in season
Almost one year into intentionally eating seasonally and locally, we’ve found that our health has increased as well as other beneficial “unintended consequences”:
- Creativity: I’ve noticed this most in my daughter. We’ve learned to see what is in season and figure out fun ways to make meals with it. Right now we have a lot of eggs from our chickens. We’ve made the usual –fried eggs and pancakes–but also custards, crepes, quiche, bread and rice pudding. We eat hard boiled eggs on salads, fried eggs on burgers and make our own ice cream.
- Biodiversity: Practicing Holistic Management on our ranch and in our lives, we manage for biodiversity. We celebrate life in the soil, a mix of forbs and grasses in the fields, and wildlife in the mountains. Why would our own bodies be any different? A diverse diet creates biodiversity in our microbiome, creating resiliency, increasing immunity and energy.
- Abundance: We’ve learned to see the abundance all around us. Sunflowers grow well here. We harvested bags of sunflower seeds and grew microgreens under lights in our kitchen window during the winter and spring months. Now in early spring, we are harvesting greens that were once weeds to us: mustard, nettles, dandelion (and looking forward to lambsquarters growing in disturbed soil). We brew our own kombucha and have crocks of sauerkraut fermenting in the kitchen. There are so many opportunities to grow and eat healthy food, no matter where you may live.
- Peace and security: There is something so fun, so satisfying and nurturing about bartering and trading for goods, services and food with friends and neighbors. It is an expression of community. Surprise Valley (at least the northern part where we live) has quite a bartering community. In the last month I have traded:
- Beef for homemade gluten free bread
- A haircut for compost
- Kombucha for greens and goats milk
- Wine for pork sausage
Where I am now
I’ve learned a lot about human health and my own unique system during these last eight years. Most importantly, I learned how to dedicate the time and focus to creating a new habit, which made the local food year not so daunting. And I picked up on patterns in my health that helped me feel better. I feel best when my macronutrient ratios target on: 50 percent fat, 20 percent carbs and 30 percent protein. I know I can easily fast for 24 hours. I haven’t drank alcohol (2009 was the last time I had a drink) or eaten ice cream (2012) in a long time. These facts are only useful to me, but I share them in case they can be helpful in another’s health journey.