About 4 years ago, I had a gut feeling (not coincidental!) that I should explore maybe eliminating a few foods from my diet and try eating more healthily overall. I ignored this feeling for a while because life and office snacks got in the way. I have a history with disordered eating and with some foods giving me digestive trouble. In college, I gave up dairy after I noticed that lower-fat dairy and cow’s milk, in particular, made me bloated, gassy, and have other (ahem) gastrointestinal issues. I didn’t know then, but it was also causing my acne and hives. As if your twenties aren’t hard enough.
Sorry, Dairy Farmers
Within a week of eliminating milk, yogurt, and sour cream, my whole gastrointestinal system regulated. Within two weeks, my acne cleared up. No more daily hives. I wasn’t as tired. I didn’t have to clear my throat or blow my nose constantly. Over time, I tested which dairy foods were tolerable to have once in a while. It was the first time I learned how connected food was to my body and brain.
When I was diagnosed with the disorder I write about in I Gave Up My Career To Get Well, I knew it was time to fully investigate certain foods further and knew I couldn’t do it alone. I also knew with my history of disordered eating that a typical nutritionist wasn’t the best choice for me. Through a connection at a local gym, I sought out the help of Lucia Hawley, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP). When I went to her website, I saw the tagline was “Taking the Fear Out of Food, One Bite at a Time.” I had never read anything even remotely close to that inspiring about food healing! I saw that she focused on real food choices and that overall, her approach seemed calm, focused and straightforward. All good things. I enrolled in the six-week group course she offered, and also begun one-on-one sessions with her to delve into other symptoms more thoroughly.
The Food Equation
In the course, we did a food elimination program. We stopped eating the top food allergy/sensitivity culprits for a few weeks, including grains, dairy, corn, soy, sugar, and nuts. The point of getting rid of them in your diet is to later add them in on a clean/reset system one at a time. Then, you can clearly see what symptoms you notice when you do.
This process was eye-opening. I noticed that not only did I feel better overall eliminating some of these foods but also that I used a lot of these foods or ingredients as crutch or fallback foods. By habitually eating the same things, I was missing the variety and doing this class nudged me into eating a much larger variety of foods.
Lucia also stressed to the class the importance of not limiting the quality or volume of your foods during this time, as satisfaction is a key metric to success in joyful eating. During this time, I ate full plates of a wide variety of delicious proteins and vegetables roasted in a variety of good fats like olive and coconut oil, and butter or ghee.
Food as Medicine
Over time, she helped me to see food differently: As delicious medicine. She taught me so much. She taught me that food didn’t have to be the rigid experience that I was used to and that fat was the key to satisfaction. How to literally cancel out too much sugar in my system by eating fermented foods (see all her posts with fermented foods here). She taught me to add a pinch salt to my first glass of water of the day to increase absorption.
Lucia and I share a deep love of food and nutrition nerdery. I’d found a partner on my nutrition journey and healing. My life was about to change. I could feel it. In the year after completing Lucia’s group nutrition class, as well as doing more yoga and hiking with all my added energy, I lost a total of 95 pounds, which is worth celebrating. Much more importantly, I was able to:
- Reclaim my joy in eating and love of food
- Stop binge-eating
- Totally eliminate my heartburn
- Have significantly better mental health
- Experience a noticeable decrease in chronic pain
- Eliminate puffiness and swelling in my face, fingers, and feet
- Find clothes that expressed my personal style more readily
- Stop using food to cope (or choosing to use food to cope when I wanted to!)
- Deepen my understanding of food as fuel for my body
- Regulate my mood
- Learn that food is essentially medicine
- Regain healthy digestion and elimination
- Walk comfortably without foot or joint pain
- Have completely clear and glowing skin
- Think clearly enough to write this list
It’s important to say here that losing or gaining weight should never be labeled good or bad, and to acknowledge that all bodies are good and right just as they are. In my case, working to lose this extra weight was the right path for a number of reasons.
Making Sense of the Chaos
I sat down for breakfast to chat with Lucia while preparing this article. Lucia sees a lot of people in her practice and, like me, many have a litany of symptoms. She says it’s all about tuning in to what your body is telling you and then looking at the larger picture. This approach allows someone to take disparate symptoms and make sense of them. Before you can tackle anything more specific, however, she believes in ensuring the foundations of health and wellness are in place.
When I asked her what the request she hears most often, she responded that all the time people say, “Tell me what to eat to feel better.” They want a quick fix.
“But it really starts much, much earlier than that,” Lucia said. “And really, I want them to tell me how and what they’re feeling, so I can then recommend how to eat to better health.” Then Lucia proceeded to tell me about how she starts her appointments by teaching these three foundations of health, and the elements that go into each.
The first thing Lucia mentioned—and for good reason—is hydration. She recommends staying fully hydrated by drinking half your body weight in ounces of water (up to 128 oz) daily. This hydration supports all of our systems so they can work properly.
The human body is generally around about 60% water. Water is classified as an essential nutrient because our bodies require water in amounts beyond what they themselves are capable of producing. Water plays an integral role in so many bodily functions, and ensuring appropriate hydration can assist in myriad functions such as:
- Assisting in regulating body temperature
- Lubricating the joints
- Assisting in flushing waste products from the system via sweat and eliminations
- Keeping eliminations soft to ensure appropriate bowel movements
- Assisting in appropriate cognitive function
Lucia describes digestion as a north to south or cascading process. It starts even before you begin to chew, with a state of being that allows for and supports good digestion.
First, she says, choose foods you’re excited about, and the digestive enzymes in your saliva will do some of the work for you. In addition, you’ll absorb more needed nutrients in the process. Like magic! Take a minute to put devices away when you eat, and maybe do something pleasant (like turn on some music) and then, just eat. Enjoy all the sensations of the food. This sends the right messages to your body that it’s time to digest.
3) Blood Sugar
Overall, Lucia explains, we should always try to avoid a big spike or a big drop in our blood sugar. A return to whole foods can help us avoid having to deal with the not-so-fun symptoms of blood sugar peaks and valleys, such as a sluggish brain, shaking, irritability, feeling “hangry”, fatigue, anxiety, sleeplessness, inability to focus, and many others.
When we eat something high in processed sugar first thing in the morning, there is a high probability that we will “crash” mid-morning. It’s a good sign that your body tells you to get out the crash by eating something. Choose wisely and you can get right back on the track to having balanced blood sugar once again. For many of us, good choices for post-crash are fat, vegetables, protein, or a combination thereof.
Often, once these foundations are sorted and supported, Lucia says she finds that many of the symptoms people were experiencing resolve. If they don’t, then she proceeds down paths to investigate what else may be going on, starting with a strong foundation.
It’s ‘Diets vs. Joy’ and Lucia Wants Joy to Win
Lucia’s hope is to teach the masses to regain flexibility in nutrition through food healing instead of food shaming. Not shaming starts with not being locked into a rigid and limiting “diet.” She really taught me to start where I am today to make the best choice you can in that moment (even—especially—on the days I ate 10 Oreos for lunch!). And do the same thing in the next moment you have to choose.
These tiny changes over time had a revolutionary cumulative effect on my life and health. My connection to food is as healthy and joyful as it’s ever been.
You can find Lucia, her recipes and amazing Instagram stories and posts at Essential Omnivore. You can find sources that contributed to this article here, here and here. Please note that this article is not a substitution for medical advice. Contact your physician first if you are experiencing similar symptoms.
What has helped you heal your relationship with food? I’d love to hear your story in the comments.