When people find out that I have MS, they often ask first about my diet in more detail – what I eat and how it makes me feel. We have some pretty interesting relationships and attachments to food that go way beyond it’s physical necessity. But, I think people know deep down that what they eat, too, is effecting their bodies – for good or bad, whether they have health issues or not, and they want to know more. The food that you eat matters.
Google defines diet as:
a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons. (ie) “I’m going on a diet.”
Sure, I’m doing this for medical reasons. But, a diet isn’t always about what you cannot eat. It’s about what you put IN your body as well. Google also defines diet as
the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats. (ie) “a vegetarian diet”
I prefer to think of my diet as what I choose to eat. I saw something on Facebook the other day that said something to the effect of “what you put into your body either fuels it or damages it.” It was kind of an ‘ah ha’ moment for me. I’ve always considered myself to eat pretty healthy with some very obvious not so healthy moments of weakness. French fries and ice cream for dinner and such. I figured it all evened out. When you look at it this way, though, is it really worth it to eat that piece of pizza if it not only isn’t good for you, but actually damages your body at a cellular level? And what if the good foods I eat are not only not doing damage, but are beneficial and contributing to healthy functioning cells in my body? That they can make me better?
If you want to explore this concept further, I highly recommend the Wahls Protocol It is written by a doctor who has MS. Who, through diet and lifestyle changes is now out of her wheel chair and walking around unassisted. And it wasn’t some magic pill that did it. In this book, author Terry Wahls makes the argument that whether you have heart disease, MS, Rheumatoid Arthritis, diabetes or one of the many other chronic conditions that so many of us suffer from, that we all actually have something in common – our cells aren’t being fed what they need to work properly. And thus the concept of Food As Medicine was introduced to me. I had immediately started doing research into diets that are good for people with MS when I was diagnosed, but have since taken it’s priority level to one of utmost importance after reading Wahl’s Protocol. Watch her short Ted Talk on “Minding Your Mitochondria” It is why my goal is to eat 9 cups of vegetables a day – something a lot of people gasp at. It might be considered radical by some, but actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
I know that I do need to be realistic. There is no cure for MS. Just like a magic pill won’t necessarily make all my symptoms go away, what worked for Dr. Wahl might not work for me. I do, however, blame myself sometimes for my flare up in December. I probably haven’t been as strict as I could be with my diet. It’s hard to go to a friend’s house for dinner or out to eat and not feel like a complete pain in the ass. The more I research, though, the more I believe in my food choices and the more comfortable I get with managing social interactions around those choices. I try my best to stick to the plan, without stressing too much about what I eat in certain situations, and consider that a trade off I am willing to accept at this point so that I don’t have to lock myself in my house with all my vegetables and loneliness. I believe I have avoided immune suppressing western medication through certain lifestyle choices for the past nearly 4 years. My most recent flare up was a wake up call that I may not follow the exact path of Dr. Wahls, and that is okay. Bottom line is, what I eat (or choose not to eat) makes me feel sooo much better. I also shouldn’t feel like a failure because of my decision to try out a disease modifying treatment recommended by my MS specialist. Even though he says I can eat what I want, I truly believe that is not the case. Why would I want to make it worse by eating foods that the medication also has to try and work against? If the steroids I have been prescribed for my flare ups reduce inflammation, and anti-inflammation helps the body stave off or deal with flare ups, why would I not try and tackle inflammation in my diet and lifestyle choices?
I am not going to lie. Figuring out what works for you body is a process. A reaction like a stomach ache, acne breakout or an MS flare up can take days or weeks to sprout up. Sometimes you don’t notice them because your normal baseline is off entirely. If you are curious about how your diet is effecting you particular to your unique biochemistry, I would definitely start with the Whole 30. Instead of eating all the things and trying to determine what triggers what, you eliminate anything and everything that has been linked to inflammation for a month and then add each food group back in one at at time. It is incredibly helpful in determining what your body does or does not like.
I went through years of denial about the gluten intolerance I have. It is not good for my digestion, I finally accepted. So it wasn’t hard to nix that for anti-inflammatory and MS betterment purposes. Cheese was hard. But again, my best tid-bit of advice here is to focus on what you CAN eat vs what you cannot. A lot of people ask, no dairy, no gluten, what do you eat? Lettuce??? Well, yes. A lot actually! But honestly, throughout this diet journey my food experiences have expanded. For example, did you know that tuna salad can be more than just canned fish and mayo mixed together? Mind. Blown. I made a tuna salad the other day with tuna, greek olives, olive oil, red wine vinegar, tomato and onion. Slapped it on a bed of baby spinach and kale. It was amazing. So when I get the question, “what do you eat, lettuce?” I say, “why, yes. I love lettuce. But, no, it’s not ALL I eat.” I also dine on a whole lot more. When people are persistent that I eat more, did I get enough, am I sure? Or try to make me something they think I can eat, I remember their intentions. That they mean well and care about me. I certainly don’t expect them to adapt to my eating habits or keep up with what new research I’m reading on the negative effects of soy beans these days. And I promise you, I am getting enough to eat! I probably just don’t fill my belly with the same things you do. I promise I’m okay! I am by no means starving and am learning to have protein rich snacks handy in case of emergency. With a little foresight and preparation I’m feeling well nourished and satisfied.
Warning: Whole 30 meal prep was a bit intense. I mean I was making my own ketchup and mayonnaise for goodness sake. But it was an important experiment and I learned many lessons. Like sauces. And spices. And there are easy ways to make the same vegetables or meats taste completely different and exotic each time you make them. I hadn’t realized until Whole 30 that sugar is in freakin’ EVERYTHING. It’s amazing I didn’t realize how much sugar or dairy I was eating until I tried cutting them out. A big lesson for me was considering what I put into my mouth before mindlessly popping it in. I don’t do as much food prep now, but I’m conscious of it and when I’m cutting up an onion for dinner. I’ll cut up a little bit more and save it in a container in the fridge so that I have a veggie to throw in a scramble in the morning. Overnight oats are ridiculously easy. Add a scoop of almond butter for protein. All great take-aways from the great elimination experiment that was Whole 30.
And eliminating certain foods has forced me to get more creative with meals. Food exploration can be fun, you guys! My husband has been very supportive, but isn’t as strict about his dietary consumption as I am. He hasn’t put any pressure on me to do so, but I felt the need to make what we eat extremely delicious in order to prove to him that good food doesn’t have to taste bad. I’ve learned to not be afraid of the ‘Pinterest fail.’ Just go for it, or make up your own dishes. You can do it.
I swear to goodness this took me about 97 seconds to make. It’s basically toast with bananas on it. (Gluten free toast of course) I added a honey drizzle and ground flax seeds for pizzazz and nutrition. I had a bag of pecans that I toasted up one day, again took about two minutes to make them, and now I have a jar on my countertop. I put them on everything. (Great on salads too!) Simple.
Salads are another new adventure. When you’re gluten and dairy free you have to get a little crazy, maybe add some protein. Gone are the days of iceberg, some shredded carrots, mealy tasteless tomatoes, and cucumbers slathered in ranch dressing. I assure you I’m no rabbit. I’m an omnivore and loving it! Now if we can only respect what we eat. It died for us. Stop torturing it before we slaughter it. But I digress. My point is that it doesn’t take that long, cost that much more and you don’t have to be Martha Stewart or Ina Garten spending all day in the kitchen to make and create beautiful healthy meals. It takes the same amount of time to chop everything up and then arrange it in a pretty pattern as it does to throw it all together. You do, however, have to make a choice to want to be healthy.
Another warning: You can’t go back from Whole 30. My idea of dessert now is a dried date! After cutting out added sugar for so long, fruit has become much more appealing. Luscious strawberries and juicy peaches are 1,000 times better. Like alcohol, I do have guilty pleasures, and my diet compliant treats such as French fries are just that. Treats. They don’t need to make up the majority of my diet anymore.
It’s taken a while to adjust to my new normal. But that’s the name of my game these days. Always adapting and adjusting. No, I won’t cure my MS (or expect you to cure your inflictions for that matter) by eating this way, but I will feel a heck of a lot better. There is also a good chance the reduction in inflammation will help prevent flare ups that cause permanent damage. It will help my medications, herbal supplements and other disease modifying therapies work better. I’ll be happier. Why would I want to make it worse?
I’m not saying my plan is perfect. I’m still figuring it all out. And it doesn’t mean what I do is going to be best for you. Find your happy and healthy. I suggest exploring your diet as a way to do that. I also want to give you the courage to make the decision and stick to it. You are what you eat has never rang more true for me, maybe that will be the case for you as well. Start small and don’t get overwhelmed. Also let go of the end result. I found myself getting really stressed out because of all the things I wanted to accomplish. “I’ll be feeling so much better when I drink more water,” or “I’ll stop feeling this tingling sensation in my legs if I just give up ice cream.” Newsflash: You can’t control the future.
Letting go of the future and any expectations has helped me in so many ways. Living in the now helps take the pressure off. It let’s you move forward, if only one small step at a time, and also lets the benefits unfold as they’re supposed to. “I’m going to have such ripped abs when I do yoga every day for three months” et cetera. If you just focus on the current moment, the stress of the end result melts away and you’ll have those health benefits before you know it. Maybe even some bonus unexpected ones, so don’t limit yourself.
You may also ask, what does everyday cooking look like for me? I use some replacements like cauliflower instead of potatoes. Tapioca flour instead of wheat flour to thicken soups. Shepard’s pie and cheese burgers look different these days. However, once you let go of the emotional attachment you have to some of these things, and stop eating certain foods, you do eventually stop craving them in their original forms. Or at all.
I have become addicted to feeling better. Despite my MS, I feel better now than I ever have. I truly feel radiant with health and vitality most days. I used to be so tired that I would have to pull over while driving on a regular basis. I have more energy than I can remember since being a kid, and don’t get that afternoon crash most days. I promise you, diet changes do get easier over time. Once you eat kale 3 times a day, you start craving kale at every meal, and although I still have emotional attachments to certain foods, I promise you won’t even miss the bread or cheese once you start eating cleaner. Plus, when you are trying to eat 9 cups of vegetables a day along with healthy fats and proteins, there really isn’t room in your stomach for a whole lot else.
Believe me, it hasn’t been all carrot sticks and hummus my whole life. I have many a fond memory of devouring hobo pies around a camp fire. Of downing entire boxes of mac n’cheese after a night out. Or just because. Whole 30 opened my eyes to my relationship with food. I now know that nobody can take those memories away from me. I just maybe shouldn’t be eating sleeves of Ritz crackers and fluff anymore. I don’t need to associate the sentimental value of those memories with the food I eat now.
With a combination of Wahl’s Protocol and Whole 30, I feel a lot better. My work isn’t done, though. I am still committed to being the best I can be, so I’m committed to the journey and tweaking it as needed. As I mentioned, everyone’s biochemistry is different and it takes a long time to work it out. So have patience. I also suggest reaching out for support. I have gotten a lot of help from my acupuncturist/nutritionist Lynne Drakos over the years. I also plan on seeing a homeopath doctor who specializes in food sensitivities to see what kind of perspective I can gain there.
I’m not here to tell you it’s going to be easy. It’s not at first, especially if you’re used to eating a different way. But you have to make a choice to make it a priority. Drinking more water is a great place to start. It’s one of the easiest things you can do to improve your health. Aim to drink half your body weight in fluid ounces a day. It’s easier if you haul a water bottle around with you everywhere you go, especially one with a straw. It makes it easier to sip on throughout the day.
It’s crazy I had to do some soul searching to eat differently. Like I said, we attach a lot of emotion, among other things, to what we eat and it all comes rushing at you when someone says “would you like a piece of birthday cake?” Or feel guilty when people go out of their way to accommodate you. You have to let go of feeling like you aren’t worthy of making requests. Speak nicely and with clarity, don’t ask for too much, and be okay with the side salad if that’s the only think on the menu you feel comfortable eating. Let go of the stress and guilt you’re creating for yourself. You have made a decision and you are sticking to it. Be proud of that. Also don’t feel so bad if you’re not 100% perfect because hey, nobody is perfect and you’re doing your best to balance it all.
To the nay-sayers who say, “yeah, well, you gotta live” or “it’s not all as easy as you make it sound.” No. It’s not. And to that I say you have to ask yourself what it means to you to live? It’s taken me years to come to terms with what I can and cannot eat. And I’m still adjusting to that along the way. But I’ve made a choice to feel my best. And that is living to me. Not the Reeces Peanut Butter Cup that I have to pass on. It is not all rainbows and sunshine. It can be quite frustrating. Just because something works this time, doesn’t mean it will the next time. So, I am trying to add as many tools to my toolbox as possible. That way I have options to deal with challenges as they come up.
It is disappointing to do all this work to be healthy, have some really good days and feel great. You forget about the bad days and think, “that’s it I made it.” But in truth, my MS is always there lurking underneath and there is no cure. Western or Eastern. But I of course don’t want to make it worse if I can help it. I am overall doing great and I don’t want to get discouraged. I try to remind myself often that I am helping by making lifestyle choices that make me feel better. I am controlling the controllable.
Some things are out of my hands. I found out the other day that I am JC virus positive. That increases my risk for PML, the deadly brain infection. This means that Tysabri is off the table. Ocrevus it is then. I’m feeling so torn about starting an immune suppressing drug, if you can’t tell already. I care so much about my body. All this work to feed myself healthy nourishing foods all the time. I love my body and I’m sad that I’m going to be hurting it. I will be willingly and quite literally exploding all of my B cells within my immune system. That is how Ocrevus works. I apologize to myself because I tried to avoid this for as long as I could. I don’t know how my body will react to this mediation, but I do still have a say in all this.
Next up on my agenda: I need to look into Aryuvedic cooking more, as it takes into account your specific body type, your environment, the time of day, the time of year. It is a form of ancient medicine that I believe I can draw more insight from. You know, tools in the tool belt and all. I owe it to myself to explore my options. The AIP diet (Autoimmune Protocol Diet) has also been recommended to me for obvious reasons. So, more to come on those. I’ve seen huge improvements with everything I’ve done so far. Let’s see what else I find out. Here’s to continuing the food journey. Cheers. Aimee