I am a 31-year-old woman living right outside of Boston, MA, with my husband and 8 year old shih tzu. We are expecting our first baby in March! I have a background as an independently licensed clinical psychotherapist, and I also am a licensed wellness coach.
I specialize in treating primarily women with autoimmune disease and gastrointestinal problems, and focus on helping people with multiple food intolerances who struggle with the physical and emotional consequences of feeling sick. I love fitness and health, and I have worked as both a fitness and yoga instructor for over 10 years in the Boston area.
What was your health/dieting/workout experience *before* paleo?
I struggled with my weight throughout high school, and went through periods where I would eat about 300 calories of fruit per day. I ate every diet food you could possibly eat: light (aspartame) yogurts, pudding, rice cakes, light breads, diet Entemanns, tons of Fiber One, egg whites, and the list goes on and on.
I did always love fruits and vegetables, but I would stuff myself so full of them (and fat free salad dressings!) as a way to avoid feeling hungry. I would buy the cheapest meats I could get my hands on – this was before we knew much about CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and antibiotics and hormones, etc. I drank tons of soy milk and ate sugar-free candies all day long.
My stomach always hurt from the time I was a child. I got used to the pain, the cramping, and the bloating every time I ate. I had lived with an infuriating diagnosis of unexplained Irritable Bowel System (IBS) since I was young. Each doctor had his own advice—more fiber, more whole wheat, fiber supplements, laxatives, medications—but no answers and no symptom relief. No one ever mentioned food intolerances or altering what I ate. So, that was my “normal.” Everything hurt and nothing helped. Aside from GI issues, I was a very healthy child and young adult. Things took a turn for the worse in my late 20s.
What was the “clincher” that persuaded you to jump on the paleo bandwagon?
My life began to change drastically in the summer of 2010. I had noticed my body experiencing bizarre swelling and inflammation, and I was out of breath when doing easy activities, such as walking my dog. With all of my GI issues, I had developed a pretty high level of pain tolerance and brushed off the symptoms, even though I felt faint teaching my fitness classes, and I was constantly uncomfortable.
A few weeks later, I knew there was a big problem when I had chest pain, tachycardia, and constant fatigue. Hospitalized many times, I was given high doses of NSAIDS and steroids—but no answer. Everything came to a halt during a September hospitalization when doctors found a large mass in my right ventricle. Gulp. I underwent numerous tests—bone-marrow biopsy, liver biopsy, heart biopsy, CT-scans, MRIs—all with no answer.
Finally, I stabilized enough to be sent home with a hefty dose of prednisone, a (later retracted) hypothesized diagnosis of a rare blood disorder, massive doses of medication to make the mass go away, and insistence that I not work or do any physical activity other than walk my dog.
I decided I did not like this diagnosis, which was given by process of elimination, and by my elevated eosinophil levels (an indicator that my body was inflamed and fighting something). It left me confused with no explanation as to why a healthy young woman would suddenly come close to death.
With plenty of time on my hands to Google away, I scoured the internet with my then boyfriend and family. We began to wonder if this was some sort of autoimmune phenomenon. My liver enzymes were completely abnormal, my thyroid tests were off, I was infertile, and my stomach was a constant mess. I was on a steady dose of antibiotics, indefinitely, to “protect” me from infections because of my steroid-suppressed immune system. Boy, I wish I knew then what I know now and had refused those meds.
Each time I had a hospital procedure, I came back worse than when I had gone in. Costochondritis (inflammation under my ribcage) after a heart biopsy and then C. Difficile (a potentially deadly bacterial infection in the colon) after a liver biopsy finally made me stop and think that this could all be GI-related. Thus began the great gluten investigation.
At this point, no doctor had ever mentioned a potential correlation between celiac disease and all of my bizarre symptoms. When I finally found a gastroenterologist who believed me—and did not tell me to eat more Metamucil and more whole wheat—our suspicion was confirmed: celiac disease. I went on a mission to heal.
I was still on disability and had the time to work on my training to become a holistic health coach, with no intention at the time of later focusing my therapy/coaching career solely on people struggling with health issues, autoimmune disease, food intolerances and sensitivities. This is when I began to find a lot of information on the paleo diet.
When I was further diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, I was determined not to take medication and to manage my digestive system through diet. I was already gluten- and dairy-free, which initially brought some relief, but I knew that I had a lot more healing to do. My doctor ordered a hydrogen breath test, and I was told I had small intestinal bacterial overgrowth syndrome (SIBO), most likely as a result of the NSAIDS, steroids, antibiotics, and food toxins I had been consuming. Bam! Whatever I could do to heal became my goal, no matter how crazy and independent that seemed.
I did my research. For a girl who had lived for years eating only white meat (healthier!), fish, low-fat, healthy whole grains, artificial sweeteners and diet sodas—yadayadayada—my mind was turned upside-down and backwards.
When I was really desperate for changes, I read about autoimmune paleo (AIP), from sites like Balanced Bites, Paleo Parents, and The Paleo Mom), the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) from SCD Lifestyle.com), and low FODMAPS (a diet that avoids specific foods with higher fructose contents, also known as Fermentable Oligo-, Di- and Mono-saccharides, and Polyols) as those were three diets specified for SIBO, Ulcerative Colitis, and Celiac Disease.
I began to make bone broth, buy and cook liver and other red meats, increase my fat intake, cut out any raw veggies, and discovered which foods were big no-nos. Out went my favorites—potatoes, eggplant, eggs, tomatoes—the list seemed endless. When I started to feel a tremendous positive difference in my gut, my belief in the power of the diet grew.
Diligently, over the next few months, I kept my bone broth stocked, started taking a fermented cod liver- butter-oil blend, started brewing my own kombucha, took a high-potency probiotic supplement, got rid of most raw vegetables and fruits, and stuck to low FODMAPS.
How did you approach going paleo – gradually or dive right in?
I made a gradual, but quick, dive in. When I started to feel so much better so quickly, it was the motivation I needed. It was very hard for me to throw out boxes of my favorite gluten-free products, but once I did it made a world of difference!
How paleo are you? (80/20, 90/10, autoimmune, etc.)
100%. If I flare up, I do AIP for a few days.
How did you find the transition?
Easy, when I saw how much better I felt.
Tell us about “A Day In The Life Of Ali” – a typical day especially from an eating and exercise standpoint before you went paleo:
I made sure come rain or come shine that I got in at least 2 hours at the gym- chronic cardio, weights, yoga, you name it, I was obsessed with it. I worked an 8-hour day and would come home and collapse at the end of the night. Often times I would binge on sugary (fat-free!) snacks since I felt it gave me energy. And coffee. Lots of coffee.
Then please tell us about “A Day In The Life Of Ali” – a typical day especially from an eating and exercise standpoint after you went paleo:
I run my own business now and select the hours in which I like to work. I walk my dog several times a day, and continue to teach and practice yoga and weight lifting classes 4 times a week. I have time to prepare delicious paleo food for myself and my husband, and feel so much more at peace than I ever did before. I no longer need sugary snacks – I don’t eat processed foods, and I have coffee once in a blue moon.
What helped you when you were struggling?
Having the support of my family and husband and knowing that I could get back on track if I took care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually.
What, if any, exercise routines do you do?
Walking my dog, vinyasa yoga, weight lifting, light cardio (20 min or under) 2-3 times a week.
What do you think are three critical factors to being successful with paleo?
- Don’t be SO strict that it prevents you from doing it. For example, if the one thing keeping you from paleo is your peanut butter passion, be paleo with PB!
- Keep a well-stocked fridge and pantry and find affordable ways to eat the foods you like. Keep it simple. Yummy organic meats and wild caught fish with some of your favorite veggies and a sweet potato or winter squash is an easy bet for any meal. I rarely use recipes – I just throw some stuff together and I am ready to go!
- Do what works for you! Intermittent fasting is a DISASTER for me, as is eating five small meals a day. Experiment, and see how your body responds to different food and meal structures. Don’t get rigid, and listen to your body!
Were there any practical things you did such to support yourself – like clear out your pantry, eat before you went to a party to avoid the buffet table?
We have some non-paleo foods in our house – my hubby is gluten-free at home, but not paleo (Ben and Jerry’s anyone??). Most of it is very healthy since he is also a personal trainer and wellness coach. I don’t have a problem avoiding those foods. If I am going to a big event where I know substitutions can’t be made or I am worried about cross-contamination, I eat first.
What do you say to people who ask you about paleo?
It is not as hard as it seems, and the food I eat is SO YUMMY!
How has your life changed now? (More activity, promotion at work, stronger relationship, etc.) I have so much energy and vitality. I am happy and calm the majority of the time. I am no longer in and out of the hospital, and I never have to take prednisone or other autoimmune modulators. I struggled for so long to get pregnant, and had several losses , and now I am expecting a (paleo) baby in March. I feel so blessed for my life.
What activities do you do now that you didn’t do before?
I meditate daily, and walk more.
What books/blogs/support groups did you use to help you?
AHHH, too many to even mention! The three most helpful resources for healing were: SCD Lifestyle; Diane Sanfilippo’s Practical Paleo and her Balanced Bites website; and Aglaee Jacob’s Digestive Health with REAL Food Book and her Real Food Challenge – I thank her for helping me heal my SIBO with real food. I also love The Paleo Mom, Paleo Parents, and Against all Grain.
Have you experienced anything negative as a result of your changes? (Earlier success stories mentioned having to lose certain “friends”, others have said there are restaurants they now avoid because they can’t eat their former favorites.) How have you dealt with those negatives?
None. It can be difficult to go out to eat sometimes, but not because of being paleo – for me it is so easy to pick a meat/fish and veggie/salad. Of more concern to me is cross-contamination because of my celiac. In my fourth month of pregnancy, I got cross-contaminated in a restaurant and ended up in the ER because I gained 13 lbs of fluid overnight, and was having trouble with my heart. That is how severe my reaction is – so now we try to visit restaurants where we know they are diligent about cross-contaimination.
My friends and family are very supportive. In fact, my mom and dad have gone gluten -free. Dad has Crohn’s Disease (and suspected celiac) and had terrible reactions to meds, so I worked with him for one month to clean up the diet and teach him the AIP- and he is off all meds and feeling great. Mom has a neurological condition similar to Parkinsons, and has drastically reduced her need for medication and she feels great!
What three practical tips would you offer our readers based on your experience? (Refusing bread being brought to the table when dining out, packing all lunches yourself, asking other family members not to bring home cookies, that kind of thing.)
Be proactive, take time to prepare food you love, do what feels right for you, and NEVER feel guilty for your health decisions.
What advice would you give people who are struggling with health or weight issues right now?
You don’t need any pills or potions or extreme exercise routines. Keep it simple and start by just cutting out processed foods. Focus spending a little extra on sustainable and humanely-raised meats and fish, and switch processed carbs like bread and pasta for foods from our earth like fruit and sweet potatoes! Small changes add up. Don’t fear the fat! Fear all the processed diet foods!
Update: February, 2014.
The docs told me the diuretics would make me unable to breastfeed, yet I am producing an abundance of what they call “creamy and fattening” breast milk, some of which has tested 8 calories above average per ounce. I really believe that nutrition and my lifestyle (fitness, meditation, yoga, and good sleep) saved my life here. PLUS 2 weeks later I am at my pre pregnancy weight. Sorry this is so long, but wanted to give you the full update! Here’s a pic of our little guy, with whom I am fully obsessed!!