I had no intention of ever, EVER entirely giving sugar. My goal was to follow Tim Ferriss's 4 Hour Body plan that allows one day a week as your cheat day, a day on which you can enjoy any foods you desire guilt-free after 6 days of adherence. The six months or so that I followed this plan resulted in more sustained progress than I had seen before toward a goal of losing the few extra pounds I had put on since college. I was eating a strictly vegan diet at the time and doing my best to adapt that to the “slow carb” regimen that Ferriss suggests in his book and to the anti-inflammatory philosophy that I council people on in my day job. Once a week I was still getting to eat all my favorite things. Key food groups on cheat day: sugar, bread, and potatoes.
This worked better than any other attempt at sticking with a healthy routine that I had ever tried. It doesn’t require excessive exercise or swearing off your favorite foods forever. I liked the idea of never having to deprive oneself for long. And it made the first day of my weekend extra joyous, something to look forward to all week.
Downsides: I was not seeing dramatic enough changes in several areas that had become problematic in the last years of my 20s: constant fatigue, poor sleep, brain fog, trouble repairing my faulty memory (more on that later), development of digestive issues, weak immune function (I was catching colds more than once a year and up to several times a year), and of course, intense and constant cravings for vegan sweets all week long.
I had also begun having occasional episodes characterized by other more extreme symptoms of adrenal fatigue. I’d wake up at 2 or 3AM with my heart racing and beating out of my chest. Extremely dizzy, I’d get up feeling nauseous and head for the bathroom, but all I could do was lay on the bathroom floor with the room spinning. I felt full but experienced symptoms that would indicate I needed food. So with no appetite whatsoever, I’d struggle to make the blandest serving of food that I could, whether it was steel cut oats or old rice pasta I had scavenged from the back of a cupboard. I’d sit on the kitchen floor with my head in my hands waiting for my meal on the stove top. I would force down as much as I could stand and head back to bed feeling satiated enough to fall back to sleep, all before dawn.
These areas of stagnation or decline, coupled with all I had learned (and was being paid to teach others) about the importance of an anti-inflammatory diet over the past few years, led me to make a very difficult personal decision. It was time to practice what I preach. I did not want to enter my 30s feeling like shit. I chose to give up veganism after 6 years (and more than a decade without meat) in favor of a paleo diet that would allow me to further cut out inflammatory foods and would provide me with more digestible, bioavailable sources of protein. I spent months wrestling with this decision before taking the plunge and adding local, organic and pastured animal meat and eggs into my diet in place of the tempeh, nuts, seeds, and legumes I had been relying on.
I followed this new diet 6 days a week. I continued to give myself one cheat day on which I would satisfy all my cravings with vegan treats and starchy foods (I continued cheating on vegan foods to avoid dairy and any factory farmed animal ingredients). On this routine I noticed vast improvements:
I no longer felt chronically cold and my hands and feet stay warm now, which was a magical and unexpected change. Fine lines on my skin that had begun to surface have receded. I don’t feel a constant need to drink extra water. I began to sleep better. I have not had to get up in the middle of the night since making the switch in my diet. I saw an increase in energy and more productive hours in the day. I never, EVER, feel bloated or gassy (sorry, I warned you about the TMI) anymore. My digestive discomfort disappeared. My clothes started fitting looser and I was beginning to see a bit of muscle tone without adding in any extra exercise. I would eat a meal and stop thinking about food for hours until the next meal, rather than constantly being preoccupied with thoughts of food. All these improvements occurred in the first month on a paleo diet 6 days a week. Some occurred in as little as one week. I felt very encouraged.
August- September 2011
The second month on this diet coincided with extra stress. I was moving from California to Texas, where I knew almost no one, and I was leaving friends, my ex-boyfriend (read: BFF), most of my belongings, and my home state to start a new life in Austin. This would be a challenge to my burgeoning healthy habits.
Austin, btw, is home to countless establishments that offer delicious vegan indulgences: frozen yogurt sundaes, diner food (guilty pleasure), donuts, fresh pastries and baked goods… How could I resist? I didn’t. Cheat day was the best day ever. Then one additional indiscretion mid-week was the other best thing ever. That one indiscretion turned into a lunch sack of indiscretions because how could I choose between a donut, an oatmeal cookie cream sandwich, and a cream puff? There was any number of options to help me quell stress or sweeten a sad day.
Inner dialogue while standing in front of the bakery display at the awesome co-op here: “I can’t choose one! But I can’t get two items because the cashier will know they’re both for me and I’ll be embarrassed. I know! I’ll get three items so anyone who noticed would surely assume that I couldn’t be eating all of it by myself and that I must be buying for a group. Genius!”
Then I would eat any and all of my sinful selections in the car on the way home so that there was no evidence of these diet infractions anywhere inside my apartment and I could resume my paleo days without further temptation.
So what’s the big deal? You eat sugar twice a week. Who cares? You’re not overweight, in fact your figure is improving. And it's not like you’re going home and purging it all. No signs of any REALLY unhealthy issues. The average American eats a lot worse. True, and I was going through a very stressful time as I adjusted to life in a new place after all. But the amount of intense, yet temporary joy it brought me was weird. My constant cravings for these things were obnoxious. I became acutely aware of cravings for carbs that would be triggered mid-moment as reaction #1 to traffic jams, difficult clients, boy trouble, etc. I would also feel an urge to “celebrate” good days with treats. Even if I could usually recognize and resist this behavior, it was still disturbing.
Soon I noticed more physical issues. I was getting increasingly frequent minor (or not so minor) throat/tonsil infections and ear pain that had started showing up in the last few years. The last and worst of which started the day after a cheat day, but still I chalked this up to stress from the big ordeal of moving. I treated it naturally like I always do and it finally subsided again. This was certainly not a sign of a greater problem. Just my crappy ol’ immune system doing (or rather not doing) its thing.
Then for the first time ever, my menstrual cycle went crazy. I had two periods a month and my skin was getting very hormonal breakouts. But I had read that this was common when you switch to a paleo diet as your body’s level of circulating insulin and other hormones readjusts to the dramatically diminished amount of sugar and starch that you are consuming. “Fine, I can deal with this for a few months.”
Late September - October 2011
Predictably, the pièce de resistance was a symptom that struck my vanity chord. For several years now I would occasionally get mild itchiness on my scalp, just in one little spot, totally invisible, and totally temporary, never even really thought about it. After my move I had a little flare-up. That little flare-up soon turned into my whole scalp feeling itchy, and then it became itchy AND bumpy. It would be at its worst at night, keeping me awake. Then the redness became visible just below the hairline at the nape of my neck. Panic. I had a moment of conventional thinking at first and attributed the problem to external factors like my shampoo or the change in water from CA to TX, so I bought a shower filter and switched my products. No change (duh). I did some symptom research to confirm what I already knew from my years in the skin care world: it definitely wasn’t dandruff, eczema, or psoriasis. It was something I hadn’t come across before- seborrheic dermatitis. This clue would turn out to be the factor that allowed me to put ALL my symptoms together. And I didn’t like the conclusion. In almost all cases, sebhorrheic dermatitis results from systemic yeast overgrowth. “Damn it. It’s f-ing Candida.”
For years I had suspected the possibility of a yeast imbalance but 1) I wasn’t getting “yeast infections” and 2) I think I refused to conclude that I had any problem that would require going cold turkey off of sugar and carbs. But it makes 100% sense: the brain fog, the icy hands and feet, the fatigue, the cravings, the few stubborn extra pounds, the ear and throat pain, the mood swings, the skin problems, perpetual under-eye puffiness, the spacey-ness, and all the other issues I’ve had for years and years and YEARS can be attributed to excess Candida albicans. I confirmed this for myself by immediately going on a candida diet (essentially no carbs, not even fruits) and taking a variety of anti-fungal herbs (several of which I had used to heal ENT infections due to their simultaneous anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, but it appears that it was actually the anti-fungal power of these herbs that was doing the work). It was serious business now. No more cheat days. No sugar or starch whatsoever. Needless to say, I started seeing quick effects.
First, I got an obvious Herxheimer Reaction (also known as a die-off effect). My symptoms intensified and I was completely exhausted yet unable to sleep soundly for a few days. It felt like I was coming down with the flu. My head was swimming, a symptom very familiar to me as a sign of detoxification. So I knew I was on the right track and stuck with it. Then my scalp condition started to clear up within just a week. This was followed by a reduction in many of my ongoing symptoms. It was working!
Meanwhile, I was still fairly obsessed with thoughts of junk food. One night, I had a long, detailed, and extremely vivid dream that I consumed an entire bag of barbecue chips. It was a seemingly endless repetition of reaching into the brightly colored bag and pulling out a fistful of chips and stuffing them into my mouth until there were just crumbs left.
On each subsequent visit to the co-op for carefully plotted out groceries, I would stand in front of the shrine, a.k.a: the bakery case, gazing at all of the enticing options on the trays behind the plastic doors. I’d stand there looking longingly at the rows of glossy glazed vegan donuts and the oatmeal cookie sandwiches that stole my heart until someone interrupted me by opening the case, or until I became conscious of how this weirdo behavior must look to others. Then I’d walk away puzzling over what I could have instead. Maybe the chocolate section would have a bar so dark that it included no sugar. No luck there. The raw food choices were full of agave, so that’s out. Fruit! “Look,” I thought to myself, “I’m getting better. I’ll go for the healthy option and choose a perfect piece of fruit.” After just a couple of weeks going entirely without sugar, you would not believe how beautifully sweet an apple tastes. Even a carrot made a suitably sugary dessert for my newly refined palate. But just a few days of fruit as a treat brought the prompt return of my itchy scalp. “Can’t eat fruit yet. Good to know.” Back on the strictest possible candida diet asap.
So now it’s been two weeks of absolutely no dietary slip-ups and about a month total on the candida diet in general (pastured meat, eggs, and tons of veggies with no cheat foods). I’m no longer getting detox sickness. My more stubborn symptoms are clearing up. I already perform noticeably better during my workday and I am sleeping better. I don’t lose my appetite anymore or feel ravenous with hunger. I have met my longstanding figure measurement goals without even trying. And miraculously, the last time I found myself in front of the co-op’s bakery case, I no longer felt insatiable lust for all the items I couldn’t have. Anyone who has been addicted to anything will understand what a profoundly gratifying experience this can be. While it’s still the beginning of my life without sugar, I am already increasingly able to follow my normal routine, drive down my usual streets, and frequent my go-to places without them triggering immediate cravings for whatever carbohydrate extravaganzas I could encounter there. Never have I experienced such quick rewards from a style of eating as I am experiencing on the candida diet. Sugar is beginning to loosen its grasp on my body. This is totally working.