It all started with a croissant. Not just any old croissant, but a buttery, warm, flaky croissant filled with one long, dark smear of chocolate. After your first great pastry, or coffee, or plate of sashimi, it’s hard not to be passionate about food. And although I complained bitterly when I was disappointed with an order of pastry/coffee/ sashimi that was supposed to be great, there is at least some sweetness—some reward—to mediocre indulgence. Bitterness, I imagined, is when you can’t eat those foods at all.
Last November, I experienced several outbreaks of facial hives—a story best told by my last blog post. During the first outbreak, a neighbor took one look at my face and swore that I had a food allergy. She recounted having similar symptoms and said that they disappeared after starting an Elimination Diet—nutritional parlance for eliminating foods that often cause allergies, such as wheat, dairy, caffeine and alcohol. In some circles, Elimination Diets are also called a Cleanse. I couldn’t tell who was more horrified—she, at the sight of my face, or me, at the thought of giving up wheat. She loaned me a book—a bible of Naturopathic Medicine—and I took it home and cried all over it.
Some months later, I learned that my rashes were caused by emotional, rather than dietary issues. In my desperate state, I took her advice and started an Elimination Diet the next day. She had suggested 90 days—I hoped to make it through a week.
Initially, I ate broccoli for breakfast, salad for lunch and tofu for dinner while thoughts of freshly baked bread, artisanal cheese and cupcakes danced in my head. And what about the high-end espresso machine I had just purchased? Should I kick it to the curb to demonstrate my commitment to the Cleanse?
Major life changes are hard to bear—but even more so when you don’t have any guides to help you surmount the daily challenges of forging ahead rather than falling back on old patterns. Raw food enthusiasts and vitamin-junkies are far too devoted to their way of life to understand the loss that an ordinary person feels when they have to give up the comfort and pleasure of wine and cheese, or coffee and pastry.
But in my desire to “save face,” I decided to give it a go. I kept a journal. Having gone vegetarian a decade earlier, I was not altogether unfamiliar with the road ahead. But even so, each day of the first 30 days brought a new challenge—how to make it through lunch without a sandwich or how to dine out without succumbing to a basket of freshly baked bread and butter. Empty fridge moments at the house required large stores of nuts and dried fruit as back-up. But to my surprise, I actually felt satiated and energized by simple meals such as a breakfast of tea, nuts and dried blueberries.
I became a regular at the local health food store and began to make replacements for my home kitchen: organic rye bread (the dark, German, thinly sliced “brot”) replaced croissants, fresh bread, wraps and roti; brown rice pasta and quinoa rather than penne, spaghetti, farfalle and couscous; soy milk substituted for whole milk, cream and yogurt. Then, to make use of all the new ingredients, I started to read new cookbooks and experiment with radically new recipes. Despite longing for a croissant every now and again, the Cleanse was starting to feel exciting, as though I had embarked upon a food adventure.
After about a month of experimentation, filled with unexpected successes (homemade kitchari) and equally unanticipated failures (rice flour cookies), I settled into a new pattern of eating. A green smoothie, a handful of vitamins and a boiled egg for breakfast, a protein-topped salad for lunch and something rich and scrumptious for dinner—poached fish with mashed potatoes, tofu curries with rice, shrimp pad thai topped with wok-fried veggies or a steaming bowl of vegetarian chili. Dinners ended with herbal tea and chocolate, or a slice of flourless torte.
It took 60 days to reach a place of culinary joy again. To wake up each day without feeling deprived—when food had for so long been a primary source of pleasure in my life. In the past, when I felt bad, I often went to food first. But the Cleanse forced me to part ways with many old eating habits. And the shake-up had many benefits. After 5 days of skull-crushing headaches related to caffeine withdrawal, I felt really, really good. And, I ceased to swing from caffeine-high to caffeine-low throughout the day. My sugar dips and dives also disappeared completely. It felt eerily calm inside my skin once I was free from my various food addictions.
I also began to feel lighter and freer. Part of it was the weight loss—I lost about 10 pounds in the first month—but there was something else too. Until dinnertime, I ate for fuel, not bliss. I ate less, and more consistently, so my body didn’t have to work overtime to break down my meals. Which left me feeling incredibly…unburdened. And strong. Ready to take on the world.
Overarching all of the physical benefits of the Cleanse, I also sensed that my body was speaking to me via the rashes and hives—and asking me to take pause. I knew that I needed to stop living and eating as though I were still 20 years old—it was time for me to reconsider what I ought to be putting into my body. The answers were loud and clear: My body wanted healthy foods in smaller portions, good quality vitamins, lots of water and fewer abusive foods like caffeine, alcohol, fast food and processed sugar. While I work well under pressure, I wanted to be ahead of the curve with my health—after all, who wants to wait around for disease to force a radical change in diet and lifestyle?
Most of my stories have happy endings and this one is no exception. I don’t have any food allergies—so technically, I can return to my old way of eating anytime. But I don’t want to. I decided to re-introduce wine after 30 days—and those 2 or 3 glasses a week are like liquid heaven. And when I really, really want to eat a croissant, I do. But the Clenase has taught me to give my body what it needs, not what I crave while walking past a bakery. On bad days, when I slip into my old habit of emotional eating, it only takes a day or so to remember that solace can be found in places other than my plate. A short walk in the snow, a good book or 20 minutes on my meditation cushion can leave me feeling satiated for a long, long while.
To read more about cleansing your body and changing your relationship to food, try:
-Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth
-Naturopathic medicine blog by Christina Youngren