My search for the perfect diet

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This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for ages, so I’m really excited to finally share it with you today. I’ve been saying a lot laltey how I want to be more open with you guys, more transparent and to share my struggles with being healthy, so here it finally is. It’s a very personal and honest post about my search for the perfect diet and it will shed some light on the questions I get about what I eat.

So many people always ask: Are you vegan? Vegetarian? Pescetarian? Do you eat gluten? What about soy? Would you ever consider going full raw?

Let me say it first off: I don’t believe in labeling one’s diet. People nowadays have this need to categorize people and themselves according to their way of eating. I personally think this just causes unnecessary pressure and can lead to eating disorders or even orthorexia. And what works for you now, doesn’t necessarily work for you in a couple of years, so why confine yourself like that? I’m saying this because I had a time where I felt like I needed to associate myself with a certain type of eating. I felt like I needed to choose and to stick to it and that I wasn’t truly healthy if I wasn’t eating specifically raw, vegan, paleo, gluten free or any of the other diets out there. I only learnt over time that it is OK to be a bit of everything.

Every now and then I arrive at that awkward moment when someone asks me what my ‘diet’ is. Dead silence. Stef, think. How do I play this?

Shall I go with the truth which sounds something like:

“Oh, I eat plant-based 80% of the time and have cut out gluten and refined sugar all together but I like to incorporate organic salmon on Tuesdays and free range eggs on Sundays, but I will stay clear of all processed foods except chunky peanut butter which I like to eat with sourdough bread which in theory has gluten but only so little that it doesn’t affect me too much and my stomach can handle it as long as I took a digestive enzyme half an hour before the meal”.

Yeah, maybe not.

But what is the alternative? To say I’m vegan wouldn’t be correct because I do still eat some animal products, but saying I’m vegetarian would feel wrong to me as well because I am making a conscious effort to reduce my intake of animal products to a bare minimum. I am stuck somewhere in between, in a grey area for which there is no real word and that is incredibly difficult to explain to people and for them to wrap their head around.

In comes the solution: "From now on I am calling myself a nutritarianist."

To put it short, a nutritarian diet (coined by Dr. Fuhrman) is a way of eating which bases food choices on maximizing the micronutrients per calorie. The goal is to eat nutrient-dense food that will nourish your body in all the right ways. Whatever that means is up for you to decide and might change depending on your age, physical activitity, stress level, location etc..

But let me go back a couple of steps and tell you how I got to this point. Are you ready for a roller coaster ride through my kitchen for the last couple of years?

How it all began

When I was in the full grasp of my ED, you can imagine that I couldn’t have cared less about the micronutrients of my food. All I cared about was being skinny, skinny, and more skinny. I also didn’t care to think about where my food came from, what chemicals or other nasties it might contain and how horrible the environmental impact of making it may be.

It was only when I started educating myself on these topics (the first book I ever read was Skinny Bitch and then Crazy Sexy Cancer), that I started doubting my food choices. After I picked up the first book it was like a barrier had broken down and I started inhaling one nutrition book after the other. I was obsessed with learning more and I couldn’t believe some of the food lies that (like that dairy is necessary for calcium, hello!?) I, we as a society, had been told all our lives.

Going vegan?

At this point I was very eager to go vegan. But I soon realised that I just couldn’t stick to it. At that point of my life it was just too restrictive and having rules around food was a major trigger for binges. I set the idea of going vegan aside, thinking that I would come back to it at a later point when I felt more stable and had the willpower to actually make the changes. I didn’t eat a lot of meat anyways, but had trouble cutting out cottage cheese, mozzarella and couldn’t resist having just one sneaky bite of my boyfriend’s meat-loaded dinner plate.

For a while the no-rules diet worked really well. I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted and calorie counting was anyways something I had never really done (even during my darkest times, I just wouldn’t eat at all..). I felt so liberated and was no longer consumed by thoughts around when I was going to eat what and how much at which time and how I would master social situations where options were limited.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Trying to find my way

But after a while I realised that this wasn’t the right way to go about it either. Deep down in my heart I knew that I wanted to eat healthier and be more conscious about my choices; for my health, but also for the health of our planet and for the animals. I accepted the fact that I would have to take it slow and that I couldn’t rush into trying to “clean up” my diet from one day to the other because I would risk becoming too obsessed again leading to a downward spiral of restriction, guilt and self-destructive behaviour.

I then had an amazing summer with lots of travelling, spending time with friends, doing sports and taking care of myself. I finally was at a point where I felt like I could give eating vegan another go.

So during my month in Thailand I went almost fully vegan; lots of tropical fruits, curries with brown rice, vegan sushi, vegan pad thai and coconut cream soups. It’s also during this time that I started IIN and started to learn even more about nutrition than what I had already discovered from my previous casual research. I finally made myself watch « Earthlings » which had been on my to-watch list for a while. I cried five minutes into the documentary and was a sobbing mess by the end of it. I didn’t touch any animal products for the next weeks to come; the horrific imagery was still deeply etched into my mind. Then by chance I got to meet some lovely ladies through Instagram who have all been on a vegan journey of their own and we spent an entire evening discussing how each of them found their way to a plant-based diet. I, the only non-fully vegan at the table, was deeply inspired and came home that night bursting with determination to take that last step.

I did already feel a significant increase in my energy level, my skin was better and I just felt so clear minded and centred. You have to remember that I had already been on vacation for the last two months and was doing yoga every day, sleeping enough and my stress level was basically 0, which surely played a big role in how I felt. But I definitely noticed the benefits of cutting out that last bit of animal foods and could see myself sticking to it in the long run more and more.

My time at Phuket Cleanse

Then came Phuket Cleanse; a week of eating fully raw vegan. I was absolutely blown away by the taste of the food and was amazed at how full and energized I felt the entire time (bare in mind that we still did +3 hours of sport each day). By coincidence that week’s IIN module was about the benefits of a raw diet, and now I got to experience those things first hand.

Part of the program at Phuket Cleanse is a nutritional consultation, which obviously I took full advantage of. When I met Phuket Cleanse’s local nutritionist ,Craig, we talked about my history with an eating disorder and my struggles with acne since the age of 17. I went through the whole story, from how I was originally prescribed the pill against my skin issues, then went on to take Roacutane (which is a topic of it’s own) and have been on a more holistic approach for the last two years now. We talked about my hormonal imbalances and how my skin still is bad even after cutting out gluten, refined sugar, meat, most dairy and other animal products. I talked to him about my efforts to go fully vegan and how I was hoping, in parts, that this would solve my skin problems once and for all. I thought he would encourage my actions, but to my surprise he said my body might need some high quality animal fats in order for my hormones to balance themselves out. He highlighted the importance of good fats and encouraged me to incorporate grass-fed butter, salmon and bone broth besides plant based fats such as avocados and nuts.

More confused than ever?

I went home enthusiastic about keeping up my new healthy eating patterns but I was confused at the same time. Confused from what I learnt at Phuket Cleanse (which has a low carb raw vegan approach compared to the high carb vegan diet I was on for the month before), but also about what I learnt through IIN. The course purposely tries to confuse you by introducing new dietary concepts to you every week (which are all scientifically backed up). Each week you learn about a new concept and it seems to make total sense, but then the next week they confront you with research stating that the exact opposite is true.

An example that comes to my mind is soy: first they show you evidence of how soy can be detrimental to your health and then next thing you know you’re looking at studies that soy can even reduce the risk of breast cancer opposed to what mainstream media tells you. What the hell are you supposed to think?!

IIN does this on purpose so that you a. have an open mind and b. eventually shut off your mind and instead listen to your gut when it comes to food decisions. The focus is on bio individuality aka what might be someone’s food could be another’s man’s poison and essentially you have to find what works for you. This concept totally resonates with me and I love their approach, but at the same time it has me doubting all my food choices lately.

One week I want to cut out gluten because apparently it’s bad for you even if you don’t have an intolerance, then the next week I learn that a gluten intolerance is a sign that my gut is not healthy and that I need to work on healing my gut instead of just not eating gluten. One week I am inhaling soy products like it’s my job, the next week I decide to cut it out all together. One week I decide no longer eat animal products, the next I am told about the benefits of healthy animal protein on your skin. I have to tell you guys, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride for me when it comes to my diet…

And the fact that I have been watching documentaries like Earthlings and listening to talks by Gary Yourofsky hasn’t really made things easier for me. I know that going vegan is the right choice for the animals and for our planet, potentially for our health, but what about my emotional state? I am not always too sure.

Am I a cruel human being for having watched Earthlings but still eating animal products? Maybe. I have had sleepless nights over this and have been scared to write this on paper out of fear of what you might think…

What I have learnt

But in the end, if I were to boil this incredibly long rant down to one thing, then it’s that I have learnt to not ever restrict myself with my diet. I have learnt to have an open mind towards people’s decisions, the different dietary theories that are out there and to experiment with different food choices. It’s not that I am indecisive and that I can’t stick to one thing, it is that I choose to be flexible and to experiment with my body and mind to see what works best for me.

After years of searching, I have learnt that there is no such thing as the perfect diet. What might work for you might not work for me and the diet I thrive on might leave you feeling lethargic and exhausted. There is no simple answer when it comes to nutrition.

But to try and make it simple and not bore new aquantances to death, from now on when someone asks me about my diet, I’ll just answer:

“I’m a nutritarianist, and you?”