Earlier this week we posted an article explaining the differences between food allergies and food intolerance. As promised, our story continues, or rather, the (itchy, scratchy) story of our trainer and nutrition coach, Kindra. Below you will find the beginning of her tale, which she has agreed to update for us at the one month, three month, and six month marks following her food intolerance testing.
“In August of last year, I decided the time had come to pursue a life-long goal of taking the stage in a women’s figure competition (a smaller, natural form of women’s body building, for those of you who are unfamiliar). The process of getting in competition shape was difficult, but were I tasked with re-writing Maria’s “Favorite Things,” from the soundtrack from The Sound of Music, that first stanza would inevitably read:
‘Time under tension and overload lifting
Naps on the couch and eight meals (no skipping)
One RM deadlift and kettlebell swings
These are a few of my favorite things…’
In short, I didn’t mind the work. Truth be told, I didn’t even really mind the competition diet, which essentially consisted of seven foods, punctuated by the occasional “cheat meal” depending on my progress. For a variety of reasons, I never made it to the stage. Primary among these, in retrospect, was my spectacularly poor decision to attempt to be competition ready in roughly half the time most competitors allow themselves for preparation. Four weeks out from the date of the show, the same week that my body fat percentage finally dropped below 10%, my immune system came in contact with one of last fall’s nasty respiratory viruses and I crashed. When my body was able to crawl back out of bed two weeks later, I had lost nearly 4 pounds of hard-earned muscle and any hope of being ready in the next 14 days. Emotionally, I was pretty devastated. What I would learn over the course of the next few months, however, was that disappointment at not reaching the stage was about to be the least of my problems.
As I knew going in to this process, what the body looks like on the outside is a reflection of what the hormones are up to on the inside. Among the hormones piloting the appearance bus, Leptin is nearly always in the driver’s seat. A survival hormone by nature, it is leptin’s job to communicate to the brain that the body has sufficient stored body fat to endure a famine. When body fat drops too low or too quickly and leptin levels are disrupted, the body responds by slowing both the thyroid and metabolic rate in an attempt to retain or regain sufficient body fat stores to ward off starvation. In essence, it’s a caveman hormone. In today’s world of 24 hour drive-throughs and calories-a-plenty, it is arguably less critical to our survival than when winter meant less to eat and the need to run from a saber tooth tiger was a very real possibility. Needless to say, dropping my body fat by 40% in seven weeks messed with my hormones in some very real, and in retrospect, very predictable ways. My cycle stopped, I couldn’t regulate my body temperature, and coming out of my competition diet nearly every bite of my still arguably sqeaky-clean eating pattern would up being stored (primarily on my thighs) “just in case” my self-induced period of starvation were to occur again. Needless to say, the resulting metabolic fall out was pretty bad, but at least it was something I could wrap my head around – and knew I could eventually fix. What I never saw coming, however, were the severe problems with food intolerance that were headed my way.
What had not previously occurred to me was that my competition diet of boiled chicken, Chinese mustard, white fish, lemon pepper seasoning, broccoli, spinach and the occasional bite of sweet potato (not kidding) was, because of it’s exclusivity, also an elimination diet. By removing all but those seven foods from my diet and sticking to them exclusively for nearly two months, I was giving my body and my immune system a break from any and all other foods and any histamine (intolerance) response they might elicit. When I broke the competition diet and returned to my previous pattern of eating, even though my diet as a trainer and nutrition coach is incredibly clean, all hell broke loose.
Within days of breaking the competition diet, I began to break out. The breakout started as a quarter-sized patch on my left cheek. I responded by throwing out my old make up and buying new. I washed and sanitized my make up application tools. Temporarily convinced that my laundry detergent was to blame (I sleep on my left side, including my left cheek), I switched brands – all to no avail. The red, bumpy area grew, and then it began to itch. Within weeks the rash had spread across my face and down my neck. Having never struggled with breakouts before, the rash itself would have been bad enough. The accompanying itch, however, was straight up maddening. I stopped exfoliating, switched facial cleansers and moisturizers, and started taking a daily dose of antihistamine. Improvement was sporadic. Some days the rash would abate, other days it would come back with vengeance.
Talking to Dr. Brooke I became convinced that something in my diet, something I hadn’t eaten during those seven weeks, was to blame for the rash. Initially, I attempted to go back to an elimination diet on my own, but no matter which food I omitted, the problem persisted. Eventually, frustrated and tired of being both ugly and itchy (that is my before and after photo at the top of this post), I opted for ALCAT food intolerance testing. The results were nothing short of astounding. 80% of the foods I was eating on a daily basis were on the list of things my body was not well prepared to tolerate. On the list of things I needed to avoid most were olive oil and basil. Nearly everything I cooked was in olive oil, and among spices, my favorites have always been basil and cumin. Unfortunately for me, cumin was also on the list, albeit on the list of foods I will probably eventually be able to re-include in my diet on an occasional basis. Also on the list were the following: malt, nutmeg, hazelnut, goat’s milk, licorice, avocados, almonds, artichoke, bananas, bell peppers, blackberries, cauliflower, coconut, grapes, paprika, rice, sunflower, red and green leaf lettuce, coriander, limes, cayenne, crab, kale, and string beans.
Over the last few weeks, I have learned that many of these sensitivities I probably created myself. For much of the last four years my daily menu has been the same:
- a protein shake with peanut butter for breakfast,
- almonds for my morning snack,
- a salad of red and green leaf lettuce with avocado, bell peppers, some form of lean protein, sliced almonds, and olive oil dressing for lunch,
- an afternoon snack of bell peppers and humus,
- an evening meal of grilled protein and green beans,
- a second bedtime protein shake.
It gets worse. When I went out, my favorite “cheats” included beer and crab cakes. In an attempt to get away from gluten, to which I am also incredibly intolerant (but had determined as much years ago) I had gone paleo and was liberally using both almond and coconut flours and oils. In short, it wasn’t ONE thing that was causing my body to rebel, it was almost everything that I was putting in my body, and every last one of them, healthy foods. As was perhaps best said by Lucretius, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” Ultimately, it didn’t matter that these foods were “healthy,” they weren’t “healthy” for me – I just didn’t know it.
Initially, my response to the test results was a mixture of awe and optimism. ‘Ok, so those are a lot of my favorites but the sacred six (my absolute favorites) aren’t on there. I can still eat peanut butter and chocolate, drink coffee, eat chicken and tuna, and enjoy a nice slab of salmon. Things could be worse.’ Since then, staying true to the list has proved far more difficult than I could have imagined. On day two of the rotation diet I failed to bring enough food with me to work and without thinking, ran across the street for salmon teriyaki. Salmon is safe and I don’t eat rice… what could go wrong? Turns out, the fish was grilled with olive oil. Within minutes my face was on fire. Two days later I met Matt for lunch at our favorite downtown deli, Protein Planet. Having learned from my prior mistake I asked what they grilled their meat in. Canola. Ok, it was going to clog my arteries and was probably GMO, but at least I wouldn’t itch. Wrong again. It was grilled in oil and “spices,” including basil. I returned back from my lunch break red and itchy.
Cooking at home has been a challenge, for myself for sure, but also for Matt who handles dinner most of the time. Getting creative to avoid my allergens has thus far gone well and merited some delicious results, including his spicy stuffed pepper recipe also posted on this blog. Eating out, however, has lost a lot of its luster. In fact, aside from trips to the Whole Food salad bar, I have yet to have a successful outing. What has gotten better, however, is my skin. The rash isn’t gone but it’s abating. Equally as important, my energy is noticeably better and my head is remarkably clear. One of my food intolerance side effects was clearly “brain fog,” I just hadn’t put two and two together. In combination with addressing the low thyroid and anemia that also resulted from my adventure in bodybuilding, I am hoping that continuing to heal my body from food intolerance will result in greater health and fitness, certainly, but also a return of the abundant energy I had prior to embarking on the competition diet. Fingers crossed. I will keep you posted.”