Coconut Friends is a monthly series I’ve started to showcase people’s journeys and success using a variation of primal eating. Primal eating affects us all in different ways, and the reasons we start doing it varies as well.
This month’s Coconut Friend is my Instagram friend Meg, the author of BE Paleo – Thriving in Belgium with a Paleo Lifestyle, where she writes in English and French (!) about her life in Belgium, following AIP paleo, creating delicious food and promoting the paleo word in general. Although we’ve never met, we do have much in common: we’re both (North) American, we both moved to the EU to be with our European husband’s, we’re both teachers, we share an affinity for buying ‘reasonably priced’ workout clothes, and the most important, we’re both primal eaters. Meg was there from the beginning of my primal journey, and we regularly comment on and ‘like’ eachother’s posts. Here’s her story.
My name is Meg and I currently live in Belgium. I’m American, but I met my Belgian husband who came to my high school with an exchange program… and since true love really does exist, I followed him overseas and have now been living here for nearly 8 years.
My high school eating habits were probably worse than most – especially during the last six months when I took on a full time job in an effort to earn extra money for my trip overseas. I would start the day out with free breakfast at school (my favorites were cold cereal with chocolate milk and French toast sticks with maple syrup). My lunch was almost always eaten at school as well (my favorites being the pizza or the breaded chicken sandwiches). My dinner was eaten at the fast-food restaurant I worked at – and I usually snacked on fries and ice cream all evening long. Weekends were even worse as I worked double shifts both Saturday and Sunday, meaning doughnuts, waffles and pancakes were staples.
I had stopped doing all sport and started putting on weight. I also started noticing that squatting down to take ice from the ice maker at work (which was under the drink dispenser) became more and more painful. I often had stomach aches and a slight feeling of nausea stayed with me throughout most days. I was also unbelievably tired. I chalked all these symptoms up to working full-time while going to school full-time and never thought once about how my diet might also be affecting me.
When I first arrived in Belgium, we would go on daily walks around the beautiful Belgian countryside. Soon though, we needed to adapt our paths so they always started going uphill, saving the easier downhill parts for the end because my knees would hurt too badly if we ended on an uphill. Not too long after that, we needed to cut our walks shorter and shorter, eventually stopping them altogether. I was barely 19 years old and I cried myself to sleep every night.
In my pre-paleo days, in addition to suffering intense joint pain, I also had multiple digestive issues: constant bloat and gas, pains and cramps, IBS… I was also extremely fatigued, getting 9 hours of sleep per night, yet still struggling to keep my eyes open in the afternoon. I often suffered from brain fog and was just generally unhappy. I would often snap at people for no reason. I wasn’t any fun to be around, and I didn’t especially want to be around anyone anyway.
I spent over a year in and out of the hospital, getting tested for everything under the sun. Nothing could be found. There was nothing wrong with me whatsoever, according to doctors. I was ready to just accept my fate and move on with my painful life. Luckily, I didn’t leave it at that and I began searching “cures” online, hoping for a miracle.
When I finally decided to give my diet an overhaul, I hadn’t yet heard about paleo. It was actually my little sister who had spoken to me about clean eating and insisted that it was the way everyone should eat. I was skeptical at first, but once I started reading food labels, I was convinced – processed foods needed to go. I also decided to cut out gluten, even though three different tests had told me I wasn’t Celiac (my paternal grandfather was Celiac). Lo and behold – I experienced an overnight change. My head was much clearer, I was happier and my bloat had diminished! With gluten out of the way, I soon made a connection between my pains and cramps and dairy. Things were starting to look up.
Since dairy and gluten were out of the picture, I began googling recipes, adding “dairy and gluten free” to each search. This is what eventually led me to paleo. I thought it was crazy and extreme at first, but the more science I read about it, the more sense it made. I decided to “go paleo” – and I haven’t looked back since!
I eased into the paleo way of life, eliminating one thing at a time (actually, I just finished eating what was in my cupboard and stopped buying non-paleo foods). I went extremely low-carb for about a year, eating no more than 25 grams of carbohydrates per day. I ate mostly protein and healthy fats, all while making sure to get in lots of leafy green veggies. I felt amazing for most of that time, but then things started going downhill again. Once I added in more carbs, I started feeling better, so I decided to stop tracking my food intake and to just eat intuitively.
Nowadays I don’t avoid carbs at all, and I eat a large variety of veggies at every meal. I don’t eat as much protein or fat as before, because I eat higher amounts of veggies, but I still try to get a bit of each at every meal as well. I listen to my body and give it what it craves.
I have also discovered that other foods bother me beside gluten and dairy, such as white potatoes and rice, making paleo an even more obvious choice for me. And recently I experimented with AIP – and I feel even better eating like that! The Autoimmune Protocol, or AIP for short, is a way of eating that helps people suffering from autoimmune disease to stop or reverse and cure their sickness. The focus is on nutrient-dense foods, such as offal and vegetables, all while eliminating (at least in the initial stages) common allergens, such as eggs and nuts.
So while my diet has been completely overhauled, I don’t feel deprived or like I’m missing out. The food I can eat is delicious and full of flavor. It’s full of nutrients as well, so I feel good about what I’m eating. And I feel healthy for the first time for as long as I can remember. That, in and of itself, makes everything more than worth it.
My diet isn’t the only thing that has changed – my life is also much different now. There are some changes that could be considered negative (I have to do a lot of food prep, I often need to bring my own meals to parties, restaurants and traveling can be difficult…) but there are many more positive ones that definitely outweigh them all.
For example, I can move without feeling like I’m breaking apart at every joint! My husband and I now do CrossFit together – and not even the squats are difficult for me (my knee joints were always my most painful joints). Also, we often go walking – just for the fun of it! One of our favorite things to do is to explore new-to-us cities on foot, spending hours walking up and down the streets.
I have since progressed from zero physical activity due to extreme joint pain to doing CrossFit four times a week – as well as near weekly 10k walks and working as a teacher, therefore, staying on my feet all day long. I credit this to a healthy, paleo lifestyle.
Another thing: I can still button my pants at the end of the day! I don’t have all my digestive issues straightened out yet, but the relief I have experienced is encouragement enough to keep going. And I no longer wish my own death because of the intensity of my reactions – I’m just uncomfortable.
Also, I no longer need afternoon naps! I have much more patience with my students and my friends and family – for which everyone is thankful. And my hangriness is pretty much nonexistent now. I am no longer ruled by my meal schedule.
I find that having some great paleo cookbooks makes implementing the paleo diet easy. Some of my favorites are Food for Humans by Michelle Tam of Nom Nom Paleo (her website is also a goldmine of recipes), and The Paleo Approach Cookbook by Sarah Ballantyne of The Paleo Mom (whose website is an AIP goldmine).
For daily inspiration, I turn to Instagram. I follow a lot of “big names” in the paleo-sphere, but my favorites have to be some of the “smaller” names: Cherry @studiosnacks (try her Sweet Potato Fries), Mika @slightlylostgirl (try her Pumpkin Na’tte), Hayley @ieatrealfood.recipes (try her Zucchini Cheese), Jaime @gutsybynature (try her Leek Pork Chops), Jasmin @donttouchmyblueberries (try her Mish-Mash-Meatloaf), Martine @the_paleo_partridge (try her Flip-Free Pancakes), and Rach @meatified (try her Salted Caramelized Plantains).
That should be enough inspiration to get you going – don’t forget to check out my blog as well, which is full of Whole30 and AIP compliant recipes! Some of my favorites are my Shredded Beet Salad, Savory Rhubarb Pie, Homemade Deli-Style Ham, and Coconut Banana Bread.
My piece of advice to beginners would be to ease into it. I really liked using up the foods I had in my house and just not buying any non paleo foods anymore. It made my menus change gradually and I slowly got used to cooking and shopping differently. The hubster was also eased into a paleo lifestyle this way as I cook all his meals. He never even complained about the changes I slowly made, and now the way we eat is completely normal and liked by both if us!
I truly feel that paleo has saved my life, and that everyone would benefit from this nutrient-rich diet and healthy lifestyle. It has given me the gift of pain-free movement and has freed me from digestive duress. It’s a way of life I will pass on to my children and that I will suggest to all those willing to listen to me.
Have you experienced positive changes by following a paleo or primal diet?
Would you like to share your story and be a Coconut Friend?
Comment below, or complete the form on my Coconut Friends page and let’s get talking!