After about decade of health recovery so far, I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to share my story of how I started to feel better. I’m calling it my Journey to Clean Eating! I get asked a lot about my experiences, especially in relation to diet.
Health Issues I’ve Overcome
- Chronic migraines
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune thyroid condition
- Thyroid cancer
- Generalized anxiety and panic attacks
- Eating disorders
- Multiple food sensitivities
- Irritable bowel disease
- Hypothalamic amenorrhea, loss of menstrual cycle
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
It seems pretty overwhelming looking at that list, but I know so many other people are suffering, too. The symptoms from diseases or conditions can really start to add up, and I’ve experienced everything from insomnia to hives to fatigue that just wouldn’t go away. If you are feeling down because of an endless list of issues, I can honestly say that I know what that feels like.
My Childhood of Chaos & Processed Foods
Growing up in the 1980s, my ideal meal was 100% processed food. Food companies marketed heavily to children, and I begged my mom for sugary cereals, candy, and anything packaged or sugar-filled. I also learned many years later when I was studying nutrition that I’m a “super-taster,” so certain vegetables like broccoli taste very bitter to me. I avoided anything green just for that reason. However, my health suffered from my poor eating habits and I remember getting sick quite often.
The Start of Binge-Eating
When I was about 10 years old, my dad experienced financial bankruptcy and my home environment became incredibly unstable and filled with stress. We ended up having to sell our home and most of our belongings. It was around this time that I turned to food for comfort. I curled up on my bed with a blanket, a book, and a bag of candy hidden under the pillows. I retreated into that veil of safety even just for an hour.
My sister and I lived temporarily with an aunt and uncle before moving from Oklahoma to California to reunite with our parents. As we started a new life from scratch, my addiction to using sugar for comfort took hold. The candy binges turned into a daily ritual and were the only thing that made me happy when I came home from school.
I was deeply ashamed of my habit and the cycle of guilt, shame, and lack of self-control around food began. At the same time, my weight increased, my skin broke out, and my self-esteem plummeted. The self-loathing was so intense that I often wished myself dead. This unhealthy behavior and self-loathing went on for a decade. I felt so alone and I had no motivation, education, or role models to make healthy changes.
How My Hormones Became Unbalanced
By the time I reached college, my hormones were so unbalanced that I had never had a normal menstrual cycle. The only option I was given by the doctor I saw was to start hormonal birth control. Going on the pill regulated my cycle, but then led to anxiety and migraines. I was still so disconnected to my body that I didn’t realize the significance and continued to take the pill for 15 more years.
After getting my bachelor’s degree, I started my professional career as a fundraising executive for non-profit hospitals. The long hours took a further toll on my health. Although my candy binges were less frequent, new addictions and other unhealthy coping strategies developed, such as over-exercising. At this point, the low-fat craze was also in full swing, so I thought it was healthy to run on the treadmill for an hour, and then go home and eat fat-free cookies and ice cream.
The bright spot during my 20s was meeting a sincere, funny, sweet man who became my boyfriend and, later, my husband. We just celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary yesterday, btw! While falling in love helped me immensely from a mental standpoint (and probably saved my life), we were both busy professionals and didn’t eat very well. We ate at restaurants a lot and both gained weight during the first few years of our relationship. I also further increased my stress level by enrolling in an incredibly demanding full-time graduate school program.
Stress, Anxiety, & Panic Attacks
Around that time, I developed extreme fatigue that led to being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune thyroid condition, along with multiple thyroid nodules. My endocrinologist said there were no dietary or lifestyle changes I could make that would help, only revealing that eventually my thyroid would be completely devastated by the disease. (I now understand from working with a functional medicine physician that there actually are a lot of dietary and holistic ways to reduce thyroid antibodies. I sure wish I had known that back then).
My migraines were also occurring almost daily by this time, as well as debilitating panic attacks that left me unable to maintain many of my relationships. When I asked a different doctor for help, his only suggestion was to consider taking an experimental daily drug that was being used for seizures. I was horrified by the idea of having to take such a strong medication and refused the prescription. The red flag that I felt at that time was my very first inkling that I needed to take some control over my health.
Throughout it all, I hid my fears from everyone around me, including my husband. I devoted a lot of energy to keeping up a fake appearance, always smiling and pretending that I was doing okay. Looking back on it, I can see that I was slowly dying, and suffering in complete silence.
My “A-Ha” Moment
Finally, in 2004, I saw the movie Super Size Me about the guy who eats fast food for 30 days. I wasn’t that surprised that he got sick after eating this way, but I was inspired by the fresh fruits and vegetables that his natural chef-girlfriend prepared for him after the experiment was done. The food that helped him recover looked so vibrant and nourishing, and nothing like I had ever thought about buying. I went straight from the movie theater to the grocery store and filled my cart with as many fresh foods as I could find. This was the first step I took in the long journey to recover my health.
What Happened When I Went Vegan
There were further challenges ahead. Around 2010, I discovered veganism and thought that a 100% plant-based diet was the answer to all my problems. This strict approach that excluded all animal products seemed to work well at first. I lost weight and was feeling energetic with no migraines. I built a business creating recipes for the healthy, vegan community.
Sadly, though, my thyroid disease also took a serious turn in 2012 when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I had surgery to remove the tumor, but had a very hard time adjusting to life without a thyroid gland. I started experiencing symptoms including chronic skin hives, fatigue, depression, and increased food sensitivities. I also became overly vigilant about my food choices and developed a type of eating disorder known as orthorexia. At this point, I realized the vegan diet was no longer serving my needs.
Finally, I Found Real Food & Healing
Finally, in 2015, I began working with functional medicine physicians and practitioners who helped me develop a plan to address the root causes of my health problems and figure out the foods that would nourish and sustain me. I also consulted an eating disorders specialist to address some of the unhealthy beliefs I had around food.
Now, a few years later and at the time of writing this post, I feel like a “clean eating” approach is the best description of a flexible, real food way I choose to eat. I even re-named my blog Clean Eating Kitchen! That’s how much I like this approach. As a result, my overall inflammation has decreased tremendously and my health issues are much more manageable. Best of all, I enjoy an abundance of colorful, nutrient-rich foods that are satisfying, healthy, and delicious.
Strict Diets Don’t Work Long-Term
I learned my lesson that my ideal diet is much less about perfection or following a strict plan, but doing my best each day to eat foods that nourish and satisfy me. I continue to share my health challenges and updates here on my blog, so please join my email list so we can keep in touch.
As always, I want to hear from you! Feel free to share your story in the comments. Or, you can always e-mail me directly at carrieATcleaneatingkitchenDOTcom. YOU are the reason I keep blogging and working in this space. Thank you for helping me so much along the way, I can only hope that I am giving back at least a little bit of the support, knowledge, and encouragement I’ve received. XO.