In 2010, when I joined CrossFit, I heard a lot of buzz about this so-called “Paleo” diet. It came off as so curiously trendy. You’d hear people saying things like, “is this Paleo?” or see pictures of pizza on Facebook with captions that read “#not paleo”. Eventually, I wanted to try it out, really more for superficial reasons than anything else. I was already reasonably fit and eating pretty healthily, but I wanted to see what the hubbub was all about. I wanted to lean out and “look good naked”, so thus began my strict stint with Paleo. It lasted for two months, and although it did reinforce my ideas about eating whole foods, and helped to stress the importance of the sourcing of meat and vegetables, adhering to the strict diet didn’t last. This might sound silly, but it bothered me how trendy it was, how restrictive it seemed, and how it glorified bacon so much. I like bacon as much as the next girl, but I couldn’t help but want to separate myself from the meathead ideals that it seemed to project.
Three years later, Histamine Intolerance entered my life like a bat out of hell. Very suddenly, I had seemingly allergic reactions to foods I had always eaten regularly. At first it was almonds, pecans, sesame, and oranges. I nearly fainted at work and my senior manager at the time embarrassingly accompanied me—a grown woman—to the ER. Then pecans sent me to the ER (funtimes). And then there was the time kombucha gave me vertigo. I remember trying to lie down to sleep it off, but every time I closed my eyes, I boarded some zany topsy-turvy roller coaster ride. Black rice and red onions made my heart race. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Extensive allergy tests came back negative for food allergies. It was puzzling and became the scariest experience of my life.
I always had an active interest in wellness. I was an overweight kid in grade school, so throughout high school and college, I relished in learning about healthy foods and implementing them in my life. I was a food enthusiast to the core (refer to previous comment about being a chubby kid) and my childhood was spent watching Jacques Pepin’s KQED cooking shows on Sunday mornings, helping my amazing grandmother whip up delicious dishes, and dreaming of owning a restaurant one day. As a young adult, I regularly made time to take care of my body through exercising, even in the first few years of my very stressful accounting career, often working 13-hour days. For the first time in my life, I felt like food and my own body were turning against me.
The Low Histamine Diet
I eventually found the low histamine diet, which is the only effective treatment for Histamine Intolerance. Without getting too much into it, histamine intolerance is the body’s inability to break down histamine. Your body has a natural response to release histamine in the presence of allergens and in addition, there are many foods that contain histamine. Your body may become overwhelmed with histamine if the mechanism to degrade it (the DAO enzyme) is not functioning properly. When this happens, you can experience a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms such as headache, hives, heartburn, dizziness, difficulty breathing, exhaustion, insomnia, chest pain, tissue swelling, and more.
It’s a tricky condition, as the effect of histamine intolerance is not immediate; it’s cumulative. This is why it’s often referred to as a pseudo-allergy.
The low histamine diet aims to reduce the body’s histamine load by eliminating all high histamine foods. These foods include but are not limited to: processed/cured/smoked meats, all fermented foods (wine, cheese, sauerkraut, yogurt, meats), all slow cooked foods, any leftovers, spinach, tomatoes, citrus fruits, MSG, vinegar, chocolate, anything processed or artificial, coffee, and tea.
For seven months, I strictly adhered to this diet. Day in and day out, I cooked all my meals from scratch because I could not tolerate leftovers. I stopped eating out because the effects of it could and would wipe out all of my energy and cause digestive distress for days. I had to say ‘no’ to dinners and drinks with friends, and I felt awkward and isolated at weddings because of my dietary restrictions.
Learning to Thrive
Throughout my journey, I picked up tips and tricks to help myself further progress. On Sundays, I grocery shopped and washed and prepped all of my veggies for the week. I bought the value pack of grass-fed beef, sliced it up, froze it in individual portions, and defrosted each portion as needed for a quick stir fry. I made soup regularly in large batches and then froze them in individual portions to save on cooking time. I ate lots of anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine foods as inspired by Yasmina aka The Low Histamine Chef. I ate foods that supported the stabilization of mast cells (cells which release histamine).
As a side note for those who have Histamine Intolerance, are experiencing auto-immunity, or other debilitating conditions, none of this was easy. It was an emotional roller coaster of hope and despair. It involved a lot of trial and error. Good days and bad days. It required a lot of effort and a good attitude. But your health is worth it, so hang in there.
How My Low Histamine Diet Evolved to Paleo
When you are on as restrictive a diet as the low histamine diet, it’s easy to recognize food sensitivities that you normally wouldn’t have noticed. For instance, I don’t have Celiac disease, but I began to notice the digestive distress I experienced when eating wheat and whole grains. Up until this point in my life, I accepted massive bloating after eating certain foods as “normal”. Sure, I complained about it often, but I still fully accepted it as just how my body functioned. I didn’t realize that I could completely remedy the discomfort by avoiding certain foods. Discomfort aside, I realized how serious the effects of gluten could be even for non-Celiacs.
At around eight months, I noticeably progressed. In addition to eliminating certain foods like gluten, I started to add higher histamine foods back into my diet, especially those that supported intestinal health. (**Note: I was ready for this after 8 months of strict adherence to the low histamine diet as well as a commitment to healing via stress reduction, sleep sufficiency, and all other aspects of my life. Everyone is different, so please exercise caution if you have Histamine Intolerance.**)
I dove deep into information on gut health and focused a lot of my energy on preparing and eating nourishing foods that support the healing and maintenance of a healthy intestinal flora, such as 24-hour bone broth, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
The best part of this very challenging year is that I began to develop a perspective on nutrition. I deeply understood and appreciated the role of food in the healing process. I began to fully embody my views of optimal health via eating a nutrient-dense whole foods-based diet. I cooked my meals in stable, natural fats such as coconut oil and ghee. I made sure the meats I ate were grass-fed and organic and the vegetables I purchased were organic and local, whenever possible. I bought pastured eggs if my grocery budget could afford them. *Here’s a tip: the beauty of not eating out allows the high quality stuff to be a bit more affordable.
So Paleo Actually Works
Eating this way began as necessity and will continue by choice. I realized recently that I have inadvertently stumbled back into the Paleo diet that I once tried a few years earlier. As much as I initially wanted to dismiss the diet as a fad, it actually became the diet that worked for me, especially at this very critical point in my life. I initially viewed the Paleo diet as this restrictive way of eating. Now I see it as a way of choosing health. It is a way to intentionally nourish yourself through consuming nutrient-dense foods while eliminating foods that harm you. It’s a way to support local farms and to stop supporting “Big Food”, GMOs, and factory farming.
When I first tried the Paleo diet, my approach and my intentions were all wrong. I didn’t understand why I shouldn’t eat grains or why I should even cook with coconut oil. I just abided by the yes and no lists. If I could offer any advice, it would be to gain a deep understanding of why you are eating the way that you are, whether you’re eating a macrobiotic vegan, vegetarian, or paleo diet. When you are a well-informed individual, it makes your intention much more meaningful and effective.
I don’t consider myself a Paleo die-hard or purist. I eat white rice a few times each week because I tolerate it well and because resistant starch is beneficial for intestinal health. More on that here. Unless I am intentionally doing an elimination diet, I don’t see myself eating 100% Paleo all of the time. I agree with following an Ancestral/Primal/Paleo/Weston A Price/whatever-you-want-to-call-it template but allow myself some wiggle room to indulge within reason.
I’m still reading through Your Personal Paleo Code by Chris Kresser, but I can already tell that this book is a sigh a relief. It dispels the notion that the Paleo diet is dogmatic and rigid. Instead, it suggests that the diet should be customized to meet everyone’s needs. For instance, Chris says that if someone can thrive while eating dairy, they should not exclude it from their diet. To me, this makes a lot of sense as I choose to eat this way for optimal health rather than for historical reenactment.
My views on the details of Paleo may evolve as research surfaces and as I begin my nutrition program this Spring. However, this is what has worked for me thus far. I hope this information was helpful to you in understanding the Paleo diet.
Love and light,