Getting My Health in Order, Part V: Diet and Supplements

Yep, we’re still talking about my health, so you might find someone else to stand next to at the cocktail party for a while. Getting healthy is on my life list, so here’s Part I: Ow My Everything Hurts, and Part II: Acupuncture is Not Scary, Part III: Dentists Are Kind of Scary, and Part IV: I Should Get Off the Couch. Please join us for this installment of “Oh, My Aching Back,” where we give up doughnuts, french fries, and hope.

I was blessed with a mother who told me my body was gorgeous until I believed her, plus a nutzo metabolism that kept my weight in check until I was about 19. So when I say my diet was poor until I was 25, I mean potato chips for breakfast, Top Ramen for lunch, and a sensible shake (plus Bacon Cheddar Burger with fries) for dinner.

When my metabolism finally wised up and started storing fat when I used heavy cream on my cereal, I was at a loss. I had to re-learn how to cook, but I had no grasp of nutrition. My first bit of education came before I knew I had health issues, when I finally went on a diet.

Understanding Nutritional Value

I gained about 15 pounds in college, which was no big deal because I looked like a pre-pubescent boy before that, and it was nice to finally have boobs. After college, I gained another ten pounds, cringed when I saw my upper arms in a photo from a friend’s wedding, and decided it was time to apply the brakes.

I tell you all this because Weight Watchers Online was my first education in eating well. If you’re not familiar with the program, they assign a point value to every item of food based on a formula that involves fiber, nutritional value, and so on.

At the time I knew things like donuts were bad for me, but I had no concept of how bad. I mean, it’s not like they were dusted with rat poison. But a filling, healthy meal on Weight Watchers at the time was about five points. A Dunkin’ Donuts doughnut? Eight Points. Starbucks doughnut? Twelve. As I logged my food for the day, it was a passive nutritional education. I now have a basic understanding of what’s bad for me, and what’s reprehensible.

I still use Weight Watchers whenever I need to lose weight, which is often because I need to stay slim to avoid taxing my joints unnecessarily. Yet another reason to overhaul my diet.

Eating Well

After dieting, I had a basic idea of how food worked, but I didn’t apply that knowledge except when I was trying to lose weight. As I mentioned, when my health tanked, I realized how bad things were because I tried the Quantum Wellness cleanse and felt amazing. Because I found that diet too restrictive to maintain, I needed a simpler way to eat better.

Everything I know about how my body interacts with food is from Dr. Oz’s You on Diet, which has specific recommendations for how to adopt a healthier diet overall.

Key points that stuck with me:

-I try not to keep food in my house if I know it’s hurting my body. If I want some potato chips, I can put on my sneakers and walk to the damn store.

-I avoid foods with any of the following in the first five ingredients of the label: 1. simple sugars 2. syrups 3. white flours 4. saturated fats 5. trans fat. Friends, unless you’re shopping at a seriously hippie store, this pretty much eliminates packaged food, which I found shocking. I won’t buy anything at all with high fructose corn syrup or trans fats, but after about a year with brown rice pasta, I just found it too difficult to give up regular pasta. Still, I eat maybe a quarter of the packaged food I used to. I just do the best I can.

Standardize one or more of my meals. I pick a healthy breakfast (smoothie) or lunch (salad, turkey sandwich) and eat the same thing every day. Bam! Half my day is healthy by default.

-Trans fats are terrible for you not only because they’re extremely caloric. Your system doesn’t actually register them as food. So no matter how much you eat, your body never releases the chemicals that tell you you’re full. Yikes.

-I keep water in front of me all day long, and have a small dishes of nuts around so I can eat a few about twenty minutes before a meal. It triggers your body to release satiety chemicals, and most nuts are crazy good for you.

If you want a starting point, here’s Dr. Oz’s Ultimate Diet, which closely mirrors the book’s tenets on healthful eating. (If weight is your main health challenge, you’ll find specific weight management tips here.)

Vitamins and Supplements

By the time I started acupuncture, I was already taking a enough supplements and vitamins to stock a co-op. I’d been reading Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Life site, and I adopted lots of her recommendations (which I can’t find anywhere now, grr). As symptoms pop up, my acupuncturist suggests foods and supplements that can help, and they do.

My general rule for supplements is that I want my body to recognize them as food. I try not to swallow anything synthetic that my immune system may try to attack, so I look for vitamins made of whole foods. They’re more expensive, but I think of it like filling prescriptions.

Every morning I take a:

Women’s One Multivitamin
B-Complex – to battle stress hormones and boost immune function
Grape seed extract – to build artery walls and help with bruising, which works
Algae – recommended by my acupuncturist to “build blood”
L-Lysine – to keep cold sores at bay, and it’s incredibly effective
Calcium – suck it, osteoperosis
Vitamin E – for the heart and skin
Glucosamine Chondroitin – to build cartilidge

I also take acupuncture herb capsules for chronic knee and ankle pain. I take three at a time, three times a day in conjunction with the Glucosamine for my joints.

The herbs and Glucosamine have really worked miracles for me when I take them correctly. You’re supposed to take Glucosamine three times a day with food, which seemed so arduous. Then a few weeks ago I was having trouble walking and worried I might need another knee surgery. So I set three alarms on my phone and put some pills in my purse so I always had them with me. Such an easy solution, I feel stupid for waiting so long to just do it, and after just a week of taking my supplements the way I’m supposed to, my joints are functional again.

Three or four mornings a week, I also make a smoothie and add Flax Seed Oil for heart and brain function, a little ground flax seed for the same thing, and sometimes a little Psyllium Husk for fiber.

If you’re wondering what you should be taking, Dr. Oz’s vitamins and supplements chart is a useful resource. It’s comprehensive, so don’t let it overwhelm you; put together a routine based on where your health needs boosting.

At first, I felt weird about taking so many “pills.” I’m the kind of person who resists taking a Tylenol when i have a headache. But I’ve come to think of vitamins as food in condensed form. I’d rather take a handful of condensed food than have kale at every meal.

I bruise less easily, get fewer cold sores, have more energy, don’t really have issues with eczema any more, and have had surprising healing in my joints.

Questions

That’s about it. I’ve also been drinking only decaf coffee and tea aside from green tea, and I’m considering cutting out wheat again to see if it would dramatically effect my energy, but I’m taking it slowly. I also bought Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, which I’ve been avoiding reading because of the moral quandry I know will ensue.

In general, I’m trying to give my body better building materials, and if you’ve read this far, you probably are too. So here’s what I want to know from you:

– How have you come by the knowledge you have about food? Reading suggestions?

– Would you consider making a non-temporary change in how you eat? Have you already?

– Do you take supplements or do they freak you out? Do you believe they work?

Oof. This has been a long haul, no? Thanks for sticking with me.

120 thoughts on “Getting My Health in Order, Part V: Diet and Supplements

  1. The book that first changed my eating habits was Fast Food Nation. It wasn’t just what I was doing to myself, but what my choices meant for the greater community of man and animals. Food, Inc. also has had a profound impact on what I eat and what I purchase.

    Thanks for this series!
    Kim

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  2. I was diagnosed with PCOS last year. I gained 30 pounds the year before and I had never had a weight problem.

    I am trying to get pregnant (please think fertile thoughts for me!) and the PCOS made it so that I was on diabetes drugs to help my insulin levels.

    The things I had read:
    Living with PCOS
    Glycemic Index for Dummies

    But really, what I had to do was give up all white carbs. This included sugar, white flour, potatoes and rice.

    Over Christmas, I did cheat and eat one sugar cookie. It was so sweet that it gave me a headache.

    The big thing my family did was start a HUGE garden this year. And meeting other gardeners. I got farm fresh eggs and honey that was from bees who pollinated my garden. This helped me lose those 30 pounds and teach my almost four year old where her food comes from. She ate fresh sugar snap peas all summer and will not eat the ones from the grocery store now.

    We are currently growing kale, cabbages, brussels and arugula.

    I can eat whole grains and I also eat tofu noodles. I pretty much had to make my own bread but that is SO MUCH better than what I was eating before. I know for me to keep the weight off I HAVE to eat this way.

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  3. Hi – I’ve been working on consistently taking Juice Plus, they are dehydrated fruits, veggies & berries. My skin was horrible, and when take the 2/day (added into my smoothie in the a.m.), things looked good. But I’m bad with consistency. So that’s my 2011 resolve, to be more consistent with them. You should check them out, they are all-natural. I do not sell them, just a user.

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  4. I’ve been gluten free for almost 8 years due to celiac disease. It was hard at first, but I’m better for it in the end. And I don’t just mean that from the autoimmune perspective. I’m much more adventurous with food now, and I’m more willing to try new things. My general rule is that if it’s gluten free, I have to at least try it.

    I also take supplements, but mine are very targeted. I take D because my D levels always seem to be low. It helps. I also take rhodiola to help even out my depression. I’ve also been taking fish oil and evening primrose oil, but I’m not convinced yet that they do anything.

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  5. I suffered with chronic sinus issues, aches and pains, poor sleep, inability to focus — a whole spectrum of vague malaise. A girlfriend recommended “Eat Right For Your Type,” about eating according to blood type, and I thought it sounded like a steaming load of hooey.

    I decided it wouldn’t hurt me to give it a try for two weeks, and within about three days I was sleeping more soundly, waking more easily, and able to actually breathe through my nose. It was huge! I lost ten pounds in a week.

    Since then I’ve given up gluten entirely, and not only have I simply been feeling much better, but all my other allergies are far less sensitive.

    It’s been ten years, and along with ditching gluten I’ve significantly reduced dairy and other carbs, and I try to remember to eat red and green veg rather than yellow and white. I’m still sleeping better and my focus is still much, much improved. I’m sick far less often.

    I know no system will work for everyone, but I’m totally converted.

    On top of going gluten-free I’ve picked up a handful of vitamins in the morning: iron, vitamin C to help with iron absorption, calcium, and a womens multivitamin. I also take a baby aspirin and folic acid since Factor V (a clotting disorder) runs in my family, and since I’m on the pill.

    I love the idea of vitamins being condensed food, and will definitely be looking into some of the supplements discussed above.

    Thanks so much for being so frank with us, and opening up this discussion!

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  6. I love your health series. I started a vegetarian diet a few years ago but didn’t get really serious about food until the last 6 months. I discovered that my body doesn’t recognize soy as food and that led me down the path of ‘oh, so a lot of these problems i’ve been having are related to food’.

    What I’d like to know, as an uninsured person, is: how do you find a good acupuncturist? I live in the Bay Area where it seems like there’s an acupuncture office on every street.

    My main body challenge is clearing up my skin. Cutting out soy really helped but I seem to have other allergies/intolerances too (many mysteries yet to solve). I keep a food journal and have my favorite kale as a near-daily lunch but need some help with dinner ideas and need help figuring out what else my body needs.

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  7. Great series, Maggie!

    I too have a super awesome autoimmune disorder. Ahh vitiligo I love your uncontrollable disfigurement! My mother has rheumatoid arthritis, and if one of your parents has an autoimmune disorder that increases your chances of getting an autoimmune disorder by 20%! I had two white spots on my stomach for at least 15 years and didn’t think anything about them.

    About ten years ago I had some shoddy dental work that has resulted in me having two bionic teeth. Right about the time I had wickedly infected teeth pulled from my mouth, and then two screws put in my jaw I noticed white spots developing around my eyes, mouth and on my hands. I was then diagnosed by a dermatologist with vitiligo. He seemed really bummed out that my incurable illness was taking away from his busy day of botox shots and recommended I wear more makeup.

    I’ve always worked out and eaten clean because I am vain and I’ve had a four pack for years (not six, because mama needs her wine). Once I got diagnosed with vitiligo I started doing bikram yoga. Then I did a 60 day bikram challenge. Then after that was done I continued doing bikram yoga twice a week and only working out at the gym three days a week. I haven’t lost any more pigment since starting the 60 day challenge.

    I take a ton of supplements that have shown to help with vitiligo. I take gingko biloba (40 mg thrice daily), b12 (tons), vitamin d (tons), folic acid. I have an entire row of supplements and I’ll add more in randomly.

    I just tore my rotator cuff so I’ve started taking in medicinal chocolate chips and tequila as well. I was going to tell you that I tried Tracy Anderson and thought it was crap but you still have a functioning rotator cuff so maybe that program is better than years of lifting heavy weights over your head?

    Once right after I was diagnosed with vitiligo I had a dream in which my friend asked me how the disease was going and I said “well it sucks, but now I can see the future ten seconds before it happens so it seems worth it” and he told me “yeah my other friend got crohn’s so now she has xray vision”. My subconscious thinks that I should have a super power with my autoimmune disorder. Would you like super strength or invisibility?

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  8. Hi Maggie, I appreciate this series and your struggles with exercise, nutrition and supplements. Over the years, I’ve taken each of these things for granted until they came back to bite me one by one.

    I especially share your hesitancy toward exercise (it feels unnatural), and supplements (or anything else that feels like a consumer driven gimmick). I’m refreshed to hear that supplements actually do work for you and that it’s not just a bunch of white elephant magic. 🙂

    Last, I have no real books to offer up for this series, but I am taking away so many great suggestions and resources from you and your readers so THANK YOU. You’re already helping to save my health.

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  9. Hi Maggie,

    I’ve read a lot about how to eat, as you know–magazines and books. The whole subject fascinates me. Three of the most influential food books for me have been Fast Food Nation, and the two mentioned in Comment #2 above. For Christmas, my mom stuck Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules” in our stockings. It’s a quick read and a great pocket reference. If you don’t already have a copy, you might want to pick one up.

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  10. maggie – kris carr has a new book out, ‘crazy sexy diet’. she’ll be in sf the first week of february for a book signing (http://crazysexylife.com/2011/love-list-crazy-sexy-diet-book-tour/). buy the book this week to help her get on best seller lists…and in it? a wealth of information akin to what you describe in your post, and your series, and what you had initially read on her website previously.

    and bravo to you for what you’ve accomplished in taking charge of your health! learning about what can make you feel great is exhilirating; turning that knowledge into action is empowering!

    from – a fellow sf-ian, kris carr fan, current 21-day cleanse participant, and long-time lurker 😉

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  11. Long time reader and never commented before. I was surprised to read this series, yet in a way not…I think.

    – How have you come by the knowledge you have about food? Reading suggestions?
    After moving to the U.S. 12 years ago I thought everything here tasted “funny” than back home. I didn’t know why. I don’t have any scientific basis for this, but I believe it is because of the abundance of non-organic, non-ethically raised food. I do eat meat, sparingly mostly to enhance the meal and the one I buy from the farmers market tastes like it did back in the motherland. Michael Pollan was the first to shed light into my food world. From there I’ve gone in all sorts of directions. If not already recommended, I’d also check into Renee Loux’s recipes.

    – Would you consider making a non-temporary change in how you eat? Have you already?
    Yes. I have quit the baddies multiple times (coffee, alcohol) usually when I have more control over my time. My intention is to reduce my workweek so I can do more of this and focus on myself more.

    – Do you take supplements or do they freak you out? Do you believe they work?
    They don’t freak me out, but I do prefer to take it in its natural form. I prefer the kale over the tablet. I suspect my aversion to popping tablets stems from my childhood where I did have to pop multiple tables daily. I understand why people pop them though. I may to, as the years pass me by.

    Glad you feel better.

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  12. I’ve really enjoyed reading this series. While not a diet/health book per se, Hal Herzog’s book, “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals” gave me some clarity about eating meat while I buy my pet rabbits organic vegetables.

    He makes the point that most of us have double standards when it comes to meat/companions animals (I’m not alone!) and discusses some of the best/worst practices, ranging from cock fighting to wolf-dog hybrids.

    Marion Nestle’s book, What to Eat, had the biggest impact on my diet. It is massive, but also really practical, as she goes through the grocery aisle step-by-step. After reading this book, I gave up veal, sweetened yogurt, most “drinkable calories” and farm raised salmon.

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  13. Thank you, Maggie, I learned so much from reading this.

    I think a lot of what I’ve learned about nutrition and food has been a byproduct of my love for cooking. Watching my mom cooking as I was growing up, reading cookbooks, and doing my own cooking have helped me to learn about ingredients and quality of food, so that I’m much more aware of what is in my food – even when I’m eating something I didn’t make myself.

    I’ve also learned a lot from just this one podcast that I’ve been listening to for the last couple of years. It’s by Monica Reinagel aka the Nutrition Diva (she’s an opera singer and nutritionist). The podcasts are usually about 7-8 minutes long. I subscribe to them on iTunes.
    http://nutritiondiva.quickanddirtytips.com/

    Another podcast I love is KCRW’s Good Food, which is more about politics and culture related to food. (e.g. eating placenta, which I know you’ve covered too!) It’s excellent.
    http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/gf

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  14. If you want something that will rock your world, you should check out Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions. It runs totally against modern diet and medical thought, but it has been life changing for myself and my family. You will either be enlightened, or think she is crazy, but it is a holistic approach to health taking into account digestion and the importance of working with the whole system.

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  15. I’m going to second reading the China Study – I found the science to be very compelling. Like Pollan, he’s an advocate of whole foods – but would change Pollan’s recommendation to say don’t eat any animal products. He’s also not an advocate for supplements – the science just isn’t there to support them (even calcium – I found his discussion about calcium to be mind blowing). Overall, I’ve come around to agree with both Pollan and Campbell that reductionism (a focus on specific nutrients rather than whole foods) is misguided. We don’t really know much at all about how whole foods and combinations of whole foods influence our health. I could go on and on as this is an obsession of mine, but really – go check out the China Study and the other books recommended here – you’ll learn so much.

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  16. Hi Maggie,

    I spent last year covered (literally, every inch of my body) in giant urticaria, also idiopathic. And it sent me careening down a ‘get my health in order’ path as well. I was so frustrated with mainstream doctors shrugging their shoulders and handing me an Rx for Prednisone (which made me crazy) I ended up doing a lot of digging and going the natural route as well. Though I still haven’t dared try acupuncture, it’s on my list… it’s really not scary?

    – How have you come by the knowledge you have about food? Reading suggestions?

    I think my life changing books were: The Sugar Addict’s Total Recovery Program, and Potatoes not Prozac.

    I ate, for years like you did – my high metabolism meant I didn’t have to worry about a weight problem (and I still look pretty good after having four kids) but I realized I was harming my body by eating little more than marshmallows.

    – Would you consider making a non-temporary change in how you eat? Have you already?

    I eliminated all processed foods, though I too have had a really hard time letting go of regular pasta. I did go gluten free for about a year. I was completely off all sugar for two years, but now eat it in small amounts. I’ve never had alcohol or smoked or anything like that, so those were easy.

    – Do you take supplements or do they freak you out? Do you believe they work?

    I do – after much trial and error, I’ve found I feel best using Standard Process supplements. They are made using whole foods, absolutely no synthetics– even their calcium is a type that is readily absorbed. I like that they aren’t a MLM company, and I can get the products on Amazon or through my chiropractor.

    Thank you for this series, so many think I’m an nut job when I don’t just take a pill to mask the symptoms and continue eating like a normal American.

    xo

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  17. Thanks so much for writing about your journey to living a healthy life! I just now came across your blog, and I’m loving it. I’ve been feeling convicted of my eating and my exercise habits lately…and it’s something I really want to change. Reading about your journey makes it seem more doable. Thanks for sharing! 🙂 I’m excited to continue reading your blog!

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  18. I feel compelled to comment even though I NEVER comment. The book, Nourishing Traditions has changed my life. Eating a traditional diet makes me feel so good!

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