Sunday, May 19, 2013

What Is It Like to Live Grain-Free?

Going grain-free is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, but it is the ONLY thing that has made a difference in my health.  I'm telling you my story in detail so hopefully someone out there doesn't have to waste seven years of their life feeling trapped in their body. 

Starting with Wheat

With no options left but to put my food choices under a microscope, I began the tedious and daunting task of questioning everything that went down my gullet.

In September 2012, I began to dramatically scale back on wheat - bread, pasta, crackers, cookies, croutons.  A slice of pizza or a chocolate chip cookie here and there was my cheat.  I began to mentally take notes about when I was experiencing digestive discomfort and worked backwards from there. I would avoid anything I had in the last two days and then go back and add just one of the suspected ingredients.  I was essentially doing an elimination diet

By Thanksgiving, it was obvious that wheat was a problem.  Cutting it out eliminated constipation, gas, joint and muscle pain, and ear aches.  But a few digestive problems remained and so I continued testing other grains.

Goodbye to the Rest

The surprise?  ALL GRAINS are a problem, with corn and wheat as the reigning twin terrors of my stomach.  Something as benign as rice (even as flour) isn't kind to my system, nor is an ancient grain like quinoa.

Corn, it turns out, was to blame for my diarrhea, sniffles, acne, and, this is gross, but hard boogers that would turn into a resin-like substance that was really painful.  Gluten and the other grains are easy to avoid (though not always to resist), but eliminating corn is a never-ending battle.  When they say corn is in everything, they are not joking.  I have to be constantly vigilant about it.  And my face, nose, and stomach blow up if I get a dose of it unintentionally.   
And it's not just whole corn, like tortilla products or cornmeal, but high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, and cornstarch.  And all the corn derivatives out there, like vanilla flavoring, most grain alcohols, citric acid, and caramel coloring.

Benefits in Spades

So what do I eat since cutting out the foundation of the food pyramid?  Meat, vegetables, fruit, dairy, and chocolate, because lord knows I need a frickin' treat every day to handle all of this.  It's a good thing I like cooking and I'm good at it, because EVERYTHING is made from scratch and freshly prepared.  

And what have I gotten out this radical diet shift?
  • I've lost 30 pounds and gone down two pant sizes and one shirt size.  
  • I can exercise without joint or muscle pain. 
  • I rarely have digestive distress.
  • I no longer have ear aches, sinus infections, or even colds. 
  • I have steady energy throughout the day. 
  • I am no longer prey to vicious drops in blood sugar and overwhelming cravings.
  • The frequency of my migraines has been dramatically slashed.
  • My mood and outlook have significantly improved.
  • I have gotten compliments on my skin (seriously, this said to someone who had acne so bad in high school that I couldn't wash my face because it was so painful and who now has a face riddled with scars).

It is so obvious to me that grains have been the root problems all these years.  Looking back, my life had become terribly hampered because I was in pain every day and I never had an escape from it.  All of that collective discomfort was lowering my defenses both mentally and physically.  It was a distraction I learned to live with, but it had become a black hole that sucked up any positivity.    

Complications Linger

The way my body has transformed makes it crystal clear that this isn't a temporary elimination - this is part of who I am now.  But it's not an easy or fast fix.  I still have more weight to lose.  While it was clipping along at 1 pound per week at the beginning this year, it's slowed down to a trickle and only 2 pounds came off in the last month.  I'm doing yoga and walking right now, but I need to step it up if I want to keep whittling my waist.

I still get migraines if I'm out of schedule.  I still have seasonal allergies (my goodness, this past week must have had a high pollen count!).  I sometimes have digestive distress simply because I'm stressed out and not honoring my need to decompress.  I still get the occasional pimple because my skin is just sensitive.       

I admit, I have had some royal meltdowns about this diet switch.  There are so few restaurants that are "safe" for me to eat at, and for a foodie, that can be kind of crushing.  You don't bother cruising the treat table at work. Potlucks or catered events are like russian roulette.   

It is stressful to always question food products, even when it's homemade by your mom.  It is disappointing to watch your list of "unsafe" foods keep growing with no end in sight.  It takes a lot of time each week to shop and cook fresh.  Days you don't feel like cooking are not an option.   

I'm a recovering picky eater, so it takes some real effort on my part to like certain vegetables.  My stomach turns at the smell of seafood.  Soy products (tofu, soy milk, soy sauce) give me really bad mood swings.  Peanuts will enter and leave my system within 30 minutes with some of the worst pain imaginable.  Beans (kidney, black, etc.) also upset my stomach and make me unbearably bloated.  I still need to test if I can tolerate other nuts, peas, or green beans.

And goddammit, sometimes all you want is a chocolate chip cookie! 

I really miss those.  Like, a lot.  If it wasn't obvious ...  

So what keeps me going?

Having a "quiet" stomach that graciously accepts foods without complaint.

Losing the bloated look I've been sporting the last seven years.

Feeling a sense of normalcy and control over my life.  

Someone telling me I look strong, happy, more relaxed, or healthy. 

Trust me, I'm not thrilled that this is what my body needs to thrive.  It's very limiting and restrictive, but it's the only thing that has truly freed my body.  I don't know why this happened or if some years down the road, I can have a yearly cookie without getting messed up.  

But for now, my path is clear - grains make me sick.   

How I Ditched Grains to Reclaim My Health

Going grain-free is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, but it is the ONLY thing that has made a difference in my health.  I'm telling you my story in detail so hopefully someone out there doesn't have to waste seven years of their life feeling trapped in their body. 

My Health Goes Downhill

I've never hidden the fact that my physical and mental health has been a problem the last seven years.  Once I hit grad school in 2006, my weight started climbing.  I was stressed, didn't exercise, and ate out too much - I just didn't have time to take care of myself and thought I was reaping the consequences of a poor lifestyle.  

In 2008, I started experiencing digestive issues.  I determined that I had an oat intolerance, but it never occurred to me to see if other grains might be an issue.  Avoiding oats was pretty easy once you got in the habit of religiously reading all labels, but it didn't stop the weight gain, vicious mood swings, joint and muscle pain, reoccurring UTIs, ear aches, sinus infections, acne, depression, or poor sleep.  I was unhappy, sickly, and most of all, overwhelmed with frustration.  Exercising and eating healthy did nothing to boost my health.   I didn't know what I was doing wrong.

So I spent a few years without insurance living in misery and a few years with it but feeling too poor to use it.  Once our finances evened out two years into my current job, I started on a campaign of health tests in 2011 and 2012.  The first change was to eliminate birth control, which stopped the weight gain, UTIs, poor sleep, and the majority of feeling crazy on a daily basis.   It was the first time I felt like I had some control over my body.  Getting that little bit of relief empowered me to keep hunting.    

No Answers from Medical Testing 

I listened, eavesdropped, messaged, and asked questions of anyone I knew who also struggled with their health, hoping that if someone listed off symptoms like mine, I would have my next clue.  I learned about fibromyalgia, lupus, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid conditions, allergies, endocrine syndromes (one of which could have been a possible tumor on the pituitary gland and had me terrified while waiting for test results), Celiac's, and sleep disorders.  I got tested for a variety of medical conditions, but each one was a frustrating dead end.  

During my quest, I also stumbled across a few folks who had a gluten intolerance.  They swore up and down that eliminating wheat was the best decision they ever made, all of their health concerns vanished, and they were living a pain-free existence. But the people who had become vegetarians, ate exclusively organic, or were vegans all said the same thing.  

I was skeptical.  Particularly with wheat, it sounded like a magic fix, a radical move borrowed from supermodels to stay thin, and medically defiant in the worst kind of way.  It doesn't help that people can be very pushy, sometimes aggressive, about their diet advice.  But despite my reservations, I listened, considered, and researched. 

A Stomach Ache Every Day 

By the time I started medical testing, my digestive distress was full blown.  I was alternating between constipation and diarrhea, cramping and bloating from gas that would never resolve, little energy, lingering skin problems, and a growing dread of eating anything.  I was convinced my body had conspired against me.  There was no peace to be had from my GI system.  I was convinced the chest-bursting creature from Alien had decided to call my stomach home.  

I exercised and would be excessively sore for days on end.  I couldn't lose an ounce of weight to save my soul.  I was embarrassed and uncomfortable with my body in every way possible.  No matter how many feminist pep talks I gave myself about body confidence, I couldn't shake the self consciousness of being almost 200 pounds when I had been 60 pounds less in college.  I got rid of clothes that I had lost hope I would ever fit into again.  The aches and pains did nothing but draw attention to how my body was imprisoning me.    

Celiac's was the closest condition that fit my list of aliments, yet my test came back free and clear.  I had exhausted all other options for medical testing.  There was nothing left to do but go through my diet one food source at a time and see if anything was making me sick.  No doctor could help me with this task.  It was up to me and years of reading mystery novels to go sleuthing into my diet.  I was not looking forward to it, but by then, I was desperate to try anything that would leave my stomach and bowels with some peace and quiet.   

Click here to keep reading where my health journey took me.    

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Popping My Yoga Cherry

Down dog, cat, cow, starfish, crane, snake, and camel.  No, I'm not describing a trip to the zoo - those are some of the positions from my yoga class!

There is so much to relay about my health in the past months, but let's just say it's been a huge priority.  2013 is the year I'm reclaiming my wellness, both physically and mentally.  What better way of doing that than taking up yoga, which focuses on the body-mind-spirit connection.

I've always been curious about yoga.  There's no doubt the benefits are extensive and well documented, and people who practice yoga have so many good things to say about it.  I tried it once in college off of a DVD and all I remember was frustration and doubt over whether I was doing it right.  I vowed that if I ever attempted yoga again it would be under the instruction of a teacher.

Our local community college (Kirkwood) offers continuing education classes from cooking and art to fitness and professional certifications.  In the past three years we've been living here, I'd always flip through the catalog but ultimately decide we couldn't afford to spend money on leisure classes when we were pressed for gas or groceries. But our new income situation has made it possible to invest in my health.

So since January, I've been taking a yoga class once a week for 60 minutes.  It's been a rewarding experience and I've really fallen in love with it!  It's called Yoga for Everybody and includes a ton of modifications to accommodate your fitness level.  Over the 8 weeks, you progress from basic moves to more advanced ones.  The instructor is really pleasant and I love how she emphasizes taking things at your own pace and not comparing yourself to others.  It makes the classroom experience accessible and non-intimidating.

It's also cheap.  I'm only paying $49 for 8 sessions, barely $6 a class.  And it's at a gym on my side of town, so I don't have to drive far to get there.  #Winning.   

To be honest, I was never flexible.  Even at my peak fitness in high school, when I was on the basketball and tennis teams, our gym classes were robust, and I barely weight 120 pounds, I could never touch my toes.  Does anyone remember having to take the Presidential Fitness Test in the 90s?  One of the activities was the sit and reach - I ALWAYS failed.  Even with someone (gently) pushing on my back, my fingers never got past my ankles.

Side note - Google says the Presidential Fitness Test still exists!  I wonder if schools even do it anymore.  Looking back, our high school has an AMAZING gym class program.  We played every sport under the sun and were tested on the rules, learned just how awkward dancing can be (ever tried to polka with someone who's over 6 feet?  Impossible and slightly dangerous), followed Tae Bo tapes, had canoeing and fishing units out on the lake, practiced archery and cross-country skiing on the back field, and tackled weight circuits.  I guess not every school does this, but I'm grateful for all of the different opportunities (though my younger sister tells me she despised every moment of it, lol).

Anyways, when you're overweight, can be mentally but not physically flexible, and your body aches from sitting in an office chair all day, yoga can seem intimidating.  You think, holy hell, my body can't do that! How in the world am I supposed to get into that position?!  You want me to bend where?!?!

What you have to know about yoga, particularly a beginner's class, is you don't just twist yourself into a pretzel from the onset.  The moves are actually designed to flow into one another, so muscles are warming up and stretching before you go diving into something.  There's a rhythm to the poses and each one works a different part of your body.  Some are for balance, others push your flexibility, some target strength building, all require your concentration.

As I work on being physically active, I've found the types of exercises I gravitate to the most are ones where I can zone out.  Biking, walking, hiking, and yoga require just enough focus that you are there and in the moment but not thinking about your grocery list or what's on the work agenda the next day.  For someone with an active mind that's hard to shut off, this is a true blessing. 

I am almost at the end of my second round of this class and I've really seen some improvement.  I still can't sit and reach my toes, but I can bend over when standing and grab them.  I still can't get my heels to touch the ground when we're in down dog, but I can hang out in that position without feeling like my hips are going to seize up.  My ankles have always been wobbly, but I'm getting better at any of the moves that require you to balance on one foot.   My triceps and shoulder strength is laughable and please don't ask me to do a pushup, but I spotted muscle definition in my biceps for the first time in, well, I can't remember when. 

It's a huge confidence booster to see your body making progress, and coming out of a session feeling relaxed and satisfied has no price.  I am so happy I decided to try out yoga!  I'm definitely going to sign up for a third reiteration of the class.  

Have you ever taken a fitness class?  How do you like to be physically active?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Blog is Back!

After a brief reprieve to reorganize life, the blog returns!  I threw up some new colors (haven't refreshed the look since I started this in 2010, hello!), but the intent remains the same - to share how we're doing financially.

The taboo that says it's "socially unacceptable" to discuss what's in your bank account?  I say we're doing ourselves a real disservice when we can't talk about personal finances.  We should be able to share and learn from one another without fear of being judged.  People want more financial literacy in this country?  I say let's start with a conversation at the dinner table (or, in this case, your computer screen).

As with before, I'm not going to dole out advice on what to do with your 401k, steps to refinance your mortgage, or how to resolve your debt faster.  Everyone's finances are different, as are your goals with them, so alas, you will not find tips and tricks here.

All I can offer up is what we're doing and why.  We don't have perfect finances, but we can at least disclose how we're trying to improve them.  I still think that in and of itself is of value, so we move onward!

Amid our financial posts, I will continue to write about food, wine, going green, health, stress relief, travel, work, movies, and books.  I really enjoying writing those posts, even if they don't have anything to do with saving pennies, so expect a mixed bag!

Now that we're back on track with regularly scheduled programming, we have very exciting news to share:

We are a duel-income household!

After years of having
only one income to work with, Mike is working full time and absolutely loving a new career he's accidentally stumbled into.  It's a real game changer for our finances and we're still adapting to our new budget.  Read all about it here!            

Mike Starts a New Career


So I now work for The Mentor Network and spend my days assisting consumers who have brain injuries and intellectual disabilities.  I care for people who are getting ready to go out on their own to others who will be in my care until they leave this plane of existence. 

“What is someone doing from the military going to Human Services?" the gasps begin.

Well, it’s an easy transition, actually. 

I spent the last 12 years dealing with morons, drunks, incompetent officers, and even worse, troops.  The civilian world is a piece of cake, people. And the consumers I work with on a daily basis are easier to engage with than 90% of the people on the street. 

Sadly enough, most of the people without frontal lobe issues have more problems than those who do. It is an honor for me to do my best helping them see my consumers as people with potential, rather than as failed attempts at reproduction, parenting, and social integration. 

It also helps that I get to embarrass the hell out of dumbass teens at the mall when they get out of line <insert devilish grin>

You see, most of my coworkers are the typical god fearing, church going, child rearing, motherly types. They do it because they are called out of a sense of sympathetic love and attachment.  It isn’t a job, it’s a calling. Those people, however, don’t often do well in situations with unsympathetic kids and poorly socialized adults who decide to test how thin the veneer of civil society really is. 

I, on the other hand, have jacked up people on a 110* tarmac, responded to rapes, attempted suicides, and domestic abuse, and even got to rundown a few of those poorly socialized adults when they decided to act like over privileged children. So why am I doing this?

Because it gives me the opportunity to keep protecting people.

And by doing that, I am giving them the chance to continue growing both cognitively and socially without prejudice, preconceived notions of ability, or fear of appearance or behavior. 

And I get to put those juvenile masses to shame very publicly when they decide to remark or attempt to make a mockery of my wards :)

So it really comes down to being 50% awesome guy loving his job and 50% opportunity for righteous shaming and ridicule when the moment presents itself!

With Mike's new job comes a new budget situationLearn how much he's making!  

Life as a Two-Income Family

Do you know how positively weird it is to have two steady incomes?!

Years of holding our budget together with duct tape and curses made us feel like we'd never find stable financial ground.  When you watch your debt reduction stagnate, your student loan interest accumulate, health issues become delayed, and thoughts of retirement savings languish with no end in sight, it's easy to become jaded about your economic future.

But a new window was opened to us in January when Mike started a full-time job working with individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. 

The job has definitely changed the landscape of our finances.  At $10.25 an hour, paychecks run about $750 every two weeks.  But with time and half for anything over 40 hours, overtime can bump those up to $950.  It's a bit of a range, but no matter what, we have a baseline of $1,500 each month coming in from Mike.

Keep in mind that when Mike was going to school full time, he received $1,600 a month for his GI Bill.  So when you really crunch the numbers, we come out even every month.  No move to another income bracket.  But it will make a significant difference in the long run as Mike obviously can't be a perpetual student.

As for his classes, he has dropped down to part time so he's not working around the clock.  He will still collect a bit of his GI Bill, but it will only be a couple hundred bucks each month.  Actually, the lovely Department of Education made a calculation error, gave us a double payment when they weren't supposed to, and now have to "garnish" his future GI Bill installments so we can "pay it back."  So the GI Bill isn't a factor in our finances right now.  And that's fine, since it's not a permanent income source anyways. 

My magazine job continues to hold at $872 every two weeks.  I actually received a 2% cost of living raise last fall, but alas, when social security went up, it ate the exact amount of my raise.  Not too pleased about that, but honestly, I wasn't impressed with the raise to begin with. 

So on average, we're working with a total of $3,200 each month to take care of these: 

Car loan            $203.91
Student loans   $430 (total*)
Internet              $70
Phone               $91
Electricity         $100
Gas                  $15-35
Water               $40
Rent                 $785
Health              $150 (massage + chiro)

We're over $1,850 with fixed expenses, which isn't bad, considering we've got $1,300 for food, supplies, gas, savings, and entertainmentTo be honest though, I've lost all track of what we're spending on those areas each month; couldn't even hazard a guess if you asked me.  Making it a goal to track all of May! 

*Keeping an eye on the future, Mike has one student loan that is currently in deferment.  Right now, it would be $250, but since he's working on his degree, the loan is still going up and that monthly payment will only increase by the time he's done.  

Combined with the strides we made with Mike's recent deployment income, our new budget situation allows us to look at our finances in totally new ways.  Looking forward to sharing our progress with you! 

What's new in your financial world?