How I Found Out Grains Make Me Hungry (And Why I’m Happy About It)

I stopped eating grains in June of 2013 to see if I could improve my health by changing my diet. It was my nutritionist’s idea and I was finally desperate enough to listen to her, even though grains had been a major part of my diet for decades.

I stopped eating oatmeal for breakfast and brown rice at dinner. I said good-bye to rice pasta and corn tortillas. At least I didn’t have to go through bread withdrawal; I’d given up wheat products years before, when I discovered that gluten was making me tired and depressed.

I started feeling better immediately. My constant fatigue lifted and my limbs felt lighter. The heaviness that made the smallest task seem like a challenge lifted, and suddenly it was easy to do things I had avoided before.

I became a new woman in no time at all.

My awareness of the effect grains have on my body and my energy makes it a lot easier to avoid eating them. The only real problem with giving up grains is that I miss them. When it comes to food, I like variety. No grains means very few starch options, and there are days when I think I’ll scream if I have to eat another sweet potato.

So I suppose it’s natural that, after four months without grains, I was wondering if maybe I could have just a little, now and then, without suffering ill effects.

Friends came to town and we decided to take them to a local Ethiopian restaurant.

Ethiopian food served family-style (photo Nyala Ethiopian Restaurant)
Ethiopian food served family-style (photo Nyala Ethiopian Restaurant)

In the past, we had enjoyed our Ethiopian meals served family style. A big tray lined with injera bread, piled with spiced meats and vegetables is set before you, along with a basket of more injera cut into strips. You use the bread to pick up the meat and vegetables. Savory dishes served as finger food; what could be more fun?

Traditionally, injera is made entirely of teff, a tiny grain grown in Africa. Most American restaurants make their injera with some wheat flour added, but Nyala  offers injera made from teff only. I knew I couldn’t eat injera with wheat in it (gluten is not my friend), but 100% teff might be OK. I decided to give it a try.

By the time our food arrived, I was pretty hungry. I dug in with the others, using the teff-only injera to pick up the spicy meat. As I ate, my stomach growled. At first, I thought my empty stomach was just behind the eating curve. But by the time the meal was nearly done, I was even hungrier than I’d been before. With every mouthful I took, I got hungrier and hungrier and hungrier.

It reminded my of the book The Phantom Tollbooth. Milo is served a meal of Subtraction Stew. The more he eats, the hungrier he gets. He is told that in Digitopolis, people only eat when they are full.

As a kid, I thought this was a hysterical idea. Experiencing it for myself as an adult, I didn’t like it as much.

I had started out hungry, not full. And I hate being hungry.

I came away from that meal acknowledging that grains, especially grain ground into flour, makes me hungry. I eat food so I’ll stop being hungry. I’ve recognized in the past when something like fruit juice or caffeine increased my appetite and made changes as a result. But this was the most direct and immediate example of a food making me hungry that I’ve ever experienced.

I could be upset that my attempt at having just a little grain was a failure, but I’m not. I’m grateful to realize that grains cause me this problem. For years, grains were a big part of my diet, and for years, I struggled with my weight, because I was hungry all the time. I didn’t know then that the food I was eating was causing the problem, but I’m glad I know now.

How Changing to a Paleo Diet Has Improved My Health

It’s been one year since I started eating meat again. I’ve written about why I made the change, my ethical struggles with eating meat, and my fear of what others would think. It’s time to look in the mirror and ask myself, “How am I doing?”

At the top of Arthur's Rock with Dory, after hiking up at record speed. See the big smile? I enjoyed it!
At the top of Arthur’s Rock with Dory, after hiking up at record speed. See the big smile? I enjoyed it!

When I was trying to decide if I could turn my back on 23 years as a vegetarian, I educated myself on the health benefits of eating meat by reading The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain. I noted the things I hoped would change for me if I followed his food plan.

According to the book, eating meat might help:

  • with weight loss (thermic effect of a high protein diet, p. 21)
  • improve my ability to exercise (p. 65)
  • decrease my hypoglycemia (p. 70)
  • increase my thyroid production (p. 71)

Eliminating grains and legumes might help:

  • improve vitamin B absorption (p. 55)
  • improve biotin absorption (specifically wheat and whole grains, p. 56)
  • improve my mental health (also being dairy-free, p. 95)

I’ve spent the last year eating meat every day while removing all grains, all legumes, and most dairy products from my diet. This is my experience:

  • Great improvement in strength and endurance. Exercise is starting to be fun again. Also, my body shape has changed as a result of putting on more muscle, although my weight is about the same.
  • A marked decrease in hypoglycemic symptoms. I used to eat by the clock. One extra hour between a snack and a meal gave me severe symptoms that took 24 hours to disappear. Now I can skip a snack completely or go for long periods between meals with no ill effects. (Well, I might get a little grumpy. I don’t like being hungry. But I do not suffer like I used to.)
  • A definite improvement in mental health (decreased depression and anxiety).

I don’t think that my thyroid function has improved because we haven’t had to make any adjustments to my thyroid supplement. (I dream of one day not needing to take that little pill every morning, but it hasn’t happened yet.) I haven’t bothered to have my B vitamins tested so I don’t know if my absorption is better or not.

But other than that, the things I hoped might improve have improved. I have more energy. Activities that used to require days of recovery are no longer as taxing. Most mornings, I wake up with ease and am eager to face the day. Even the days when I am tired, I am not as tired as I used to be.

Letting go of my vegetarian life style has been challenging for me, but I need only look at the improvements in my daily life to see that while I may not want to eat meat, I need to eat meat.

My Severest Judge When I Abandoned Vegetarianism

This time last year I was struggling to decide if I was willing to make a dramatic change to my diet for health reasons. After 23 years as a vegetarian, I was considering eating meat. I’d been getting signals from my body and from health professionals that this was a change I should make, but it took desperation and a gentle suggestion from a friend before I was willing to even think about changing my ways.

As soon as I started thinking about eating meat, I was filled with fear. What would other people say? I know many vegetarians. My sister has been vegetarian even longer than I have, and I know she stopped eating animals for ethical reasons. I was terrified of telling her, or anyone for that matter.

I imagined everyone I talked to would look like this. (Judge Doom by Me2)
I imagined everyone I talked to would look like this. (Judge Doom by Me2)

I lost sleep worrying about the reactions other people would have when they heard my news. I expected the vegetarians to brand me a traitor, and the meat-lovers to laugh and say, “I told you so.” (Everyone who has ever tried a vegetarian diet has gotten the “you need more protein” lecture at least once.)

But I greatly underestimated my family and my friends.

My sister was completely supportive. Without so much as a hint of judgment in her tone, she said, “You have to take care of yourself.” When I complained that I didn’t want to eat animals, she asked me if I hated my dog for eating meat. I don’t of course. Dogs are carnivores. They need to eat meat to be healthy. “So don’t hate yourself,” she said, much clearer than I was on who was really judging me for making this change.

When I told my friend who has been vegetarian her entire adult life that I was eating meat and feeling great, I burst into tears. She consoled me by sharing her own goal: to be thoughtful about consumption and to do everything she can to reduce waste. Her understanding helped me reframe my own thoughts about my actions and to start looking at the things I could do while eating meat that were still in line with my principles.

Even those I felt sure would be dancing on the grave of my vegetarian past were kind and loving in hearing my news. If they gloated, they never did it where I could hear them.

It turned out there was only one person whose judgment of my behavior was going to be truly severe. That person was me.

As I wrote in my journal just days after I started eating meat again:

As much as I fear the opinions of others, I should be worried more about my judgment of myself. I am the one with the iron fist that cracks bones and draws blood. I hurt myself more than anyone else does.

And I was right. Even now, when I tell the story of my conversion from vegetarian to meat-eater to a friend I haven’t seen in ages, he or she listens with compassion and interest. I’m the one seething with emotion about how I have betrayed my own beliefs.

I’m no longer afraid to tell others about the change I’ve made because there is plenty of evidence that this diet is much better for me than any version of vegetarian diet I ever tried. But I still feel guilty and even defensive when I see a photo of a lamb or calf with a caption that says we shouldn’t eat our friends.

I now know that it’s not the photo or the slogan but the voice inside me that is making me uncomfortable. I’ll have to keep working on accepting that this change isn’t just a necessity for me. It’s a valid way to live.

Giving Up My Vegetarian Dream Was The Key To Improving My Health

The new and improved me.
The new and improved me.

I’ve been a vegetarian for the last 23 years, convinced that eating a vegetable-based diet was good for my health. The irony is that I’ve been far from healthy. I’ve always known diet plays a major role in how I feel, but I never connected the vegetarian diet I was following with the problems I was having.

Eight years after becoming vegetarian, I was diagnosed with a B12 deficiency. I asked the doctor what I should do.

“Eat meat,” she said. I was offended and didn’t listen. I started taking a B12 supplement and considered the problem solved.

In the fall of 2006, I was put on disability by my doctor. The diagnosis was depression, but the main symptom was constant exhaustion. I couldn’t work a 40-hour week. After three months, I wasn’t any better and my employer let me go. Fortunately, my husband can and has supported me since, allowing me to focus on getting my energy back.

I’ve made lots of positive changes over the years, cutting out sugar and caffeine, adding eggs and fish. The most significant improvement came when I went gluten free. After just three days, I was waking up early instead of struggling to wake up at all.

In the summer of 2012, I saw a nutritionist. I told her why I was gluten free.

She said, “Going grain free will help even more.”

I didn’t believe her, but I did follow the food plan she gave me, which was lower in carbohydrates and increased protein and fat, and things got better. I also tried using supplements, but they caused strange side effects. I went back to a diet-only approach and tried to be patient.

This May, I was reading my journal and noticed that every entry started with a complaint about being tired. I got angry, because this had been going on for so long.

Then a good friend who has an autoimmune disease and understands my frustration said the words that changed my life.

“Maybe you need to be eating meat.”

Advice that had fallen on deaf ears in the past got a hearing at last. I was fed up with my constant fatigue, frustrated that medical solutions weren’t working for me, and just plain desperate to be healthy again.

“I’ll think about it,” I said, and I did. I talked with friends who had made the change. I read posts online. I read Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet and Robb Wolf’s personal story in The Paleo Solution.

Cordain’s arguments helped me rationalize trying a paleo diet. He suggested the changes I had dismissed in the past: Eat lean meat. Don’t eat grains. The list of promised improvements matched my list of health problems almost perfectly.

In June, I wrote:
I love animals and think going back to eating them would be challenging, but I would make the change in a hot second if it meant better health and more energy. I know my number one priority is health because I have to have health before I can really have or enjoy anything else in this world.

I decided to try it, just as an experiment. I began eating meat again, and I gave up foods that had been my staples for years: dairy products, grains, and legumes.

And it’s worked.

I am healthier, much more like a normal person that I have been in a decade. Exercising is easier, I sleep better, I have more energy. I can now do in a day what it used to take me a week to accomplish, and when I wake up the next morning, I am not exhausted but ready for another busy day.

What did it take to get to this place? Years of suffering, years of struggle, years of searching for the right answer. In a word: desperation.

But the real key was listening to what people were telling me and allow that they might be right, and I might be wrong.

Further reading for those who are interested in some of the arguments that convinced me to give the paleo approach a try:
Why going from vegetarian to paleo works (it’s as much about giving up the grains as eating the meat)
The story of a vegan with long-term health problems much more severe than mine who healed herself through diet