Paleo Isn’t Just Food; It’s a Lifestyle: Part 1
Hello, and welcome to the Wealthy Wellthy Life, the show about becoming wealthy without sacrificing your healthy. Each week, I interview a counter-cultural thought leader to bring you a unique millionaire mindset. I’m Krisstina Wise, bestselling author, millionaire coach, and your personal guide to money, health, and happiness.
Today, I tackle health wealth with Sarah Ballantyne, or as you might know her, the Paleo Mom. Sarah is the creator of the award-winning online resource, The Paleo Mom. She is co-host of the top-rated podcast, The Paleo View, a New York Times bestselling author of ‘The Paleo Approach’, ‘The Paleo Approach Cookbook’, and ‘The Healing Kitchen’. She’s also the creator of the new online program, Go to Bed: A Guide for Getting Healthier Sleep. Sarah is a PhD in medical biophysics, and through nutrition and lifestyle changes, Sarah was able to reverse over a dozen diagnosed medical conditions, and lose over 120 pounds. She now helps millions of others do the same. I loved our conversation so much I wouldn’t let her off the phone, so this is a long episode. I broke it up into two parts. This is part one of a two-part interview. I hope you enjoy.
Sarah, it’s such an honor and huge opportunity for me to be able to spend this time with you today. You probably don’t remember because you speak all over the place and do bazillions of workshops.
I met you at the Health e(fx) workshop.
I remember you in my first workshop, right?
Yeah, I was. You were incredible during the workshop and I learned a ton, so thank you for sharing that with the group. But, what I really loved about you is that you have no ego, you were so helpful, approachable, real. You talked and your presentation about authenticity and you’re actually authentic. How refreshing!
Yeah, I had a slide that was making fun of businesses that embrace the concept of authenticity by going, “Now, let’s try and talk everyone into believing how authentic we are.” That’s not the point! The point is to just be a real person.
Right. Be authentic. I was really impressed across the board. That was my first introduction to you, and when I went back and started doing research about who you, I just realized how incredibly accomplished you are. PhD, an academic, a researcher, and a scientist. The more I learned about you, obviously, the more I thought,“Oh my god, this woman’s incredible.”
But you have a really great story that I really enjoyed reading about and learning about. Would you share a little bit about it? You were way into your career and your study but you weren’t healthy. You were obese, pre-diabetic, were having all these issues, and had no energy. You kept powering through it as Superwoman until, finally, you just said, “This isn’t working.” Would you share more about that background?
I was morbidly obese and had metabolic syndrome. I had high blood pressure, I was borderline type 2 diabetic, I had asthma, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, horrible skin conditions, early rheumatoid arthritis, and what I know is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, but at the time, just thought was low thyroid. My doctors said “It’s not low enough for us to do anything about it. We’ll watch it.” What I know now was fibromyalgia, that probably started in my teens, so just chronic pain.
At the same time, I was in grad school. That’s a super stressful thing. Especially in sciences, although grad school’s a super stressful thing in lots of other fields as well. I’m just a very stubborn person, and I taught myself how to persevere through pain, fatigue, and discomfort. In a way, that has served me very well, clearly, but in a way, that eventually hit a wall, and that wall was after my first daughter was born.
I was obese through my first pregnancy, I had gestational diabetes, and ended up with preeclampsia when I went into labor. Then I had this colicky baby. She didn’t sleep and I would rock her. There’s this book called ‘Happiest Baby on the Block’ that tells you about the 5 S’s, and she needed all 5. We would have her swaddled on her side, we’d be shaking her, swaying as we were walking up and down the hallway, shushing in her ear, holding a pacifier in her mouth because she wouldn’t hold it in because she had a shallow latch. We’d do that for about 45 minutes and she’d finally fall asleep and she’d sleep for 20 minutes.
I love her dearly. She was a great kid, but she put us through the ringer, both my husband and me. I was finishing my second post-doctoral research fellowship, I already had my own grant funding, and the next step was 10-year track, faculty position, to launch my own academic research program, and then this baby just completely turned my life upside-down. I was sleep-deprived, had postpartum depression, and was still dealing with all these other health issues. One of the best realizations I ever made was I can’t do both. I want to be this perfect mother. I have these visions of making Halloween costumes, decorating birthday cakes, and things that don’t actually happen. I actually buy Halloween costumes, and local allergy-free bakery for her birthday cakes.
But, at the time, I had these metrics that were going to be this journey of motherhood, and then at the same time, I wasn’t about to just do a half-assed job of being an academic researcher. You can’t. You can’t be successful, especially in those early years when you’re establishing your programs. Typically, most academics are working 60, 70, 80 hour weeks, doing a lot of the work themselves because they don’t have grant funding yet, can’t afford technicians, don’t have grad students, they have to train the grad students. It’s a really hectic time.
So, I decided to do motherhood now because I can’t reverse the clock on that one, and do the academic career later. Fortunately for me, National Institutes of Health had a program for women scientists called Re-Entry Grants for Women. They allow women with PhDs and academic careers to take time off for not just motherhood, but whatever reasons women tend to end up in roles where they need that break. Then it pays salary and research support upon re-entry. We’re decided to use this program.
I never ended up using the program, but it was my safety net when I decided that I was not going to go back to work. That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made, because it allowed me the space, even though this baby was so much work. I still had more space than if I was trying to do hard baby and hard job. It gave me the space to start thinking about my own health and start working on it.
I lost a lot of weight, but that didn’t actually make me healthy. I had a second baby, and that went a lot better. But, I had massive autoimmune flares after she was born and after she weaned, and my skin was a mess. I had lost the pregnancy weight, but I had depression, anxiety, migraines, and horrible skin, I was just covered in lesions, and I was miserable.
It was having made the choice to take a space that gave me the ability to start on my journey. I hit a moment of frustration when I’d lost 100 pounds. Why doesn’t that equal healthy? Wait a minute, I did all the hard work.
A lot of my audience are high performers. They’re not feeling great, but they’re not really paying attention to it, and they just keep going. The resiliency, the psychological fortitude —
We push through anything, right?
Right. It sounds like you had a life moment where you made this decision that you just can’t do both. “I’m not going to do both, and I’m going to choose one thing over the other.” That was a defining moment. But then you start thinking, “Okay, I want to lose weight.” Was losing weight the goal?
Up until that point in my life, even though I had this list of diagnoses, I really thought my problem was that I was fat. I had so much self-esteem wrapped up in being overweight. I spent a lot of time pretending to be confident, but I wasn’t. When you’re overweight, you feel like a failure, you feel like it’s your fault, you feel like there’s something that you can’t control that thin people can. It feels a little bit unfair, because often, overweight people are actually making a lot healthier choices than lighter people. You watch this lighter person eat junk food and you know that if you ate that, you would gain six pounds.
There’s a lot of different and very, very negative emotions, and a lot of very, very negative self-talk that tends to go with obesity. It doesn’t for everybody, but it certainly did for me. It’s a very bad mental health place to be in. I thought, ‘If only I were thin, everything would be amazing,’ and I don’t think that’s a unique thought. I think that when you’re overweight, you really feel like this is the thing that you need to figure out how to change.
I think it really is the cultural common sense that we gain weight. A lot of people gain weight when they’re really stressed out and working long hours. Then there’s the kids, and snacking, and you’re not really conscious of the importance of food and these different choices. Then the goal does become, ‘If I just lose weight, that will take care of all the problems, whatever the problems are, either realized or not so much’. You were in that same spot, and I think that was maybe a turning point. Was there a moment where you had lost 100 pounds but still felt like crap? What was this moment?
I really had that moment. I was sitting in my second daughter’s bedroom watching her play in the middle of summer. I had just had a break-up with my friend in a new city. The one person I had met, I just realized that we actually weren’t compatible and there was not a good friendship there. I was in that head space thinking, ‘I’m alone in a city, stuck home with two young kids.’ It wasn’t a happy place. I was wearing pants and long sleeves in Atlanta in the summer because I have an autoimmune condition called Lichen Planus. It’s related to psoriasis and the lesions are very stereotypically on wrists and ankles. I had it on my ankles all the way up to my knees and on my wrists all the way up to my elbows. So, I was wearing long sleeves and pants in 95 degree weather because my skin was a mess. At the same time, I also had horrible scalp psoriasis so I was wearing my hair up and not feeling attractive that way. I also had really bad cystic acne, which was something that I had battled with since puberty, as well as patches of eczema.
So, I was dealing with these four different skin conditions. Just like being overweight can feel like wearing an “I’m not healthy” badge that everybody can see, skin conditions do that too. Here is this horrible mess of skin that people look at and think, “What’s wrong with you?”
I had this moment where it felt like I had successfully resolved this thing. I thought, ‘Well, if I just lose the weight, I’ll be healthy’. Yet I still had this visible badge that said, “Hey everyone, I’m not healthy”. I felt like I had to be physically uncomfortable all the time covering it up so that people didn’t see my skin.
I had a moment where I realized, ‘Oh, I haven’t figured it out, and I thought I had, but I hadn’t’. I ended up doing an internet search and thinking maybe it’s food. Somebody had said eczema can be caused by egg allergy, or some little thing like that. That internet search brought me to the Paleo Diet, which sounded completely easy and absolutely ridiculous, but it sparked my curiosity.
I spent a lot more time reading up about the Paleo Diet. In weight loss, I had thought about food in terms of calories and grams of carbohydrates. I had a fairly good idea of macronutrients, and I had never really thought about micronutrients. I never really thought if I was getting enough vitamins and minerals, essential amino acids, and essential fatty acids in my diet. I’d never really thought about food toxins before, things that are in foods that are inherently inflammatory or irritate the gut, in a way, or disrupt hormones. There are compounds in foods that actually undermine our health.
Foods can have two things: vital nutrition — awesome, that’s what we want — and stuff that erodes everything. You can have foods with both, and if you’re healthy, that food is probably still going to work for you, and then you can have both sides. You can have the food with tons of nutrition and nothing problematic in it; then you can have food with tons of things that are really not going to serve you very well, health-wise, and no redeeming features whatsoever.
Starting to understand food from that perspective led me to differentiate between the words “healthy” and “thin”. These don’t actually mean the same thing.
I read a quote of yours I really loved, it was something like, “I decided that I would start to think of getting healthy instead of getting thin to get healthy, or healthy to get thin versus thin to get healthy.”
It was certainly the beginning of that moment. I don’t think that I was able to distill it into such a great phrase until later. But, it was certainly that moment of ‘thin does not automatically mean healthy, and healthy doesn’t necessarily mean thin either’. If I have to pick between one or the other, healthy is going to win. Healthy sounds great. I love healthy. Healthy has all the good things. Thin has some good things, right? I mean, there’s some great stuff there, but if it’s a choice between the two, healthy is going to win. Ideally, I can have both, but let’s work on healthy first.
I also had to think about diet and nutrition. I had to think about food in terms of how it was actually fueling my body not just from an energy perspective, but from a raw materials perspective. There’s millions and billions of chemical reactions happening in our body in every moment. Those all take materials, and it’s the nutrients in food, the micronutrients, that supply those raw materials.
I had to start thinking about that differently. So, I ended up trying a Paleo Diet, and in two weeks, I went off all six prescription medications that I was on at the time. One of them I had been on for 12 years. In two months, I’d lost a further 20 pounds. My migraines went away, my irritable bowel syndrome went away, my asthma went away, my allergies went away, my depression and my anxiety attacks went away. I had more energy that I had never had, my moods were better, my joint pains started to go away, and my skin started to clear up.
But wait…there’s more?!
This post has been adapted from The WealthyWellthy Life podcast. Listen here for the full interview and story of Sarah Ballantyne and to download a PDF of this entire conversation.
Each week, The WealthyWellthy Life podcast brings you insightful conversations with inspiring guests that will cut through misguided, popular beliefs to get straight to the unconventional, bleeding-edge truths. Click here to join our mailing list, read past episode transcripts and to subscribe to our newsletter.