Giving up so many food sources is quite unusual, so why did I decide to do this?
There were four problems I wanted to understand and resolve. The first was my sugar addiction; I was eating two chocolate bars a day and could easily destroy a large bar of Cadbury’s Whole Nut in one sitting, without sharing any of it. I would frequently crave chocolate, granola, biscuits, cakes, tarts… in fact anything sugary.
The second problem was reflux and belching, especially after carbohydrates. Pizza would be the worst. At this point I hadn’t connected the reflux or belching to anything else but had noticed the strong link to carbs.
The third problem was around sleep; I tended to fall asleep fairly quickly but would often wake around 4.45am or 5.15am – on or very close to those specific times. Once awake, I would feel hyper-alert, but I would force myself to stay in bed and would then eventually fall back to sleep, only to wake later feeling groggy.
The fourth problem was energy levels and a strange malaise that came over me overnight, without any warning. Symptoms included very achy legs, knotted stomach extreme lethargy. I’ve had three separate episodes of this ‘mystery sickness’ in the last 8 months.
Concerned that this was becoming a regular occurrence, I went to the doctor and had a blood test done. The results came back as normal with the exception of ferritin (iron), which was quite low. Keen to take things a step further, I sat down with my genetic nutritionist and went through the series of tests that we offer to our clients under the Health MOT. The tests included the DNA test (which I had taken in 2015), vitamin D3 and the adrenal stress test.
The headlines were that I have a very high sensitivity to carbohydrates, which means I process carbs very quickly and have a greater likelihood of storing them as fat. This will have a big implication on both my blood sugar levels, but also for weight management. We thought it could also have a strong bearing on some of my digestive symptoms.
I also have a medium sensitivity to saturated fat, so I need to restrict the amount of daily saturated fat that I consume to a minimum (the recommended daily allowance at most). This sensitivity to both carbohydrates and saturated fat is quite an unusual combination, and one which we don’t see very often, and would pose a slight challenge when it came to designing my food plan. The reports also told me I am intolerant to lactose, so I should avoid consuming all dairy products that contain lactose.
I am not intolerant to gluten, and therefore my risk of Coeliac Disease is very minimal, but cannot be ruled out. I have a raised sensitivity to salt and alcohol, but I am a slow metaboliser of caffeine, so it’s only advisory to have two cups per day maximum, and nothing after midday.
The reports tell me I have a raised requirement for vitamin D3, anti-oxidants, cruciferous vegetables and omega 3’s, but a normal requirement for vitamins B6 and B12. My body’s natural detoxification ability is fast. This is the body’s ability to detoxify itself of the free radicals which can be cell-harming, and are released when we eat smoked foods or chargrilled steak, for example. We have a natural ability to do that, but a diet full of anti-oxidants is also very helped with detoxification.
My vitamin D3 levels came back as ‘adequate, which was a little surprising given I spend a lot of time outdoors. That said, the test was taken in April when we’re just coming out of winter, and if you’re UK-based for most of the winter months, you’ll be getting very little sun.
My adrenal stress levels were below average, from waking to going to bed. Usually they should peak at time of waking, and then slowly decline until you go to bed. My levels were slightly lower than ideal upon waking, and then dropped quite rapidly before maintaining a low level until bedtime. This explained my waking patterns, as my cortisol levels were peaking too early in the day, and explained why I was waking up around 4.45am-5.15am and feeling so alert.
The main structure of the plan was to completely eliminate refined carbohydrates (of which sugar is one), all dairy products and all grains. (The diet isn’t that dissimilar to the Paleo Diet if you are familiar with that). On the face of it, that seemed like quite a challenge, but once I’d sat down and gone through it, working out what I could have and how that translated into a weekly food plan, it wasn’t too difficult and of course it was only for 30 days.
I was given several supplements to support the new plan. These included iron tablets, adrenal support tablets, vitamin D3 supplementation (2500 IUs per day), and Pukka Clean Greens tablets.
My meals were structured around 30-40g of high-quality protein, 30-40g of healthy fats, and a very small amount of carbohydrate-rich foods such as a sweet potato (the amount varied according to which meal it was). I also had three portions of non-starchy vegetables such as greens. Snacks could include anything that was rich in healthy fats such as nuts, the occasional piece of fruit, and vegetables such as carrot sticks.
The first week was, predictably, the hardest to get through, but in hindsight I could have made things easier for myself. I hadn’t planned each meal for each day as thoroughly as I should have done. The planning itself is not a big deal, it’s just about working out how to structure each meal, making sure the ingredients are in the house (and defrosted!), and that you have enough time to prepare and make the meal. My challenge was soon apparent; whilst I am highly motivated towards healthy eating, taking care of myself and being fit, my interests don’t lie in the preparation of food or the perusal of recipe books. I love healthy, nutritious food, but I’m more interested in running a business and working face-to-face with clients than spending time in the kitchen preparing food. I’m still working on this adjustment to mindset, but if you’re serious (as I am) about making these changes, then that’s what has to be done.
The really startling thing was just how entrenched refined carbohydrates are in our society. There is almost nowhere on the high street that offers coffee, snacks and food, where the menu isn’t almost entirely comprised of cakes, pastries, pasta, breads or potatoes. I can’t pop out for a snack without really thinking about where I’ll go. It’s only when you do something like a 30-day elimination diet that you truly recognise your patterns of eating.
The second week was also hard, but I was better prepared and better organised. I drew up a meal plan on the Sunday before, and made sure I had all the food I needed. It was also hard adjusting to the lack of carbs in my diet, and I felt really under-energised and quite weak in the gym. I spoke to the genetic nutritionist about whether I should increase my portions of non-starchy carbs by a little, but we both felt it was too early to judge as my body was still adapting to burning fat not carbs.
By the end of week two, I started to feel a bit more energised, and I noticed that my sleep was much better. I no longer woke early, and was able to sleep a bit later into the morning if I got the chance. I also used wearable tech to monitor my sleep, and it showed me that I was sleeping for longer, although still not regularly getting the eight hours sleep that I‘d targeted.
It was during week three when I really started to feel better, and I would say totally adjusted to burning fat rather than carbohydrates. I still craved carbs, and had the odd sugar craving after a meal, but much better than it had been. I still had a challenge around getting enough healthy fats into breakfast, but found a solution by adding seeds and nuts into my morning green smoothie.
By the end of week four, I felt much more comfortable with the new way of eating. I had fat-adapted for training, and I started to feel a bit lighter on my feet for running. I was waking up feeling clear-headed and feeling energised throughout the day. There were Pavlovian moments when I thought about (or had to look at other people eating) cakes or desserts, but the temptation to succumb to the desires just didn’t have as much power over me as it once did. I was still taking the supplements, but phased these out over the following couple of weeks.
The reality of this is, that what can seem very complicated on paper is actually quite simple. The diet that I followed is essentially just very healthy eating, with minimal sugar and other refined carbs, backed up by good quality supplements, lots of vegetables and plenty of protein and healthy fats. You can have the odd treat, but in moderation, and not in such a way that the body becomes disrupted by a dependency on refined carbs and sugar. I found is fairly easy to eliminate the sugar, dairy, grains and other refined carbs because I was very focused on finding out how I would feel without it. I wanted to know if I could feel better than this, and go back to my old boast of never getting sick instead of being bedridden by my ‘mystery sickness’ every two months.
There were three things that I found really fascinating during this exercise. The first thing was discovering what it is like to be a client, and go through the kind of programme that we deliver. I can appreciate the challenges and obstacles that you have to go through, and how daunting it can seem at the start. I feel better equipped to have conversations with my clients about what personalising your diet entails, and I can speak from personal experience and genuinely empathise with clients when they report how they’re getting on.
The second observation was this: the power of cognitive dissonance and how easily fooled we are by ourselves. As a fitness professional, I know about the harmful effects of sugar, but still consciously consumed far too much. I was able to ignore it when it suited me, and let myself off by telling myself I was very lean and not getting fat, and I had no fillings so my teeth were unaffected. Cognitive dissonance. We all use it, but at some point we have to confront it and take action.
The third observation was just how much data we have at our disposal now, and how powerful it is. We are now living in an age where we have access to so much personal data, that technology can help us understand how we’re performing and how we can improve on that performance. Whilst a lot of this – personalised nutrition, DNA testing, other tests, wearable tech – all comes with a price, it’s there if we want to prioritise our health. You’re reading this blog post, so you clearly care about your health and fitness; I urge you to go one step further and explore how you can personalise your lifestyle. Spend time (and if needed, money) now to get time back later.
Let’s go back to those initial goals.
Sugar cravings and overconsumption
Understanding the effects that sugar was having on my adrenals, appetite regulation and energy levels was highly motivating. Following a blood-sugar balancing diet that was low in GI and contained whole foods, included a lot of vegetables, protein, healthy fats and water helped to manage the cravings and eventually, the desire to have something sweet after a main meal disappeared. It did take several weeks though, and I had to work hard at not succumbing. The feeling of not being pulled around by an addiction or craving is a good one though, and I feel much happier knowing that I am pretty much sugar-free.
Reflux and belching
It only took about a week to notice that my reflux and belching had stopped almost completely. I now know that lactose was the main cause (along with carbohydrates) of both symptoms. I tried some innocently-named courgette fritters in a local Balkan restaurant and paid the price with both reflux and belching throughout the night. As a result, I’ve found the decision to give up lactose an easy one to make. I haven’t gone back to large amounts of starchy carbs so I can’t say for sure that they would cause either symptom to occur, but I suspect they would. My DNA report states quite clearly that I am highly sensitive to carbs, and that matches my experience of consuming them.
My sleep has definitely improved since changing my diet, and I monitor this based on how I feel when I wake up, and what the sleep app tells me. I do find it accurate, and it’s interesting to match up how I feel with the pattern of sleep recorded by the app. Sometimes I feel rested, but the app shows I’ve been restless for several times a night. I’ve also made some adjustments to my night-time routine to ensure a better night’s sleep. For example, I drink a lot of herbal teas, and can almost chain-drink them in the evening. I find if I stop by around 9pm, I don’t need to get up in the night to go to the toilet, which guarantees a better night’s sleep. I have also banished my smartphone from the bedroom and gone back to using a good old-fashioned alarm clock. This keeps the device (and the potentially damaging electromagnetic fields) well clear of my head and it’s impossible to reach out for it in the night if I can’t sleep. I find I get a more restful and deep sleep if I read a book for 15-20 minutes before bed, so I try and make that my routine every night now.
The ‘mystery sickness’
Perhaps not such a mystery after all! I think the cause was a combination of lactose overload, stress and overwork. Each of the sicknesses came at a time when there was a lot going on, but I don’t think this would have been an issue had I been eating a diet that supported me well. What I was doing was fundamentally going against my genes – consuming high levels of refined carbs, saturated fat and lactose – so my body had a lot to cope with digesting these foods and trying to draw out some nutrition. I also think in hindsight that I was overtraining. My DNA report says I have a medium recovery profile, but often I would be repeating exercise sessions within 8-10 hours of the last one, therefore not allowing the body sufficient time to recover (or supporting it with the right diet). I used the DNA report to incorporate more rest in between sessions and dropped a couple of sessions from my weekly schedule. My strategy was to get more from doing less, and I feel that that has worked well for me. I’m looking forward to my gym sessions, I have more energy and enthusiasm and because I’m more relaxed I’m getting better results. But it’s not just about that; exercise is supposed to be enjoyable, not stressful. When it becomes stressful, you’re either doing the wrong thing, or you’re doing the right thing but overtraining. You have to listen, respond and adapt all the time. That’s intelligent training.
Leanne Spencer is a Fitness Entrepreneur, Author of the Amazon Bestselling book Rise and Shine: Recover from burnout and get back to your best and Founder of Bodyshot Performance Limited. Bodyshot uses wearable tech and your unique DNA to create bespoke diet, lifestyle and exercise programs delivered remotely via online coaching or face-to-face. Connect with the team @BodyshotPT or Facebook or visit our website at www.bodyshotperformance.com