Being a primal mom

This mother’s day I am thinking a lot about what it means to be a primal mom.  Part of being a primal mom is being the kind of mom who doesn’t care if your kid eats a little dirt now and again, who relentlessly seeks out opportunities for your kids to get into nature, who is willing to fight an uphill battle for what is best for your child at every meal and with almost every other person involved in your child’s life. Fundamentally, being a primal mom is about rooting yourself in the belief that people are supposed to be strong, healthy and active most of their lives, that we aren’t supposed to be riddled by diseases and disorders.  That maybe if we can teach our kids the right way to treat their bodies from an early age–so that they never know any differently–maybe they can avoid much of the pain and challenges that drove us, as adults, to discover the primal way of living in the first place.  Because at the end of the day, isn’t that what parenthood all about? Wanting better for our children than we have for ourselves?

That desire for their lives to be better hardly gets stronger in me than in my desire for their health to be better.  I want them to experience the health and vitality that I am only just now returning to without any interruption.  I want my daughters to grow up with the confidence of strong bodies that are full of energy.

Being a primal mom means being willing to swim upstream a bit, being willing to be a little weird, for the sake of your children.  It means being willing to seem a little strange as you are overheard explaining to them at the grocery store that  we only buy the full fat products  and that fat is good for us.  Yes, even saturated fat.  It means packing snacks for them out of your own limited budget when free snacks are provided just because they are incompatible with what you know is best for them. It means making dinner again tonight when you wish you could just put a frozen pizza in the oven like you used to.

It also means watching your kids scarf down big piles of vegetables that are the envy of other parents.  It might mean not having to medicate a hyper child (who takes after their father a bit) because their focus is so much better than it used to be when they still ate processed foods.  And maybe, someday, it will mean that we are physically capable exploring places in the world we would never otherwise be able to explore.

Being a primal mom is sometimes exhausting.  But it is always worth it.

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Four Month results… expected, and otherwise

We’ve now been on the Primal/Paleo journey as a family for four months, and it is a great opportunity to size up where we are as we look to the future.  It has been an amazing ride, one that has constantly reinforced itself as a permanent change by the sheer magnitude of the impacts it has had on us.  Some changes have been expected, but many have not been anticipated.  And all of them have been positive.  So here is a run down of the expected results:

1) I have dropped 25 pounds.  I knew I would lose weight, and probably lose it pretty quickly.  I guess I didn’t anticipate how easy it would be, and how much it would seem to “melt” off.  And keep in mind, I have been far from perfect.  There are more days than I would like to admit where my 20% exceptions have been much more than 20%.  If I had been more rigorous, this loss would certainly have been higher.  But I am happy with it and my pace is sustainable.

2) My blood work has improved.  My “good” cholesterol is up and my bad cholesterol is down.  My blood pressure is the lowest I can remember it being since I was a teenager, although admittedly mine wasn’t too bad to begin with.  My triglycerides are down, and my blood sugar is looking great.

3) I have substantially more energy.  This is to an almost ridiculous degree.  Maybe two or three nights in the last four months I have plugged my girls into a movie and napped on the couch after work.  It used to be far, far more common of an occurrence.  I also no longer feel totally drained and exhausted in the afternoon at work.  My mental and physical stamina is up.

4) The girls have a greater attention span, and their moods do not swing as much.  They are still little, so the effects aren’t huge.  But they are noticeable, and they help.  Most importantly, Mary has stopped complaining of her stomach hurting after almost every meal.  Clearly, she was significantly gluten intolerant just as we suspected.

Most of these results were expected, based on the most basic understanding of the why and how of the primal diet that I had aquired before beginning this journey.  Since then, of course, my knowledge base has expanded, so many of the impacts I will list as unexpected really shouldn’t have been unexpected.  They are mirrored by many, many other testimonials.  Nevertheless…

1) My skin is clearer and less dry.  Less often am I tormented by very oily face or too dry, itchy feet and legs.  I have dry skin, and that will always be so, but the extreme dry is gone.  I am much more comfortable in my own skin.

2) My hypoglycemia is GONE.  It was gone in less than a week and it has never returned.  I am no longer controlled by my need to eat every two hours or get severely sick.  I used to be totally driven by the nausea and lightheaded feeling I would get if I skipped a meal or went too long between meals.  Now I can choose when and if I am going to eat, and occasionally have to even remind myself to do so.  If there are no good food alternatives around, I simply fast.  No big deal.

3) My hormones seem to be more under control.  Mood swings seem to be a thing of the past.  My husband is grateful, I am sure.  Aside from those, overall I feel like a more emotionally stable person.

4) I seem to be more sun-resistant.  I know this sounds crazy, but I do not burn as easily.  And considering how pale my skin is, that is really saying something.  My body seems to be able to handle the natural environment around it better.

5) I sleep so much more soundly, I rarely remember anything about the hours I am sleeping at all.  I wake up much more refreshed.  My body is more persistent in demanding that bedtimes be obeyed.  It rewards me with the best sleep I’ve had in years.

6) All sorts of minor stomach issues I never really noticed, or thought were normal, have totally vanished.  They weren’t normal.  Why did I ever believe they were?

7) I can actually, well and truly, keep up with my kids.  And oh my goodness, do they love that!

8) Everything about the way I see the world has changed.

Ok, so what does that last one mean?  It means that I no longer take it for granted that we are supposed to get more and more tired, more and more sick as we age and move towards the ends of our life.  I no longer believe that I am supposed to feel much more exhausted all the time in my 30s than I did in my 20s.  Because now I don’t.  We were created to exist on this world, and we weren’t created to be sick and weary and diseased and broken.  We were created to live and thrive.  After all, for however long we lived before technology, even before agriculture, we did manage to not only exist but thrive.  Thrive to the point that we are here in the billions now, able to create and consume our technology.  Why is it suddenly ok that a quarter of our population needs a psych medication to survive?  What did we do before those medicines existed?

The way I contextualize everything I see has changed.  My whole perspective on the world around me has altered irrevocably.  I never thought that was going to happen.

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Exploring New Ground

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A few weeks ago I did something I thought I would never do… not in a million years.  I went camping on the northern edge of the Florida Everglades, and I even swam in a freshwater lake that had a sign posted to be cautious of alligators.  I grew up in the northern states where wildlife precautions were pretty much limited to keeping your food bear-proof and suspended between two trees while you slept.  But Florida has always struck me as a particularly deadly environment–the only place I am more afraid of fresh water than salt water.  In Florida you have alligators, poisonous water snakes, scorpions, poisonous spiders, rattlesnakes–pretty much you name it.  Our first family camping adventure was to the northern part of Florida where at least some of these dangers were somewhat mitigated.  No alligator is going to creep up on you in crystal clear spring water, after all.  But this is a part of our primal journey as a family–exploring all that the natural world has to offer.

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And ok, so we did stick to a campground and we weren’t exactly camping in the middle of the Everglades swampland.  But nevertheless, this was a major psychological obstacle for me.  I don’t know why we, as people, seem so afraid of the natural world around us.  This was our habitat for most of our existence as a species, after all.  Even I, who grew up roughing it and camping and backpacking all over Minnesota.  But the truth is that nature is the best place for us to be–even in a place like the northern Everglades–because it reconnects us to who we really are as creatures in this world.  Although we saw no alligators in the lake we swam in, we did see them in and around the creek on the campground.  And… no big deal, actually.  Keep your distance.  As for other deadly predators, insects or snakes?  Never saw a single one the entire trip.  We did, however, see beautiful owls, cardinals, butterflies and dragonflies.

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The best thing about this trip was that it expanded my mental horizons–it opened up all new possibilities for us to explore as a family.  Now, nothing seems impossible.  It sunk into my brain completely that we are fortunate to live in a country that is huge and covers so many different ecological zones and habitats.  We have endless possibilities for exploration without even using a passport.  Northern Maine, back to Minnesota and the Boundary Waters, the deserts of the south, Sequoia, Yellowstone, Appalachia… you name it, it is all available to us.  Beyond just seeing and experiencing the natural beauty of the world around us, each moment we are able to get out and explore the world is a moment we can reconnect with our most basic selves.  There’s just something about it.

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My favorite moment of the trip was when we went hiking and we suddenly came upon a big wide open field–the girls just started running around in circles, laughing and dancing like free spirits.  Why is it that they never seem to get in trouble out in the woods, yet ten minutes of boredom in the house can turn into total chaos?  They can spend hours digging in the dirt with a couple of sticks, or playing at the edge of the water at the beach or chasing each other around a field.  And there is truly nothing better than exploring nature with your kids.

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It is important to reconnect with nature whenever possible.  In this modern, technological society, we need to remind ourselves that we are a part of the world, too.  We need those quiet moments when we are unplugged, when we are just sitting and staring at a campfire, or gazing up at the stars, or laying in a field with our eyes closed and letting the clouds dance over us.

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Already, I can’t wait until our next chance to go camping.  I can already feel myself impatient with the urge to get out into nature.  So, in the meantime, I will be filling our weekends with as much nature as I can–trips to the beach, nature trail walks, playground and park time, etc.  Any excuse to hear the birds sing and feel the sun on my face…

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Finding the right doctor

Going paleo/primal is hard enough, in some ways, without having to do battle with your own physician.  After we went primal, I dreaded what seemed like it would be an inevitable confrontation with my existing doctor.  It wasn’t just about saturated fat and heart unhealthy whole grains, but suddenly it was about antibiotics and every other aspect of the management of my health care.  Once I started to realize that my body wasn’t broken, that it wasn’t supposed to be weak and sick all the time, and once I started to experience how I was supposed to feel, suddenly everything else I had ever been taught came into question.

I knew I wouldn’t have to do battle with our pediatrician, thank God.  We had already switched pediatricians, because we were sick of them trying to force our children into strict timelines of development despite the fact that we knew there was nothing wrong with our children and they were fine.  (We were right, by the way).  Our current pediatrician understands that parents should be the primary arbiters of health care decisions for their children.  He is there to provide information and expertise, but not to make the final decision.  He is incredibly respectful of our convictions and our choices about how we raise and feed our children.  He provides the kind of support a parent needs from a doctor.

And I knew I needed that same kind of support from my own doctor.  So I found a doctor listed in the paleo physicians network who was accepting new patients in my area and also took my insurance.  Despite his listing in the directory, I was still extremely nervous about how all of it was going to go.  Most of my experience with doctors has been pretty neutral–mainly the general assembly line, pill prescribing type.  But what a difference a good doctor can make.  My first visit with my new doctor was a radical shift from what I was used to experiencing.  First of all, he actually knew more about nutrition than I did.  Can you imagine?  A medical doctor who understands the importance of what we eat and take into our bodies?  It just shouldn’t be that radical or amazing, but it really was.  To have someone who knew what I knew, plus more, plus all of the medical knowledge I would never know on top of it all… this was truly amazing.  Even the best doctors I had ever had up until this point still couldn’t touch my level of knowledge on nutrition, for the most part.

And he also understood hormones, and how our bodies work with them, and how they can be out of whack.  He ordered a blood test for a hormone that is probably too high in my body, and which we may be able to fix.  If this turns out to be true, it will be the first time in my life someone has been able to offer me hope for a chronic condition I have dealt with almost my whole life that, unfortunately, diet alone could not fix.  Just the thought that there might even possibly be a solution is enough to make me feel as if a miracle had occurred.  And I realize that there are hundreds of other conditions out there that diet does cure and yet are treated by doctors just the same way–as though there is no hope or possibility for cure.  They are just to be “managed.”  Or medicated, of course…

Finding a doctor who understands the primal journey, understands what it can do for your life and is not only supportive, but encouraging… this is a great and wonderful asset.  They understand, as have all who have really embraced the primal way of living, that human life has so much more to offer than we think.  That we are supposed to be strong, healthy, energetic and full of vitality.  That something is deeply wrong with our society and the way it accepts illness and depression and stress as normative.  They understand that our bodies and are lives are supposed to be truly alive.

Being THAT customer…

I hate to admit it, but going primal has has turned me into that customer.  The one with the laundry list of I special requests, the series of cooking questions, the meticulous examiner of ingredient lists.  Suddenly, I am the lady at the restaurant who can’t just order something, for heaven’s sake, without tuning it into a major production.

The truth is that for me, going primal is reasonably easy at the grocery store, and it would never be the least bit difficult if I never left my house, but when I occasionally find myself at a restaurant I find myself at a crossroads of difficult and treacherous decisions to make.  How much can I even know from the menu? Sure, it includes a basic list of ingredients, but certainly some industrial seed oils of significant quantity are going to find themselves used in the production of the final meal.  And, of course, more likely than not the vegetables, fruits and meat used to make this meal are not ideal.  But even if I can chock all that up to the inevitable 20% cheat, my order still ends up a lengthy list of substitutions.

Rarely I run across someone who truly understands, some restaurant or employee who gets it.  Maybe they have family with Celiacs or other food allergies, or maybe they are just more aware of what is going on in the world of nutrition, but these rare encounters make eating out momentarily bearable.  It’s nice to have that rare employee not look at me with repressed eye-rolling.  It’s not as if I don’t try to be nice and understanding about it, realizing that I’m being difficult.  I am not one of those people who takes immense joy in the inherent self-definition of being counter-cultural.  I wish the whole culture was going with me on this, or that I didn’t have to be so radically different about my food choices.  But I can’t ignore what I’ve learned, I can’t unlearn it, and I can’t pretend I don’t know anymore.  I have to make the choices I make, I am totally compelled by the total sense of well-being and energy and healthfulness my new lifestyle has brought to me.  But I still wish it wasn’t so difficult sometimes.

I read blogs all the time where it was an effortless transition, but I am not that person.  I still stare at the junk food aisles in the gas station with some small amount of craving.  I still have to explain to myself for a moment why eating myself into a total sick stupor on milk chocolate and Skittles would be a very, very bad idea.  The dessert menu at a restaurant is still a significant battle I have to face with myself.  Oh, sure, I can skip the gluten with no question, but skipping the sugary ice-cream sundae or strawberry milk shake?  That is an entirely different issue.  Again, if I never left my house, none of this would be an issue.  Readily available, delectable and satiating foods are always available there.  It is no big deal, and even a big pleasure, to cook up something amazing that is entirely primal-approved.

Maybe that’s why I go through more agony over being “that” customer than others seem to experience.  But I am slowly learning to embrace it–to see it as a sign that I am heading in the right direction even if it sometimes feels as if no one around me is coming along for the ride.  We are fighting the tide, and it probably isn’t going to get much easier.  After all, in the next few years my children will start school.  Then I have to figure out how to explain to their teachers what they can and cannot eat and why it is that way.  My oldest will probably fight that battle mostly by herself, with little intervention needed from me.  She is the one who asked grandma why the lettuce was “white” on her restaurant salad (totally confused at the absence of spinach or dark green spring mix) and also told grandma that she didn’t want a cookie because it has gluten, and we don’t eat that stuff.  As she gets older, she will be the one who takes great pride and joy in ordering everything a la carte, everything specially prepared, everything with substitutions or exceptions.  She is just the sort of person to embrace the difference in a way I struggle with.  I admire her for it, and I’m hoping that as she grows older, I will become more like her.  Eventually,  I will learn to love being “that” customer.camping 22

Primal Canning

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Canning has become a vital part of our primal journey as a family.  Actually, learning to can predates our primal conversion, and in some ways led directly to our discovery of our new way of life.  I began canning as a way to cut costs–buying in bulk and peak of season and preserving the food myself for later.  It just made sense to give it a shot.  But with that first batch of strawberry jam, I knew I had just discovered the magician behind the curtain.  My eyes were opened to how things were supposed to taste, and how easy it really was to make them taste that way.  Oh sure, I had known since I was a child how much better produce from a garden could be, but I didn’t really believe there could be that significant of a difference in taste and quality even using standard, non-organic produce.  But the simple process of canning that first batch of jam led to a total mental shift.  If that was so easy and so much more cost-effective, what else could be easily done at home and with so little extra effort?  Soon, I was canning all kinds of jams and preserves in flavors I have never seen at the grocery store.  I was also canning up my own diced tomatoes, pineapple tidbits, and blueberry syrups.  Salsa, tomato sauce, you name it…

Eight or nine months later we went primal, and canning has remained an important part of our lives.  Being able to minimally process food, yet know it’s safety, it’s origin, and it’s total ingredient list–all of these things are precious commodities for the conscientious consumer.  And while I still process jams with sugar, I know how much I am adding, and I control it every step of the way.  I know when my fruit is locally produced, organic when possible, and it is always peak of season and ripe.

What I love most about the primal movement is it’s emphasis on the origin of our food, and it’s awareness of how these origins affect us.  Months before I even considered converting my family to such a drastic dietary change, I became aware of the question of real food and clean food.  I realized, too, what the real cost of food is and should be, and how much of our precious resources are spent on the convenience of pre-packed food.  Suddenly, I looked at that can of tomatoes from the grocery store as so much more than the $1.59 on the price tag.  If I bought that can of tomatoes, instead of canning my own, I would have to pay for the can, the tomatoes, the assortment of other additives and ingredients, the future health care costs of the BPA in the packaging, the salary of the grocery store clerk, the truck driver, the farmer, the pesticide company, etc.  The list went on and on.  Suddenly it seemed incredible that I would not make the trip out to the farm forty minutes away and pick my own, can my own.  I usually get 25-35 pounds of tomatoes for $2 a bag when I pick them myself.  Although not organic, they are peak ripeness and processed the same day they come off the vine and processed in a way that preserves more nutrients.  Far better than paying almost $2 for a small 14 oz can of tomatoes.

People always ask if our diet is horribly expensive, and although it has been a bit of a budgetary shift, I think our prior shift into making many things at home we would have otherwise been buying has made the conversion so much more manageable than it could have been.  It also made me realize how much we have lost as a culture–we have lost a sense of the joy of the harvest.  Where people in prior eras worked together to gather, prepare and preserve food, we buy food in isolation, prepare it in isolation, and often eat it in isolation.  This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.  When we come home with a hundred pounds of tomatoes, we have to process them together. It is simply too much for one person to do.  Although it is a lot of work, it is enjoyable working together in the kitchen towards a common goal.  And the months that come afterward of popping open a jar of the best quality ingredients for cooking makes up for a few hours of hard work.

I realize that canning may not be strictly primal.  After all, hunter gatherers certainly did not do such things.  It could be argued that man has sought ways to preserve a harvest for a very long time, but to me that debate doesn’t even matter.  To me, canning is about controlling costs, working together as a family to ensure the best food year round, and the simple joy of a harvest.  For us, it has become an important part of our primal journey.

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More spinach, please?

One of my biggest concerns going Primal had been how may children would react to the relatively sudden deprivation of commercially produced crackers, cereals, etc.  Although we were already far closer to Primal than many I know, and although they still get more “cheats” in this area than we do thanks to grandma, what has been truly remarkable is how easy and unremarkable their adjustment has been.

Part of our success in transitioning them has been in thinking through how to redefine snacks.  Snacks had always been their biggest source of grains, and had evolved from extremely processed foods such as cheese crackers to organic whole grain seed crackers, though they still remained largely grain-filled.  After all, grains are such an important part of everyone’s diet, or so I thought.  Once we went Primal, all that had to change.  Now snacks are veggies and vinaigrette, plain yogurt with home-made jam stirred in, or an apple.  Unsurprisingly, there was very little resistance to this switch.  And now, the days with my kids have become much less of a roller-coaster ride of hyperactivity and crashes.

But the best part of this transition has been the newfound relish the girls have developed for trying new dishes and foods and polishing off every last bite of their vegetables.  Salad times are exciting for the girls, and it is a blast filling their salads with all kinds of different foods and watching them dig in.  Although we have never allowed picky eating, the girls are eating more foods more happily than ever before.  And hearing my four year old ask me for more raw spinach in her salad filled me with total joy.

As much as this change has been good for me and my husband, it has also been extremely beneficial for the girls.  Their behavior, their concentration, everything has been better.  Kids are adaptable, often much more so than we are as adults.  I wonder how this is all going to work out in the future as they are increasingly exposed to the consumer marketing they don’t currently get exposed to, or the mass misinformation propagated in schools teaching to this day that fat is bad and whole wheat is best.  Or that so much of their diet should be grain based carbs that actually serve to spike their blood sugar and therefore cause so many problems. My oldest daughter may provide any easy out, showing already some inherited proclivity towards gluten sensitivity, but it is still going to be a tremendous uphill battle.

I am optimistic, however, that it will all work itself out every time I hear my children ask questions like “why is this lettuce white?” when confronted with iceberg lettuce at a restaurant, or explaining to their grandma that “we don’t eat bread.” And I am at my most optimistic when I hear them ask the best question of all: “More spinach, please?”

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