Because I’m asked about food lists and diets for fibromyalgia more than any other question (besides queries about my Pup), I’ll make some clarifications here. First of all, there’s no specific list of foods that everyone with fibromyalgia should eat. There’s also no specific list of foods fibrofolk shouldn’t eat.
I’m not a big fan of the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.”
The reason is obvious. We’re all different. Our metabolic make up is different. Our adrenal and thyroid hormones process and metabolize foods differently. We’re each unique – and so are our food requirements.
But within the framework of specific diets, there are some plans that come closer than others to defining foods that work “best” for our specialized nutritional needs. To give a better picture of how this related to my own healing, I’ll share a few more details with you here regarding my nutrition journey than I’ve discussed before.
Years ago, I dove into the nutrition world with gusto. I did so to make a (very stubborn) point with my doctor. I’d been a patient of his for years. I passionately sought a diagnosis. Actually, I sought solutions.
From him, I found neither.
At each visit, I sat poised on the edge of my seat. I leaned forward on that awful exam table wearing that ridiculous paper gown and tried to read my doctor’s facial expressions. I wanted answers. I wanted to know why my pain levels were out of control and my body was failing me at every turn. I wanted to understand it all. Why was my symphony of symptoms becoming a cacophony of chaos?
I wanted a logical explanation.
Was that too much to ask? With each new visit, I clung to the hope that this time, I’d hear the answer. Get that? I was looking for just one. I was looking for the answer. I didn’t understand the complex nature of fibromyalgia and autoimmune syndromes.
With this in mind, you can see that each suggestion my doctor made to me, carried a lot of weight. He looked for potential causes of my symptoms and sent me to dozens of specialists. We ruled in – and then out – rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, strokes, myasthenia gravis, ankylosing spondylitis, and more. Some specialists still felt that I could have any number of these diagnoses and said I had “some” markers for several of them. I now call this an Autoimmune Cocktail. I seemed to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
I was also prescribed a considerable cocktail of medications. When they appeared ineffective, they weren’t removed from my protocol – instead, others were added.
You can imagine then, my level of anticipation when my doctor said he had an answer for me. I honestly can’t remember if he said “an answer” or “the answer” but I certainly heard it as the latter.
At this point, I still had no diagnosis and no one had ever mentioned fibromyalgia. I feared the worst (many of you can relate) and waited for him to drop the hammer and tell me I had some strange and rare – not to mention incurable – disease. Thankfully, that never happened. But, what I’m not so thankful for is the fact that I never received a diagnosis from him at all. I had to figure that out on my own (but that’s a different story).
At the office visit where I was going to finally hear the answer to the questions I’d asked myself for 15 years, I listened intently. My doctor cleared his throat, flipped through papers in my file and said that he had some interesting test results from my recent lab work. He reported that I had elevated cholesterol levels. He said that was likely the cause of my pain and all of my seemingly unrelated symptoms. He wrote a new prescription and offered me some samples.
I couldn’t even respond. I felt sucker punched.
I had no idea what cholesterol was, but I knew with every fiber of my being, that it was not THE problem. It definitely was not the answer I sought. I felt hurt, sad, disappointed, and overwhelmingly exhausted. I took the prescription form, forgot the samples, and left his office.
But something changed in me. On the way home, my disappointment turned to frustration and then to anger. That was new. I’d always been a compliant follower. I realized that my doctor didn’t have the answer I was looking for and that it was up to me to figure it out. Before I pulled my car into my garage, I devised a plan.
cholesterol wasn’t the source of my problem.
I didn’t say it was a good plan.
That’s just as far as I could think at the time. I never filled that last prescription, and jumped into an eating plan that made sense to me. I wanted to prove my hypothesis as quickly as possible, so nutrition seemed the likely way to begin.
I created a diet that seemed quite radical. I ate salads including chicken and eggs here or there. I experimented with new veggies. I drank water. I kept it simple.
I had no idea at the time that I was going wheat/gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, grain-free, bean-free, legume-free, caffeine-free, processed foods-free, artificial sweetener-free, low carb, etc. I just wanted to see a drastic change in my cholesterol. I believed that I could lower my cholesterol yet still experience pain. I believed they were completely unrelated.
I was sort of right – but mostly almost all wrong.
The basis of my entire wellness journey was on old-fashioned stubbornness. It wasn’t based in some grandiose plan to heal, get well, and leave fibromyalgia behind me. I wanted to prove one tiny point, and in doing so … completely transformed my world.
I had no understanding of the vital connection between food and whole body inflammation. I didn’t understand the role that processed foods, chemicals, and the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) has on the development of fibromyalgia and autoimmune conditions.
All I knew is that when I changed what I ate, I began to see results almost right away. The first thing I noticed is that the painful choking feeling I had at night disappeared. For months, I’d feared choking in my sleep — swallowing felt contracted and difficult. This also seemed connected to my horrific chest pain that radiated up through my collarbone and across my back. This symptom noticeably diminished and then disappeared within ten days or so. Within a few weeks, I experienced a drastic improvement in the stiff and painful joints in my hands. No doubt about it, I was thinking more clearly as well.
what I was eating made a difference.
Within a few months, I began to feel so good that exercise became a natural progression. I started a fitness routine at home and eventually joined a gym.
Did all my symptoms disappear? No. It took time for the majority of my pain to go away, but I’m glad to share that (barring temporary injuries) I live with about 5% -10% of the pain that I once had. I cleared up the vast majority of my symptoms, but things are not perfect. Fibromyalgia is always there waiting to let me know if I’m on track with my nutrition and stress management plans.
Of course, it’s so much easier now to look back and put together the puzzle pieces. The fibromyalgia body is hyper-sensitive. That’s not news to you, is it? We’re super-sensitive to foods, sounds, smells, lights, touch, stress, and more. When I removed the dietary ingredients that triggered my over-reactive response, my body was allowed to calm down and heal.
Can You Name the “Diet” I Was On?
Just like I had no name for my diagnosis, I also didn’t have a name for the food plan that I followed. Of course, it wasn’t much of a plan, but the labels to identify my health challenge and my diet came later.
You’ll notice that I prefer other terms such as plan, protocol, approach, program, etc. rather than diet. Diet implies a temporary circumstance – something rigid, unbending, and short-term. A healthy food plan doesn’t relate to any of those characteristics. The nutritional approach that I follow has changed, morphed, and expanded over the past dozen years or so, yet the fundamentals have stayed the same.
If you’d like to read more about the fundamentals of what a healing fibromyalgia diet can look like, review this article – “The Fibromyalgia Diet: HELP! I Don’t Know What to Eat.” In it, you’ll find details about problematic foods linked to food sensitivities and inflammation.
If you look back on the foods included in my food plan years ago as well as those excluded, you may piece together that my diet had many elements of what’s now referred to as Paleo.
Let’s take a look at a few more details.
The Paleo nutrition plan includes mainly:
- Nutrient-dense, fiber-rich veggies
- Healthy, natural fats
- Grass-fed, organic, antibiotic-free meats
- Free-range, cage- free, antibiotic-free eggs
- Wild caught seafood
- Nuts and seeds
- Organic fruits
The Paleo nutrition plan avoids:
- Grains (thereby eliminating gluten entirely)
- Processed foods and sugars
- Starchy foods (while potatoes)
Where Paleo Can Go Wrong
Interpretations vary and people want to sell books, magazines, and products, right? Therefore, when paleo became an everyday word, what type of recipes proliferated? You guessed it – desserts.
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If there’s a way to “cheat” on any nutrition plan, then that’s the topic that will sell the most and gain the most interest. That’s just human nature.
However, just because there’s an abundance of recipe books touting paleo-friendly desserts doesn’t mean you have to buy them. Sugar is sugar even if it comes from natural sources such as dates, honey, coconut sugar, sweet potatoes, beets, etc. I simply don’t need to make sugar-laden desserts on a regular basis. As a treat here or there? Fine. Every day? Danger ahead, Will Robinson.
Paleo websites, books, magazine articles, etc. also can lean quite heavily on the “meat” aspect. Picture Fred Flintstone’s car tipping over from his giant dinosaur-sized portion of ribs. Here’s another unfortunate visual – for many, the term “Paleo” is synonymous with bacon. There are bacon cookbooks with bacon brownies, bacon pizza crusts, and bacon pies. I’ve even seen bacon-scented candles on sale on paleo-related forums. That’s just gross.
Again, to each his own, but I rarely eat bacon. I just don’t think of it. Furthermore, if you don’t want to have it at all, that’s fine and dandy. Paleo is not a meat and bacon diet. Proportionately, I eat far more greens than meats.
What’s in a Name?
While naming things can often be limiting, it can sometimes be liberating. Such is the case with naming a specific nutrition plan. I honestly wouldn’t care less about the term Paleo except for the benefits it provides when looking for recipes.
There’s an entire world of recipes in cyberspace, and the X-Marks-the-Spot place to dig is Pinterest. Pinterest offers a wealth of information ready for the taking. Just as with Google, the accuracy of what you search for relates directly to the quality of responses you’ll receive. Pinterest now has a great search feature and you can search thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of recipes based on whatever ingredients interest you.
The reason why scouting for recipes using the term “Paleo” is important, is that you’ll know from the get-go, that your search will exclude Paleo unfriendly ingredients. Your results are likely to eliminate processed foods, grains, dairy, etc. That’s a fabulous time-saver! I’ve become pretty adept at making healthier ingredient substitutions in recipes over the years, but why make it harder than it has to be?
Simply search using the term “Paleo” first, and then the type of recipe you’re looking for, and then include a few ingredients that you’d like to use. And … voila! You’ll have a handful, dozens, or hundreds of recipes to choose from depending on your specific search terms. And, don’t forget Amazon. Search for cookbooks and information there too. Many of their Kindle books are free or nominally priced.
The success of any nutritional plan weighs heavily on variety. Same ‘ol, same ‘ol is the kiss of death when it comes to sticking to a new foodie plan.
Common Paleo Plan Questions
Can vegetarians or vegans follow a Paleo nutrition plan?
Yes, absolutely. Plant-based proteins can be found in a variety of foods including nuts and seeds. Dr. Mark Hyman calls his particular hybrid nutrition plan – a Pegan (a Paleo Vegan).
Won’t a Paleo protocol elevate my cholesterol levels?
Understanding what cholesterol is, how it’s made in the body, and what purpose it serves is a topic for greater study. Viewing your cholesterol levels based on your diet only shows part of the picture. In fact, dietary cholesterol accounts for about 25% of the cholesterol in your body. The rest (75%) is produced by your liver as a result of stress, inflammation, and functional challenges, etc.
Therefore, knowing what your cholesterol levels mean is far more important than the numbers themselves. It’s also important to know your personal health risks for heart disease. For more information, check the footnote indicated above.
Won’t the fat included in most Paleo recipes make me fat?
It’s a definite myth that dietary fat makes us fat. Becoming fat is related to the overconsumption of sugar (much of it in the form of grains), stress, and poor sleep as well as other unhealthy habits.
Isn’t Paleo just a low carb and low calorie diet?
While it’s true that a typical Paleo nutrition plan focuses heavily on veggies – and veggies are naturally low in carbohydrates – the Paleo plan in general is not a low-carb diet. Veggies make up the majority of a well-rounded Paleo meal and are not limited. Additionally, the healthy fats included in foods such as avocado, coconut, healthy oils, nuts, and seeds definitely do not make the Paleo plan a low calorie diet.
Paleo is just another word for gluten- free, right?
It’s important to understand that there are many other benefits to the Paleo nutrition plan. Assurance that it’s gluten-free is but one.
There are two very simple ways for a specific food or ingredient to qualify as gluten-free:
- A food that’s artificially manipulated or altered to remove its gluten properties (often done by adding equally inflammatory ingredients)
- Foods that – by nature – do not contain gluten in the first place
The Paleo nutrition plan is naturally gluten-free based on the 2nd principle noted above.
Why is Paleo often referred to as a remedy for GERD, acid reflux, and heartburn?
Looking back to my experience early on, I can now see why I achieved a significant improvement in my reflux/GERD symptoms. I removed the very foods that are linked to causing intestinal distress and whole body inflammation – sugar, caffeine, dairy, grains, processed and packaged foods, etc.
Going Paleo to treat GERD is now a common practice and is often an introductory way to become more familiar with this eating plan.
Tweaking the Paleo Plan
Since the Paleo plan can provide a great platform to build upon, you can easily adjust it to work for your needs. Experiment with new veggies. Add new ways to prepare them including tasty herbs and spices, and look for enticing recipes to help you get creative in the kitchen.
When it comes to making shifts for your personal dietary needs, take a look at your specific food intolerances or sensitivities. For example, are eggs a problem for you? What about nightshades?
Autoimmune conditions are often linked to a Paleo nutrition plan because of its inherent capacity to lower or eliminate inflammation and reduce autoimmune symptoms and flares.
Have you tried any of these nutritional plans — GAPS, Low FODMAP, Low Oxalate, SCD, Candia/Yeast, Ketogenic, etc.? Again, we’re all different, so modifying and adapting what works best for you is all part of the learning process.
Where to Begin?
Obviously, there’s much more to discuss, but starting in the right place can give you the most traction. A well-rounded Paleo plan provides a vital combination of healthy veggies, healthy fats, and healthy proteins (your essential macronutrients). Additionally, make sure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) in your diet by consuming a wide variety of plant-based foods – especially leafy greens. You may also need to supplement your micronutrient needs.
To begin, here are a few websites you may wish to visit:
Now that I’ve dished out information on why Paleo is often linked to Fibro, it’s time to start experimenting on your own. Getting creative in the kitchen is more than just fun – it’s transformative!
Sue Ingebretson (www.RebuildingWellness.com) is an author, speaker, certified holistic health care practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. She is also a Patient Advocate/Fibromyalgia Expert for the Alliance Health website and a Fibromyalgia editor for the ProHealth website community.
Her #1 Amazon best-selling chronic illness book, FibroWHYalgia, details her own journey from chronic illness to chronic wellness. She is also the creator of the FibroFrog™– a therapeutic stress-relieving tool which provides powerful healing benefits with fun and whimsy.
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