From the average New Zealand diet, to vegetarian, food pyramid, Zone and Paleo.
Julianne Taylor, May 2016 updated
I am regularly asked how I and why I changed my diet and how it made a difference for me. The difference diet made in my own health sparked my interest in nutrition, and my passion for passing this knowledge on.
Here then is my journey through different nutrition programmes and in particular those that have made the most significant impact in terms of my health.
In general I’d consider myself an averagely healthy person, although small issues stood out as a child. Firstly I got really constipated, and second I was always slightly chubby, not overweight, it was rare to see overweight kids when I was young in the 60’s. Apart from that I got all the usual childhood illnesses of the 60’s and 70’s. I was particularly prone to tummy bugs, throwing up regularly. Once my periods started they were painful and I always used painkillers, I got annoying PMS, I felt grouchy, got headaches and painful breasts.
I trained to become a nurse after leaving school, and at around 18 one of my knees started to swell at regular intervals, my neck got stiff and sore and the joints in my jaw got tender. Nothing is particular was diagnosed although I had a positive anti-nuclear antibody test (titre 1 in 64). This meant my joint problems could be an auto-immune issue. It never got too bad, but remained an annoying on and off issue.
Diet wise in my mid 20’s I experimented with being a vegetarian, no fish or seafood. I ate lots of whole grains, beans, nuts, fruit and vegetables. My PMS and menstrual pain got dramatically worse after a couple of years as a vegetarian. It never occurred to me that it might be related. Although I didn’t put on further weight, I couldn’t lose any either, and stayed around 5kg heavier than my ideal.
In my 30’s I started eating meat again, but only in small amounts. I was eating what looked by all accounts a healthy diet. Muesli, fruit and trim milk for breakfast, whole grain sandwiches for lunch and veggies, brown rice, or pasta and a small portion of protein for dinner. The other thing I had a problem with was blood sugar – if I ate just carbohydrates, like a muffin I got hungry, in fact ravenous a couple of hours later and got dizzy from low blood sugar. I learned that if I ate low glycemic index foods, with regular snacks stopped this from happening as much.
I came across the book ‘Enter the Zone’ by Dr Barry Sears when I was 35 (15 years ago). I started reading the Zone and couldn’t put it down. Dr Sears outlined his 15-year search for a pill that would stop or treat heart disease. He discovered that the key to controlling heart disease, and in fact health in general, was by regulating hormones that are generated in response to food.
The hormones concerned have a powerful effect on our health and determine whether or not we develop chronic illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, age onset diabetes and (oh yes) obesity. The key is keeping these hormones (in particular insulin) within a critical range he called the Zone.
What’s the best way to keep the hormones in the zone? To Sears surprise it wasn’t a drug or a pill. He found that the thing that had the most powerful effect on these hormones was food. What’s more he discovered that controlling the relative amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fat in meals had a dramatic influence on hormones, specifically insulin released in response to blood glucose and glucagon released in response to protein. By eating food in the right balance and portion size you could keep the hormones in the zone and stay healthy.
Sears carried out studies on athletes, heart disease patients and type II diabetics. They all lost body fat and showed significant improvements in their blood profiles and general health when they ate along zone guidelines. Some of the athletes on the programme went on to win Olympic gold medals.
I got to the section in the book on PMS. Clients that Sears had worked with had had a significant reduction in symptoms in just 30 to 60 days. Nothing had worked for me, so I thought I’d try eating the way he suggested. I started the Zone Diet in December 95.
The results were pretty amazing. First my energy levels increased markedly, especially after exercise. I didn’t feel whacked after going to the gym and my weights increased faster than ever. (I now know this to be a result of increased protein, and specifically having a moderate protein amount, around 20 g net at each meal) I could work all day at a physically demanding job and didn’t get tired. I no longer got low blood sugar. My mental focus improved.
The primary changes in my diet in eating along zone guidelines included an increase in protein, now at every meal. A decrease in carbohydrates and sugars; from high grain to low grain diet, completely cut out pasta and rice and other dense starches. Grains if I ate them were a small portion of oats or very grainy bread (low GI bread) if I ate them. Increased vegetable and fruit consumption. Fats in my meals were from monounsaturated sources only, olive, avocado and nuts.
(A researcher Dr David Ludwig tested the zone diet ration compared to a standard high carbohydrate diet and found it did indeed have a more favourable effect on blood sugar, insulin, glucagon, appetite and satiety – I’ve written about this here)
The fat began to melt off me in all the right places, yet I wasn’t feeling hungry (more protein, less carbs) or deprived. I lost about 5kg, which I managed to keep off, rather than as in the past lose it and then put it back on again. But most importantly, my PMS almost completely disappeared. I added Omega 3 (6 capsules or 1800mg DHA+EPA a day) to my diet and the severe menstrual pain I had put up with for years diminished to tolerable levels. All those years as a vegetarian had depleted my Omega 3 levels which was why my menstrual pain as well as joint inflammation increased. Taking large amounts of Omega 3 also decreased joint pain, and my knee swelled less regularly, and my neck stopped being as sore and stiff.
It was impossible for other people not to notice the changes, I frequently got the comment “You look amazing, what have you been doing?”
The Zone diet not only impacted my health – it also made a difference to other family members including my father.
My father, Dr Allan Taylor is a consultant psychiatrist in his 60s (in 1996). He suffered from high cholesterol and had had a heart bypass in 1988 and was looking at having to take medication for his cholesterol. Since his surgery, he had exercised regularly (8 – 10 hours of tramping and cycling per week), stuck religiously to the NZ National Heart Foundation diet and kept his weight down. His cholesterol / HDL ratio however, remained higher than ideal, around 5.8. Total cholesterol 6.1, HDL, 1.05, Triglycerides 1.9. He read the Zone, and as doctor he was impressed by the science behind it. He decided to carry out his own personal trial on the Zone Diet – using himself as the subject.
After 8 weeks on the Zone Diet his cholesterol fell to 4.4, triglycerides to 0.7 and HDL (good cholesterol) had risen to 1.11. He had never had levels so low. Two years later his cholesterol remained at 4.4 and cholesterol/ HDL ratio is 3.3! He experienced other benefits too; he lost body-fat, has more energy and says he has an increased sense of wellbeing. He is able to face stress much more easily and has increased his workload.
Okay, so now I was hooked! In all my years as a nurse I had never known that diet could make this much difference. My career took a new turn in 1997 as I studied the Zone diet, and started to teach others how to put it into practice. I devoured books and papers on nutrition and went to the USA to get my Zone Instructors Certification, and did a further weekend course with Dr Barry Sears. In 2008 I went back to University and completed a Grad Cert Science (Nutrition) at Massey, and recently Post Grad Diploma in Nutrition Science (first year of Masters).
In May 2009 I started working with clients at CrossFit Auckland Gym in Albany. Here I was introduced to Paleolithic Nutrition. CrossFit is an intense and highly effective exercise programme which recommends the Zone diet and Paleolithic principles as the foundation of performance and health. Paleo eating is based on eating the way hunters and gatherers eat – the food that we are evolved on as humans; lean meats, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Grains, legumes, and dairy were not part of the Paleolithic diet (or if they were it was minimal) and according to Professor Loren Cordain have been shown to contain many anti-nutrients that cause problems such as leaky gut (intestinal permeability) and contribute to auto-immune problems. Cordain has written extensively on this topic. (www.thepaleodiet.com) I was particularly intrigued by some of the reports of the elimination of many health issues when people cut out grains, legumes and dairy. I still had mild ongoing health problems, though much reduced on the Zone diet plus fish oil. I had problems with my knees, they would still occasionally swell especially with exercise and required a hefty dose of fish oil to reduce the swelling. My PMS would fluctuate from month to month, and I couldn’t work out why. I still required painkillers for menstrual pain. For years I got a small amount of dyshidrotic eczema on my hands flaring in summer. As for my insides – without bran I’d get bunged up.
Time for another experiment! I continued to follow Zone portions, though without grains and legumes it ended up slightly lower carb. (I continued to have a dash of cream in my coffee)
To my delight, going Paleo has been the icing on the cake health wise. Since starting paleo eating my knees have not swollen even the tiniest amount in 7 years, despite the increased exercise I was doing at CrossFit, and now powerlifting. A large ganglion cyst on my wrist shrunk and disappeared, and since 2009 has not returned. The eczema on my hands that flares in summer is minimal and appears to be triggered by dairy and certain emulsifiers like carrageenan (I’ve written more on dyshidrotic eczema here). PMS has completely disappeared, constipation gone, and menstrual pain – nothing, no painkillers required. I’d found the key, it is not just macronutrient balance (protein, carbs and fats) that matters – it is also food quality, in particular the removal of grains, and all processed food with its additives – and I suspect especially gluten grains.
Since cutting all grains and legumes I have re-introduced some – like quinoa, occasional oats, rice, and other non-gluten grains. I also eat legumes regularly. None of these cause problems with joints.
I’m now convinced that many health issues people have today can be resolved by diet and selected supplements.
Why the addition of supplements?
Despite eating a high quality diet, the nutrient levels in our foods are often diminished, for example minerals are low in vegetables because they are grown in soil deficient of minerals. Omega 3 levels in food were also too low low to give me an ideal amount, I seem to need a fairly high intake due to my propensity for inflammation. We don’t get sufficient vitamin D from the sun and deficiency is rife especially in the winter.
Along with a Paleo diet, I take vitamin D, and multivitamin and mineral (Zone Micronutrient), a probiotic (healthy gut bacteria) and high concentrate Fish oil. (Omega Rx2)
I’m sure I will continue to tinker with my diet as I discover new information and read new research.
2016 update. My diet now consists of protein at each meal – around 25 grams net; meat, fish, seafood, poultry, organ meats or protein powder (pea isolate). My carbohydrates are starchy vegetables, legumes and fruit. I eat a lot of salads and non-starch veg, making sure my fibre intake is at least 30 grams a day. I have a little dairy, but stay strictly gluten free. I’m reluctant to eat gluten again as I also have Hashimotos (auto-immune thyroid disease) and because I’m pretty sure it is the trigger for my joint problems.