I am regularly asked how I came across the Zone diet that started my interest in nutrition, and how it made a difference for me. So I thought I’d write about 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’m 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. Once my periods started they were painful and I always used painkillers, I got annoying PMT, usually feeling grouchy and headachy with sore 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 over the next few years I experimented with becoming a vegetarian, also cutting out fish. I ate lots of whole grains, beans, nuts, fruit and vegetables. My PMT 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. Meusli, 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 learnt that eating low glycemic index foods and eating regularly stopped this from happening as much.
I came across the Zone Diet when I was 35 (15 years ago). My partner Mark was in the USA on business and picked up the book called ‘Enter the Zone’ by Dr Barry Sears. 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. 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 zone. Some of the athletes on the programme went on to win Olympic gold medals.
I got to the section in the book on PMT. 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 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 fat began to melt off me in all the right places, yet I wasn’t feeling hungry 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 PMT almost completely disappeared. I added Omega 3 (6 capsules 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 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, tryglycerides 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 on nutrition and went to the USA to get my Zone Instructors Certification, and did a further weekend course with Dr Barry Sears. More recently I went back to University and completed a Grad Cert Science (Nutrition) at Massey.
Recently (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 genetically programmed to eat; lean meats, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Grains, legumes, and dairy were not part of the Paleolithic diet and indeed they have been shown to contain many anti-nutrients that cause problems such as leaky gut and contribute to auto-immune problems. Dr Loren 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 auto-immune issues; my knees would still occasionally swell especially with exercise, I still got some PMT, and 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. I also have thyroid anti-bodies, so am interested in dealing with that too and stopping it getting worse.
Time for another experiment! I continued to follow Zone portions, though slightly lower carb, and took out all grains, legumes, eggs (due to gut irritant properties) and minimised dairy. (I have a dot of cream in 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 10 months, despite the increased exercise I was doing at CrossFit. A large ganglion cyst on my wrist has shrunk and disappeared. The eczema on my hands that flares in summer has gone. PMT has completely disappeared, constipation gone, and menstrual pain – nothing, no painkillers required.
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 are now too low to give us an ideal amount. 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 Rx)
I’m sure I will continue to tinker with my diet as I discover new information and read new research.