Vegetarian to Paleo: How Changing My Diet Healed My Skin
Today, a combination of eating a nutrient dense diet and using nourishing all natural products keeps my skin healthy and relatively clear, but just a few years ago that was not the case. I began to suffer with cystic acne and inflamed skin. Today I'm sharing how my switch from a vegetarian diet to a paleo lifestyle has made all the difference in healing my body and my skin.
I decided to become a vegetarian based purely on the belief that it was better for my health. I watched every documentary there was on "plant-based" diets including the infamous Forks Over Knives, and read article after article about how meat was "bad" for you. I saw countless vegetarians and vegans on social media, who seemed to be thriving on their diets full of fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, and brown rice. They were getting their protein from sources like peanut butter and black beans, so I figured I could too. They looked healthy, in-shape, and attributed their glowing skin or long hair all to their diet. At the time, I was also desperate to lose a little weight and felt like I needed to make some kind of change to my diet, so my senior year of college I made the switch. At first I felt fine. Paired with consistent exercise, I lost some weight and things seemed to be going well. Over time, however, I found myself craving meat, and the diet became much harder to maintain. During my first year of law school, I decided to add in seafood and try to stick with it.
I've never had perfect skin, but it was always relatively clear. I would occasionally breakout, but the blemishes would heal quickly and go away on their own. However, by the summer of 2014, I noticed my skin and health had taken a turn for the worse. I was dealing with a new kind of painful, cystic acne that I had not really experienced before. It covered my chin, jaw, forehead, and occasionally my cheeks. My skin was dry in some places but oily in others. I had also developed inflamed patches of red skin under my eyes, and small dark bumps covered my chest. The acne covering my skin was embarrassing and hard to ignore. It also became even more inflamed around that time of the month. I attempted to hide the blemishes with makeup (which only made things worse) and tried everything to clear things up. I increased my water intake to a gallon a day and bought new cleansers, moisturizers, and masks. Nothing seemed to make a difference.
By the summer of 2014 my skin, and my health, had really begun to decline. In addition to my acne, puzzling red rashes had developed on my arms. I was hungry all of the time, constantly craving sugary treats, and dealing with digestive discomfort after every meal. I didn't understand how I could be dealing with so many health issues even though I was eating such a healthy diet.
Switching to Paleo
That summer, I was watching The Chew and a guest was sharing how she had gone gluten-free after finding out she had Celiac's disease. She mentioned that before going gluten-free she had been dealing with skin issues, so I immediately started to do some research. I started to wonder if a gluten intolerance was at the root of my health problems. I decided that giving up gluten for a little while couldn't make things worse and vowed to give it a try.
The next day, while looking for gluten-free recipes, I came across something called the Paleo diet. Paleo isn't a "diet" in the same way as Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers. It's a lifestyle and template that focuses on eating nutrient-dense foods to properly fuel your body and decrease inflammation. You eliminate all dairy, grains, processed foods, refined sugars, legumes, and alcohol, and fill your plate with plenty of fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, and healthy fats.
The Paleo diet resonated heavily with me. The main goals weren't restriction for the sake of restriction or even losing weight to look good. Paleo was all about removing certain foods to feel better and that really appealed to me. I bought the Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf the next day, started reading, and made the switch. Once I removed the inflammatory foods from my diet, I began to see drastic improvement in my skin and health. I wasn't hungry all of the time and my stomach no longer felt distressed after every meal. My skin wasn't perfect, but it was beginning to heal and I noticed my acne was less inflamed.
In January of 2015 I decided to complete my first Whole30. The Whole30 is similar to Paleo, but requires you to remove all sweeteners (even honey and maple syrup) from your diet. After those 30 days, I really began to notice a difference in my skin. Even though I had been eating Paleo around 80% of the time, removing all sources of inflammation for a 30-day period really helped to clear things up.
The improvements in my skin and health prompted me to research and learn what was really going on in my body. Slowly but surely, I began to understand that my acne was just a symptom of a larger internal imbalance. It had much less to do with what I was putting on my face and more to do with what I was putting in my body. I learned that acne around the chin and jawline is usually associated with hormones, which explained the painful flaring of my blemishes around the time of my cycle each month.
I also began to understand the relationship between the health of your skin, stress, vitamin deficiencies, and the health of your gut. I learned that certain forms of vitamins like Vitamin A and Zinc (which are crucial for skin health), can only be found in the animal products I had been avoiding for almost 2 years and that simply supplementing was not enough.
Looking back, I'm certain that a hormonal imbalance, a bacterial overgrowth in my gut (candida), and nutrient deficiencies were all the root causes of my acne. Switching to a nutrient dense paleo diet that includes quality meat and seafood, fruits, and vegetables but limits exposure to inflammatory foods all helped turned things around.
A One-Size-Fits-All Approach Doesn't Work
There's nothing "wrong" with being a vegetarian, and my goal here is not to bash vegetarianism or convince you to switch to Paleo. There are plenty of people who seem to be thriving on a vegetarian diet and, if your curious, it may work for you. My problem, was that I completely bought into the idea that the vegetarian diet was the healthiest way to eat, without actually paying attention to how it was really affecting MY body. I was blindly following the recommendations of other people just because they "looked" fit, healthy, or attractive. If I had been more honest with myself about the way I was feeling, and explored other ways of eating sooner, I may have been able to avoid some headache. If you're eating a specific diet just because you've "heard" its better, or your favorite person on Instagram eats that way, but you're not actually feeling healthy yourself, then it may be time to rethink some things.
Today, my skin remains pretty clear on a consistent basis. That's not to say that I still don't get occasional breakouts, because I do. In the most recent picture, above, you can see I was dealing with a small breakout on my chin. However, now the blemishes are much smaller, not painful, and I can always link them to a root cause such as stress or a change in my diet. I also have some dark marks and scarring leftover from the acne. My skin is not perfect, I don't expect it to be, but I'm so proud of how far it has come.
While it's been a large part, diet hasn't been the only factor in healing my skin. I've also found an all-natural routine that keeps my skin nourished, healthy, and helps me minimize the impact of any breakouts. Stay tuned for next week's post where I'm sharing my current skincare routine and all of my favorite products!