Indulging in an “amazing” vanilla bean cake made fresh with white flour and white sugar sounded like a great way to spend a 20th birthday with friends before heading out to a nightclub. And it was, says Cassie-Lee Tario, except for the fact she never made it to the nightclub. Instead, she spent the rest of the night “so sick” and keeled over with pain that she vowed to go vegan the next morning. Little did she know she was not only pre-diabetic, but that her liver wasn’t functioning well either.
Sure, there’d been hints of what she believed were food intolerances just months before. She’d eat a salad, then out of the blue her stomach would bloat. She’d consume dairy, then suffer with a stomach ache.
In fact, right before her 20th birthday she recalls waking up one morning feeling like “crap,” feeling nauseous, shaky and dizzy, with “horrible cramps” in her stomach.
Food, it seemed, had become her nemesis.
“Every time I ate any kind of food, I didn’t feel well,” says Tario, a 24-year-old Greater Sudbury resident.
And so she did what others in her predicament might have done to try to get some sort of sustenance – munch on dry soda crackers and canned soup.
A visit to the walk-in clinic in Toronto, where she was living at the time, left little resolve. The doctor suspected she had some sort of “bug, and prescribed antibiotics.”
Taking the medication only made her feel worse, she remembers.
Chalking up the birthday cake experience to intolerances to dairy and eggs, she went vegan.
Her mother had read an article on gluten intolerance and suggested perhaps gluten was creating problems for her, so she started doing her own research on the effects of gluten and intestinal cramping and decided to go gluten free.
“After nine months of being vegan and gluten free I still felt nausea all the time,” Tario says. “I went to the clinic and the doctor said it sounded like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) so he sent me to a specialist.”
She expressed her concern that although the intestinal cramps seemed to have dissipated, she still experienced nausea every day after eating.
“The doctor said ‘You know, this doesn’t sound like IBS, I think it’s all in your head, but if it’ll make you feel better we’ll do an ultrasound.’”
Hearing no word back from the doctor after the ultrasound, she figured there was no concern for any serious health complications, but the nausea still continued.
By the age of 21, she’d had enough. It was time to visit a naturopath, she says.
“I didn’t know what it was like to eat food anymore, and not feel sick.”
During the first visit the naturopath assessed her symptoms and looked at patterns in diet to understand what the cause of her nausea could be tied to.
She noticed the connection to nausea whenever she ate fatty foods or drank alcohol.
“The naturopath said ‘I’m pretty sure you have a liver issue.’”
By following the recommended protocol the naturopath prescribed, consuming lemon water in the mornings, nettle tea throughout the day and doing an herbal tincture liver detox, and of course avoiding alcohol and monitoring fat intake, the nausea became less frequent. But she still wasn’t feeling like she had optimal health.
“Then I discovered I had a blood sugar issue,” Tario says, noting that blood test results indicated she was pre-diabetic. “(The naturopath) said if I continue on this track,” without making the necessary dietary changes, “I will get diabetes.”
“All through the dietary changes I was making I had no idea about sugar and how bad it was for you,” Tario says. “I would be eating gluten-free cookies that were made with cane sugar, not realizing the effect it was having on me.”
The final diagnosis was the impetus for real change. Nothing but whole, real, unrefined foods and natural sugars would become a mainstay in her diet.
While she had dabbled with recipes over the past months, for someone who just learned how to cook rice a year prior, this new way of fueling and nourishing her body was going to take more than a visit to the health food store. It would take commitment, Tario says.
“I cut anything that wasn’t whole food out of my diet,” Tario says. “I started making desserts with dates and pure maple syrup, and recognized the need for me to start loading up on my veggies to get enzymes.”
“I felt phenomenal,” Tario says. “Before making this change I had lost motivation for anything in my life. I would come home from work and feel drained. My diet was ten times better and I was full of energy. The anxiety I had been feeling went away. I’m sure the anxiety was partially related to the sugar intake because the anxiety no longer seemed severe.”
Inspired by this newfound way of living on a clean diet, Tario, at the age of 22, enrolled in a holistic nutrition program at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Toronto.
Through her schooling she came to understand how the symptoms her body experienced in the past were manifestations of toxicity.
When she turned 20, acne on her back (bacne) had begun to manifest. She now knows that reaching for an acne scrub wasn’t the solution to the bacne.
“Bacne is caused by a liver that’s not functioning properly,” Tario says. “No one really thinks of where the acne comes from. It’s as a result of too much sugar and your body is trying to detox. You think ‘I have acne on my back so I need a scrub,’ but it’s actually a liver problem.
“That’s how I can tell, even now, that my liver’s not completely healed because I still have some bacne.”
If she’s eaten too much fats – and now she only eats healthy fats like coconut oil or pure avocado oil that hasn’t been heated – she can feel symptoms like her liver pulsating.
“It’s possible my gall bladder isn’t producing enough bile to break down fats in my digestive system.”
This journey to clean up her diet didn’t happen overnight, she says. It took her about two years to get to what she considers a healthy point in her life. The path to health is a continually evolving process. With each new bit of information, she makes a new change that will enhance her health.
“You find out something new and you research it and understand it better, then you make the change,” Tario says. “It’s not like you’ll be the healthiest you’ve ever been because it’s always changing as you evolve.”
One simply needs to be open to the possibility that true health is within one’s reach, she says. For Tario mastering the art of cooking and preparing whole, real food took time, research and experimentation.
“My family was very busy when we were growing up so we didn’t sit down for meals. We ate fast food during the week. Sundays were the only days we did, and even then it was usually something like a steak, potatoes and canned corn, or cooked broccoli with Cheez Whiz on it. I grew up on a sweet tooth cause you always got something, like cookies, if you ate your ‘healthy’ supper.”
An easy way to begin on a healthy eating journey is to simply take one thing out of your regular dietary routine, she says. If Friday nights are pizza nights, try replacing it with something healthier. Start swapping out unhealthy ingredients in your pantry one at a time, rather than all at once. One week, swap out refined sugar for coconut sugar. Another week, buy some coconut oil, and so on, slowly stocking the pantry with wholesome foods. Pick up a veggie you’ve never tried before, and experiment with cooking.
Start connecting the dots and noticing how the food you eat makes you feel, she says.
“You’ll notice when you have a salad how much better you feel than if you eat a burger.”
“For me, (all the symptoms) was literally all just as a result of my diet.”
By Sari Huhtala, Publisher, Alive+Fit Magazine