I grew up the fat kid. I don’t mean that to sound self-deprecating. It’s just who I was. My father is German – born and raised in Pforzheim – and along with the genetic blond hair and green eyes came the strong legs, 5’ 7” largeframe, and broad shoulders. I was not mistaken for the prima ballerina, let’s put it that way.
My mother’s side of the family was full of overweight women and many of them found themselves morbidly obese by their thirties or forties. I had them beat. I was 180 pounds by the time I was 12 and 230 pounds by the time I was 16.
When I hit puberty, it became apparent that something else wasn’t right. My period was irregular. My breasts stopped growing, acne surfaced, and the hair on my head was thinning as I was growing it in places where a girl shouldn’t: my face and chest. As if being the fat girl wasn’t enough, I now had to deal with that. My mother, a nurse, realized something wasn’t right and carted me off to doctors.
They tested my pituitary for growths and checked my thyroid and kidneys. Finally, they found the answer in my ovaries. I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) before I even entered high school. The tiny cysts were revealed on an
ultrasound. By throwing my hormones level off, they were the root cause of all of the other changes. My androgen and testosterone levels were sky high, my estrogen levels too low. PCOS also causes insulin resistance (IR), a decreased ability of the body’s cells to respond to insulin, which can lead to high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and deprive your body of the energy it needs to function.
I was put on birth control pills the summer before I started high school to regulate my periods and hormone levels. Worst of all, there seemed to be no cure. The doctors would tell me that losing weight would help the symptoms but guess what, kid? PCOS and its BFF insulin resistance makes it really damn hard to lose weight. It was a Catch-22. My disease made it hard to lose weight, but losing weight was the only thing that could help my disease. Oh, and also: you probably won’t be able to conceive because you had this hormone disease so young. And if you can, you’ll need intervention and medication. I was an obese 13-year old Atlas and my disease was the weight of the world.
As I grew up, so did the weight. I had bad genes, PCOS, no nutritional education, no exercise (unless you consider Drunk Fatty Table Dancing a sport because oh boy was I good at that in college), and the assumption that this was just how it was. I was the funny fat friend. That was my role in this great play of life.
In 2002, I had just graduated and begun my career in publishing. I went out to buy suits and outfits for work and had a hard time getting the size 24’s to fit. The sedentary desk lifestyle and access to a short-order cook in the cafeteria left my weight creeping up to just over 300 pounds. I was 22 years old.
One day while sitting at my desk, the button on my pants broke. Not just broke – broke in a sitcom-inspired, boing-ping-bong across the room, hitting the filing cabinet and rolling under someone’s desk kind of way. You could almost hear the laugh track. Despite my best efforts to loop the ends together with a hair tie or binder clip, my pants wouldn’t close. I had to carry files in front me to shield my open button as I went home early.
I think that was what some professionals would call “rock bottom.” That afternoon, I called my best friend and asked her if she’d join a gym with me and she agreed. I hired a nutritionist and personal trainer. I became obsessed.
I went to the gym every day after work, sometimes upwards of two or three hours and twice each day on the weekends. I wrote down everything I ate to show the nutritionist. I lived on the recommended lean meats and fish, salads, high-fiber grains, vegetables, and fruit. I gave up almost all fat and spent hundreds of dollars on low-fat and fat-free “diet” products to stock my own little shelf in my house.
I felt hungry all the time, though I tried to convince myself I wasn’t. The rapidly dropping weight and the fact that people were noticing was enough to quiet the hunger, to silence the pangs. I looked better. That was enough. Let’s just eat lettuce forever, Self. Alrighty, then.
When I moved in with my husband (then fiancé), he worked a 2:00-10:00 pm shift so I’d go and spend hours alone after work at the gym. As I got in better shape, I took boot camp classes and could run on the treadmill without feeling like I was going to hork up a lung. I got married at the lowest weight I could ever remember seeing since I was a kid, around 180 pounds. Because of my height and build, this put me in a size 12.
Later, on our honeymoon in Hawaii, after the wedding festivities, Mai Tais, roast pig, and anything else I could shove in my cake-hole, I got pregnant with my daughter Charlotte, which shattered everything I was told about being unable to conceive. Though I was ecstatic, I gained 80 pounds back during my pregnancy, a near total 95 pounds since my wedding. It took me 16 months of lettuce eating, points counting on Weight Watchers, and mindless hours on the elliptical, but I took every pregnancy pound back off. I was certain it was a fluke and if I wanted to have another baby, I’d need medical intervention this time.
The weekend I hit my goal weight, after only being off birth control for two weeks, I became pregnant with my son Sawyer. Again, I gained another 80 pounds and was induced at 38 weeks for pre-eclampsia. I was almost back where I started but I was determined to lose the weight yet again. Maybe it was because it was my second baby or maybe it was that I was older or maybe it was both, but the weight didn’t move. Not with the same speed as it did before. I’d lose two pounds only to gain three back with one cheat meal. Without exaggeration, I could eat well all week, have one brownie on the weekend, and undo everything. My metabolism was that broken.
In 2010, with two toddlers, we were transferred across the country from New Jersey to Iowa. In that same year, my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease after years of gastrointestinal issues and joint pain. By the time we got to our new city, we were both at all-time high weights since we’d been together: Mike topped the scale at 335 pounds and I was hovering around 250.
Once we settled in our new home, we decided to test our children for gluten issues as well since such problems can be genetic. Both kids came back positive for gluten intolerance. All of a sudden, so many symptoms in our children made sense: Charlotte’s severe reflux as an infant, her eczema and asthma; Sawyer’s constant alternate bouts between severe constipation and diarrhea and his inability to gain weight.
After reading and researching and crying, I came across a book that changed my life: The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson (whom I’ve since met and he is an awesome guy, truly). From there I fell into the Paleo/Primal/Real Food rabbit hole of books and websites. Robb Wolf. Chris Kresser. Sarah Fragoso. The Hartwigs. Going gluten-free was not an option for our family. It was a necessity. But these resources made me believe that maybe we could take it a step further and go full-out caveman. Could we heal and thrive and be healthy instead of simply replacing one processed evil with gluten for one without?
We began following a lifestyle that removes grains, legumes, and processed foods and focuses on healthy fats, clean meats, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. The weight started to move for both of us but more importantly was how much better we were feeling. We were eating the things I was always told were bad for us: butter, red meat, cooking our pastured eggs in lard I rendered myself. I wasn’t hungry anymore and I was still losing weight.
Mike no longer was in pain with every meal and our children’s symptoms dissipated. I was even able to wean Charlotte off of the twice-a-day inhaled steroids she had needed for her lungs. Amazingly, my PCOS symptoms went into remission. My skin was radiant, my hormones normalized on their own, my metabolism kicked itself up, and the insulin resistance abated. I was able to go off birth control and let my body just be for the first time in 17 years. My periods were regular, my moods stable.
My body was mine again, not the hostage of some awful disease. For the first time since I was 13, my blood work was perfect and I was able to wean myself off the blood pressure medication I had been on since I was 19. I was winning.
Shortly after we began this way of eating, and needing to meet people in my new city, I joined a local CrossFit gym. CrossFit is a program that combines power lifting, gymnastics, cardio, and flexibility and focuses on full-body conditioning. Almost as important as my newfound strength and fitness, I found a community of people who truly cared about my health. There’s magic in surrounding yourself with people who share as much passion for your success as they do for theirs. They have become not only my friends but part of my little family.
I also started doing adventure races: The Warrior Dash, The Spartan Race, The Hero Rush. Anything I could find that scared the hell out of me, I registered for and completed. There is something amazing about completing something that not only terrifies you but you’d never thought you could do. I’m still amazed that I can climb a rope at 32 when I couldn’t do it as a child.
That was almost three years ago. Today, Mike and I have lost an additional combined 150 pounds. I am currently a size 10-12 again but both heavier and leaner than I was at this same size eight years ago. Eating this way and power lifting has changed my body to function as it should. We are nowhere near done with our journey and we still have miles to go but with our healthy Real Food lifestyle and our CrossFit community, it’s an adventure I enjoy every step of the way.
I began blogging my experiences and sharing the recipes I created that fit our new lifestyle. The website quickly grew a strong following, for which I am grateful every day. Humbled, I derive strength and inspiration from the people who say I help them change their lives.
I’ve always loved being creative in the kitchen and I have dedicated the recipes to not simply recreating things in a Primal way but rather inventing new ways to think about food. Who knew you could still have amazingly moist zucchini muffins with nutritionally dense ingredients and no flour at all? “Going Primal” doesn’t mean giving up anything. It means re-inventing your relationship with food, one delicious muffin at a time.
Written by AndreAnna McLean.