I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I prefer not to “diet” for several reasons. One is that the term diet is often associated with weight loss, yet there are so many diets for many different goals. Dieting for weight loss often fails due to the yo-yo effect – when a person diets to an extreme, too quickly or taking on too much change at once, only to bounce back after ending the diet and gaining back all the weight they lost and sometimes adding even more.

For the last five weeks I’ve been practicing a new diet, or protocol may be a better word. At least it is for me. It’s similar to the Wahls Diet, introduced by Terry Wahls of “Minding My Mitochondria TED Talk” fame. If you haven’t watched her presentation, it’s worth a view. This protocol focuses heavily on eating healthy sources of meat, fish, poultry and organ meat along with unlimited amounts of well-sourced animal fats like bone marrow, chicken, duck, pig and beef fat. Ghee, coconut oil, olive oil and palm oil are on the list too. When I say “heavily,” I mean it emphasizes quality sources from grass-fed, pastured, chemical free, local sources, but does not recommend a large amount of meat. The recommended amount of meat intake is only about 4 ounces or a little more each day. The largest quantity of suggested food to eat on this protocol is from cooked, fermented and raw leafy greens and vegetables. Limited amounts of gelatinous broth, eggs, shellfish, seaweed, nuts, seeds and fruit are also recommended.

The protocol I’m following probably sounds a lot like Paleo, Primal, GAPS or one of the other countless gut healing diet trends of recent years. In relation to those diets, it is similar, but stands out because it has been customized by my doctor for my individual needs. Since he suspects I have rheumatoid arthritis, he suggested I follow this protocol and eliminate all grains and limit starchy vegetables with the exception of soaked brown rice and sweet potatoes. To test my sensitivity to gluten and casein, I’ve been instructed to cut out all other grains and all dairy while also on this protocol.

So here is where the stress comes in. Most of the foods I enjoy fall into the starchy, salty category. For me, nothing beats homemade, cultured sourdough bread with real butter or raw milk ice cream. If you ask my wife, she’ll tell you I’ll do almost anything for pancakes or pumpkin pie –  made with only the best sprouted flour, of course. You see where I’m going here. It’s difficult to cut out the foods you love completely from your diet. It can be really frustrating too, when they are even considered very healthy foods for a normal, healthy person.

I’ve followed similar protocols in the past, even more restrictive to the point where only bone broths and vegetables were allowed for extended periods of time. Yet, I only experienced mild to no improvement in the long-term. I’m not saying that this type of extreme dieting would not have improved my health if I had continued longer. But where is the breaking point? At what point does an individual give up due to too much stress? I believe it’s different for everyone. And sometimes, the longer you continue an extreme diet or protocol, the more stressful it becomes. This leads me to wonder whether a see-saw effect is created in the body causing more stress from the diet itself. The added stress from dieting therefore puts the body’s nervous system into a constant sympathetic mode – the fight or flight response, taxing the adrenal glands and using up even more nutrients in the process. All that tension then builds up and causes a change in metabolism and leads to indigestion and malabsorption. I routinely ponder then whether my body is even absorbing all the great nutrients from foods within a healthy diet. One thing I have noticed while on this specific diet is an increase in constipation. Drinking around 4 quarts of water and consuming so many vegetables daily makes me think constipation wouldn’t be a problem. While I know there could be many reasons (like medication and supplements) for the increase in difficult digestion, it makes me think twice about how much stress is involved.

How can we solve the problem of stress while dieting then? I have two suggestions.

If you plan to go on an extreme diet or protocol, make sure you work with someone, like a nutritional consultant or doctor who is experienced with the diet and knows your health history. Or if you don’t have a serious health condition, at least work with a partner so you can hold each other accountable and discuss what is working and what is not. Set up goals for the diet and make sure they are for a fixed amount of time so you have something to look forward to. It helps to have milestones, like a slow progression back to other healthy foods. For example, if you cut out grains completely, give yourself a set amount of time to eliminate them. Then set a day down the road to try introducing a small amount of more easily-digestible options like buckwheat, amaranth, millet or quinoa. Preferably, soak them beforehand to help your body work less to digest them and ease back to eating foods you’ve removed for awhile.

Another suggestion involves taking the extreme out of extreme dieting. Depending on your individual health, it may be best to review a new protocol, like Paleo for instance, and start small. Take a look at the guidelines, and do what you can to improve your diet according to the guidelines, but don’t try to jump in 100 percent right at the beginning. Allow yourself time to adjust to changes in your diet or lifestyle habits slowly. Most likely, your body will thank you for any increase in nutrients and eventually you may start to notice bigger differences in how you feel.

Sometimes I feel like the diet I eat is pretty extreme, even while not practicing one of these extreme protocols. But it took more than 5 years to get comfortable with replacing certain foods with healthier options. Eventually, I swapped out canola oil and switched to coconut oil, and now eating kale chips instead of tortilla chips strangely doesn’t seem that odd. If you have any suggestions for what works well for you to help with some of the stress of dieting for an illness or health condition, I would love to hear your feedback in the comments.