I’ve wanted to interview Nora from A Clean Bake for a long time. She is one of the most talented, creative recipe developers I know, and I absolutely love her blog. More so, she’s just an amazing person.
It’s no secret that this year at Primal Palate, Hayley has (publicly) put her health as a first priority. A few months ago I received an e-mail from Nora, asking for Hayley’s address so she could send her a card. I had only ever communicated with Nora via e-mail, but I didn’t think twice about it. Hayley later told me it was the nicest card she’s ever gotten.
As I’m typing this, only now do I realize that under most circumstances, handing out the co-founder’s home address would most likely get you fired. Noted.
Nora’s message to Hayley was a simple one: Sometimes, you just need someone to tell you that it’s ok, and just to take one day at a time. I, for one, wanted to know more about what was behind the writing of that card. When I spoke to Nora on the phone, we spoke for two and a half hours. I called her “The female Tim Ferris,” due to her unprecedented determination and productivity. This woman received her MBA while working full-time, does market research for fortune 500 companies, runs a blog full-time, and does recipe development for several food companies. She also ran herself into the ground.
For anyone who has ever thought, “There is something wrong with me, and I don’t know why,” you have to hear Nora’s story. Keep reading for how she stays positive, motivated, and focused on her health.
Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you go grain-free and start A Clean Bake?
I’m still in the middle of my health story. I went to grad school while working an incredibly demanding full-time job. I’ve always been a hard worker, someone who just operates well under stress. Then I started having anxiety and digestive upset. I thought it would get better when I graduated, but it just got worse. Finally, two years ago I turned 30. I couldn’t even celebrate my 30th birthday I was in such bad shape. I thought, “Ok, I’ve been done with school for six months, I’ve been taking care of myself, and I feel significantly worse.” My husband and I were engaged at the time, and I said, “I DON’T want to feel like this on my wedding.” I could barely get through my birthday, how could I get through my wedding day?
I had been seeing “normal” doctors, and they just told me I had IBS. No one gave me a clear path: I was told to get acupuncture, see other doctors, go on a low-FODMAP diet, etc. I ended up doing a lot of research and “doctoring” myself. That might be giving myself too much credit, but it’s how I discovered Paleo and grain-free. I was forced to be really in touch with my body and how I was feeling. I kept a food journal, and discovered carbs were terrible for me. Literally, every time I even looked at a grain of rice I was done for. At this time, I had already gone gluten-free and dairy-free, but I found other grains still bothered me. At the end of last year I found a new doctor, and he’s been fantastic. He’s tested me for different infections, prescribed several antibiotics, and put me on the SCD diet for two months.
Did the doctors ever discover what was wrong with you?
I think it was textbook Leaky Gut, combined with stress. Literally name any digestive problem out there, and I had it. I wish I could say, “This was my diagnosis, this is what I did to heal, and that cured me,” but it’s not so straightforward. It felt like death by a thousand paper cuts. The thing that helped me recover was food – and the right food. I learned to manage my stress better and take control of the way I respect my body.
When you didn’t receive a proper diagnosis, were you worried it was all in your head?
Absolutely. I was terrified it was all in my head. I knew stress was a huge component, but I knew in my gut – no pun intended – that something was seriously wrong.
The first positive diagnosis I received was for SIBO, a chronic condition almost guaranteed to come back if you don’t manage it. I was so frustrated, so sick, and so sick of being sick; that getting any test result pointing to something being wrong made it a great day. Even though it was a “crappy” diagnosis, it wasn’t this tsunami of god-knows-what running through my brain. All I could think was, “Thank god.” I knew it was going to be a long road, but at least I could do something about it.
The feeling of powerlessness, the feeling of, “Is my life over?” during this time has been so much worse than the symptoms. There were so many days where I thought, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’m broken, and I don’t know when I’ll get better.” For the longest time I didn’t know how I was going to get through my own wedding day, or if I would ever enjoy life again. I’m FINALLY going on my honeymoon on Monday. For the first time, I have hope I’ll get through it without feeling horrible. When my husband and I went to Chile, I was so sick and miserable I just wanted to curl up in a ball and go to bed. And I flew halfway around the world to feel like that.
Did your friends and family ever worry about you? Did they think you had depression, anxiety, or all of the above?
It was definitely more anxiety than depression, and the fear that my life was over at the age of 30. Years of digestive problems, and feeling lethargic and weak, chemically affected my mind. It became very psychological due to mental and physical malaise. The way you see the world affects the way you process information. It was like I had black colored glasses on. Everything was processed through this warped filter my gut and brain had created.
I think the worst part was before the blog started. A Clean Bake has been incredibly empowering. I’ve always been a food person, and grew up in a food family. I show love by feeding people, I bond by eating with people, and suddenly all of that was taken away. After all, I used to run a dessert blog filled with gluten and dairy. Starting A Clean Bake was like finding a loophole. I thought, “Maybe there is a way out. Maybe this isn’t over.” It gave me hope that I would still enjoy things I loved, like cooking and eating.
What have those around you – friends, family, coworkers – thought of your whole transformation?
My friends and family have been SO SUPPORTIVE, more so than in my wildest dreams. I always bring recipes from the blog to parties, and people are actually fascinated by what I can and cannot eat. I don’t think that would have been the case if I had kept things hidden. And I did keep it hidden. I guess I didn’t want people to think I was a freak? I didn’t realize how bad, how abnormal, what I was going through was. Sharing my food on the blog has helped me stay positive, and not feel like an outcast. By putting it out there, I’ve actually educated and helped a lot of people. That was kind of my goal. I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life, but I wanted to help people in some way.
What about your husband? How has he handled this whole process?
Amazing. The worst days were before anyone knew how bad I was feeling. Honestly, my biggest regret is not being more upfront with him about how I was feeling sooner. He’s been so supportive, and none of this is familiar to him. I just needed someone to tell me that it’s ok, or that I wasn’t “screwing up” by being sick.
There was one night when we were supposed to go to dinner with his parents, and I said, “I literally can’t do this. I feel horrible. I need to go home.” He pulled off the highway, waited with me while an Uber came, and probably called me ten thousand times that night. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I’m sure he’d love a wife who could just go to a simple dinner with his parents. He’s a pretty laid back person, and he’s better than me at keeping things into perspective. He’ll say, “Lay on the couch. Don’t feel bad about being productive.” He acted like a champ, even when I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around.
Is this what you really thought of yourself? That being sick was your fault, that you were screwing up, that you had to hide all of it??
Yes. Yes. Yes.
When you say it out loud I know it doesn’t make sense. It had to do a lot with my state of mind. It wasn’t a rational response, but at the time I thought, “I’m not supposed to be like this.” I thought I was bringing it on myself. I thought it wasn’t fair to everyone around me. I didn’t want to be hopeless or a burden. By keeping it a secret I became more of a burden to those around me. When I said, “I’m all in. I’m going to every doctor. I’m doing everything they tell me. I’m going to be my own advocate,” and when I accepted that I had a chronic illness, that was the most empowering thing.
What ever happened to your old dessert blog?
It’s still live, mainly because a lot of recipes are still popular and get a lot of traffic. I’ll probably give it up when the domain expires. When I started down this road, I never could have envisioned eating the way I do. Now, I can’t envision eating the way I did.
Part of the reason I kept the URL live is because I thought this might be temporary. I distinctly remember thinking, “What’s left?” All the staples and favorites in my diet were gluten and dairy. I hardly remember that blog exists. It’s a representation of a lifestyle that made me sick, and I’m done with it. It’s kind of freeing to let that go.
What are some of the favorite recipes on your blog?
There are so many! The Grain-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies…they’re seriously so good! I took the photo with an old lens, and am always astonished the photo came out so good.
The Gnocchi and Chicken Fingers are my savory favorites. It’s hard to pick, but those are two I make the most often. A lot of blogging is about novelty, and I try to make what I’m eating in my old kitchen.
I made the Lemon Pound Cake last night for a birthday party, and everyone loved it. I also love the Drake Chocolate Cake with Almond Butter Swirl I did for the Primal Palate guest post. I had to put it in the freezer to keep from eating the whole thing.
And on THAT note – What do you do with all the desserts you make??
That is the number one question I get asked. I give a lot to friends, family, or neighbors. I have a second mini freezer that’s packed to the gills with leftovers, and when I go to parties, everyone knows I’m bringing three desserts. It’s different when you make them yourself. I test each recipe 3-4 times, so by the end, I’m tired of it.
One tip (to not over indulge) is to individually wrap each treat before placing it in the freezer. That way, when you really want one, you can just unwrap that one treat.
What projects do you have in store for the upcoming year?
I’m working on a couple larger-scale projects: I have some ideas for eBooks as well as a weekly meal plan. I also have a couple partnerships I’ve been talking to for recipe development. I’ve been working with Simple Mills, a grain-free baking mix company. I do recipe development for their blog, and would love to do a larger-scale project.
I always wanted to build a grain-free baking mix company. When I found Simple Mills, they were doing exactly what I wanted to do, only better. I emailed the CEO and simply said, “Hey our universes overlap, would you want to grab coffee sometime?” She gave me a few mixes to try, and I made some Banana Bread Donuts out of their banana bread mix. When I e-mailed her about the project, her response was, “So…do you want to do more of this??” I’ve had other clients reach out to me for recipe development, and I would love to proactively reach out for more projects as well. I could see a path for it to be a career, but I’m not sure it’s the right time. Honestly I never even expected that would be a decision!
How do you find the time for all these projects, while working a very demanding full-time job?
People ask me when I sleep, and I have to work really hard to sleep because I could work 24 hours a day. The work is never done – I could work 100 hour weeks for each job and still have more to do. But what good is a website about healthy eating, and a low inflammation lifestyle, if you’re wrecking your body with stress? I try to build in sleep and relaxation. Also, I simply love doing this. I’ve always loved to bake, my mom was a great cook, so I’ve basically been a recipe developer my whole life. I’ve learned to use my time efficiently, but not stress myself out to the point that this is all moot. Grad school was both a blessing and a curse. I learned just how much can be accomplished in one day, but it warped my mind into thinking spending this insane amount of brain power each day is normal.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting Paleo? Or any tips you have picked up along the way?
The one piece of advice I would give is, you can cook. Anyone, can cook. People regularly tell me, “I don’t know how you do it, I don’t have time, I can’t cook healthy food.” To that, I say bullshit.
Healthy cooking is hard, but it’s easy once you get the hang of it. You just have to do it. If you screw up, throw it out and go get the takeout you were going to buy anyway.
Here are a few other tips I follow:
- Don’t be afraid of the unknown. I wish I would have told myself eating this way tastes great, and makes me feel great.
- Freeze! To meal prep, I simply take dishes out of the freezer, and place them in the fridge to defrost throughout the week. The quiche on my site freezes extremely well.
- When dining out, do your research and present solutions. Don’t say, “I’m grain free. Accommodate me.” Instead, try, “I’m grain-free. Could you hold the rice and substitute a salad?” No restaurant has even given me a hard time. Just ask in a polite way and make reasonable requests.
What do you tell yourself to stay positive? And if you could go back a few years, what would you tell your former self?
One thing I hold on to is, getting better is not a linear process. There are good days and bad days, and one bad day doesn’t mean you won’t have another good day again. I have a tough time cutting myself slack. When I have a bad day I feel like a failure, or that my body has failed me. I remind myself it’s ok to not do things I could be doing, just for the sake of being productive. If my work is done, and the house is clean, it’s ok to watch TV or go for a bike ride. You don’t have to be perfect today. You don’t have to be healthy today. Just get through it and do the best you can.
If I could go back a few years, the first thing I would tell myself is to keep things into perspective. I wish I would have taken myself aside and given myself a strong shake. In grad school, I would go a week at a time only sleeping three hours a night. It’s insane what I thought I could power through.
The second thing I would tell myself is to trust myself more. There was a long period where I knew things weren’t right. I wish I would have found another doctor sooner. I wish I would have just said it was ok to be sick. When you admit something is wrong, you are more invested in your treatment, and you can go on with your life. Cutting out gluten and dairy is not the end of the world, but not feeling well enough to live your life is the end of the world.
Want to save Nora’s recipes to your Paleo meal planner? Click here to view Nora’s profile, then save her recipes to myKitchen!
If you struggle with Anxiety, Depression, or Mood Imbalances, there is a FREE Summit coming up this month that you won’t want to miss, hosted by Sean Croxton of Underground Wellness. There are multiple interviews broadcast daily, from 22 of the top minds in the world on holistic treatment for mood imbalances. It kicks off in a couple weeks, so sign up using the link below to get email reminders for The Depression Sessions and free access! Cheers,