Today you’ll meet Shawn Mynar, the blogger, podcaster, and nutritionist behind Well Belly. Three years ago, in the midst of training for her first fitness competition, she switched to a Paleo diet to help combat ulcerative colitis.
The first thing Shawn told me was, “Kara, I don’t think I’m a success story, because there are still so many things I’m working on.” Um, aren’t we all?? A health journey is just that—a journey. It’s full of ups and downs, frustrating moments, and setbacks. Shawn shook me to the core when she told me, “One thing we have to realize is, your body is not working against you. Your body is really doing all it can to get well.”
I’ve never thought of it that way before. Our bodies, which sometimes seem to be fighting against us, are really telling us we’re too stressed, we’re pushing ourselves too hard, we’re engaged in toxic relationships, or we’re eating something that doesn’t work for us. Keep reading to hear her whole story, and her advice for battling two auto immune conditions with Paleo.
Let’s start from the beginning. Did you grow-up on a real-food lifestyle? Or did you make the transition later on in life?
I had a pretty normal childhood. Normal meaning I grew up in the Midwest, where I had tons of time to do sports and play. I ate a very standard American diet, which probably played a role in things later on.
In 2008 I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. For years, I didn’t think much of it. Any flare-up was very treatable with medication.
If ulcerative colitis was treatable with medication, why did you seek-out Paleo? What changed?
Fast forward a few years, and I was preparing for my first fitness competition. I was severely restricting calories, over exercising, and not getting enough sleep—in addition to being completely stressed out. I truly believe a fitness competition is one of the most stressful things you can put your body through. I trained for 14 weeks straight. Halfway through, I got the most debilitating flare-up of my life. I couldn’t stand up or get out of bed, and checked myself into urgent care
When I went to the gastroenterologist, I was told, “Take nine pills for the rest of your life, and you’ll be fine.” As someone who hates medication, this terrified me. I asked about diet, and my doctor brushed it off immediately. That put the fire under my butt to find an alternative solution.
I turned to Doctor Google, and the first success story I found for ulcerative colitis was Danielle Walker from Against All Grain. One story was all it took. I changed my diet the next day. I was already preparing for my fitness competition, so it wasn’t that great a change for me (minus the terrible protein shakes I was drinking).
As soon as my fitness competition concluded, I made it my life mission to get off medication. I have followed a Paleo lifestyle ever since.
Getting healthy is not a steady climb—it’s full of ups and downs. Can you describe your health journey after you went Paleo?
It’s been three years since I went Paleo. I was able to get off medication, but eventually my symptoms returned. I took things one-step further and followed the Auto Immune Protocol. Once again, it worked for a while, but my symptoms returned.
AIP is amazing on so many levels. As far as diet is concerned, it takes out any sort of inflammation. However, there is so much more to health than changing what we eat. My inflammation decreased on AIP, but the stress it caused undid it. My social life dwindled. I dug myself into a hole, and emotionally it did not work for me. AIP is great, but it’s just one more thing to stress over, and try to do perfectly. I was super-strict on AIP, following every guideline to a T. I am a Type A person, as are many people who go AIP. We want to research as much as possible. We want to keep going-going-going until we see results.
Many times, we overlook how stress can negatively impact our health. How do you better manage it?
After going AIP and not seeing the results I wanted, I was so frustrated I said, “You know what? I’m going to eat what I want to eat. As long as it’s healthy, that’s ok.” And that is when I got better.
Releasing that tiny bit of stress played into other areas of my life. I took walks instead of weightlifting. I went to bed earlier. Yoga and meditation have played a huge role in my recovery. I truly changed my personality and how I think about things.
I’ve learned to control my need to control everything. Ha! That shows how Type A I truly I am. I’m controlling the compulsion to control.
You were diagnosed with Hashimoto’s a year ago. Did you return to AIP after your diagnosis?
That’s a whole other story. One year ago, I was finally getting my ulcerative colitis under control when suddenly I had new symptoms. I went back on AIP…and lasted three days.
In July, I had an emergency colectomy and appendectomy. I thought everything was over, but I still didn’t feel like myself. I was super tired, had achy joints, and a lot of brain fog. I went to the doctor again, and discovered I was suffering from the aftermath of living in a water-damaged home.
In 2013, Boulder was hit by a terrible flood. My entire basement flooded, but I continued to live there for a year and a half. We believe that’s what caused my gradual health decline and chronic inflammation.
You’ve battled one thing after another! How do you feel now?
I am currently Hashimoto’s free, with no antibodies appearing in recent tests. I am literally babying my body. I do yoga, walk, and do moderate lifts. I sleep a ton. I go to bed at the same time each night, and wake up without an alarm. My diet is filled with a high variety of organic vegetables, and I eat the highest-quality meat you can find.
What advice would you give someone who was just starting Paleo for the first time?
I am a nutritionist that spends ten percent of my time with clients talking about food. Half my clients eat better than I do! We talk about work, relationships, and getting stuck in traffic for ninety minutes per day. We should not live in situations where we aren’t totally happy. Do you have toxic friendships? Do you spend 99 percent of your time in fight-or-flight mode? How can you change these situations to where you’re living life, laughing, and healing yourself?
As a nutritionist, what are your top five tips for starting a real-food diet?
Here are the top five tips I tell my clients:
- Ninety percent of the time, if someone comes to me with food issues, they’re not eating enough. When you switch to a real-food diet, it’s hard to get enough calories when you cut rice, potatoes, or bread. Without knowing it, you go into a calorie deficit. That can be super stressful to the body.
- Stop thinking macros, and just balance your plate! Don’t shoot for low-carb, low-fat, or high-protein; just balance your plate intuitively.
- Really support your digestion. For many, this means slowing down and taking a deep breath while you chew. Put away your phone, stop watching TV, and just enjoy your food.
- Look at your poop! This is the window into your entire health, so start analyzing it! Does it look different when you take a rest day, enjoy your time with friends, or eat a certain food? Start looking for trends.
- Go to bed at the same time every night. Sleep is so important. Do you wake up in the middle of the night? Are you super tired? These things are a huge indicator of hormonal health. Take a weekend, sleep as much as you possibly can, and see how you feel.
And finally, the one thing I want to tell everyone is to relax. Hey everybody, just chill!
Just so we’re on the same page, that whole section on poop is going into the post. You cool with that?
Haha it’s so true though!! Your poop is important—I’m like the poop whisperer.
As a former fitness competitor, how does your former lifestyle compare to where you are today?
I survived on 1,200 calories a day for years. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t count a calorie. Now, I don’t associate food as a number. To me, food is energy.
I don’t know if I’m a success story because I just discovered the root cause of all my problems. I do, however, feel as though I’m in a better position to handle it because of all I’ve been through. I have so much more patience for my body. I baby it, and have more grace than I’ve ever had. It took me thirty-five years, but I finally found out what I need.
Is it hard (mentally) to treat yourself, after so many years of restricting calories, sugar, and indulgences?
Absolutely. I’ve always been super restrictive with eating, but somehow always managed to have a cheat day. Now, I know that’s so dumb. When I switched to a real-food diet, I kept those cheat days. I would crave something, then think, “I can’t have that until the weekend.”
Finally, this light bulb went on and I thought, “Wait. I can have that whenever I want!” It was a landmark moment for me. It takes the “treat/cheat” title out of the situation, and becomes what I’m eating. It’s just part of my day. Since I value a nutrient-dense diet so much, what I have will contain some sort of value. I enjoy locally-made coconut milk ice cream, and you will always find chocolate in my cupboards. I’m not throwing everything to the wind and eating a whole birthday cake. Mentally, I’ve learned to find enjoyment in these indulgences, rather than stress over the so-called damage it may cause . Quite honestly, I think everyone deserves a treat.
Do you have a quote, or other source of motivation, you repeat to yourself when you’re frustrated?
My biggest mantra is, Let go.
My life changed when I started Paleo, but I still have my moments when I think, “Argh, this is so frustrating!” I treat myself all the time, because this is a huge piece of letting go and not stressing. I continually remind myself to have grace and patience.
You’ve had your fair share of ups and downs. What would you tell someone who was facing similar frustrations?
One thing you must understand is this: Your body is not working against you. Your body is doing everything it can to get well. It may come in symptoms you don’t want to feel, but it’s just trying to give you a sign. If I get a small flare-up, I know I’m trying to do too much. If things aren’t working in your favor, keep digging. Get a second opinion. Go to a different doctor. Don’t give up until you feel one hundred percent well.
Finally, one thing I repeat to myself is, “This is only temporary.”
I’m still human, and some days I just want all of this to go away. I tell myself to focus on today, and tomorrow I will focus on tomorrow. It will always be a process; there will always be something to work on. I’m excited for the future. If I do all I can today to be happy, then I’ve done everything I can do.
For more information on food freedom, and the role stress can play in your overall health, check out Shawn’s program, Eat. Feel. Live. Love.
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