To the Woods: Cloudcroft + Introduction to AIP Eating

A couple of weeks after we returned from our Iberostar vacation, I sat in my office tangled up in bureaucracy and my to-do list. Finding myself in need of solace and something to pull me into the future, I scrolled quickly through AirBnB options for the weekend. A bunch of cabins in some wooded mountains caught my eye. I remembered Cloudcroft, NM was less than 120 miles away. Doable for a short hiking trip, and startlingly, we’d not been there yet. My boss, born and raised in El Paso, had told me about the town of less than one thousand inhabitants the year before. Sitting at an elevation of almost 8,700 feet above sea level, nearly a mile higher up than Ciudad Juárez, there the golden desert landscape transformed into a green alpine coolness we’d never seen in the southwest. I texted V, “Want to get a cabin in the woods for an overnight this weekend? There are pine trees.” At first he didn’t believe me. I didn’t mention it might be cold. Then the affirmative answer came back pretty quickly.

Lucas Canyon Trail, Lincoln National Forest, Cloudcroft, NM ~ November 2021

Some hiking in the woods to celebrate turning points and commune with nature was really what I needed. I’d grown up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California; although I love and feel at home in all the diverse topographies that comprise California’s vastness – deserts, beaches, canyons, rolling hills and valleys – pine forests in particular impart tranquility and make me authentically feel at home. V has a similar perspective from growing up in Macedonia, a mountainous Balkan country formerly part of Yugoslavia.

Fall colors in Cloudcroft, NM

So Cloudcroft was the place we went to find solace in hiking and adjust to some big changes. November 1 had delivered two expected but major milestones. One was news of our fourth tour assignment to Washington, DC beginning summer 2022. We needed to discuss our return to the United States, where we wanted to live, the finances, and how timing would work. There were some decisions we needed to make that required us to be alone together in thought. The other was my transition to the elimination diet known as the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) for 90 days to reduce inflammation and autoimmune attack in my body. I was on day six when we went to Cloudcroft.

Why the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)?

I had intended for several months to begin AIP in the autumn. However grateful I was for the role Nutrisystem had played in helping me lose 80 pounds in 2021 thus far, I had already been transitioning away from all its processed food glory for several weeks. I was also generally moving away from a focus on eating for weight loss and moving towards a focus on eating for restoring health and function to the body.

I knew AIP would be daunting for someone who doesn’t cook a lot and has had an over-reliance on ready-made food. But some autoimmune-based issues I was experiencing had made it imperative that I seek to heal the gut microbiome, where up to 70 percent of our immune system lives. Medicine had helped, but was only one part of the puzzle.

The best way forward seemed to be to temporarily give up all foods that might cause inflammation for autoimmune disease sufferers. This is AIP phase one, elimination of “no” foods. Most people do it gradually; after Halloween I just went cold turkey. I’d heard many failed not easing into elimination, but in my opinion, that’s mostly people used to eating whatever they want on the Standard American Diet and then suddenly trying to go full AIP elimination. Of course they’re going to buck the restrictions. But, I wasn’t an expert either. Just a person determined to feel better, so I approached with caution and humility, and did a lot of research.

So… what can you eat and not eat on AIP? Why is it so hard?

On the AIP “no” list: gluten, all grains and pseudo-grains, dairy, eggs, alcohol, legumes including beans and nuts, coffee, nightshade vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, chocolate, refined sugars and food additives, processed vegetable oils, and any processed food chemicals. If this sounds drastic, it’s because it is, and especially over the holidays!

But, there were plenty of “yes” foods that I liked: coconut, banana, honey, chicken, fish, beef, pork, lamb, avocado and palm oils for cooking, cassava and tigernut flour for baking, lots of herbs, and almost all fruits and vegetables.

The lists I’ve been following from the AIP blogger and dietician Anika on the Food Courage blog. Her work is approved by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, PhD, creator of the AIP, world-renowned expert in autoimmune disease research, and NYT best-selling author of four books (aka The Paleo Mom).

With few exceptions, I have been eating a very healthful diet since New Year’s. My eating has been about what I need more than what I want for a long time. It’s self-imposed, so not something to rebel against. I’m highly motivated, because I have expected that once I achieve better health and a proper weight for me, I will have more flexibility in eating. Until then, I’ve been willing to sacrifice to get to where I need to be. The need for AIP slightly throws a monkey wrench in things, but I can deal with it. Had I tried to do AIP on January 1 of this year, though, I doubt it would have gone smoothly. There needed to be a major interim step of weight loss and kicking cravings.

Our mountain cabin – the air was crisp, but hiking in a short-sleeved shirt was still manageable at an elevation above 8,700 feet.

In October I’d bought three cookbooks, made meal plans with V, and gone on a couple epic shopping trips to Whole Foods and Sprouts Farmer’s Market in El Paso. I’d also discussed my plans with all my doctors to get their support and approval. V wasn’t going to eat an AIP-compliant diet, but he made a heroic attempt to fully understand it as well as I did. And as a full time teleworker he pledged to help me cook and avoid kitchen cross-contamination. If you want, you can take elimination slow, but you can’t “kinda” do AIP maintenance. Introducing variables into the science experiment disrupts healing. So compliant eating once you decide elimination is done and you’ve entered maintenance is important; how long maintenance needs to be is your call.

By November 1 I had eliminated everything and technically already begun AIP phase two, maintenance, by eating only nutrient-dense foods like meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. You should evidently do this for at least two weeks, but I decided to go for 90 days to really promote healing. I have a colleague, another FSO, who did it for over six months.

I plan AIP phase three, reintroduction, to start in February 2022 according to the below chart; at that point I will begin reintroducing eliminated foods one by one to identify or rule out any food sensitivities contributing to illness. If I experience symptoms when reintroducing a food, I will consider not eating it again.

Reintroductions can take months if done properly

The end goal of AIP isn’t to eat AIP forever, but to add back as many foods as possible into one’s diet while minimizing unwanted symptoms. In this sense it’s much more a protocol than a “diet.” It is a stricter form of Paleo and is sometimes confused with Paleo, or misused by those with eating disorders or autoimmune patients themselves for weight loss or weight control purposes. [Please note that while I’m not a doctor, I do know AIP isn’t intended specifically for weight loss, or for people struggling with disordered eating. This is something I am doing under medical support and supervision, and I couldn’t in good faith recommend anyone go this alone. Please discuss first with your primary care or functional medicine doctor, rheumatologist, endocrinologist, or a registered dietitian if you have questions or need help figuring out if AIP is medically appropriate for you.]

~~ I am going to write a separate post about my weight loss journey when I get to the -100 pound mark. For me, the weight loss and AIP journeys are related, but separate, and I don’t want them to be fully conflated. If you are interested in the weight loss post, stay tuned – I am only five pounds away, so I will probably still publish it before New Year’s Eve! I share all of this information in the hopes it will help another person who was previously in my position. ~~

Cozy weekend cabin… where we went to a small grocery store and found everything we would need to cook an AIP-compliant dinner, breakfast, and lunch for me!

So it’s probably no surprise that my first hike, at an elevation close to 9,000 feet, on day six of AIP and with no caffeine, left me feeling slightly like I was going to have a heart attack. (AIP does actually permit caffeine, but I haven’t been having any.) V kept on trucking up the steep inclines, but I had to pause repeatedly to keep my head from swimming. On a flat grade far above I began to feel so anemic and light-headed I actually though I might faint from a standing position. We sat down on a fallen log and I ate a pre-cooked meal of cold meat and vegetables with a real fork and knife from my pack. I felt life returning to my body. We sat in the mild sun wondering how many pairs of animal eyes were on us that moment in the wild.

Lucas Canyon Trail – the first few miles were pretty steep and it almost killed me

Although we saw less than four people all day, one of them oddly enough was my boss – of all the trails in the forest, to meet here reminded me that Cloudcroft was both far from Juárez, and close by. We talked later in the office about how impossible it would have been for me to do a trail like that last year or earlier this year, when I had the spinal cord injury, couldn’t feel my left foot or leg, and was at risk of falling. I pointed out that a gallon of milk weighs eight pounds, and not carrying 10 extra gallon jugs of milk up the hill with me had made an enormous difference. The lack of pain and pressure on my joints was incredible and not something I took for granted.

Felt a little happier once I made it past the steepest ascent. I munched on carrots and my Wild Zora meat bars and missed my favorite hiking snacks of hard-boiled eggs, chocolate protein bars, and trail mix.

This hike was hard for me, but even at altitude and struggling to adjust to different food fuel, it was something I could do. It reminded me that people who have only met me in the last few years haven’t really known me the way I’ve been most of my life. They’ve either seen me not doing the physical things I’ve loved to do, or they’ve seen me try to do those things (like I did in Ecuador) and struggle a lot with pain and limited mobility and not have very much fun as a result. It was one of the many things V and I discussed in the woods.

From now on, the only time I’ll be left behind is if I’m busy taking selfies

On our second day of hiking before we started back to El Paso, we were trying to get to the Rim Trail. On the way, we accidentally encountered a quarter-mile trail called La Pasada Encantada. We decided to check it out. I think it was the first national park trail developed in the 1970s for the blind and visually impaired.

Interpretative trail markers feature Braille to help hikers use their other senses to experience small exhibits and the forest around them. A blind hiker would not know, but V and I could see a dozen or so yards beyond the trail was entirely fenced in every direction to prevent a hiker in trouble from inadvertently wandering too far away from the perimeter of the trail markers. Should someone get off the track and get lost, they would encounter the fence and avoid going deeper into the woods. Their only choice would be, barring panic or injury, to turn back and eventually come back into contact with the gravel path or a railroad tie.

My first thought was that a blind hiker would probably hike with a sighted hiker, and then I immediately challenged that assumption. There are different levels of visual impairment, and some completely blind people live alone and are independent. So, if they could get to the trail, why couldn’t they enjoy it in peace without relying on someone sighted to read them the signs? This thought was well-intentioned, but uncomfortably ableist.

So imagining how it would feel to walk the trail without the use of my eyes, I closed them and tried it for myself. Arms extended, I quickly lost my sense of orientation. Reaching out trustingly to examine the feel of bark, animal bones, pinecones, and moss; tapping with my boot along the railroad ties delineating the path’s edges; smelling the buildup of leaves and pine needles; listening for the sound of the wind and bird calls. These things I wouldn’t have paid enough attention to if relying on the dominance of my eyesight. I came away grateful for my vision, but with a valuable reminder that there is a lot more to experiencing the forest than seeing it.

Eventually we did make it to one of the Rim Trail trailheads. We hiked for a couple of hours until we were ready to head to El Paso. There we did some grocery shopping before crossing the border back into Juárez to start our work week. We brought a lot more warm clothes than we ended up needing on this trip; temperatures in the mountains can be unpredictable, and late October or early November are when Cloudcroft can experience its first seasonal snow. We didn’t get snow, but we did get to experience a mountain cabin weekend, subalpine hiking with no desert in sight, and I closed my first week of AIP eating with no errors. Avoiding restaurants, eating cold food out of glass containers in the woods, our truck, and wherever else I got hungry was weird, but with V’s help I did it. And as I write this in week seven (halfway through planned maintenance!), I’m still eating AIP with no mistakes yet.

Shopping in El Paso; Ciudad Juárez in the background ~ November 2021

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