Danielle Walker seems like she's got it all together-- beautiful family, booming business, amazing hair.
However, her life wasn't always this awesome. At 22, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that led to several near death experiences. As a last-ditch effort, she decided to overhaul her diet, cutting out foods like grans, legume, lactose and processed foods. Within a month, she felt notably better.
A self-taught cook, Danielle's food blog Against All Grain showcases delicious, approachable Paleo recipes. People love it-- in fact, AAG sees two million page views each month, and in 2013, Danielle's first book, Against All Grain immediately landed on the NYT bestsellers list,, where it still sits comfortably (oh, and here's the follow-up, Meals Made Simple). I talk to her about food as medicine, eating grain-free in an Italian family and inadvertently building an empire.
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What did you quit and why?
Grains, lactose, legumes, anything processed, refine sugars and flours. I think that covers it all!
What did your life feel like before you quit?
I was extremely sick, so I wasn’t really living much life. I was on medical disability from my job and in the hospital constantly. I could barely even leave the house. So when I discovered diet could potentially help, I had a feeling of hope.
Biting the bullet and trying it was another hurdle to overcome. But in the first month or so, the results were really encouraging.
What was the hardest thing about quitting?
Oh gosh. Everything. I love food. I was really young and didn’t really know how to cook all that well. I grew up in and Italian family, so I loved Italian food. I loved all the bread. I missed being able to go out to eat and eat the same as everyone else or go to someone’s house and enjoy the things they were serving. Initially, the hardest thing was probably feeling ostracized.
It was a mental thing I needed to get over. Now I can go out and I know what to order. I know what I can pick around and I know when I need to bring my own food. This continues to get better as the awareness for gluten- and grain-free grows.
Quitting can be emotionally taxing who or what help you cope?
My husband is a huge player. He gave me that extra push because I was dragging my feet for so long. It was a lot of back-and-forth at first. I'd commit to it and then I'd go back and eat things that I shouldn’t. Eventually, he asked, "Do you need me to do this with you so you’ll stick to it?" And I said that would be really great!
Before [he committed], I'd would sit with him at dinner and he’ll be eating something that I couldn’t. When he switched, it became a lot better. I always tell people to find a support system, whether it’s a friend, spouse or parent who not only keeps you accountable, but encourages you and helps you feel like you’re not alone.
Was quitting to your new diet for good scary?
The very first time, I had a fear that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy food. But over time as I started experimenting with things, it really wasn’t that bad. There's actually a lot that you can eat. It was really empowering, too. Taking your health into your own hands, seeing such a massive improvement and knowing it’s all in what you’re eating, not in medications. I was helping myself get better.
Changing my diet was a leap of faith, but it was either that or an IV immunosuppressive drug that would have to be administered every six to eight weeks. I would be on that for the rest of my life. For me, the food seems a lot less scary than the alternative.
Aside from your health, what has been the most rewarding thing that’s happened to you since you quit?
Being able to be a mom to my son. I had a big flareup when he was nine months old and I was hospitalized for two weeks and pretty much bedridden for two months. I was unable to take care of him. That's my number one. I love that I’m able to be there for my family.
But in terms of the blog and the books, it's definitely all of the people who share their stories of finding health. It’s been incredible.
There's a lot of people who are sick and over hearing you should try this diet or that diet. Was that you pre-Against All Grains?
Oh yes, definitely. People threw every book and supplement at me. It’s very tiring. Honestly, I even didn’t read any of the books. I just wanted someone to tell me what I could and couldn't eat. When you're sick, you don’t have the bandwidth to try everything. Plus, you’re really tired of things not working. You're upset and frustrated and losing hope that anything will work.
My advice for people is to just start with the basics. Don’t go for the layered birthday cake recipe right away. It'll probably make you run the opposite direction. Start with some of the more simple, crockpot things. Just realize that the food tastes good and go from there.
Kind of a dumb question because the answer is so obvious, but how has quitting changed your life?
Of course the family aspect, but this business I’ve been able to grow out of it. It's nothing I would’ve ever expected. When I started doing this, I honestly thought it was only for my digestive health. I didn’t know it could help anybody else. I thought it was just for me.
It’s been amazing to see people using it for all sorts of things. I started my blog just to fill my mom and sister in on what I was eating. The fact that it’s reached millions of people is more than I ever could’ve imagined. I’m so grateful to do something that I love and I’m getting to touch a lot of people along the way.
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