Courtesy of Danielle Walker
New York Times best-selling cookbook author Danielle Walker is living proof that you can take your hardships and give them purpose. The 36-year-old has spent the past 14 years of her life living with a severe case of ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in the colon and rectum.
Through extensive research and trial and error, Walker found that food was the answer to her suffering, ultimately learning what to (and not to) eat to soothe her symptoms. After removing grains, lactose, and legumes from her diet, the author began whipping up creative and delicious recipes in her kitchen and sharing them on her blog. Eventually, her creations were published into four cookbooks, three of which made the New York Times bestseller list. Over the past decade, Walker has become a veritable icon of grain- and gluten-free cooking. And in the process, she's transformed the lives of thousands of people also living with autoimmune conditions. (Related: Five of the Most Common Autoimmune Diseases, Explained)
"For quite some time, my audience has been asking about the physical, emotional, and even spiritual toll my diagnosis has had on me and my family," Walker tells Shape. "I wanted to finally give them something that painted the entire picture because, at the end of the day, my diagnosis has been a continuous journey without an end."
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Discovering the Power of Food
In a previous interview with Shape, Walker provided a peek into how her diagnosis turned her world around at just 22 years old. The self-taught chef underwent dozens of tests, checked in and out of hospitals, and was put on medications that sometimes made her feel worse than the disease itself. In the meantime, she was forced to revamp her diet and cut out all the foods she once adored to eat.
Given the severity of her illness, her doctors said that holistic treatments were off of the table. But the more Walker researched the relationship between the gut microbiome and food, the more she was convinced that food was a viable treatment option — or, at the very least, it was worth a go. (Related: What Is a Gut-Healing Diet, Really?)
After working closely with a naturopathic functional medicine doctor for several weeks, Walker was put on an elimination diet, which ultimately taught her that a grain-free, Paleo-esque diet void of all processed and packaged foods was worked best for her body. Through that, she was able to put her disease into remission without having to rely solely on Prednisone, a corticosteroid commonly prescribed for ulcerative colitis that helps reduce inflammation, according to the Mayo Clinic, and, unfortunately, wreaked havoc for Walker. When she first started taking the medication, Walker lost a drastic amount of weight, became anemic, and struggled with sleep. But by changing her diet, she was able to completely wean off the steroid and, in turn, depend only on a few prescription medications that weren't as hard on her system.
Walker's memoir gives readers a raw and transparent look into how she learned to experiment with different foods and cultivate the delicious recipes that her fans now love and adore. But she also dives into the complex emotions that came with making such major lifestyle changes. In particular, she talks about mourning the foods she once loved.
"One of my favorite stories in the book is about my first Thanksgiving after being diagnosed," she says. "My whole life I had grown up looking forward to eating my family's recipes that had been passed down generations. The book is actually dedicated to my grandma Marge whose dishes are such a pivotal part of my childhood memories. She showed her heart to the people she loved through food — and just like that, after my diagnosis, I couldn't experience that anymore."
Walker's newest publication also details the many types and stages of grief you go through after being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition. "First, you grieve your life before your illness," says Walker. "I was 22 when I was diagnosed. I was recently married and had my whole life planned out. Then I got sick. It derailed everything I had envisioned my life to be — and it took me a long time to get adjusted to my new 'normal' — if you even want to call it that."
You also grieve food itself, admits Walker. "Food is such an important part of your life," she says. "I had dreamed of making gingerbread houses, baking cookies, and having holiday feasts with my own family someday. After getting sick, I didn't know how I was going to go to any family gatherings, have people over, or do Thanksgiving and Christmas when I couldn't eat or drink anything. That's honestly what pushed me into the kitchen to find a solution."
But chronic illness doesn't just affect you on a personal level, it affects the people around you as well, says Walker. Her memoir touches on how one of the biggest things her illness impacted was motherhood.
"I honestly could write a book about that in and of itself," she laughs.
Navigating Motherhood with an Autoimmune Disease
Walker was 25 years old when she gave birth to her son. A year later, in 2011, she experienced a flare-up and was hospitalized for weeks. Unfortunately, flare-ups are an inevitable casualty when you have ulcerative colitis. The exact cause of them is unknown, but diet and stress seem to be common culprits, according to the Mayo Clinic. During a flare-up, you can experience symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping, as well as rectal pain and bleeding, which can completely derail your everyday life (and the progress you've made with the disease thus far).
As Walker puts it: "I couldn't be a mother to him because of how sick I was, and I just wasn't okay with that. That was honestly the biggest turning point for me. Until then, I was just thinking about how food could help me. Not being able to be there for my son is what pushed me to go all in."
It's also what helped Walker realize that if she was going to ever enjoy the taste of food again, stay healthy, and maintain a good quality of life, her new diet would need to become a lifestyle. Through the elimination diet, Walker had already found the foods that worked well for her. Now, she just had to really stick to them. "Eating clean wasn't something I could dabble with here and there," she says. "I couldn't just give in on Christmas. I had to create recipes that were good stand-ins. I didn't just want to survive my disease, I wanted to live my best life — for my sake and for the sake of my family."
Fast forward and in 2014, Walker courageously took to social media and her blog to reveal that her daughter, Aila, passed away 45 minutes after she was born due to a fetal defect called osteogenesis imperfecta. Since first sharing the news, Walker's continued to speak about losing her newborn daughter and explores the pivotal experience in her memoir. "Not just because her birth and passing is an important part of my journey, but because the entire process made me realize that grief, stress, and pregnancy can all cause an autoimmune flare," says Walker. (Related: Why It's So Important to Understand Grief During Coronavirus)
"I titled my book Food Saved Me, but over the past six or seven years, I've realized that if you're not taking care of yourself mentally and emotionally, it will impact your health," continues the author. "The grief of losing her can sometimes hit me as hard as it did on the day it happened. It's taken me a while to realize that I can't internalize that. I have to talk about it, write about it, or see a counselor, otherwise, it has the power to make me sick."
Learning to Accept that 'Things Go Wrong' — Without Losing Hope
Walker's book was supposed to have a different ending. She had essentially completed the writing process in 2019 when she was unexpectedly hospitalized after suffering a life-threatening relapse. Despite having flare-ups through the years, Walker mostly managed her illness through food and supplements up until that point. For the past two years, however, she's had to rely on prescription medications again. "In the book, I talk about how I felt like a total failure laying in bed, hooked up to IVs with drugs that were saving my life," shares Walker. "I felt like everything I had preached over the past 10 years was false and fake."
The experience allowed Walker to address the pressure she'd been facing to live a med-free life, she says. "It's something I'm still dealing with today," she adds. "When I first told my readers and followers what happened, I expected backlash. Instead, over 50,000 people flooded my posts with comments about how food had helped put their MS into remission or curbed the pain associated with their rheumatoid arthritis. Food did make a huge difference, but nothing is perfect."
An important message that Walker wants to convey in her memoir is that despite doing everything right, things can go wrong. "It's okay to use medications that are there for a reason because they can be life-saving," she says.
One day, Walker hopes to be less dependant on meds again, but for now, a combination of medications and managing her diet is what's working best for her. "I spent years not having to rely on medication, but I need to for now, and I'm okay with that," she shares. "I hope that inspires others and reassures them that it's okay to lean on natural and Western treatments if that's what you need to be healthy, pure, and present." (Related: The Stigma Around Psychiatric Medication Is Forcing People to Suffer In Silence)
These lessons are all a part of Walker's story — and despite having been through so much, she has not let her disease define her. "You are so much more than your illness," says Walker. "I'm very fortunate and blessed that I've been able to use my suffering to benefit others and even turn it into a career. But I think it's important for everyone living with a chronic or autoimmune illness to take their hardships and give them purpose and meaning." That's what she hopes is the biggest takeaway for anyone who reads her book.
"If you were to bullet point my story, most people would say I've had a sucky life," she shares. "But if you read between the lines, there have been 14 years of great things, whether that's my children, my beautiful relationship with my husband, my career, my cookbooks — the list goes on. So my hope is that when people flip the last page of this book, they feel inspired to look at the bright side of their stories because, at the end of the day, that's what keeps us going."