The Paleo Foundation Origin Story as told by Karen Pendergrass

The Paleo Foundation Origin Story as told by Karen Pendergrass

The Karen Pendergrass Paleo Foundation story

Years ago, I heard someone say that they “wished they had a story like this because it would be good for business.” My response to that was one of deep disgust and condemnation.   The whole concept of using my story as a way to win friends and influence people feels cheap and is against my principles. And yet, everyone from billion-dollar business owners to Simon Sinek has said that I need to give my “why” so that I can connect with my community. And as much as I’d like to extricate myself and my personal story from the “why” of the Paleo Foundation, it’s simply not possible.  

To be fair, I wanted the story of the Paleo Foundation to be about the work we do, the bigger picture, and not about the founders. I want it to be about our standards, our mission, and the value we bring to the community. I wanted it to be about the changes that have occurred in the food industry because of the standards that we have upheld. After all, the Paleo Foundation isn’t a lifestyle business, and it’s not about any one of us— it’s bigger than that.  But I’ve hurt this organization because not only have I held steadfast to these beliefs,  I haven’t had the courage to be vulnerable in sharing the story of the Paleo Foundation even though it is our “why.”  So today I will share the story that guides our decision-making processes, because despite my gnashing of teeth it is still the one piece that is missing from the organization, and it is a story that needed to be told. 

Dear Reader,

It has taken me ten years to tell this story because while it will give you a better concept of who we are and why, you’ll see that it doesn’t exactly paint me in the best light.  And, it requires me to go down memory lane that I’d prefer to leave in my past.  By the end of this, I think you’ll come to understand why it took me so long to detail.  

Thank you for understanding, reader, and thank you for bearing witness to my life. 

Karen Pendergrass
Co-Founder of the Paleo Foundation

Chapter 1: Heyday

I’m not a natural writer or an orator. Anytime I start to open up about anything personal or emotional, things get a bit jumbled and messy, and this will be no exception. To begin, I want to take you back to the year 2008.  In 2008, my life was good. No, not just good, my life was great. The past few years had been the best years of my life. I had great friends, a good job, I was a straight-A student at UMKC Bloch School of Business, and I was in the peak shape of my life after going to the gym consistently every day for many years. I was a healthy, petite 105-110 lbs, outgoing person. I had everything going for me. This is what one might call my “Heyday.” 

It’s hard to pinpoint really where the story of the Paleo Foundation begins, but I’ll do my best to give you the story of how the Paleo Foundation came to be. I should also preface this by saying that the origin story of the Paleo Foundation isn’t solely mine to tell. Others were involved, including the co-founder Kimberly Eyer, who is my mother. But to begin, I’ll tell it from my vantage point.   From my vantage point, the story of the Paleo Foundation begins on Halloween of 2008, more than a year before it was founded.  

Chapter 2: Halloween

It helps to know that growing up, holidays had typically been a painful experience for me as the scapegoat child in a covert narcissist family dynamic. For the uninitiated, this meant that holidays, including Christmas and even my birthdays, were days that had been weaponized to make sure I did not feel loved or special, and to reinforce my role. For added context, even as a young child, I watched as my excited cousins and brother open boxes and boxes of Christmas presents, while I was not given a single one. Even my birthdays were either met with dramatic outbursts that ruined the entire day by morning or less dramatically celebrated by doing what my father wanted to do, such as watching his favorite movies.  To this day, I hate Star Wars.  

The only absolute exception to that rule is and has always been Halloween. Unlike all other holidays, Halloween had been a day for me that was unmarred, and I celebrated it with almost religious fervor. I always had so much anticipation for the day that I typically started planning for Halloween as early as June or July. In other words, Halloween wasn’t just a day to dress up and eat candy for me. It’s the one day out of the year where I got to experience the pure, unfettered joy of being alive. I didn’t have the joy of Christmas and birthdays; I had Halloween.   In short, Halloween is important to me.    Halloween of 2008 landed on a Friday. At 24 years of age, having my favorite holiday land on a Friday meant parties, celebrations, and times I would forever remember with my friends. I had three different costumes for three different parties and had already made plans to pick up some of my friends and hit the town.  

Earlier in the day, I felt a bit “off” and had been dizzy with a headache, so I decided to take a nap so that I would be refreshed and ready to go later. 

I overslept, and by the time I woke up, I was still dizzy, still feeling off, and dragging ass trying to get out the door. I made some calls to my friends and apologized for oversleeping and being late, but I assured my friends that I would be on the way soon. Of course, I would be on my way, I would suit up no matter how awful I felt. I wouldn’t miss Halloween for the world. 

Getting dressed to go out was remarkably exhausting. After the hair, the makeup, and the blaring music to get me feeling in the Halloween spirit, I finally went to put on my costume— but it did not fit. I noted that it was odd, but I shrugged it off anyway, and I grabbed my car keys and went to put on my shoes, but I couldn’t put them on. 

My feet were too swollen to fit into my shoes. 

I tried another outfit, but I had the same issue as before. My hands were swollen. My feet were swollen. My entire body was swollen. I felt horrible.  After an hour and phone calls asking where I was, I felt absolutely defeated. I called my friends and canceled my plans, and went right back to sleep.  That was the first Halloween that I had ever missed in my entire life. I still don’t have words to express how that felt.

The next morning when I got up, it hurt to walk. I didn’t know it at the time, but that Halloween was day 1 of the worst year of my life.   

Chapter 3: Unrecognizable

Soon after Halloween, the swelling, the pain, and the fatigue had become more severe. I’ll never forget talking to my fitness trainer and taking measurements with her after telling her I no longer fit into my clothes. Even though my diet and routine hadn’t changed, I held steadfast to the “calories in, calories out” mantra, and began to exercise more and eat less in the hopes that my sudden weight gain of 10 lbs would resolve.  

Even skipping meals for days in a row would not help. But as I continued to gain more weight rapidly, more strange symptoms appeared. It was clear that something was wrong with me, so I started seeing a doctor— a general practitioner at KU Medical Center. But when she drew my labs, everything was within the normal range. The only thing that seemed slightly high was my liver enzymes. That year I had been on hiatus from drinking alcohol, and I did not have a history of drug use. I continued to see her and saw her often, perhaps once a week for the next few months as I began to have new symptoms appear. I wanted to be monitored closely. 

Now, if I fast forward this story three months from Halloween for you for expediency, you will see that I am not even a shadow of my former self.

 A lot of new symptoms appeared in that short time frame. Within three months from Halloween, my eyesight had changed from 20/10 to 20/20, which I was told was still perfect and nothing to complain about. I started having pain in my left eye that made me want to claw my eyes out of my face, but the ophthalmologist says there’s nothing there to worry about. At 24 years of age, I was no longer having menses and diagnosed with early menopause. I had restless leg syndrome that kept me up at night but told that it would likely resolve on its own. The body pain I am experiencing, I believe, is fibromyalgia, but fibromyalgia isn’t a recognized condition by the medical community. 

I also began experiencing anxiety and needing to have the car pulled over on the freeway so I can stop my heart from beating out of my chest. I had never had anything like that happen to me before, I was just having panic attacks, and of course, there are pills for that. Then I began having trouble concentrating and formulating sentences, and she thought perhaps juggling school, work, the gym, and my friends were too much, and I needed to rest. 

Then there was the pain from walking, my legs were swollen and pale, and I had lost sensation in my toes. My skin felt like I had a sunburn on top of a bruise, and my skin was sloughing off like a snake. I was suddenly getting lost on my way to school in the city I grew up in, and sleeping anywhere from 15-20 hours a day. I started having trouble formulating complete sentences and coherent thoughts, and I would forget what I was doing and where I was going.  

Still deteriorating, the doctor at KU had given me nothing to account for my symptoms. And it was clear that she was, for lack of a better way to describe it, done with me. It felt as though she was no longer taking me seriously.  

Still, new symptoms appeared.  

After gaining 50 lbs. (half of my body weight), I still tried to work out and eat less to improve. One day, I mustered all of the strength that I could to drive to the gym to work out. When I arrived at the gym, I didn’t have the strength to open the door. Tearing up immediately, I hurriedly walked back to my car, completely embarrassed of myself, feeling like a failure, and cried. I knew that it marked the end of an era for me, but I cannot explain the sheer helplessness that I felt at that moment. I knew I was losing the battle, I had no answers, and there was no end in sight to my deterioration. Not being able to open the door crushed my soul. Exhausted, I cried myself to sleep in that parking lot that day.  

I’m not a writer, and I will never be able to effectively convey what that meant for me on a psychological level in words. I cannot even explain what that still means to me today.  

It was enough that I had gained an unprecedented amount of weight after years of going to the gym, or that it was painful to walk and yet I still tried to exercise despite having fatigue that made it a chore just to get out of bed. It was enough that I was tired all of the time, and that my grades had suffered tremendously for it. It was enough that I was experiencing cognitive decline and debilitating anxiety. It was enough that I was getting lost in my head, and was a danger to myself just trying to drive to school. At this point, I was losing my identity, hiding from my friends, and my life is truly falling apart. Worst of all? I had no idea what to do about it. 

All the while, I was still hoping that my doctor would take my condition seriously enough to figure it out and help me.   

Chapter 4: Breaking point

One night in Kansas City around 9 pm, I began having hallucinations that trees were walking across the road and that buildings and streetlights were dancing and “waving” as I drove by. I’ve had hypnogogic hallucinations of walking trees and giant spiders before, which was something I typically associated with falling asleep, but I wasn’t tired. No, I knew something was happening to me. 

To take refuge, I had driven to my old house that was nearby after realizing that I needed to get to somewhere safe and familiar, and fast. It was 10 degrees outside, and I spent the next 12 hours in my car irrationally fearing for my life, as I hallucinated an entire mob of armed people around me screaming at me and shaking my car as though they were trying to tip it over. The mob poured out from a garage complete with loud music and bright shining lights for hours, a garage that I knew did not exist. After all, it was the house across the street that I grew up in.  

The next 4 days of psychosis were dotted with short fleeting moments of lucidity when I realized what was happening to me and panicked that I would be permanently lost— right before slipping away again. Those moments of lucidity and clarity were by far the worst part of it because I thought my life, as I knew it— all of my dreams and aspirations— were lost forever. Those were the longest four days of my life.   Although the logical part of my brain knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t real, I was terrified. I wrote undecipherable notes on scraps of paper, but one message was clear. “This is not me, I need help. I need someone to help me.”

Schizophrenia is no joke. 

Chapter 5: We’re done here.

At this point, it is clear that my condition is getting worse. It was bad enough that my doctor already thought I was crazy. With the culmination of all of my symptoms, I knew that I needed an answer to what was happening to me. I refused to take medication because it was clear that these symptoms were connected. The Schizophrenia, the early menopause, the sudden rapid weight gain, the anxiety, the cognitive decline, and the sleeping all day and no longer seeing my friends and social isolation appeared to have finally given my doctor an idea what was wrong with me.

“These are psychosomatic manifestations of stress,” she said. As if a lightbulb had gone off in her head, she announced that these were all symptoms of severe depression. To which I said, “I’m not depressed, there is something wrong with me, and no one can tell me what that problem is. If anything, that’s what’s making me depressed.”  

She pulled out her pad and handed me a prescription for Zoloft.  

I jumped off of the table, looked Dr. Ann Kurtz squarely in the face, and said: “I hope you get strangled by a stethoscope” and walked out of her office. I realized that the whole time I was under her care was a mistake; she had not taken my condition seriously, after all.   Years later, I found out from looking at my chart that early she made a note that I “worried well.” I have said countless times that she should have had her license revoked, and I am not the only one who thinks that, apparently.    

Chapter 6: The New Doctor

Dear Reader,
Let me preface this chapter by saying that up until this point in my writing, I have not been entirely myself. In reality, not in a professional setting, but in real life, I use colorful language — really colorful language. You will see this later as this story progresses, but I will ease you into it slowly now to the best of my ability.  

Let me ask you since you’ve been following this— where the fuck does this sound like I was just depressed and ultimately in need of antidepressants?  

That’s right, nowhere. 

And that’s the same response that my next doctor, Dr. Perryman, an internal medicine guy at St. Lukes Hospital, had after I was referred to his office by some women that my mom worked with at Children’s Mercy Hospital. His wife was one of the most respected top clinicians in her field. When I met with Dr. Perryman for the first time, I was accompanied by my understandably concerned mother, and he shook his head in disgust and called my previous doctor an “idiot,” and he assured us both that he would get to the bottom of it.  

Finally, someone was taking this thing as seriously as I was.  Although I had given Dr. Perryman my lab results from KU, he wanted to take a new general health panel of labs. Days later, I received a phone call from the doctor’s office that I needed to come in as soon as possible to discuss my lab results— and to have someone else drive me.   

I hung up the phone. I knew they found something. 

Chapter 7: Diagnoses

When my mother and I entered Dr. Perryman’s office, he nodded in sort of an understanding way, as though he had all of the answers that I needed in his hand. He sat with us and read my laboratory report that my ALT and AST were elevated (154, and 620, respectively, when normal levels are 1-49U/L and 0-43U/L, respectively.) However, the labs found that my alkaline phosphatase was low, suggesting malnutrition. 

Copper, zinc, and hemoglobin were all low. But as low as they were, none were quite as alarming to Dr. Perryman as the fact that my ferritin levels were 20 when normal levels between 120-150. Later results would confirm that the sleeping, the confusion, the lethargy, the inability to push open the gym on that fateful day was because I had severe iron deficiency anemia. 

I was instructed to eat a diet that was rich in red meat, fish, red beans, and green leafy vegetables and to take ferrous sulfate and return in a month to check for improvement. I was also referred to a gynecologist to get a progesterone boost. I was not in early menopause, after all. But, I needed to act quickly to improve my condition, since malnutrition, iron deficiency anemia, and damage to my liver would have more serious consequences if I continued to worsen.   So I did as Dr. Perryman said. I ate the foods on the paper which he had given me, and I took the daily vitamins and ferrous sulfate as prescribed.

Most importantly, I was diligent.    

Chapter 8: Wrong Answer

A month later at a visit with Dr. Perryman, it was apparent that he expected to see that my conditions had improved, but he was instead dismayed to discuss the results from my lab tests taken the week before. Dismayed is not the right word. No, Dr. Perryman was visibly agitated with me.  My ferritin had dropped since our last visit.  

Dr. Perryman believed that I had not taken my condition seriously and that I had not eaten the diet he prescribed or taken the supplements. With a ferritin level of 18 now, Dr. Perryman had decided to take a more patriarchal role and launch into a lecture about how I needed to take my condition seriously, and there is a point here where people begin to lose life and limb. I don’t want to lose my legs, do I? This is serious. This is how people die.  

I responded to his lecture by saying that I had eaten the diet he had given me and that I had done exactly as he asked. To which he responded, “If you did, then you’d have gotten better, not worse.”

Dear Reader, 

It’s likely that you don’t know me personally. For context, it’s worth mentioning that everyone has that one “hot button,” where if you press it, they will explode. For me, it’s this “hot button” (or more colloquially, “fighting words”),  has historically been when another has attempted to negate what I said I had done, or insinuate that I was lying.   If I said, point blank, that I ate the diet, I took the supplements,  I did exactly as instructed, and anyone says that I didn’t— I will lose my shit. 

And I did. 

I cannot say that I can recall exactly what I said here, but I recall that it wasn’t pretty.   I had already lost patience before with another physician who didn’t believe me, and now the physician who considers himself the “Dr. House” of Kansas City has stopped short of considering the implications of what it meant if I was telling the truth and instead made the assumption that I was lying, that I wasn’t taking my condition seriously, and not doing as he asked.  

I lost my patience, my respect for him, and I lost what it took to keep calm after such an accusation. I was also panicked again because this meant that he didn’t have the answer, and I felt like I was running out of time. 

Completely infuriated, I brought my mom and our roommate Roxanne to the next appointment. These were women who were also incredibly respected in the medical community in their own right, who vouched for me and said that I had done exactly as he said and that I had been diligently following his instructions. These were also women that his wife knew and respected. 

Again, for lack of a better way of putting it, it was apparent that Dr. Perryman was done with me.   Perhaps I embarrassed him.  Perhaps he didn’t know what was going on and scapegoated me for his own ineptitude. 

Perhaps we should be asking ourselves at this point why it is that so many physicians default to distrusting their patients. 

Chapter 9: The Internet

Researchers say that turning to the internet for diagnostic information can lead to “hypochondriasis” and “cyberchondria.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “Googling your symptoms will cause patients to have more anxiety, or think they have a condition that they do not.”  

It is well known that doctors often discourage turning to the internet for diagnostic information, and the doctors may feel slighted or even outraged at the idea that their patient assumes to know more than they do by engaging in such activities. For the record, I also believed that the practice of self-diagnosis was an overstep, and an insult to the years of medical school that the physicians had gone through to practice medicine.

However, now as a patient who feels like their physicians’ marginalization, dismissal, and egotism have gotten in the way of their ability to care for me, I was now turning to the internet to look for information to make sense of what was happening to me.  

“Celiac Disease” was brought to my attention.  

I read through everything I could find.  

From the Internet: 

“People with the genetic digestive disorder known as Celiac Disease tend to be three times as likely as the general population to develop schizophrenia.”  “Isolated hypertransaminasemia, with mild or nonspecific histologic changes in the liver biopsy, also known as “celiac hepatitis”, is the most frequent presentation of liver injury in celiac disease.” 

“People with celiac disease get iron-deficiency anemia because they’re not absorbing enough iron from the food they eat. That’s because in celiac disease, eating gluten-containing foods causes your body to attack the lining of your small intestine, impairing your ability to absorb nutrients (including iron)”  

“Celiac disease should be considered in patients presenting with malnutrition and primary amenorrhea.” “It’s well known that celiac disease can lead to amenorrhea and early menopause.”  

“Edema most commonly affects the feet, ankles, legs, face, and hands. Celiac Disease may be initially manifested by protean manifestations outside the intestine, including peripheral polyneuropathy and edema.”  

“Celiac Disease can cause tingling and numbness in your hands and feet (peripheral neuropathy)” “Ophthalmic manifestations of Celiac Disease: Nyctalopia is usually the first symptom in patients with vitamin A deficiency, which may precede the symptoms of dry eye by several months.” 

“Some studies seem to suggest a potential correlation between a specific type of vision loss and celiac disease. This type of loss of vision results from occipital calcification, a condition in which an abnormal amount of calcium is deposited in the occipital lobes. The occipital lobes are the part of the brain responsible for visual processing and are vital for sight. Celiac disease causes a buildup of calcium in these regions, leading to vision loss. “

“Over the past 30 years, there has been a shift in this “classic” presentation to an “atypical” presentation of vague abdominal symptoms with a normal or obese weight. An estimated 22-32% of individuals with celiac disease in the U.S. will initially present as overweight or obese despite some degree of malabsorption. A higher estimate of 38% overweight and obese was reported in a study at our Celiac Center at the University of Chicago. The trend toward obesity in celiac disease in the past decade marches upward.”

“Check, check, check, check, check, WOAH!” I thought. “I’m onto something here!” But I needed a diagnosis.  So at my next appointment with Dr. Perryman, I planned to show him what I had found, and ask to be tested for Celiac’s Disease. 

Chapter 10: My final appointment

I was excited to share with Dr. Perryman what I had found.  At last, I thought, there may have been an underlying condition that was missed that could explain everything.  And once diagnosed, I would have the answers I needed to get better!  I’m so ready for this to be over!  I think there’s finally a glimmer of hope for me! 

I want my life back! 

So I marched into Dr. Perryman’s office readied with my folders and studies that I printed off to show him.  

“It’s not Celiac’s Disease.” He said, in a sort of gruff, short, and annoyed way. 

In protest, I began to pull out the studies, and with a wave of his hand, he said, “It’s not Celiac’s Disease. Celiac Disease is very rare, and it’s a wasting disease. You, on the other hand, are gaining weight.  It’s not Celiac Disease.”  

Traditionally, Celiac Disease had been a wasting disease, and patients presented losing weight, not gaining weight. But in my internet searches, I read from teaching hospitals that they recognized that Celiac Disease was no longer a disease where patients were just losing weight.  They were finding far more clinical presentations of gaining weight than he even knew.

Evidently, as a result of my internet searches, I knew something he did not.  Not only was Dr. Perryman dismissive of me, and failing in his abilities to “get to the bottom of it”— Dr. Perryman’s knowledge was outdated.  I glowered at him, and said with my teeth clenched to “Give me the damn test.”  I wasn’t leaving without getting the test.  After a bit more banter, he reluctantly did. 

A few weeks later, I received a phone call from Dr. Perryman.  He unemotionally said to me that I tested positive for Celiac Disease, and said “don’t eat wheat,” adding that I needed to find another physician. I curtly said, “thank you,” and hung up. 

Chapter 11: The Paleo Diet 

In 2009, an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) group from St. Lukes suggested that patients with chronic rhinitis try the Paleo Diet. My mom, who suffered from seasonal allergies her entire life, had found success on the Paleo diet. She was no longer experiencing the same seasonal allergies, stopped taking her daily Claritin, and lost roughly 20 lbs in a matter of a few short months.  

Since I was told that I couldn’t eat wheat anymore, I figured the Paleo Diet was worth a shot. Fifteen days after being on the Paleo Diet, my once hypoxic and swollen blue legs began to turn pink. The swelling came down. I was feeling more clear-headed and more alive. I thought that I had found a diet that worked for me, and I had an answer to my health problems finally. So I decided to go with my friends to France and figured it wouldn’t hurt if I skipped my diet for the two weeks that I was there. I said to myself, “mind over matter” and assured myself that everything would be OK if I just lived a little, and enjoyed everything that French cuisine had to offer. Besides, I could just resume the diet when I got back.

This was a costly mistake. By the second night I was there, I experienced a psychotic episode believing myself to be five years old shopping for buttons in a fabric store, and my friends were trying to kidnap me. I was constipated for the entire two weeks, and completely miserable during the trip. By the time I arrived home, my mom had let out a gasp when I had got off the plane. The weight and swelling that had come off the previous month had been put back on— and then some.  This time, my health didn’t bounce back quite as it did before. While France was a trip of a lifetime, I should not have eaten all of the things. Because now I was having trouble with foods I didn’t have trouble with before. My one last bastion of hope for improvement, grass-fed beef, was now beginning to cause swelling, headaches, and nausea.   

Chapter 12: Full Circle

While it was obviously stupid of me to have gone off of my diet when I went to France, I could not have anticipated that I would have remarkably more trouble with my diet than I did before. The lethargy had returned with a vengeance, and I needed someone else to drive me. No longer seeing a physician, I recognized that my hypervigilance was what was needed to get better.  

What was a seemingly routine trip to the Whole Foods Market in Overland Park, Kansas, turned out to be anything but routine. 

As I entered the store, I began to walk through the produce aisle. My mother pushed the shopping cart as I went past the fresh vegetables and fruits, and I quietly said ‘no’ to everything we walked past. I didn’t pick up a single fruit or vegetable to put into the cart. All of the foods there were causing me significant gastrointestinal side effects. 

We walked to the seafood area, and I glanced over the various fresh and frozen fish, mussels and clams, and shrimp. But like the produce section, after considering my experiences with all of the foods there one by one, I left the seafood section without a single item. We continued with an empty basket. 

We walked past the eggs, the cheese, the dairy, and the frozen foods sections. We walked through the aisles of bread and crackers and snack foods. Still, I found nothing to put into my basket to eat.  

I asked my mom if it was even possible to be sensitive to every food in existence, and she said, “yes.” I began to cry. I hate crying. I was exhausted, just trying to figure out what to eat.

We continued to the meat section.  

Dear Reader, 

This is the part where you understand why I cannot extricate myself from the story of the Paleo Foundation. In order to understand the events that are about to unfold, you’d have to know painful details about my life during this time. You’d have to know that I had fallen ill that year, and you’d have to understand that the incompetence of my doctors had left me disenchanted. You’d have to know that I felt helpless. You’d have to know that there was no light at the end of my tunnel and that I was someone in a struggle for her life.  

You’d have to know that I had to eat red meat, even if it made me sick even if I was throwing it up, even if it caused me headaches. You’d have to know that I’m not just a girl shopping at a grocery store with her mom, this was life or death for me. 

And Reader, please bear that in mind when I tell you how this all unfolds.  

Standing in front of the meat counter, I glanced over it. From left to right, I looked at the chicken, then the turkey, then the pork, and then the sausages, and finally to the beef. There was grass-fed beef and conventional beef. The grass-fed beef was 2 dollars per pound more expensive. I noted to myself that the chicken and turkey were problematic, the pork and sausages were an absolute “no-go,” but I was hesitant to opt for the grass-fed beef because it too had started to make me sick with gastrointestinal symptoms. 

I wondered why. 

I thought to myself for a second that something odd had happened with the beef that I could not make sense of. So I walked up to the butcher and asked him, “Hey, just out of curiosity, is this grass-fed beef?” To which he responded, “Yeah, it’s grass-fed. See, it’s labeled grass-fed?” 

So I stood back from the counter.

I’m sure it looked quite odd, to see me in deep contemplation. I may have stood there for 5 minutes or so, trying to figure out why I would have started having trouble with grass-fed beef. After all, this truly was my last bastion of hope, and I had been tolerating it well. Why, all of a sudden, was this grass-fed beef causing me a world of pain? Why was anything causing me such grief?   I thought to myself that I could account for the inflammation that I was experiencing with the “vegetarian-fed” chicken and turkey and pork. I could come up with a good reason why these foods in the presence of an inflammatory condition would exacerbate my symptoms. I could make sense of the eggs. I could make sense of farmed seafood. I could even make sense of some of the fruits and vegetables. But I could not make sense of the grass-fed beef.  I kept telling myself to think. “Think, there is an answer. Think.” But I couldn’t come up with an answer. 

So I stepped forward again and asked the butcher, “I know it says grass-fed, but are you really *sure* it’s grass-fed?”    

Chapter 13: The Tipping Point

Dear Reader,

Before we move forward, I want to explain something about my language here.  It was left in this story because  I refuse to tell this part of the story without telling it like it really was.  That would be an affront to me and my personal experience, and against my principles if I watered it down just because I know that some will find it unpalatable. 

I am hoping that you can look past the words, and see me as a young girl who has some organic issues going on, and has had a world of frustration the past year with bad information.  

The butcher replied an exaggerated “Weeelllll……” and I froze.  He now had my laser focus. 

“It’s grass-fed for the first 10 months or so, but then they finish it on corn and soy.” 

And I said, “WHAT?” 

He continued, “Yeah so, see, cattle can’t just live on grass alone. They can’t get the proper nutrition that they need unless they have supplemental grain-feeding. So basically, you’re just paying two dollars more per pound for that beef for no reason.” 

It was at that moment that I snapped.  “WHO THE FUCK TOLD YOU THAT?!?” “IT IS *NOT* THE SAME” 

He shot back, “Corn is technically a grass, so it’s still technically grass-fed.” 

“YOU MEAN TO TELL ME I’VE BEEN PAYING MORE FOR THIS FUCKING BEEF AND IT’S NOT EVEN GRASS-FED?!?!?” 

“Ma’am, you need to calm down.”

I could see red. “NO, YOU NEED TO FUCKING TELL PEOPLE THAT YOU’RE SWINDLING THEM OUT OF THEIR MONEY BECAUSE THIS IS FALSE ADVERTISING.” 

“No, Ma’am, this is not false advertising,” He said. “Grass-fed beef isn’t any better for health or for the planet, anyway.” 

I began to hurl expletives.  “OH, YOU MOTHERFUCKER. WHO THE FUCK TOLD YOU THAT??!? STUPID MOTHERFUCKER. WHO THE FUCK TOLD YOU THAT?!” 

Again, he said, “Ma’am you need to calm down.” By this time, the security had been called, and my mom tried to get me to calm down too. 

Dear Reader,

When in the history of someone telling you to calm down, did it cause you to calm down? 

“Get her out of here!”  As I am being dragged out of Whole Foods by both my mom and security, I am still screaming at the top of my lungs.  

“YOU LYING MOTHERFUCKERS— EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW!!! LIARS AND GREENWASHING PIECES OF SHIT!!! I’M NOT FUCKING DONE HERE!!! THIS IS NOT THE END OF THIS YOU PIECES OF SHIT!! YOU CAN ALL GO FUCK YOURSELVES!!!!!!”  

As I walked out the door, my parting shot was simply “THIS IS NOT FUCKING OVER!!!” 

And it wasn’t.  The whole way home, I continued on my tirade. It sounded like this:

“Fuck these people. Lying pieces of shit. Lying pieces of shit! If no one is going to do their motherfucking jobs— I will. That’s right. I’m coming in. If people can’t trust what the fuck their food labels say… you’ve got people fucking dying and they can’t trust what the fuck their food labels say? That’s right. I’m coming in. I’ll do it my goddamn self. Fuck you.” 

And so it was. 3 months to the date of that incident in Whole Foods, I quit school my last semester before graduation, my mother quit her job, sold her house, and we moved to Los Angeles to start The Paleo Foundation.  The Paleo Foundation was founded on January 1st of 2010 with a mission to make it easier for people who had to follow the Paleo Diet to find and trust foods that were what they said they were.  Although this is not the entire story of The Paleo Foundation, it is the beginning. 

Chapter 14: Thank you for reading the Story of the Paleo Foundation

Hello, again Reader, 

I understand that was a lot to take in. To be fair, a lot was going on at the time. But at this point, I hope that you can understand that this has not been a pretty, or easy story to tell.  It doesn’t paint me in the best light either, that’s for sure.  To fully understand what happened, you have to get a sense of me as a person in context, and then you can understand why a mother and daughter pair would upend their lives to start a food certification organization like The Paleo Foundation.  

Back in 2009, there were not a lot of good options out there for someone on a Paleo Diet, and my struggles didn’t just end because I made the switch to grass-fed beef (although it did help.)  I still found it difficult to maintain such a restrictive diet, and I found that more than anything I needed more options, not less.  

Many took offense to the idea of  “paleoified” foods and thought if we wanted cake or pizza we should just eat cake or pizza and suffer the consequences. I took offense to this sentiment because it meant that people didn’t fully consider the cultural relevance of food, or the fact that not everyone can simply eat a cake or pizza. It’s just not always that simple. 

Some went as far as to suggest that we don’t call these foods “Paleo,” and simply gluten-free, instead.   I found this equally offensive, as there are clear distinctions between “Paleo” and “gluten-free,” and this purist attitude was counter-productive to improving the tolerability of the diet for individuals that needed these options. 

For some of us, we just wanted to feel a sense of normalcy.  We wanted to be able to eat cake that wouldn’t cause us so much pain that we couldn’t enjoy a friend’s wedding, or a birthday.  And there is also a social element at play,  because it feels burdensome to be the person that everyone worries about what to make so they don’t feel left out. 

Allow me to be plain— I never wanted to be on a Paleo Diet.  I didn’t want people to worry about me feeling left out, and for god’s sake I want to eat a birthday cake on my birthday.   That’s how I celebrate.  My cake simply needed to be different.  But the point is I didn’t ask to be ill, and I didn’t ask for the community judgment that came with my “paleoified” cake, either.  And no, sorry, a steak is simply not going to cut it for me.  This is about cultural tradition

When children take “paleofied” cupcakes to school on their special day, is it really OK to shame the parent for trying to make their child feel normal, just so someone else can derive their own sense of superiority?  I think this is self-centered, unempathetic, and frankly abhorrent behavior.

I digress.

But that is why the dogma, the arbitrary rules surrounding the Paleo Diet,  the stigma around 21st-century convenience items, and the judgment from others was so enraging to me.  We need options, not judgment. And that’s what we’ve stood for ever since. Because in a world full of arbitrary rules and dogma, someone needed to see things with more nuance and in shades of gray for the moderators of the world, and for those that just want to feel normal and survive this thing called life.  Someone had to do it, and I guess that someone had to be me.

Up to this point, it’s clear to see the anger and rage that has brought me here.  But it’s not just anger and rage that drives me.  Another part of my reason for The Paleo Foundation was a girl named Abby. 

Abby is another story that is intertwined with mine.  Abby, like me, had fallen ill in a short time frame.  Her decline was almost identical to mine in terms of the health issues that were encountered.  

Abby is a name that is spoken solemnly by those of us in The Paleo Foundation.  In 2013, her husband, one of my brother’s best friends from high school, called me to ask for my help.  Abby was in the emergency room, and he was begging for me to tell him what to do.  But at that point I could not help her, she needed medical attention.  All I could do was tell him to do was support her and be there for her.  He felt totally helpless, and I knew his fear.  It was gut-wrenching for the both of us.  

Abby ultimately died from organ failure— her liver.  She was only a year older than me.  I believe that things could have been different for Abby if she had found the Paleo Diet as I did.  I believe things could have been different if I had done more to make the diet more visible to the people who needed it the most.  I believe that things could have been different for her if it was easier for her to find the foods that could have helped save her life. 

If only I had done more.  If only we had more time. 

Although I have struggled at times with crippling self-doubt, and there have been times that I wish that I never chose this path and have second-guessed myself into paralysis, I still wouldn’t trust anyone else to do what we do here at The Paleo Foundation. We exist to make things easier for those with stories like mine, like Abby’s, and who knows… maybe it’s your story, too. 

Thank you for hearing me, reader.  I hope I don’t let you down. 

Best,
Karen Pendergrass
Paleo Foundation
Co-Founder / Standards Team 

Special Thank You 

Thank you to Robb Wolf for offering words of encouragement from day 1.  Thank you for always steering me in the right direction when I was astray and letting my overwhelming emotions get the best of me.  

Thank you to Mark Sisson who has been a tremendous source of direction, inspiration, and encouragement.  Thank you for always making me feel like I was in the right place, and supported. 

Thank you to PaleoChef Mary Shenouda, for shaking me to my core and telling me that I needed to suck it up and do what was in the best interest of the Paleo Foundation, and to never lose sight of the bigger picture. 

Thank you to George Eyer, who gave me the last kick in the behind that was needed to put these words in writing for the first time and share the story of the Paleo Foundation.  You were right (even if you are a snappy SH). 

Thank you to Jacques Lebruement, Xavier Akoka, and Jawad Lahlou,  for being the best of friends during that time, and to Jacques for telling me about label rouge and planting the idea for certification in my head in the first place.  

Thank you to Joe Salama and Tim Swart, my brothers from another mother who helped me grow and manage the International Paleo Movement, and helped me get well on my way with the Paleo Movement Magazine.   

Thank you to Andrew and Jennifer Eyer,  had you not been there, we could not have gone through this journey.  And wow, what a journey it has been for us all. 

Thank you to Elke Nelson, my dearest PIC.  You were so brilliant, and always there to bounce ideas off of when I was first shaken to my core by being told that the Paleo Foundation was just a “pipe dream” because I was just “riding on the coattails” of people I won’t mention.  And, when I felt my most insecure, you offered the knowledge and encouragement that I needed to continue. 

Thank you to Kathy Blackwell, had you not told my mom about the Paleo Diet I may not have been OK.

Thank you to Zad Chow for being the iron that sharpened the iron, and for never tiring of getting into the weeds.  Your input, your criticisms, and your support of my work have always been invaluable to me. 

Thank you to Judy Weidner for offering the encouragement that we needed to leave Kansas City and start the business in Los Angeles.  

Thank you to David Krug, without having you as my accounting professor, I might not have ever felt like I could have endeavored to start the Paleo Foundation.  There are no professors like you, I mean that.  

Thank you to Jonathan Pendergrass, who sat with me and listened to me every time I had to take multiple breaks writing this story out.  Without your support as a brother, even in the toughest of times… I couldn’t have done this without you.  Even if you did steal my motorcycle. 

And lastly, thank you to my mom, Kimberly Eyer.  Had it not been for you… I don’t want to think about what it would have been like without you by my side through all of this.  You’ve been the best partner that I could have asked for.  

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