The Karen Pendergrass Paleo Foundation Story

I’m Karen Pendergrass, this is my story.

I’m told nobody cares what I do, only why I do it. I’ve never really told the Karen Pendergrass story behind the Paleo Foundation on, so I’ll put it here.

Halloween of 2008 I got sick. Sick like I looked pregnant, had a headache, was dizzy, and my feet were too swollen to put into my shoes. Until that day, this had never happened before. I didn’t go out that year, first Halloween in my life where I slept instead. For those that don’t know, Halloween is a company holiday at the Paleo Foundation. It’s a day to reflect on our health, eat chocolate, and party… because we’re alive.

Because I am alive.

I’ll spare you the ultra gory details, but fast forward to March I had gone from 105 lbs to 155, my liver became diseased and my skin routinely sloughed off like a snake, I developed PCOS, lost my vision in my left eye (not totally, but I had 20/10 before) and got “eye headaches” that made me want to claw the left side of my face out, lost sensation in my hands and feet, had a hard time walking because of the swelling, stopped having menstrual cycles, couldn’t stay awake without coffee and red bull, was sleeping 15-20 hours (and sometimes more) straight, would get lost on my way to school, my grades suffered tremendously. I also couldn’t carry on a conversation without getting lost and confused every 30 seconds.

I saw several physicians and specialists (all idiots) and nobody really could figure anything out. I was given prescriptions for Zoloft and sent on my way for my “psychosomatic manifestations of stress” and was even told I had gone into early menopause—I was only 25 years old.

After cycling through one physician after another, I found an internal medicines guy who considered himself the “Dr. House of Kansas City” that took all of my blood panels again. When he got the results back, he called me to schedule an appointment ASAP, and have a family member drive me. My iron stores were devastatingly low, my liver enzymes were dangerously high, and there was, indeed, something really wrong with me. Finally someone was taking this as seriously as I was.

I had tests and more tests, but the best care I was given was being prescribed prednisone and ferrous sulfate, which I was popping like candy. But still, my condition got worse. And when I told him I ate red meat and vegetables every day, he didn’t believe me until I had my roommate (who was an OR nurse at a local hospital who he knew) confirmed that I was telling the truth.

I thought I was going to die. I meant that when I said it then, and when I say it now.

Luckily for me, a suggestion to get tested for Celiac’s Disease came, and although not all of the symptoms could be accounted for, enough were, so I asked “Dr. House” to test me. His response? “You do not have Celiac’s Disease. It is a wasting disease and you are gaining weight. Besides, it’s very, very rare.” And I said, “Give me the damn test.”

Which I came back positive for.  He simply tells me “You can’t eat wheat.” Then he asked me to find a new physician to manage my care from then on. Didn’t say who, just… someone other than him.

Ok. I have Celiac’s Disease. No wheat.

My mom’s personal trainer told her about the Paleo Diet for her allergies. There was an ENT group in KC that were big proponents of the diet. So, why not? Let’s see what would happen. In 8 days, my skin changed color, I was losing weight, I slept 10 hours instead of 20, “brain fog” as I now know of it lifted, and I could hold a conversation like a normal person.

Hooray! This Paleo Diet is the shit!!! I was on it for about a month before I decided to go with my besties from school to France. And eat French food— like baguettes— like a jackass. Oh, France.

While I was there, I had a psychotic episode within the first few days of being there, hallucinating that I was 5 years old and buying buttons in a fabric shop with my mom, and that my friends were trying to abduct me. Luckily, my friends were aware that this can happen when I’m sick. It’s called Schizophrenia, and its relationship with Celiac Disease is noteworthy.

Then the story gets downright gory and disgusting, but I’ll omit those details and spare you, reader. Long story short, whatever benefits I had from going on a Paleo Diet for the past month disappeared. I gained all of the weight back, plus some. When my mom picked me up from the airport, she saw me, gasped loudly, and covered her mouth with her hands in shock.

However, had I not gone on that trip, I wouldn’t be here. Going back to my “regular” Paleo Diet did not help me recover.

In fact, everything I ate made me sick. And again, I couldn’t figure it out. Months went by, new symptoms started appearing. Chicken, turkey, eggs, pork— everything was making me sick (again, gory details removed). But what was interesting, was that grass-fed beef was making me sick, and I simply could not figure it out.


The Moment My Whole Life Changed

So one fateful day at Whole Foods in Overland Park, Kansas, I walked up the meat counter. I asked the butcher if the USDA Organic, American Grass-fed Certified beef was really grass-fed. And he said, “Yeah, it’s certified grass-fed and organic, see, it says right here on this label.” I say, “OK” and step back about 10 feet from the case and pause to think.

I was scanning the meat department and lamenting about how everything was making me sick. The chicken, the eggs, the turkey, the pork, the bacon, all of it was making me sick. Strangest, of all was that the USDA Organic, grass-fed beef was doing this, too. This is what had made me better before going to France. But now, it’s the worst. And I said to myself, “Self, is there any logical reason why this grass-fed beef should make me sick? Can I be sensitive like this to everything? Veggies, sick. Fruits, sick. Chicken, sick. Pork, hell no I’m going to die. Grass-fed beef, my previous savior that cost an extra 2 dollars per lb., it makes me sick. What am I missing?  Think, Karen Pendergrass. It’s what you’re good for.” But I drew a blank.

“Dig deeper, you’re missing something.”

So I stepped back up to the meat counter. I said to that same butcher, “Are you sure it’s grass-fed? Like, 100%?” And he says, with this weird drawn-out exaggeration, “Well… it’s grass-fed for 10 months, but then it’s finished on grain because they can’t be healthy and get all of the nutrients they need unless they have grain, and over time a grass-fed diet would cause them to be sick and diseased.”

Imagine, if you will, that the room grew dark for me, my eyes saw red— the wrath of 100 gods flooded my veins and I just unleashed. I lost my shit. 

I apologize today to the man behind the counter, my mother who had to physically hold me back and calm me down, and the patrons and security guards who had to witness that explosion in Whole Foods. In my defense, you cannot get away with fucking with my health. You cannot lie to me and expect me to be calm. You cannot charge me 2 dollars extra per pound for your bullshit beef and peddle your misinformation and continue to cloud my vision.

I said to myself, if USDA Organic would not do it, if American Grassfed Beef would not do it, I would fucking do it myself. I discovered there were people out there who were sick like me who believed they were allergic to meat. I knew there were people out there who are just as uneducated as I was about deceptive labeling and agricultural practices. I knew there were people out there who, like me, needed this diet to stay alive. 24 hours after the Whole Foods incident, a 31 page business plan had been written.


The Big Risk

In 2009, The Paleo Diet was hardly a blip on the Google radar. But I knew it was coming. You cannot have something that life-altering and keep your mouth shut about it. I didn’t want a single soul on this planet to go through the fear and pain I went through, or be misled the way I was when my life depended on it. I wanted to help people like me who had suffered find their way to normalcy. I wanted what I didn’t have that year— a labeling system that actually meant what it said, a way to know that what I ate wasn’t going to kill me.

3 months to the day that I had that explosion inside of Whole Foods, I had quit my job, left school a month before graduation much to the dismay of my Harvard Business mentor, convinced my mom to quit her job and sell her house and come with me, and moved to Los Angeles and filed papers for the Paleo Foundation and the Paleo Approved label. That was January 1, 2010.

In 2013 a friend’s wife fell sick in the most frighteningly similar way as I had. She developed the same diseases I did, even in the same short frame of time. Our stories are uncannily similar.

I read her obituary from time to time. It reads that she died of organ failure. What devastates me is that they reached out to me for help only a few days before she died because their doctor said nothing could be done, and at their wits end, that’s when they called me.

At the heart of it, that’s why I do what I do. Because I can. Because I’m lucky to be alive. Because I’m not the only one who needed this.

This movement saved my life. And although some may take offense to some of the products we certify, I remain unfazed. I am in the do-whatever-it-takes camp to get this movement and its benefits into consciousness of those who would benefit from it, and I have little time for dogma when people’s lives are at stake. Not just us as individuals, but our farmers and our food producers, our environment, and our children’s children’s futures, too.

This whole thing is kind of a big deal.

So, Hi. I’m Karen Pendergrass. Thanks for letting me share my story.

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