Lena Dunham's Favorite Food Expert On How She Ate To Balance Her Hormones & Manage Her Endometriosis
Jessica Murnane is the cool girl of the plant-based world. Her podcast, One Part Podcast, is a staple on the feeds of almost everyone I know, and features frank, fascinating discussion with food and health world celebs. Jessica manages to make it feel warm, inclusive, and inviting, like you're a fly on the wall of a cocktail conversation between two of the most badass women you know. Her book features an intro by the one and only Lena Dunham, who says, "this book is joyful, playful, delicious, and guess what? It will also change your life."
The philosophy has certainly changed Jessica's life. Diagnosed with endometriosis after years of chronic pain and a trip to the emergency room (she thought her appendix had burst), she's finally thriving thanks to a complete lifestyle overhaul. She stopped by our Brooklyn office to chat frankly about her healing journey, how to actually start eating healthier, and why you just might notice a chocolate tart in her purse.
mbg: What is endometriosis? What were your symptoms?
Jessica Murnane: Endometriosis is when the lining that's similar to the lining of your uterus grows outside your uterus. You can have one symptom or all of the symptoms. Since I got my period, I complained about painful diarrhea, incontinence—I used to pee in my pants all the time. When I first started having sex, I was having a ton of pain because it's a very normal symptom of endo to have painful sex. I went to the doctor and he told me I need to relax more in bed. A lot of women who have endometriosis end up going on antidepressants.
When were you diagnosed?
JM: I wasn't diagnosed until I was 28, which is very common. It takes a woman an average of 10 years to be diagnosed. When I was 28, one of my cysts burst. The pain was so intense, and I went to the emergency room and they thought it was appendicitis. Once they ruled that out they were essentially like, well, we don't know what that is; we don't know how to help you. The ER doctor that was there suggested I have a follow-up and that woman, the follow-up doctor, finally said she thought I had endometriosis. I had emergency surgery and they found cysts the size of oranges that had been growing since my first period.
What do doctors traditionally recommend for endometriosis?
JM: They told me to go on birth control, which made me a crazy person. I actually ended up trying four different birth controls, and had another surgery, and nothing got better. They suggested eventually that I get a hysterectomy, which is really common when you have endometriosis. There are so many doctors who say to get a hysterectomy but hysterectomies don't actually solve endometriosis.
How did you discover plant-based diets?
My friend sent me a link about how a plant-based diet can help with endometriosis. At the time, I was eating Lean Cuisines, a standard American diet. I went to this website and there was a list of what not to eat, and I had no idea what to eat. My first meal was a corn tortilla with salsa on top, because it was the only thing I could figure out to eat that fit with the rules. Within weeks, though, I wasn't in pain anymore. I think about that email all the time. If I hadn't gotten it, I would've gotten a hysterectomy.
So what do you actually eat now?
To me, plant-based means whole foods plant-based: food that is minimally processed or not processed at all. I'll eat, say, a rice pasta, which is processed, but I don't eat the fake meats or other processed food. I cut out gluten, dairy, soy, sugar from my diet. I allowed myself once a week to have whatever I wanted. Once a week, I could have dairy. Or the next week, I'd have gluten. Once I started doing that, the once-a-week things turned into once a month, because I just felt terrible. I was like, why do I want to feel bad once a week? And then those freebie days slowly disappeared.
Why do you think a plant-based diet works so well for endometriosis?
I've gathered that the main benefits of a plant-based diet for endometriosis are that you're already so inflamed, so taking out inflammatory foods makes a huge difference. When you have endo, you get super inflamed, and when you add inflammatory foods to that, it's not a good situation. I've also gathered that a lot of women with endometriosis have food sensitivities. If I eat sugar or dairy, I can tell immediately. Figuring out what you're sensitive to is a big part of the healing process.
What challenges did you run into when changing your diet? How did you overcome them?
I have a lot of food relationship issues, and I would choose food over myself, even if that food would make me feel bad. I got to a point with my endometriosis when I was like, I'm more important than cheddar cheese. If you have emotional issues tied with food, it can be hard to choose yourself first. That would be one of my No. 1 pieces of advice for people: Choose yourself first.
When I was first starting my new diet, I started to visualize how I wanted my night or day to look. I didn't want to visualize myself lying in bed; I wanted to visualize myself going out with friends. It was a shift in thinking. How do I want to feel an hour or two from now, versus getting fat in a distant, indefinable future?
Do you have any advice for making diet changes stick in the long term?
It's not only choosing yourself over the food but understanding this is always going to be a part of you. There will always be a wedding or a birthday party—always. The idea that you're gonna do whatever because you're at a wedding, it's like—don't you want to just have fun at the wedding without feeling terrible? You need to just accept that it's your new normal. I actually bring my own dessert to weddings. I hide it in my purse. I bring a Hail Mary tart and put it out on my plate so I don't feel deprived, and I still get to feel celebratory. People feel uncomfortable when you're not eating. If you're eating, they don't care.
Is there anything else you do as part of your healing regime?
Eating a plant-based diet is a step, but when you're in chronic pain, you're not able to exercise. So step one is to change your diet, so you can start feeling good. When you feel good enough, you can proceed to step two, which is exercising. It's a holistic approach, like a lot of things, but you have to get at least one of them started. If I don't exercise, I'm not in a good place. I use the app Aptiv, which is like having a trainer in your ear. But rebounding has also been massive in my healing. Anytime I'm feeling a little bit stressed, I get on my rebounder and my whole mood changes.
Your endometriosis is clearly much better. What other changes have you noticed since changing your diet?
It was always just a thing that I had insomnia, and now I sleep, which is amazing—but if I eat any gluten or sugar, I notice a difference. I'm also a nicer person. Once I changed my diet, my in-laws mentioned how much more engaged I was and how I just seemed happier. Before, they thought I was a cold person. It was affecting my whole personality, not just my insides. My skin got way better. It used to be red and now it's great and glowing. Finally, my relationships got better because I'm feeling good about myself!
Lena Dunham wrote the introduction to your book. How did that connection come about?
I reached out to Lena, actually, because I'd read about her endometriosis. She said she wanted to contribute to the book, but she had to drop out of the project because, ironically, her endometriosis was so bad. When she dropped out, I was like, listen—and I felt very hesitant to even tell her because she has access to the greatest doctors, but I went ahead anyway because if my friend hadn't sent me that email, who knows where I'd be? I said, if you ever want me to talk to you about food, I'd be more than happy to. And she said yes, and two or three months later, she ended up writing the foreword for the book. She definitely was sending me food she was eating and I think from what she said, she noticed what foods were her triggers. The thing is—it's your choice. Once you know your triggers, at least you know what they are, and the choice becomes a conscious one.