Elimination diets - a cautionary tale
After my diagnosis in Christmas 2013, and my brief flirtation with gluten free products, I was on a mission to reclaim my health and my sanity. I started researching and reading day and night. If food got me into this mess and had the power to create so many symptoms, then surely it could help me out of it too.
Super foods were big news and I went hell for leather on them. Goji berries, flax seed, raw cacao, chia seeds, coconut oil, maca powder, quinoa, pumpkin seeds - if David Wolfe wrote about it, I ate it. I was sold on their nutritional properties and all the touted benefits that came with them. Anti – inflammatory, anti-oxidant, hormone balancing, digestion soothing and all the rest. I watched ‘Food Matters', an awe inspiring documentary about the health and food industry so many times I was quoting it in my sleep. By the way, if you haven’t seen it – you absolutely need to. I started to detox and cleanse my body with fruit and vegetable juices and eliminated all refined sugar from my diet, replacing it with agave syrup.
I had a bit more energy, I lost weight, I felt…ok. On a standard day I would have gluten free oats or chia pudding for breakfast with almond milk, coconut oil, raw cacao powder, pumpkin seeds and a mountain of berries. For lunch I would have quinoa and salad with olives. Dinner would be all manner of veggies and pulses with chicken or fish and loaded with garlic for its multiple medicinal properties. I was doing EVERYTHING that the health foodies in all the shiny magazines were doing. But I didn’t feel like they did. My hair was still falling out, my eyes were still swollen and purple. I still had shooting pain down my legs and my moods and hormones were very erratic. I wasn’t sleeping well and I had moments of feeling very low. I would get so upset at the slightest thing with very little rational reason. I was trying to manage my stress with yoga, but would abandon the yoga mat because the peace and stillness would aggravate me even more.
I persevered and kept consuming the foods in vast quantities and juicing everything in sight. I knew healing would take time so I was prepared for the slog.
I carried on this way for a year and a half. Yes, I undoubtedly felt better off the gluten. I was less tired, less anxious and felt better in myself overall. But too many niggling symptoms still remained and I couldn’t understand why a year of juicing beetroot and half-arsed yoga hadn’t taken this away.
I decided I needed help. I found a nutritionist and we began working through a mammoth questionnaire relating to all aspects of my health. We talked through my symptoms, emotions, past traumas, stressors and their impact on my health. Sometimes its not until you are asked to specifically note these things down or round up your life events in a few paragraphs that the obvious just smacks you in the face. I had experienced everything on the list of stressors in a very short space of time. Combine that with a body under attack from itself and it was never going to end well. We talked about the steps I would need to take to get back on track and I was warned that the body might take as many years to heal as it had done to damage itself. But I was more than up for the challenge and raring to go.
Firstly, I was going to need to make adaptations to my diet. Based on the digestive symptoms I was still presenting, a low FODMAP diet was recommended. This would explain why for me, a super foods diet was not the right approach. I was clearly struggling with FODMAPs and in my juicing hysteria, I was inadvertently drinking myself into tummy ache. Not to mention the world of pain all those garlic cloves were causing.
The protocol I was to follow was to:
Remove – all food irritations and intolerances
Repair – The damage to my digestive system
Replace- The necessary enzymes and acid
Re-inoculate – My gut with probiotics
Re-introduce – Foods that I have eliminated
When you look at the protocol it makes perfect sense. And once you get the right diet for your needs – this protocol is the foundation to any digestive healing program.
I immediately cut all moderate and high FODMAPs. Now I know people often and understandably find elimination diets difficult to adhere to. No one willingly wants to give up the cookie dough ice cream. But I will always commit, 100%, to the letter. No cheating, no exceptions. I put this down to a lifetime of health anxiety and the overwhelming desire to take back control of my health.
So the FODMAPs were kicked to the curb. To assist in the protocol I was given an array of supplements. Supplements to soothe and heal, to balance gut bacteria, to support my intolerances to food and to break down and assimilate much needed nutrients.
For the first few weeks I was blissfully content and positive I was on the mend. Creating meals was difficult but I was convinced it was worth the effort. After all, this was a 6-week protocol, and then I could start re-introducing FODMAPs.
But I found it increasingly hard to know what to eat and my ‘allowed’ list seemed to be ever shrinking. My diet started to revolve around some low FODMAP staples – eggs, potato’s, rice, tomato’s, peppers, fish, meat and root veg. I had very little to no red meat on the basis that I had been brought up understanding the dangers too much consumption posed to your health.
When the 6-week mark came around I began to make my food re-introductions. I sampled the tiniest amount of avocado to test my reaction and within half an hour I looked close to giving birth. I was so disappointed not to mention uncomfortably gassy. I waited impatiently for a few days for the symptoms to subside before attempting some sweet potato. The same reaction. I left the FODMAPs alone and I carried on with the supplements. I carried on feeling less than average but I persevered. A few weeks later I almost exploded with excitement when I discovered a recipe for a gluten free pizza base made from cauliflower. As it had been a few weeks since my last failed introductions, I thought id try again and whip up a pizza complete with a small sample of un-pasteurised mozzarella. I say ‘whip up’- it took hours. Have you ever tried to get all the liquid out of a minced cauliflower? Don’t bother. A half soggy, half burnt pizza later and my gut were expanding and my old lactose triggered head pain was back.
I had totally plateaued. In fact with the cocktail of supplements I’d been on, the elimination of the best part of my diet and the inability to reintroduce them, I felt thoroughly defeated and lost. My nutritionist suggested that given my digestion was in a bad way it would simply take some more time. So I started again. I scrapped the FODMAPs, ordered more supplements and pushed on. The problem was that I didn’t really have any recipes and I was becoming fearful of food and my reactions to them. Instead of cooking up a balanced FODMAP storm every day, I was merely eating a selection of low FODMAP ingredients - an abundance of eggs, potato’s and tomato’s in a variety of ways. My symptoms were getting worse again and I was losing weight. A lot of weight. The issue was I didn’t have a great deal spare to be losing in the first place and my days became panic stricken with trying to get enough calories. I would eat mouthfuls of coconut oil just to try and desperately bump up my intake. I became obsessive and started tracking the calories in everything I ate and made myself stressed when it wasn't enough. People started to comment on my weight and I began to feel uncomfortable in myself, but I vehemently defended my diet in my misguided belief it was right for me. It wasn't until I looked back on photos of myself months later that I realised just how gaunt I was. Over the course of the next year I tirelessly pursued a low FODMAP diet of a few select vegetables, eggs and meat, just waiting to get better. I lost two stone in weight and I lost my periods. My hair fell out more and my hormones took me from euphoric highs to crashing lows. I discussed my concerns about my weight and losing my periods with my nutritionist but she felt they were unrelated and dismissed them. This alarmed me and I felt she had not only been irresponsible, but also put my health in danger. The one thing that did start to improve in this time was my digestive symptoms. In the absence of the FODMAPs my bowels were more regular, I had little to no bloating and abdominal pains were becoming less intense and frequent.
But enough was enough and something had to give. I couldn't continue to lose more weight and I needed to find hormonal balance. I knew the FODMAP diet was helping me but it wasn't ticking all the boxes. My digestion was improving in many ways but all my other symptoms remained or were exacerbated by my new limited diet. I felt like I was missing the bigger picture somehow so I continued to look elsewhere for answers to heal my entire body.
For me, I have learnt that a low FODMAP diet is a very valuable tool when suffering with digestive issues as a result of food intolerances and IBS. However I didn’t have the correct resources or support I needed at the time to use the diet to my advantage. I cannot stress enough how important it is to find recipes for balanced low FODMAP meals to ensure you are still meeting your individual needs. I have since found the missing part of my dietary puzzle, which I will share with you in my next post, and how I have successfully incorporated and adapted my low FODMAP diet into this with great success. I am also pleased to say another year on and I can happily eat avocado and sweet potato without having to unbutton my jeans.
This blog tells an ongoing story about me and my journey back to health and happiness. A boho soul always looking for my next European adventure. I am a Coeliac, Yogi, paleo advocate, dreamer, Bon jovi connoisseur, sun worshipper, snuggly jumper wearer and wife to my lovely Paulie.