In all my life, I've never really examined my eating habits until now. I scoffed at dieters, rolled my eyes at health-food nuts and sent a virtual stink-eye out to everyone who went gluten-free because it was the cool thing to do (seemingly discrediting the strict eating my disease required). Years of anemia didn't mean ingesting more iron-filled foods, it meant popping iron supplements and going on my way. Even after my celiac diagnosis, I was still in it for whatever satisfied my need to not feel deprived - gluten-free pizza, doughnuts, cakes, cookies. Food was about satisfying cravings, yet it's become something too often indulged in more for its enjoyment factor, its Instagramworthiness, than it's nutritional value. Hashtag-donuts, anyone?
All food porn aside, food luxuries are ones we should be able to enjoy. Yes, it's a first-world problem, this abundance of food choice, but one so inherently tied to our psyche and well-being. Your favorite restaurant, holiday cookies made every year with your mom, that weekend brunch spot where you know the menu by heart. Not to mention travel. How can one possibly immerse oneself in a new culture without also enjoying the local food? But the truth is, these things are more than just food - they are warm memories and fulfilment. Time spent with loved ones, or even on our own, relishing in something delicious and creating a new life experience. It's hard to separate that from eating purely as a means to refuel. So what happens when we these sentiments control what we eat more than what our bodies actually need?
This disconnect has been my struggle. I grew up begrudgingly swallowing rubbery green beans from a can solely to get to the dessert, a constant at the finish line that was dinner. Salad was eaten only to be drowned in ranch dressing. I'm hard-pressed to remember anything nutritious or savory that I have strong memories of, aside from weekly steak dinners at Black Angus, complete with fried zucchini (pretty much the only kind of veg I would eat proactively) and the ever-present, sugary Shirley Temple. Sweets were what my world revolved around. Sunny days at Baskin Robbins, that green party punch that I reveled in watching kids turn their noses up at the color only to try a sip and greedily pour themselves more, weekly pilgrimages to 7-11 to spend a disgusting chunk of allowance on all manner of candy bars, sugary popcorn and slurpees for weekend sleepovers spent watching movies and obsessing over our latest crushes. It was always about getting to that sweetness at the end of the meal, that sugar-binge at the end of the week.
Savory foods did join my regular eating-for-enjoyment routine, though this appreciation dawned much later than for most. I enjoyed my foray into adulthood cooking when we moved to Germany, where I had the time to dedicate to preparing delicious meals in the absence of great restaurants and learned fresh, from-scratch recipes where the oft-used American shortcut staples did not exist. I learned fresh green beans are crisp and delicious, not the overly-salted little pieces that used to squeak between my teeth as a child. I enjoyed it, I even got pretty good at it. Sure, I still baked and indulged in sweets regularly, but now I looked forward to Sunday dinners of meat braised for hours and spicy curries chock-full of fresh vegetables. Delicious food finally went beyond ice cream and cake.
These food priorities, government-endorsed food pyramids and hippie naturalists be damned, is why my world came crashing down when gluten became my greatest enemy. No pizza, burgers, pasta, waffles?! How would I survive? Never again, Burgermeister? No more Sunday brunches? Well, I did survive. I re-learned how to cook in a way that was safe for my autoimmune disease-ridden body, and I hardly felt deprived at all, all social situations aside. I thought I had my demons under control. But just as things were starting to get good again, just when I had a way to channel my love of good food and satisfy a frustrating food intolerance into something positive, my body shouted 'no' and raised the white flag. All those pre-diagnosis symptoms were back, this time, enemy unknown. Back to gasping for breath after coming up the stairs to our apartment, waking from 10 hours of sleep still exhausted and regularly struggling to pull basic information caught somewhere in the fogginess of my brain. Perhaps the most upsetting? The gut that would protrude to six-month-pregnant proportions in a matter of hours and the elasticated pants that were increasingly necessary. I realized there must be something more than the now-non-existent gluten that was bringing me down.
I spent countless days falling down the rabbit hole that is medical symptoms on the internet and making very interesting discoveries. The studies that suggest sugar is more addictive than crack. The fact that there's added sugar in my canned tomatoes. The belief many have that the gut controls so much about the body's health, and when it is out of whack, the whole body follows suit. So I decided to make some more drastic changes to the way I ate. First, I cut out all sugar, including most fruit, but also grains and starches as well. I began eating only organic in a quest for simpler, chemical-free food easier on my ravaged gut. I added things in like bone broth, gelatin and lots of coconut (oil, milk, dried) and cinnamon, that are also supposed to heal and help with inflammation. While I've taken a lot of notes from diets like GAPS and Autoimmune Paleo, I've always been cautious of anything described as a 'diet' while using it as a platform to sell something. When these sites hawking cookbooks and supplements gave way to incredible stories, like Dr. Terry Wahls, who essentially reversed her MS symptoms through her diet, I started to really listen. Besides, my journey wasn't about losing weight or jumping on a trendy eating bandwagon, it was about my health, at a basic functioning level.
The more I read about healing through food and how it can help symptoms of autoimmune conditions - from which both my husband and I suffer - it seemed to be a smart path to follow. For the second time in one year, I began a new food journey... In the first week or so, I had some major emotional crashes, sobbing uncontrollably and swearing if I ate roasted chicken and vegetables again, I'd scream. But just like cutting out gluten, cutting out refined sugar, all grains and most dairy (and coffee and alcohol) has been a learning curve, though not as scary and depriving as one might think. There have been some clear losers in the quest for good recipes (I've determined paleo pancakes just taste like a sweet omelette - ugh) and some surprising winners (cauliflower rice?! but I hate cauliflower! *mind blown*), but the good news is I'm finally getting the hang of cooking this way and more importantly, feeling better. The coffee and alcohol though, I miss those terribly. Well, and corn chips, if I'm honest.
I understand these are not great realizations, that most healthy adults eat a well-balanced diet and don't fall to pieces when they can't patronize their local ice cream shop or catch up with friends over a cup of coffee. But I am a product of all my years of unbalanced eating and over-indulgence, convinced decades of choosing enjoyment over nourishment has left me with a body that is finally fighting back and a mind that's trying desperately to catch up to what is good for me. My outlook is still uncertain as I spend all hours of the day either researching, shopping for or preparing all of our from-scratch meals and try not dwell on the prospect that eating out and travel feels even more impossible than it was before. My doctor seems to be searching for a more concrete answer, one with the word 'disease' attached that requires more rounds of invasive tests, but I'm not entirely convinced. I don't know if this 'diet' is the course I will stay on indefinitely or if I will ease up once my body heals, but I'm going with my gut, quite literally. For now, it's nourishment for the win (with enjoyment thrown in every now and then).