It's Complicated: Eating for Nourishment vs. Enjoyment

April 8, 2015

Greens, greens, and more greens: My new eating mantra
fresh spinach salad

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).

Grain-free, dairy-free, no-sugar-added apple cinnamon roll via Grazed and Enthused
no-sugar-added, paleo cinnamon roll


  1. Well sugar is not more addictive than crack for people. Only for rats in certain super boring environments. The problem with The China Study is that scientifically, animal trials are not applicable to humans.
    It is generally best to get your nutrition advice from your doctor and not from Google. Google is very useful but there is a lot of information that is misrepresented so it can be difficult to tell which studies have been done correctly, especially if one is reading an article written by journalist or blogger just trying to get page views.

    1. Sara, I appreciate your concern for my health. Since hitting rock bottom about a year ago, I have been hospitalized for a week, received a blood transfusion and iron infusions, been seen by eight different doctors and a worthless nutritionist, had two different diagnoses, and ironically had more blood drawn than I was given since in an effort to find out what is really wrong - and yet I still suffer. I think it's safe to say that doctors don't have all the answers.

      Online, I have connected with countless people, very much like Ana in the comment below, who are experiencing similar issues - and unfortunately a similar lack of answers from medical doctors - and have felt more understood and hopeful about my health than I have in years. I am still working with my doctor to make sure I am not in any real danger, but a diet low in sugars and known inflammatories is a tough thing to find fault in, especially if it's what makes me feel better.

      We are all ultimately in charge of our own bodies and our own health. I'm just trying to do what is best for mine.

  2. So sorry you're going through all this! There are so many emotions and memories wrapped up in our food, and hopefully, when you're feeling better, you'll be able to create new associations with things like cauliflower rice :)

    1. Thank you, Milly! It is so frustrating to be so emotional about food, but it is what it is. I have high hopes for new memories to keep me going and have already started with hosting an almond waffle Easter brunch for some friends!

      I hope things are looking up for you as well!

  3. Hi,
    I recognized a lot of my own symptoms in the ones you describe...
    My food intolerance initially looked like a lactose intolerance, except that the lactase pills didn't work for me, and the doctors could not diagnose lactose intolerance with all the common tests...
    Then I noticed that I also have problems with other foods (apples, grains, sugars...)
    My symptoms are: being bloated all the time, full of gas, cramps, being tired all the time... I also have a 'six-month-pregnant' stomach every other day... so I perfectly know how that feels...
    Officially, I was never diagnosed with anything (I was never tested for celiac disease)...
    At some point I just got tired of explaining my symptoms to mostly not-very-considerate doctors, and just started researching myself online, and trying out foods to identify the ones I can tolerate better.

    In the end, what I think it's the closest to what I have if sensitivity to FODMAPs (
    After months of researching, and trying out different foods, the FODMAP diet seems to be working best for me...
    I still often have days when I feel bad, and six months pregnant :(, which is mostly due to the fact that I still often eat outside, where it's impossible to absolutely control all the ingredients...
    Also, sometimes it's really, really hard to resist the sugar cravings, so I often have cheat meals...
    But, in general I am feeling better with this diet and I can highly recommend it.

    And I forgot to mention another interesting fact.
    I also live in Germany. For 5 years now. I come from south of Europe and I never before had problems with any food. I basically had the stomach of steel. All my problems started here in Germany, more or less, 3 years ago...
    I have a few friends (all females) that also have similar problems, and we often joke that it must be something in the water here... :)... I don't know...

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for writing about this! Because there are many people out there with similar symptoms, that are totally lost, trying out different diets... and I think any information helps...
    And I wanted to share the Stanford Diet link, in case you didn't come across it, it might be helpful.
    Good luck!

    1. Ana, thank you so much for sharing your story! It is so frustrating and isolating to deal with persistent health issues like this, especially when medical professionals don't have concrete answers. My intense bloating has become almost non-existent since cutting out the grains and refined sugar, but I hope to be able to try other foods again at some point to see if I still have sensitivity. Like you, I really miss more traditional sweets and would love to start eating out again.

      Funny about this surfacing for you in Germany, as it did for me. I figured it had more to do with change of diet, stress and major lifestyle changes that flipped the switch, so to speak - but who knows! I had read about FODMAP as well, but for some reason it didn't resonate as much with me as some of the others, perhaps because they were more often tied with putting autoimmune conditions into remission. I say, whatever works!

      Again, thanks for sharing and hope you are doing well!

  4. I am in the same boat and can appreciate the frustration of varied/false diagnoses, countless tests and a finicky gut that likes to test my patience. I'm sorry to hear you've had to go through so much, but it sounds like you are finding your path...slowly but surely.

    With regards to your post, I think our environments and what goes into the food we eat plays a big role in the rising number of food sensitivities and auto-immune breakdowns. With all the pesticides, hormones and heaven-knows-what else goes in our food and water it's no surprise that our bellies are retaliating.

    A long time lactose intolerant (with a few true allergies added to the mix), I've recently gone vegan-ish (I still adore honey...can't give that up) in order to get some several gut/immune-related issues under control. It hasn't been much of a stretch in some ways, but in others I've found I've come to really appreciate the food I eat--I revel in the choices I make at every meal. Funnily enough, I don't miss meat, although every so often I salivate at the mention of a salmon filet or boiled egg. Regardless, I've (re)discovered fruits and veggies I had no idea I loved. Beets? Yes, please. Cauliflower? Check. Lentils? For the love of God, now! In that sense, the way I've chosen to eat now has led me to think very differently about what I put in my body.

    That said, all my issues flared up considerably when leaving Egypt behind for the U.S., which makes me wonder: wtf is in the food or water here that is so upsetting? Funnily enough I have fewer issues when in Europe (I can even handle most breads or the odd slice of cheese) and other places around the world.

    Courage and best of luck!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing and the kind words, JoAnna. It's hard to be so finicky with food, but once I stopped to really listen to my body and put my its needs first, I really started to change the way I felt. I love that's it's opened me up to things I couldn't appreciate before - like cauliflower and beets - and I know my body appreciates the diversity of whole, fresh foods. That said, it is hard to cut back on the gluten-free grains and baking, which I so love.

      I'm always apprehensive about what's really in food, especially in the US. I'm pretty sure a lifetime of eating all those unnecessary additives and fake foods lead me to this place. I always feel better eating here in Germany, though the understanding about eating out with celiac disease is painfully lacking. Just more of an excuse to improve my cooking skills at home!

      Here's to good health!


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