December 16, 2013

Healing My Digestion and My Relationship with Food

sloppy joe

It’s been over 4 years since I last enjoyed a Sloppy Joe on a gluten-full bun. What changed?

Disclaimer: The following are merely my experiences and should not constitute medical advice. I am merely a person on the internet and not a doctor, and should you be curious about your diet and how it impacts your health, I suggest you talk to your favorite qualified medical professional.

Since I posted about my healing process back in September, I’ve had several people interested in learning more about how I was able to heal my gut and reintroduce gluten and dairy back into my diet successfully. Since that point, I have been able to eat gluten and dairy without restriction. Even more so, I’ve been able to do so and am currently enjoying better digestion than I’ve had in years.

What happened? How is it that I spent so many years with a bad digestive system, gave up gluten, then dairy, and then continued to struggle 3 more years, only to now find myself in a place where I can go out to eat and choose anything on the menu?

In short, I had to completely reframe my way of thinking. I’d tried everything else. I went gluten and dairy-free. I removed FODMAPs. I tried an anti-candida diet. Then a high-raw, mostly vegan diet. I was mostly paleo for over a year. I juiced nearly daily. But I found that every time I removed something from my diet, it seemed I had trouble reintroducing it. I couldn’t digest anything without bloating, and I suffered from chronic constipation. This didn’t get better, no matter what I did. I also was trying to limit my calories almost constantly through these years, in order to keep my waistline in check. I worried about eating the wrong thing and suffering from digestive upset, worried about gaining weight, and I worried about not being able to maintain control of my eating. I’d often eat “clean” for days, only to bake some gluten-free (or even paleo) baked good, and fall face-first into the pile of goodies, fueling my anxiety about food, and messing with my digestion even more. I was stressed about where I was, but was also paralyzed.

When I embarked on a training plan for my very first half-marathon race early this year, I was rapidly discovering that my body wasn’t recovering after long runs. I would be tired and sore for several days. In addition, my paleo-ish diet wasn’t giving me adequate fuel. I’d hit a wall way too early in my runs. I knew that I couldn’t meet my fitness goals unless I ate more carbohydrates and more calories. Something had to change.

This realization, in a roundabout way, led me to a fledgling Facebook group called Eating the Food (an anti-diet, anti-dogma group) that helped me get away from my anxiety about food. I also stumbled upon Matt Stone’s work – specifically, Eat for Heat and Diet Recovery. These books talked of recovery using methods that frankly, at the beginning, terrified me just a bit. Eat for Heat discusses eating starches, sugar, and simple carbohydrates to raise metabolic rates. I’d tried for so long to limit these foods that I was certain I would suffer if I tried to eat them. I was certain I would be less healthy, or gain weight, or both. It seemed to be the total opposite of my kale-heavy, grain-free diet I was so married to at the time. I had to let go of that fear.

I am no scientist or doctor, and so I don’t fully understand the mechanics and relationship behind metabolism and digestive capacity, but I knew I wasn’t giving my body enough calories to do more than the bare minimum. I was generally striving for a diet consisting of only enough calories to cover my Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - or the calories my body needs just to rest – and I was requiring much more out of it than that. In addition, I was eating a lot of difficult-to-digest foods – raw, leafy greens, lots of insoluble fiber, and nuts. When a family member dealt with a digestive system-related surgery in 2012, I discovered that the doctors required a low-fiber, low-residue diet consisting of white starches, little lactose, low-fiber fruits and vegetables, and no nuts or seeds, in order to allow the body to heal the digestive system, rather than spending so much energy digesting difficult foods. In my not-scientific mind, I realized that perhaps I, too, needed to give my system a rest, and to give it enough calories to heal and do its job.

So I did.

I slowly reintroduced (gluten-free) grains, starches, and sugar. I backed off of the raw veggies (especially cruciferous) and only ate them when I truly craved them. I also backed off of the xanthan gum-heavy gluten-free products, as well as those with psyllium husk, flax and other gut-irritating ingredients. I brought in white rice, potatoes, and I allowed sweets. I slowly increased my calories so that I was eating to my Daily Energy Expenditure, or my BMR plus what I used moving around, cooking, standing and whatever I burned through conscious exercise. My belly did bloat a bit at first, but this quickly abated. I maintained a gluten-free, dairy-free diet, but I also made sure to incorporate gelatin and bone broth regularly to give my system as much as it needed to heal. I spent several months doing this. I also worked on reducing my fears associated with these foods I previously saw as “bad”, and I worked on acceptance of my body, even if I was to gain weight. I needed to reframe my mindset universally – healing my digestion and the way my body worked, for me, was dependent on my positive body image.

I found that over time, I was less anxious about food, but not just because I started to feel better. (And I DID feel better! I had more energy – I wasn’t prone to afternoon slumps, I wasn’t exhausted, I wasn’t hungry all the time, and I wasn’t overly focused about how long it was until my next meal.) I also found I no longer was prone to overeating. If I made cookies, I could have one, and that’s all I wanted. I could have candy on my desk at work and not touch it for days – I wouldn’t even think about it. That was completely contrary to my prior experiences. I learned that I didn’t have a “sugar addiction” before - I was just hungry. When my body was sufficiently fueled for long enough that it realized it was no longer going to be starving again soon, I stopped craving these things. It was a weight lifted from my shoulders that was more freeing than anything I’d experienced before.

I also tracked my body temperatures during this time, after reading Matt Stone’s work. I used to average a body temperature around 96 degrees F, which is sub-optimal. I used to always think that was normal, but I realized after a few months, my temperatures improved. They especially improved if I ate certain types of meals, such as oatmeal with a bit of sugar. (Coincidentally, this was a meal that also made me feel full of energy!) After about 5 months, I was averaging body temperatures near 98. My digestion was better than it’d ever been. I wasn’t bloated. I wasn’t constipated. In fact, I had gotten so I didn’t have to think about it (a.k.a. worry about it) more days than not. I had not experienced this in years. That’s when I got up the nerve to try to reintroduce dairy, and subsequently gluten.

Caveat: I don’t have celiac disease. I don’t even have the genes for celiac disease. So armed with that knowledge, along with some research done to show that there was not a correlation between increased gut permeability and gluten sensitivity (i.e. eating gluten wouldn’t cause harm to my digestive system that I couldn’t “feel”), I began my test.

Mind you, this test was entirely n=1. It was unscientific. I was merely starting with small amounts at first, waiting to see how I reacted, and I went from there. What happens to me might be different for others. But for me, a gradual reintroduction worked. At first, I found that small amounts of dairy didn’t cause any issues. I started with butter, then yogurts, hard cheeses, and finally softer cheeses and milk. I did the same with gluten. I started with mere crumbs, then sauces where I knew there was a small amount of gluten, to beer, and finally small amounts of gluten products – and not every day. I knew my body had to get used to digesting these things again (no different than a vegetarian who is reintroducing meat into their diet – often it takes the body a bit to build the enzymes needed). But long gone were any brain fog issues. No heartburn. No bloating. No constipation. I felt great.

Now, I can eat both of these things without restriction. In addition, I can even eat other items that caused me worse issues than gluten or dairy, such as beans. Beans give everyone gas at some level, sure, but for me, they used to cause excruciating pain. I’ve been able to reincorporate them into my diet (again, slowly) and I’m not in pain.

Does this mean I am eating a Standard American Diet (SAD)? Hardly. I might have some processed food here and there, but I still enjoy whole, fresh foods, and I cook from scratch. As you can see by the recipes posted here, many of those meals are still entirely gluten and dairy-free. I don’t ”need” these foods to thoroughly enjoy eating, but I’m elated to not have to restrict. Most importantly, I’m happy that I don’t feel fragile or sick.

Will the same work for you? I don’t know. I’m not a medical professional. If you’re on a gluten-free diet because you have celiac disease, gluten is not your friend. Tasty Eats At Home is here to share ways to navigate through life as easily (and as deliciously) as possible while on a gluten-free diet. But if you don’t have celiac disease (if you think you do, please get tested!), then perhaps discussing your situation with your doctor is the way to go. Contrary to what so many (non-doctors) say, gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity is not necessarily a permanent thing. Do your own research - and stick with tested, verifiable research studies for good information. (There is a lot of kooky stuff out there - believe me, I bought into my fair share of it.) And most importantly, listen to your body, and quiet the dietary dogma in your head. If your body vehemently tells you not to eat something, then don’t eat it. But ultimately, this is your journey, and you are the captain of your own ship. Sail it.

15 Responses to “Healing My Digestion and My Relationship with Food”

  1. Thanks for sharing this part of your journey, Alta! It’s sort of one of those topics that no talks about, so I know this is going to be helpful for so many people. After years of healing, I can tolerate a little dairy now and then again without problems. I’m so grateful! All that healing food really does pay off. :)

    • Hallie – Thank you! I did feel I went “against the grain” speaking about this, but I did want others to know that elimination of foods doesn’t always have to be a “forever” thing. Glad to hear that you’re healing too!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story! I hope one day I can heal my digestion and relationship with food! I feel like I’ve tried everything and am just getting worse! Thanks for the inspiration :)

    -Cassidy

  3. Yay for not being fragile and sick. So happy for you, Alta…this is a great post!

  4. Finally, the voice of reason! So many people say they are unable to consume gluten or dairy, when there is no reason for it, other than listening to food fads. I did the same thing with dairy — gave it up. And then, when it didn’t solve any problems, and I didn’t feel any better without it, I started drinking milk (a favorite) again. I had bad cramping and diarrhea, because I didn’t know to reintroduce it gradually, but I didn’t put 2+2 together, and rode out the pain and bathroom trips, and now I can once again drink milk freely. What this says to me is that it doesn’t make sense to give up ANY food, unless you have a documented intolerance or allergy which is unlikely to go away. And it takes a medical exam to know. Your point about celiac disease is valid, and some people DO have a genetic lactose intolerance, but the rest of us shouldn’t buy into the myths that so many people are pushing!

    • Natalie – Thank you! So glad to hear you can drink milk again. And yes, some people have celiac or food allergies that are very real, but for a great majority of us, eliminating foods seems to cause issues.

  5. I suffered from IBS for years and kept trying a Paleo diet. I kept removing more and more things. I was totally gluten free and eating 100% the healthiest things ever. Then we moved to a new house and whilst unpacking I started relying on boxed food and Dunkin Donuts egg white breakfast sandwiches on english muffins on my way to work.

    GUESS WHAT? My gut has NEVER been better!! It’s been 6 months and my stomach is amazing! And my husband and I can go out and do things again because I am not afraid of my stomach. I drink coffee, too! I currently eat white gluten and white starches, ‘healthier’ fast food, and boxed ‘healthier’ foods. I am cured. I even drink beer. My stomach needed to stop eating all that hard to digest ‘roughage’. Processed food DOES have ‘some’ room in my life.

    • Emm – It’s pretty awesome when we get out of our own way sometimes, and chill out. Processed food can have ‘some’ room in all of our lives, I think! Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. I praise the ground you walk on! My story is pretty much identical to everything that you have just written. I tried paleo, then 801010, then vegan, then low fat, high fat….my digestion was terrible, bloating, gas. By some miracle of God I found Matt Stone’s book Diet Recovery and started reading. I’ve also been reading Eat for Heat and thanks to those two books and Go Kaleo’s site, I feel confident in declaring myself off the diet bandwagon. I can enjoy rice, oats, lentil, all the foods I feared unnecessarily. I have reclaimed my life and it makes me so joyous when I hear that others have reclaimed theirs too! Bless you!

  7. Glad you are feeling better! There is so much information out there, but I think it comes down to personal experimentation and experience. Everyone has their own specific diet that they need to discover for themselves!

  8. Thanks for sharing your story, I very much identify with what you are saying and I feel genuinely happy for you that you’re now feeling better :-)
    Thanks again and have a great day!

  9. Dear Alta!
    Greetings from Shizuoka, Japan!
    Interestingly enough, ehere in Japan, and especially Shizuoka Prefecture which is turning into THE organic vegetables and fruit research area in Japan, we seem to consume a very healthy food by American standards (I’m French incidentally).
    The fact is that I did change my diet a long time ago from mainly meat eater to a more balanced diet, e.g. everyday food in Japan.
    We have a lot of expats of all countries here and they all agree that Shizuoka is the best area for vegans, vegetarians, and people with all of diet priorities.
    But at the same time we can indulge into anything.
    Tonight I will go to a high level Japanese fusion restaurant and tomorrow I will go for lunch to Yui which is famous for its sushi and sakuraebi/cherry shrimps!
    Looking forward to reading you soon again!
    Best regards,
    Robert-Gilles

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