In a previous post, I talked about How I Got Pumped About Fitness. I mentioned that around that same time, I also started focusing more on my food and nutrition. In this 3-part series, I’ll go a bit more in depth about the small steps I took over time to change my diet and really find out what works for me. This type of journey will look different for everyone, including you, but I am a strong believer that knowing you are not alone in taking that journey, or dealing with those struggles, can provide a huge sense of relief. So, here we go!
Back to the Basics
While I didn’t start weight training in a focused way until the summer after my freshman year of college, I did start making some steps down a healthier path before that. Once I realized I was gaining weight and consistently feeling worse, I started doing some basic cardio and weight machines at my school gym, and more importantly, I started tracking my food. I’m sure by now we’ve all heard that most progress happens in the kitchen! I think part of what spurred this was actually my gastroenterologist. I had been seeing one for about a year, because I had developed painful acid reflux and consistent stomach aches when I was 18. I saw a gastroenterologist who put me on PPIs [Proton Pump Inhibitors — which I am not a huge fan of, but that is a conversation for another time!], and recommended that I start watching what I ate more closely. He gave me the standard list of foods that I should avoid, and sent me on my way.
The upside to this interaction is that it really made me choose more consciously what I was eating. Growing up I had been so consistently surrounded by healthy food that I didn’t realize the effects that eating junky food long-term could have! I started eating more vegetables from the salad bar, more protein at breakfast, began taking probiotics, and a developed a number of better eating habits. This also spurred me to start tracking my food in My Fitness Pal. Mind you, this is when it was only available in web form — no smartphone or apps yet! So, I would write down what I ate at meals in a journal, and then log my food later, back at my dorm room, when I had a chance. Before I knew it, I was starting to feel my IBS/reflux symptoms less often, and I was starting to lose weight too! [Nowadays I have a MUCH different view on tracking food for symptoms tracking vs. weight loss, but again, a convo for another time!].
The downside to this hyper-focus on food was that I started FEARING certain foods. This wasn’t because of my weight — it was because I was so scared of feeling sick (reflux, stomach ache, etc) from my digestive issues. So, I focused a lot of time and energy on food and tracking, because I wanted so desperately to control my symptoms. It got to a point where I was eating a super low amount of fat. This was way before the resurgence of healthy fats like coconut oil, and a lot of the culture around “healthy” food still encouraged low-fat eating. The main reasoning for me, though, was my IBS and reflux. Fat was on that lovely “Do Not Eat” list my doctor had given me as a major contributor to digestive issues, so I became worried about eating it — along with chocolate, tomatoes, citrus, and a host of other foods. At the same time, I was also tracking calories because I wanted to lose weight, so it just seemed like a win-win to watch fat and calories at the same time. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but before long it definitely took its toll.
Eventually — thankfully — I realized I was having a lot of cravings and hunger by the end of the day, and was losing weight too quickly as well. I had never really been as physically active in my life before that, and I didn’t understand how much more energy my body needed, as well as my brain! For the rest of my college years, I continued to exercise, but laid off my food tracking a bit. I went through phases where I would or wouldn’t, but after a while I didn’t really need to, because I had gotten so familiar with the foods I was eating. I had a general idea of servings sizes and what worked for me, and got better at knowing when I was really hungry, and when to stop eating. This wasn’t the end of my process by far, but it was a good start. I also stopped worried about the food lists my doctor had given me, and tried to start focusing on what made my body feel good or bad.
Without a doubt, the most significant change in my diet that made THE biggest difference in my journey was the Low-FODMAP Diet. I’m not really an “its fate” kinda girl, but to this day, I still feel like this discovery was meant to be; and I will always be grateful!
About a year into graduate school (so this is still 5 years after being diagnosed with IBS and reflux and trying everything I could think of!), one of my roommates noticed I hadn’t been feeling well. Despite a lot of other great things happening in life at this point — meeting my husband, entering my 2nd year of my full-time job, making it through my first year of grad school, creating stronger bonds with new friends — my digestive woes were still a huge cloud hanging over me constantly.
As we chatted, and she told me how her mom was a Registered Dietician, and had been working for a while on a book that would help her IBS patients. After a lot of research, she had recently published her book: IBS, Free at Last. Honestly, I was skeptical at first, because I felt like so many doctors had been giving me tips for years, and no matter how hard I tried to “eat healthy” based on their advice, I still didn’t feel right. But, I still tried to keep an open mind. At that point, I was willing to try anything! She started telling me about the idea of FODMAPS, and how some or all of these specific types of carbohydrates can be the cause behind digestive discomfort:
FODMAP is an acronym that stands for:
Fermentable – meaning they are broken down (fermented) by bacteria in the large bowel
Oligosaccharides – “oligo” means “few” and “saccharide” means sugar. These molecules made up of individual sugars joined together in a chain
Disaccharides – “di” means two. This is a double sugar molecule.
Monosaccharides – “mono” means single. This is a single-sugar molecule.
Polyols – these are sugar alcohols (however don’t lead to intoxication!)
Once my friend and I talked & I started to get an understanding of this concept, I immediately went on Amazon (WAY before it was big like it is now!) and bought her mother, Patsy Catsos’s, book. As I started reading it, it was like the clouds opened up and the sun came out. Her patients were experiencing what I was! And they tried this elimination diet and actually. felt. better. Like me, it was the first time in years that they had felt normal: able to travel, go out, socialize, work….without the fear of feeling sick. I was convinced. I started making shopping lists, and started my new diet the next week.
Calorie-loose and Fodmap-Free
Following the Low-FODMAP elimination diet literally changed my life. It helped me to understand which foods I was eating [often!] were causing my symptoms. I started focusing less on tracking calories, and more on the types of foods I was eating. Most importantly, though, it gave me hope. Unless you have been there, it can be hard to understand just how much a chronic physical condition can affect you emotionally. I finally had hope that I didn’t need to live the rest of my life in pain or discomfort.
It also got me really interested in the biology and mechanics of digestion, and gave me a springboard. I became so interested in how my body worked and how I could help it “run optimally” that I started doing all the research I could. I wanted to be able to take care of myself to my best capacity, and to advocate for myself to my doctors when I couldn’t. That inspiration to research and educate myself has continued to grow over the years. It has inspired me to make other incremental changes over the years [look for upcoming Parts 2 & 3 ], and to help others however I can with my experiences.
What are some of your biggest “lightbulb” moments when it comes to your health?
Yours in wellness,