I love food. I have always lived to eat, not the other way around. And I have always eaten more homemade food than processed or restaurant or take-out food. Of course, when I was younger, we were not avid label-readers, so even though I wasn’t putting fluff on my sandwiches like the other kids (gross?) and we never ordered pizza (ever) I still got my fair share of hydrogenated oil from our Skippy’s peanut butter and high fructose corn syrup from bread and who knows what else. I think I was in middle or high school when my mom took a course on nutrition that taught the evils of these added ingredients and white flour products and how to read labels. Before this, if we ever bothered to look at the label, we didn’t question the long list of ingredients, including ones that were unpronounceable. That’s just what it took to make food!
So then we started buying whole wheat pasta and Teddy’s peanut butter, whose only ingredients are peanuts and salt. At first, it was strange and annoying that we needed to stir in the oil that had separated and refrigerate the container, but we got used to it. We had always prepared and eaten a fresh salad with dinner, but there were certain things that had never required any extra thought that now did, and we did all come to embrace these changes. (And although I didn’t know it, this was preparing me for the ingredient upheaval to come.) We still had processed food on occasion – like Oreos when I was craving them, crackers to take to the beach, candy on holidays, etc, and I loved getting Chinese food with duck sauce when I went to the mall, but a few staple items had been replaced with their simpler, healthier versions. And I still made my (daily) chocolate chip pancakes with white flour.
When I first started having symptoms of UC, I began to have trouble with milk, which prior to these symptoms was a staple food. I used milk to make my pancake batter, had a glass of milk with dinner, and ate ice cream every night. (Even before UC, all the calories in the world wouldn’t make me gain weight.) So I switched to soy milk, and then later to almond milk, when I became suspicious that soy milk bothered my stomach. (And almond milk tasted better.)
So first Teddy’s, and now soy milk? What’s next…kale chips?! Nahh – those took a few more years to become popular. But I was on my way to becoming the self-righteous hippie eater that I somewhat am today. Because even though I recognize that not everyone needs to control what they consume as much as someone with a digestive disorder does, and I applaud the genius who invented double-stuffed Oreos (Newman-O’s just ain’t the same), I do think that everyone should try to be as aware as possible of what they are buying and eating. (And by the way, I think it’s a hippie/foodie thing to do this as much as I think global warming is a liberal cause, aka not at all.)
In 2009, I had a UC flare – my first one since being diagnosed in 2007 – and it was managed with prednisone, but unfortunately, I couldn’t taper all the way off of prednisone without beginning to flare again. My doctor recommended 6MP – the immunosuppresive medicine that I’m on now – but to avoid that, I tried the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) for two months beginning July 1st. This restrictive diet, which is actually really similar to the Paleo diet, was what forced me to become a much more meticulous label-reader, although much of the foods I bought during that time were one-ingredient items, like fruits, vegetables, chicken, eggs, and almonds. Even if a multi-ingredient item was composed entirely of “legal” ingredients, the creator of the diet recommended avoiding it, because you never know what might be lurking in the mix. This diet also turned me into a cooking-maniac. I was in the kitchen more than ever before, basically joining the slow-food movement without realizing it. I made everything (literally everything) from scratch, avoided eating out, and even learned to make yogurt. I didn’t sign up for a meal plan at my school’s dining hall for the Fall semester of my sophomore year at Northeastern and made sure to get an apartment-style dorm so I could have a kitchen.
But as it turned out, although this diet has worked wonders for many people with Crohn’s and colitis, it didn’t work for me, and so I happily added grains and non-homemade food back into my diet that September and began the 6MP. I had certainly been changed by this diet, though; it would have been convenient to have a meal plan, which I could have signed up for at any time, but I chose not to, and instead went grocery shopping and made my meals in my dorm kitchen, which also saved us the astronomical cost of a meal plan. Occasionally, I treated myself to a burrito at Boloco, or had a friend swipe me into the dining hall, but the dining hall was usually a let-down. (I never pass up free food, though.) Boloco was never a let-down. Mmmm.
Between stopping the SCD in September 2009 and this mega-flare that began in April 2011, I don’t think my eating habits changed greatly, although perhaps I slowly added in healthier – and more expensive – foods. I tried quinoa for the first time in the summer of 2010, and in January 2011 when I moved to an apartment off campus, I started making trail mix for myself with granola, almonds, raisins, sunflower seeds, and – of course – Ghiradelli dark chocolate chips. I still had my not-so-healthy treats once in awhile, though! (I became addicted to Reeses’ that Easter.)
And then when I began seeing my chiropractor for this flare, in June 2011, I went gluten-free, sugar-free, and dairy-free and avoided raw vegetables. It was like being on the SCD again, except that I ate grains. And when I began seeing my herbalist – when I was at a really low point – we stopped all vegetables too, and I was on a diet composed of just millet, chicken, fish, and egg whites for months, plus some choice fruits. When I started to do better, I added back in some cooked vegetables, and when I got worse again, I took those out. I’ve added in and removed veggies a couple other times. Right now, I have stuck to eating certain easily digested vegetables even though I’m still flaring – just to have some variety, which is good for both my body and my mindset.
Important note: There’s eating to be healthy, and then there’s eating to heal. The diet I’m on now is the latter, and it began under the care of my herbalist. When I look back, I’m surprised that my chiropractor didn’t remove vegetables from my diet for a time, and I shake my head when I remember how I liked to make stir-fry dishes when I should have just been boiling or steaming vegetables. The healing diet I’m on now has lasted quite awhile, but it is not permanent. I look forward to eating less chicken and more vegetables, but for now, I need the animal protein and can only handle so much fiber.
My ideal diet would consist primarily of vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit, healthy oils, eggs, hard cheese, and yogurt. I would only have meat occasionally, and fish when I feel like it (which would not be often – I usually don’t feel like having fish). I would also want to become more familiar with herbs and spices. I would keep my kitchen well-stocked with these foods but would still eat pasta, pizza, or desserts when eating out. I would try to eat entirely organic and/or local – grow my own food, shop at farmer’s markets, be part of a CSA, etc, and avoid super-stores as much as possible. The long list of ingredients in many items are there to make the product cheaper, more convenient to produce, and more perfect-looking, which is all good for the manufacturer’s bottom line, but not the well-being of the consumer, not to mention the environment, the people manufacturing the food, and the animals in the food. I would reduce my intake of the more expensive imported foods, like quinoa; they may be “superfoods,” but I will have enough variety and nutrients without them, and I’ll save money that way. Lastly, I would like to be more conscientious of the products I use on my skin and in my hair. I try to avoid parabens now, but what are these other ingredients in my Tresemme shampoo? Unfortunately, eco-friendly beauty products tend to be quite expensive or don’t seem to work well. But then again, that’s the attitude I used to have toward food, and now look at me. It is probably just a matter of finding the right product, which I intend to do.
So that’s my ideal diet, but unfortunately not one I can be on right now. I just had a lunch of chicken, millet, and turnip, with some fresh minced ginger. And now I’m going to put a scoop of my anti-inflammatory powder into a glass of water to have with a rice cake. And so it goes.
But I’ll leave you with this video clip from Portlandia, “Allergy Pride Parade.” Enjoy!