Thursday, 10 July 2014

"It's just a fashionable diet"

One of the most common complaints across the board of chronic illnesses is problems with food and digestion. Whether it is specific intolerances or more general bowel issues (diagnosed or not) it is a factor many patients have in common.

Another thing many patients have in common is facing the attitude from others of “It’s just a fad diet”, thereby implying that you are being awkward and difficult for ultimately silly reasons.  This is particularly in the case of problems categorised as intolerances. We all know allergies are deadly and I like to think that nobody would argue with another person who stated they couldn’t eat something because they could quite literally expire if they did so. I’d really like to think that everyone is decent enough to not do that.

This understandably casts "mere" intolerances in a poor light. They’re not deadly and therefore I think some people see this as an excuse to ignore them or at the very least not take them seriously. When taken in direct comparison with an allergy I can see why this is so.

However, let’s talk a little bit about food intolerances. I will warn you now this will not be particularly pretty.

First off it’s worth pointing out that you can have an intolerance to just about anything you ingest, and if it’s a minor ingredient hidden in a lot of foods then you’re going to have a tougher time weeding it out. Two of the most prevalent intolerances you would be likely to come across are to gluten and lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Usually those are the first two candidates a doctor will tell you to exclude to try and narrow down the source of the problem.  

Symptoms of a food intolerance can include abdominal pain, acid reflux, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhoea, fatigue, headaches, nausea and skin problems amongst others and when acting in co-morbidity with another condition the list of potential problems grows exponentially.  

(Some more possible symptoms. Image from

This year I’ve discovered that I am intolerant to gluten, and I found this by going gluten free for the better part of four months. Many of my digestive symptoms calmed down and some ceased to exist entirely during this gluten free period.  To give this some context I hadn’t had what you would consider a normal and healthy bowel movement in probably two years. Apologies for this being a little icky, but I think that sometimes in tip-toeing about and prettifying the point you lose the importance therein. Given this is a topic that is already not taken particularly seriously, avoiding the unpleasantness simply won’t do.

So, through exclusion I found that my problems were routed in intolerance to a certain foodstuff, and I set off into the brave new world sans bread.  The difference has been wonderful for me, and I would recommend if you’re going to try exclusion dieting that you need to eliminate the chosen food or drink  for a good few months – it took two months for me to start seeing any benefits and a further month for “normal” to happen.

Now it’s time for me to hold my hands up and admit my guilt. I don’t always behave with this. I don’t always feel up to the potential battle of wills which follows asserting this issue, so sometimes I just keep quiet and eat things that I probably shouldn’t. Other times it’s for a reason far simpler – every now and again a girl needs a slice of toast in her life, and as I don’t have an allergy I’m lucky enough to be able to indulge on occasion.

This obviously doesn’t help on the being taken seriously point, but the thing to remember is that this is my body. I know what’s going with it and I know if my symptoms have been low key enough to allow a bit of gluten-containing food or whether in fact they’ve been disagreeable and so it should be avoided. When last I looked, nobody else held the responsibility of policing my digestive system.

Rather like most of the symptoms of ongoing illnesses it’s something that can be fine one day and then troublesome the next. I understand that cooking around dietary restrictions of any kind makes things more difficult, and I'm always incredibly grateful when people do make this effort and particularly when cooking for many. That being said however I do very much resent the idea of “just being awkward”.  To prove my point, I have but one question:

Why would I deliberately make things awkward for myself?

Consider this: I like bread, pasta and plenty of other gluten containing foods. Gluten free versions of those products are available but they are invariably far more expensive than their ordinary counterparts, and often quite difficult to come by.

(I wasn't hungry before I started putting this post together.... Image from

In illustrating this, I worked out recently that if I wanted to cook a completely gluten free meal of lasagne and an accompanying garlic bread, then assuming I went to my usual supermarket for the other ingredients I would need to visit two different additional supermarkets to find the gluten free pasta sheets (Tesco or Waitrose) and the garlic bread (only Asda so far). That’s a lot of messing about for just one meal, but sometimes life calls for lasagne and garlic bread in a way that even the stoutest of hearts cannot ignore.

My approach is that when I know an event is coming up where the insidious presence of gluten is likely to make itself felt then I’ll avoid it completely for a couple of weeks before and probably after to make sure things can get back on track as quickly as possible. I would say that I am currently working on about 90% gluten free the vast majority of the time and this keeps things ticking over quite nicely, and means most of the time my symptoms are mild enough that I can allow myself the occasional treat of a gluten product (who am I kidding with “product”? It’s cake.)

I believe we’re back at the same point I often make in that it’s not for anyone else to decide what is best for you, your body and your condition(s). If it’s something that affects someone’s quality of life then it should be taken seriously, not ignored on the basis of it not being something else. That’s the same logic that leads people to tell chronic illness patients “At least it’s not cancer!”

Next time you are faced with cooking around a dietary restriction (and I’m including the choices of being vegetarian and vegan in this too, as they seem to carry the “awkward” tag just as often) perhaps instead of bemoaning how this affects you, you should take a moment to consider that it isn’t actually about you at all.

To end on a happy note, for all my fellow cake fiends who are reading this and might also need to avoid gluten, I simply must recommend this dark chocolate fudge brownie recipe. I needed to double the oven time from what the recipe suggests but those brownies are simply god-like.

I kid you not, there will be angels composing odes about them as we speak. 

Has anybody else discovered food intolerances? Has this made your symptoms any better?

Wishing you all many spoons xxx

1 comment:

  1. I have any number of friends with intolerances and allergies, including the life threatening sort. I often cater LARP events, that's anywhere between 30 and 80 people at a time. I can honestly say I do not find it at all a hassle to avoid the common ones completely - gluten, dairy, nut, shellfish - whilst still managing to feed everyone adequately. I also do veggie/vegan (usually the same thing for me) quite happily, and have learned to avoid some odder ones like chilli. I'm not a trained cook, but I can do it for that many people, how hard can it be to cater for a small number of friends on a social basis. I think people are just lazy, or they like complaining.