You may have noticed there haven’t been very many recipes on the blog recently and if I’m honest, that’s not so much having writer’s block but having the most complicated dietary requirements around at the moment.
Having discovered the whole Fodmap thing and giving it a proper go since just before Christmas, I’ve been rewarded by radically improved physical health. My fatigue is more manageable, my joint pain is reacting to painkillers and my innards aren’t in full mutiny all the time. I haven’t felt this well in years, possibly decades.
And yet oddly, it feels like life has got harder with this change. I know now what aspect of my diet has been worsening my ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and now for the first time in my adult life I have some control over my body and its physical health and it’s terrifying.
I feel incredibly under pressure that if I eat the wrong thing now I’m actually making myself ill and in our current climate the only sin greater than being sick is being fat. We live in a world where Nutribullets sell out, people talk about the nutritional value of chia seeds rather than the taste, Instagram is awash with 5:2 shots, papers like the Daily Mail and Express feature health cure stories on the front page several times a week and people like Ella Woodward and Belle Gibson are in the pages of every magazine crediting exclusion diets as miracle cures.
Being well and eating well are indistinguishable and the modern morality tale. Even discussing weight or the ‘obesity crisis’ is talked about in terms of health on both sides from the doom-mongers to the Health At Every Size proponents. As someone who has been ill their entire life, I’ve never felt like such a failure. Not only have I failed to cure myself, but I’m so sick I can’t work and have to be one of those scroungers who lives off the taxes of those healthy hard working families according to the Mail and Express on the other days of the week. To top it all off, I’m even a bit overweight and won’t be healthy at any size anyway. I’m not hitting any of the milestones society expects of me.
My health in many ways feels like public property and that puts a massive pressure on me to not do anything that isn’t actively trying to improve it. The fact it’s hard to know how to improve ME/CFS because no one actually knows what causes it rarely stops people suggesting things anyway or prevents me from thinking one of those suggestions might be the answer I’ve waited 25 years for to cure me.
And then it turns out there is something I can quite definitely do to help. Avoiding onions, garlic and other alliums and fructans isn’t a cure, but it’s a massive positive change and yet, it’s just not as simple as it sounds. It requires a huge amount of commitment, research and effort on a daily basis.
So far I haven’t found a single widely eaten cuisine in the world that doesn’t use alliums at all. I can’t eat onions, shallots, garlic or spring onions or garlic of any kind, fresh, dried or powdered and since these flavours form the basis of most meals worldwide, unless I move to Alaska and only eat a traditional Inuit diet, it’s going to be tricky.
I’ve become that person who can’t stop talking about their diet because what I’m going to eat and what I’m able to eat now consumes (literally) my entire life. 99.99% of the world have never heard of Fodmaps and thus think I’m just being precious, asking for explanation of how the diet works and what happens if I break it. Frankly there’s never a great time for me to discuss bloating, wind, nausea and diarrhoea, but over the menu somewhere seems particularly inappropriate and I’m guessing you have to tip the waitstaff extra to discuss your guts with them. (FYI: no one in England can understand the word ‘bowel’ in a Belfast accent just to complicate things further. There’s a lot of questions about ‘bile’ which is ironic since having no gallbladder complicates my dietary needs even more.)
I’m getting used to scanning the menu studiously and running everything through a fodmap lens and then asking for the dishes with the most potential to be adapted. There’s usually only one choice on the menu and bewilderment at cooking without alliums from the chefs. I’ve been lucky enough to eat at some of London’s best restaurants in the last few months and if this is causing them such issue, I’m not sure I can ever really ask friends to cook for me anymore. I’m starting to weakly joke about bringing my own Tupperware of steamed fish and rice in future, but I can see it having to happen.
The tyranny of the dried onion and garlic means that I can’t eat most commercial sausages, black pudding, haggis, salami, salad dressings, crisps, stocks, spice mixes, marinades and dips. Going round to someone’s house means them adapting nearly possible sauce or marinade or flavouring for food and preparing everything from scratch. Add in the fact that I also can’t eat beans or pulses, leeks, aubergines, mushrooms, apples, pears, artichokes of any kind, celery, sweetcorn, cashews and pistachios on this diet and much cheese, cream or coconut due to my gallbladder issues and that I just really hate peppers and anyone who doesn’t just tell me to go away is too kind.
I now feel incredibly guilty and stressed out when I eat out either in restaurants or at other people’s houses and that has removed much of the pleasure and spontaneity of eating and socialising. I also really miss the textures of of smooth soup and crunchy fruit and vegetables. My world around food has shrunk hugely and it’s really started to affect my mental health which is the bit around food and health very few people seem to want to mention.
I’ve suffered from anorexia and bulimia for my entire adult life and it has been an enormous struggle to widen my coping mechanisms around food to something that isn’t distorted and disordered and my own body seems hellbent on sabotaging that progress by refusing to play nice and digest anything without making an almighty fuss.
Being forced to stick to a very restricted diet of ‘safe foods’ is making it very hard not to relapse into previous coping strategies around eating, especially since I suspect much of my eating disorder stems from the loss of control caused by being seriously ill since childhood.
The logical thing to do in this case is ask for help and back up before it gets worse, but I’ve been unable to find anything out there which is why I’m writing this. If I’m honest, most of the stuff around ‘healthy’ eating, especially the current trends, lean very heavily toward eating disorder language. All those words like ‘safe’ or ‘clean’ or ‘toxic’ are laden with judgement and much of the phrases are about exclusion or restriction.
This is juxtaposed with the whole ‘dirty burger’ style of eating which is all about over indulgence, innuendo and a culture of binge style eating, sandwiched together with most people talking about exercise as something solely to burn off calories and attain a certain body shape through. There is very little about the joy and privilege of being able to move your body and know that it will respond in kind in our discourse here. No one seems to take a walk when they could run 5K. You do the 5:2 so you can eat something specially created like a ramen burger, cronut or shakfutu French toast. It’s all extremes and very little middle ground.
I’ve approached my GP who is sympathetic and supportive, but baffled as to what to do. To receive eating disorder treatment on the NHS, my BMI has to hit certain points for certain conditions and therefore it’s almost impossible to do so preventatively even if mental health services hadn’t been slashed and there was much in the way of eating disorder treatment in the first place. I mentioned my ED history to the dieticians who introduced me to Fodmaps originally and they could offer no practical support or psychological help as they insist most people don’t have to make radical dietary changes once they re-introduce trigger foods as the exclusion period resets their system. None of the eating disorder charities seem to cover what to do if you have to exclude certain foods while in recovery.
I’m pretty much stumped and out of options. It’s almost amusing that the whole of the internet exists and I’ve found a subject it hasn’t covered. (The only thing I tolerate less well than onions are cute cat videos admittedly.) This is a literal example of how modern society has detached food from its social and psychological importance and how stigmatised mental health issues can still be when we only talk about the physical health implications of it. So if anyone has any suggestions of what to do or where to find support, I’m all ears…