Disclaimer: Graphic medical details included, TW: Eating disorder
My friends all know to let me pick the restaurant – or, at the very least, to tell me where we’re going so I can look at the menu in advance, to find substantial options. When you’re a starch free, sugar free, dairy conscious pescatarian, your choices are fairly limited.
But I’m not doing it for fun. And there’s nothing that makes me angrier than when someone says “oh, you don’t eat bread? That’s why you’re so skinny!” Wrong. I don’t eat bread because it makes me sick. I’m skinny because I run/swim/bike like a maniac and am obsessive about food, and because my parents are fairly skinny people. But I just avert my eyes and smile faintly because outwardly reacting to that comment is another process entirely.
I haven’t had a normal relationship with food for a long time now. In 10th grade, I started avoiding carbs, which were symbolic of fat, weight, excess; around the same time, the existentialist thinking and nervous habits I had dealt with for so long were identified as depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive behaviors. What started as an avoidance due to deteriorating mental health can be juxtaposed presently with my complete removal of all starches, in an effort to boost physical health. I find this nothing short of ironic.
In 12th grade, my level of self-hate and self-expectation seemed considerably higher than the average 17 year old girl’s. I took much of this out on my body, attempting to eliminate a world of imperfections with 7-mile runs and no more than 800 consumed calories per day. Yet, while I was waging war on my body, it was fighting back. I started to have trouble holding my bowels on runs, and noticed blood in my stool. For some time, I simply thought these things were a byproduct of anorexia, ignored them, and continued down the treacherous path I had set.
Some short time later, I admitted these problems to a pediatrician, who referred me to a gastroenterologist. For about a year and a half, even after I had gained back much of the weight I had lost, no one could figure out what was wrong with my body. Nothing showed up in scans or tests. So I simply accepted that I had irrevocably ruined my body, and continued running large amounts in college, where I was on the D1 Track and Cross Country Teams – but was struggling, as the physical problems that had started in high school persisted.
The summer before my junior year of college, I could hardly go for walks without – for lack of a better term – pooping in my pants, and the poop itself was almost entirely blood. I would up in a hospital in Jerusalem, where I had been living and working. After an emergency colonoscopy and endoscopy, I finally had an answer to 3 years of problems: ulcerative colitis – irritable bowel disease (IBD).
Ulcerative colitis is, in short, chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. This inflammation, causes tiny ulcers, or open sores. It’s categorized as an autoimmune disease since the body attacks bacteria, food, and things that might not actually be hazardous, causing the inflammation. It is contained to the lining of colon, but while it is treatable, it is not (yet) curable. Symptoms include frequent, urgent loose bowel movements and – you guessed it – blood in stool.
Luckily, these weren’t unknown words in my family. My aunt had Crohn’s, another type of IBD, though one that could occur anywhere in the digestive system, and one much deeper in the organ walls. She had been diagnosed at a very young age, when the only options available for treating IBD were medications that had the potential for devastating effects on the body, including organ failure. Her mother sought alternative options, and found the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD).
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet is a restrictive diet based on a theory that by eliminating poly- and di-saccharides (primarily grains, starches, dairy, and sugars) and allowing only specific carbs that require minimal digestion, (mono-saccharides), inflammation can be reduced and irritability controlled. On it, all grains, unnatural sugars, dairy high in lactose, caffeine, commercial oils, processed/canned foods, and starchy vegetables and legumes are to be avoided.
After talking through options with my gastroenterologist, I decided to take a low-key perscription often used for colitis, and go on the diet. My mom and I read up on it. She bought SCD cookbooks and a yogurt maker, along with almond flour, the flour used in SCD baking. We switched many of our ingredients, such as vanilla, mayonnaise, and much more, to all natural.
My mom took it upon herself to make sure I was getting all the nutrients I needed without certain types of food – a major concern for most people following SCD. (Disclaimer: many doctors won’t recommend SCD because there “isn’t enough evidence” that it works, and because it cuts out certain nutrients. However, some are willing to advise their patients about it, since it has proved very effective for some people. My aunt, being one of them, and thankfully – me, as well.)
So what do I eat? When I first started the diet, and my body was still recovering from illness, only cooked protein and cooked vegetables, which were easier for digestion. Fish, eggs, beans, nuts, hard cheeses like cheddar, and vegetables, mostly. Although I was formerly vegetarian, my parents asked me to return to eating meat, which I have done. (However, I am Jewish, and only eat kosher meat, rendering me effectively a pescatarian when eating out. Perhaps Michelle will let me write a second post on the reasons why I follow a diet based on arcane, outdated religious laws.)
I make my own ice cream, cookies, muffins, and even sometimes bread, and use vegetables as a base for a lot of cooking. All in all, it’s a fairly health conscious and lean diet. (Sidenote: my mom is AMAZING and leaps through every obstacle to help me stick to my diet. I would not be able to do it without her. Many people give up on the diet because it’s hard and time consuming. Not her.)
Unfortunately, I did have to give up some things after my diagnosis and adaptation of the diet. I realized that I could not be a Division I athlete without eating carbs. I simply wouldn’t have the fast fuel needed for runs and races. Additionally, I was still having (and still have) some trouble on runs, something that caused me to fear going for runs. Ultimately quitting the team was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was ultimately the right decision. Now though, I can concentrate on running, swimming, biking, yoga-ing, etc, for myself, in a way that is healthy for my body and mind.
Being on a diet as restrictive as mine can also be socially harboring. I avoid beer, chips, pizza, pasta, fries, cookies, ice cream, all that. I’ve gotten a little less strict in the two and a half years since I started following the diet, though. For example, I’ll eat chocolate, sometimes chickpeas or soy, and have a sip of beer or a bite of challah if it’s been highly touted. I can even find raw/paleo/vegan packaged foods that I can eat.
The diet isn’t like an allergy – I can eat most “forbidden” things without having an intense reaction. The idea is to decrease the buildup and inflammation in my body. So over time, I will be able to have small amounts of foods I have cut out, without any issues whatsoever. However, I do not want the cycle to begin again, so I will probably never go back to “eating normally.”
But did I ever do so?
The answer to that is no, and the reality is that I’ll never fully break free of my disordered eating habits. I won’t lie; being limited in my eating choices sometimes enables me to restrict much more easily, all in the name of my diet and “health.” It’s a daily battle that I brush off all too easily.
Yet it’s also something that causes me to think more seriously about my body, and what I am putting into it. Years of working with nutritionists and dieticians have given me very good understanding of what is needed nutritionally for an athlete and human such as myself. But I still don’t know if my shortcomings with nutrition lead to the onset of the colitis – because as much as genetics can do, there’s just too much irony for that to be the only thing at play.
Naomi Barnett is a triathlete and “professional millennial” who works in content marketing in NYC. You can see more writing on her personal blog SpelledInk, or follow her on twitter.
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