Here’s the thing. As much as I talk about the dangers of the wellness industry, and the importance of realising that diet isn’t a bloody cure-all for many of us with chronic illness, I do recognise that diet and lifestyle are pretty much the only things that I have to try and manage the way I feel. Thank you, body, for responding like a lunatic to medication.
Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different things. When my digestive system packed up, I couldn’t eat. Bananas had me rolling around the floor in agony, and eating anything that required digesting brought me close to passing out. While it was a dream for weight-loss, it wasn’t all that sustainable. From then, I went to eating liquids (juices/soups/smoothies) and gradually built up to solid foods, while managing a terribly bad histamine overload, which made figuring out what to eat nearly impossible. Over that time, and with lots of food diary-ing and rotation, I could eat solid food again, and start managing the histamine reactions. I went plant-based because of all the success stories I saw on Instagram. I stayed a vegan for longer than I wanted to (because I thought that’s what I should do) but eventually reintroduced animal products into my diet.
This weekend I celebrated the first night of Passover with a Seder at my friend Lucy’s house and went to Cambridge to see a friend who got married in the US last week and was here to celebrate with her English family, and then I went to catch up with an old friend. Because I didn’t have that much control over the food that was available, I ate a lot of ‘treat’ foods, or foods I limit because I know they don’t make me feel great. I woke up this morning with a bit of a sugar hangover. I know that what I eat very much affects how I feel, and while I believe I have a healthy diet, in terms of figuring out how to eat just right for my body, I needed a little bit of guidance. It’s really hard to do it by yourself when there’s so much conflicting information out there.
So I turned to Laura Thomas, a registered nutritionist with a PhD in Nutritional Sciences for some help.
Before our first session, Laura had me fill in form to explain my health history (fun times) and what I was looking to get out of our time together. She also wanted to know things about stuff like my sleep, drinking and exercise habits.
I also had to keep a food diary for a few days. I hadn’t done this for a while, but it’s always interesting to write down everything you eat. Even if you’re not a nutritionist, you can start to see patterns. Like, for example, if you have an over the top addiction to almond butter (guilty!)
If you’re curious, you can see my food diary here.
During our first session, Laura and I talked about a lot of things. Before we even got to the nutritional breakdown of what I eat/should be eating, there were a lot of basic things to cover.
One thing that is very clear from my food diary (and is generally intentional) is that I don’t eat until later in the morning. I always hated mornings and generally used to sleep through them. I also kind of shifted my eating habits accordingly. Late breakfast (pretty much at lunchtime), so that I could eat later in the evening without having to add in an additional meal.
Laura suggested that not giving my body adequate fuel in the morning could be part of the reason for my late night almond butter binges. She also told me that eating properly, earlier, will help support my metabolism and hopefully give me more energy throughout the day. Something that I would do pretty much anything for. Getting into that whole circadian rhythm thing, yo,
Speaking of sleep, that was another issue. Laura recommended trying to go to sleep earlier and practising decent sleep hygiene to improve the quality of it. I fall asleep a lot earlier than I used to (normally 4am was my standard), but sleeping by midnight and being up at 8 is quite normal for me now. I never, ever, wake up feeling refreshed. I can have a full night sleep and feel like it’s the end of a work day. I hate that.
It is still weird being up in the morning. I really dislike them. I don’t really know why! Anyway, she recommended trying to go to sleep earlier when it is possible. To be honest, if I’m just derping around on the internet at midnight, there’s very little reason why I couldn’t be sleeping (apart from the fact it takes me hours to do so!) We also talked about putting my laptop away before bed and reading/meditating. I do know that whenever I do read/have a bath and get away from tech before bed I am generally calmer and sleep better. It’s just something I’ve got out of the practice of doing, and something I should start again. I find that with habits like that, I do really well when I get into doing them every day, and then as soon as I stop and miss one, I’m done.
For me, weight should be the secondary concern when it comes to food. My body goes through a lot on a daily basis and needs a huge amount of support to deal with chronic illness life. And food is a good way to try and do that. However, I’m always starving. I put this down to the whole chronic fatigue thing. My body is exhausted and wants energy. So it wants food. Because of that, my weight fluctuates a lot. While I’m still a “tiny human” (Lucy…), at 4 foot 9, figuring out how much food is too much can be tricky. So while I am mainly doing this to try and find foods that make me feel better in the day, I’m also aware that the shallow side of me hopes that if I have a proper eating plan, I will stop worrying about weight gain. I think it is especially on my mind because I haven’t been able to exercise for nearly 2 months because of my knee dislocation!
Related: On Body Image and Chronic Illness
Then, we turned to food. From my food diary, Laura could see immediately that I eat really high levels of fat (from nuts, olive oil, and avocado) and inadequate amounts of carbohydrates. We know that carbs are super important, and I really thought that I was eating more than I do. So it was good to find that out. She recommended eating complex carbs with every meal: things like oats, quinoa, teff, black/red/brown rice, polenta, buckwheat, starchy veg, and beans.
A small word on beans. I hate them. I don’t enjoy eating them (the texture is icky), and apart from chickpeas in hummus, they don’t make up a part of my diet. I know that a lot of scientific literature extols the virtues and health benefits, but I just don’t enjoy them in my meals. And I generally like to enjoy my food. I do like hummus, though, so that’s a start. Right? RIGHT?!
When we started talking properly about my morning eating habits, Laura recommended eating porridge and a smoothie for breakfast. I felt that was too much in one go, so what I’m going to try from tomorrow (when my oats come in my Ocado delivery!) is porridge when I first wake up and a smoothie a few hours later. And then a decent lunch and supper.
One thing I was worried about (back to the weight thing) was if this “extra eating” – I generally only have one ‘meal meal’ a day at this point – would make me gain weight. She made a very fair point…that I eat hundreds of calories worth of almond butter a day, which is the equivalent of a meal. If we can manage those cravings, basically my intake won’t change.
It became clear that the thing I really need to do is be cognizant of my fat intake. Laura recommended steam frying foods without oil, as well as limit nut butter, avocado, and coconut products. For snacking, she has recommended fruit (nice cream woooo), hummus (mixing it up with other beans and veggies), rice cakes w/ dark choc, and trying other dips like salsa, baba ganoush, as well as chia pudding. Still eat fat – just not the borderline obsessive amounts I usually consume!
Laura is a huge advocate for the plant-based diet, and I do understand why. However, after my years of experimenting, I do know my body and feel like I feel so much better when I eat meat. While I’m open to making a lot of changes, that part of my diet is non-negotiable. I would say, however, that I don’t eat it every day and I don’t eat processed meat. I think the real problems come when you’re eating bacon for breakfast, processed meat for lunch and a huge steak for dinner as standard. I kind of see myself as “plant-based with meat”, which may not make sense to a lot of people, it does to me. So shush.
At the moment, we have more of a general action plan. I like having fixed meal plans during experimentation phases so I can track how I feel and make links between that and what I eat. That will come a bit later.
Here’s where I’m going to start making some changes this week:
- Eat when I wake up in the morning – make sure to eat enough
- Eat complex carbs with every meal
- Be aware of my fat intake and try not to overdo the nuts, oil, avocado
- Try and eat a meal with beans once a week (ewwwwww)
- Double batch dinner prep so I don’t have to cook a proper lunch and supper
- Sleep earlier and practice (slightly better) sleep hygiene
I’m looking forward to seeing if these small changes can make a difference and working more with Laura. One thing that it’s worth reiterating is that everybody’s body is different. Over the years, I’ve been given so much unsolicited advice based on their own experiences (80-10-10 didn’t cure you – correlation does not imply causation), and judgement from people about what I’m eating. I’m just eating to try and feel as good as my body will let me. That’s all we can do. And yes, that involves an occasional pizza. And maybe…*shudder*…some beans.
You can find more about Laura on her website.