sign reading 'D.I.E.T.(did I eat that?)

For many people, their diagnosis includes some behavioral or meal-planning changes, either due to learning of allergies or food sensitivies, or due to newly recognized(or recently more severe) health concerns requiring a change in diet, such as heart-healthy eating or diabetes management.

Whatever the reason, changing eating habits is hard. The more extreme the change, the more difficult it is to adjust.

It’s also harder to adapt to many changes than it is to a few. Humans are creatures of habit, so habit-breaking or habit-changing is always hard.

Food habits are such a vital part of our day-to-day existence that eating habits can be especially hard to change.

For example, Al grew up having medium-grained white rice at least daily. It was practically a guarentee that rice would be part of dinner.

When we moved in together, that changed as his mother was no longer the person preparing dinner – it was a responsibility Al and I shared.

For Al, eating any rice other than white rice the way his mother prepares it(rinsed multiple times and cooked with olive oil and onion powder) simply feels wrong. He often is even unhappy with his own attempts to make rice as she does.

He would rather not eat rice at all than to try to expect something other than his mother’s rice when ‘rice’ is mentioned.

To eat healthier he is much more comfortable adjusting to whole grain pasta(which is a total departure from the food he grew up with) than he would be trying to adjust to eating brown rice.

This way instead of breaking his internal definition of rice, he simply is eating pasta instead.

The first thing you need to do if your doctor suggests a dietary change, is to understand why they are suggesting it.

Allergies

Food allergies can often increase with repeated exposures(although sometimes micro-exposures have been found to help reduce them), and so discovering an allergy or sensitivity can wipe out entire food families if the allergy is severe enough. A friend of mine has developed a latex allergy, for example, which means he also needs to avoid avocados, bananas, chestnuts, melons, and other fruits and nuts that are latex-reactive.

yellow pepper with lemons on a yellow background
Peppers and lemons – both full of vitamin C!

You need to know what foods you need to quarantine(if you live with others who do not share the allergy, or if you can have it in small, controlled doses), toss(because you can no longer safely eat it), or buy replacements for.

If you have been diagnosed with an allergy, talk to your doctor about what you need to avoid, and how sensitive you are to the food.

In some cases, this may also lead to other dietary adjustments to make sure you are getting the nutrients you need. For example, if you are sensitive to citrus fruits, you likely will need to find new sources for your vitamin C (surprisingly, bell peppers may be your answer).

You may also reach a point where you can re-introduce some foods to your diet to check your reactiveness.

Again, you want to have a detailed discussion with your allergist or dietician(or GP) around the foods that may be an issue so that you better understand your new needs.

Dietary intolerances

Intolerences are often less severe than allergies, but usually the treatment is similar. You initially need to cut out the food products you are intolerant of completely to feel better, but sometimes there are degrees of tolerence that you can learn through careful experimentation.

There are also some more common intolerences(like lactose intolerence) that have temporary treatments that allow you to have the food you are unable to digest properly under certain conditions.

The better you understand your allergy or intolerance, the more likely you are to be able to find your best dietary solutions and better understand how to work within your dietary limitations.

Elimination diets

A lot of allergies or intolerances present as various forms of gastric distress, as well as itching, hives, joint pain, or low mood, to name a few. If the food you are sensitive to is pervasive(such as a gluten sensitivity), it may be hard to tease out what the cause of your symptoms may be.

store shelves full of dairy products
To test if you are lactose intolerant, you may need to give up dairy prodcuts for a few weeks.

One thing that you can try, especially if you and your doctor are in disagreement or at a loss, would be an elimination diet. These are restrictive diets built around the possible causes of your allergies/intolerance.

These diets vary based on what allergies or sensitivities may be suspected and can be a very powerful tool to help you determine the cause of your symptoms.

If you can, work with your doctor or a dietician to plan the diet plan that is right for you.

This isn’t just so they can give you advice, but also so that you have somebody to hold yourself accountable to if you fail to follow through.

Psychologically, we tend to like to please people and fear to disappoint, so sometimes it’s easier to keep a commitment to another person(or that another person knows about) than to keep one that only you will know if you fail(and only you can praise yourself for succeeding at).

If you do not have medical support, sharing your plan with friends or family members may be especially helpful so they can encourage you on your journey.

My experiences with elimination diets

I feel lucky that my experience has been limited with elimination diets. When I was misdiagnosed with interstitial cystitis, I was placed on the elimination diet for IC, which is pretty challenging. I actually had an even more detailed list, which included almost every fruit out there(the exceptions were pears, apples, and melons(other than cantelope)). The time on the diet was very stressful for me, and did nothing for my symptoms.

While Al and I searched for the cause of his osteoporosis, several doctors wondered if he might have Celiac disease, so I did some research on gluten-free diets. I learned that the number of random food products that contain gluten is simply amazing – which is why until people suspect a gluten-sensitivity their associated issues can seem to be constant or unpredictable.

So many of these contain gluten

Unless or until you actively work to avoid gluten and research the topic, you’re likely eating gluten daily, even if you’re avoiding bread and bread products.

Fortunately for us, Al does not have Celiac(he was given two different blood tests for it and the gastroenterologist looked for symptoms during the endoscopy that confirmed his autoimmune pernicious anemia), so the diet wasn’t necessary.

As a reminder, if you do not have a gluten allergy or sensitivity, gluten contributes to a healthy diet, and there are no proven health benefits to a gluten-free diet if you are not sensitive to gluten.

I do think that science-based diets can work, and I have been focused the past few years on roughly following an anti-inflammatory diet.

Since I have a stress-related health issue and because it is the scientifically proven healthier dietary option for most people, I focus on eating vegetables, fruit, and whole grains as much as possible and minimizing the purchase of fatty, processed foods and trans fats.

Balancing healthier eating habits and personal energy levels

I don’t have the spoons to avoid all possible inflammatories, but I carefully read the labels of everything we buy and make the healthiest possible choices.

For example, we use olive oil in our cooking(many other oils contain inflammatory substances) and use whole grain pasta.

I also try to add extra vegetables to most everything we make, and I do not buy products containing high fructose corn syrup(and try to minimize added sugars in general).

pasta with vegetables
Pasta and vegetables are a great combination – though our dishes are nowhere near as photogenic.

Human nature being what it is, I focus on making the healthier choice as often as possible, and try to find foods and recipes that I can enjoy and are healthier.

I am a firm believer in loving what I eat, so I will not buy products whose flavors I don’t like, and I also do my best to keep my shopping expenses relatively low and our food quality relatively high.

The balance is a challenge, but a worthwhile one.

I’m also very aware of Al and my energy limitations and work to stay within those. We make a lot of meals with whole grain pasta and frozen vegetables- keeping them reasonably simple and healthy.

There have been times when I have baked some pretty amazing healthy desserts and fresh salads with ingredients from the farmer’s market, and there have been other times when putting a frozen pizza in the oven felt like too much effort.

Part of taking care of yourself is to be gentle and kind to yourself no matter what, so I do the best I can in the moment.

When Al and I are low energy or know we’re going to have a rough week, we make sure that we have those low-effort meals – a frozen pizza (mostly) topped with vegetables, or a frozen skillet meal with more vegetables and less fat.

It gives us control and is both cheaper and healthier than fast food or most dishes from most restaurants.

Our freezer has a lot more in it than our fridge, which substantially lowers our risk of food going bad if we have a longer period of not being up to substantial cooking.

Dietary fads or frauds

Not all diets are created equal, and there are a lot out there that may not be good for your health, some are based on junk science. Be aware of this and do your best to steer clear of potentially harmful ones and focus on plans that are most likely to help you.

Trust in science!

You shouldn’t need to invest money(other than on the food itself).

Most reasonable diet plans should not be behind a paywall, and you should be able to experiment with it without paying the organization suggesting the diet.

That said, many programs may have resources to help you plan or manage your diet, such as cookbooks or storage containers or pre-made substitutions for common condiments that aren’t diet-friendly.

My instinct on this is to suggest that you try or research the diet first, and only make purchases if you know that you are committed to following that diet for the long term.

For example, investing in gluten-free condiments makes sense if you have a celiac diagnosis, but is less logical if you are trying an elimination diet to see if you are gluten sensitive.

I would recommend looking for information on sites devoted to your particular diagnosis or possible issue or on sites run by reputable research hospitals.

Once you are certain that the diet itself is logical and science-backed, feel free to search for additional details(such as recipes) on other sites, such as personal blogs or diet support pages.

Scientific understanding about food and healthy eating has changed pretty dramatically in recent times and there is detailed research behind many diets out there.

Unfortunately, there are always people out there just trying to make a buck or justify some belief they hold.

I am not saying all people spouting dubious dietary advice are ill-intentioned or mean you harm, but if their information source is unreliable, you want to be able to move on and get better information!

Conclusion: Removing foods from your diet

Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do for yourself is to stop eating certain food products. If you have, or suspect you have, food allergies or sensitivities, you may want to consider an elimination diet of some form.

The more extreme the diet, the more important it is to plan it out, and whenever possible, to discuss it with a professional(like a doctor or dietician). All diets are not created equal, and there are a fair number of fads out there and programs of dubious value.

If you do go on a diet that substantially limits an important nutrient you need, make sure that you are aware of it and able to make appropriate substitutions to keep yourself on a balanced diet.

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