From FODMAP to eating disorders, our diets and relationship with food can be dictated as much by health as by choice, each with their own challenges and impact on wellbeing.
When you put ethical considerations, flavour and personal taste into the equation as well, the components of a meal have levels of choice that extend even further, and that's before you even get to eating out.
These stories offer a snapshot of life on a restricted diet, whether that's down to nutrition, physical or mental health reasons, and a reminder of the wide differences in food relationships and motivators behind food choices.
A roadmap to Fodmap
I have IBS, and in particular, an inability to properly digest carbohydrates in certain foods. These foods are categorised as high FODMAP (Fermentable oligo-di-mono-saccharides and polyols). The bad news is that there doesn’t appear to be any sort of pattern to which foods are high or low in FODMAPs (FMs), and there are varying levels of potency. A few of the worst offenders are garlic, onion, wheat, beetroot and lentils. Unprocessed meat, fish and eggs don’t contain any, so I will usually focus my meal around these. I usually start the day with eggs in one form or another, with a low FM smoothie for lunch, bulked out with oats. For dinner, I might have a beef chilli, crammed with low FM veg, chicken pasta bake (with rice-based pasta) or stir fry with rice noodles. Eating out while strictly following a FM diet is, in my opinion, near on impossible. With onion and garlic being the starting point of nearly every meal, you’re handicapped right off the bat. If eating out, I have to accept the fact that I will likely get some digestive discomfort. However, I try to pick something on the menu that is quite simple and hopefully hasn’t been pre-made. A good example would be a burger: I could ask for no onion or coleslaw and a gluten-free bun and be fairly safe. After being confirmed as a non coeliac, I decided to look into the low FODMAP diet after my GP recommended it. There is an absolute wealth of recipes online, but I would probably start on the monashfodmap.com website. (Josh, 33)
Coping with coeliac
I have coeliac disease which I was diagnosed with over four years ago. To manage it, I have had to cut out anything that has gluten in it, which is more than you think. You have no idea how much I miss a slice of freshly baked bread with a good coating of butter. Foods that are bad for me are anything that contain wheat, barley and rye, as gluten is found within these grains. Anything from pasta and bread all the way to soy sauce or salad dressings. Foods that are good for me are plenty of fruit, veg, meat and fish. If it isn’t processed, I can eat it. A usual breakfast consists of gluten-free cornflakes with linseeds and plenty of fruit, usually bananas and raspberries. For lunch during the week I have rice cakes with various different toppings. Things become a bit more complicated when it comes to eating out. As gluten is very difficult to contain in a professional kitchen, eating out always comes with a certain risk. Once you find good places to eat out, it is hard to risk eating elsewhere. One thing that I get asked a lot is 'how sensitive are you?'. Well let's put it this way: if you dip your bread into the hummus that I am eating from and then I do the same, I will feel that in the next 20-30 minutes. When it comes to coeliac disease, you either have it, or you don’t. Having a wheat intolerance or allergy is very different. (Judit, 36)
The eating disorder
I have an eating disorder (ED) which I've struggled with for around 10 years. It's been much worse, and is now pretty manageable, but I expect I will always be in recovery, and will never have a completely 'normal' relationship with food. Eating disorders completely distort the way you think about food, and typically leave you fearful of a lot of foods and food groups, for example carbs. They are also extremely consuming: food (or avoiding it) becomes very obsessive and quite literally all you think about. Unlike most diets, where you can be open about having a wheat or nut allergy, they are also very secretive, so hiding it becomes a huge priority, and pretty exhausting. Lots of people with eating disorders eat the same foods very regularly. These are foods they consider safe and that they can track, knowing exactly how much energy (calories) they contain. Tracking is much less easy when eating out, which can be a huge deal for people living with an ED. The fear around unfamiliar foods, hidden and unknown calories, and eating around friends can all be scary. There are lots of misconceptions around EDs. I think they are much more common than people realise. The charity BEAT estimates that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. People living with them are typically very good at hiding them, and don't always look ill or underweight – a fat person can have an eating disorder too. (Anonymous)
I used to suffer from chronic IBS, resulting in stomach cramps and upset stomachs most days through my early 20s. My diet wasn’t particularly healthy but it wasn’t awful either – just kind of ‘normal’. I had a chat with my doctor who advised I started a food diary to see what sort of foods would affect me most – but being an admin-a-phobe I actually just cut stuff out for a few days at a time to get the same data. I started with bread as the whole world seemed to be gluten intolerant at the time, but that had little effect, then dairy which did seem to relieve the pain a little, and then meat, which seemed to make the biggest difference. I’ve never really thought of it as a condition, more just that my body disagrees with certain foods. I have also found that stress and anxiety triggers bouts of IBS so alongside diet, I have strived for a less stressful life. I think they are important in equal measure. As a diet, I eat fully organic and vegetarian, verging on vegan, but I’m still eating organic eggs from my own chickens and the occasional bit of organic dark chocolate. I mostly figured out the information and diet for myself; there’s a lot conflicting materials online and I think that’s mainly because everybody is different. I have just done what works for my personal situation. I remember a friend telling me that it takes a long time to digest meat, so that led me to trying to cut that out and it had the most significant difference. (Christian, 34)
Fat-burning with keto
Last year I decided to adopt a ketogenic diet, aiming for peak vitality and a prolonged, healthy life, with weight loss as a handy by-product. A keto diet is simple to follow: high in fat, medium in protein and very low in carbohydrate. On a day to day basis, a snapshot may look something like this: coffee with coconut oil (blended) for breakfast. Eggs, bacon, avocado and sauerkraut for lunch; beef livers with green vegetables for dinner followed by seasonal berries with whipped cream and grated dark chocolate for dessert. I miss fresh sourdough bread, beer, a Pastel de Nata with a morning coffee. However, for me, the benefits far outweigh the restrictive elements. I was initially informed and inspired about the Keto diet through books by Nora Gedgaudas, Michael Pollan, Nina Teicholz and Gary Taubes. I would recommend ‘Primal Fat burner’ by Nora Gedgaudas as a great entry point to learn more about this approach to diet. I appreciate it is an expensive way of consuming food and drink; on average I will spend at least £100 per week just on food for myself (without any meals out). However, I value this as an investment in health and nutrition, rather than purely sustenance. (Joe, 31)