[dropcap color=”orange” background=”green” style=”rounded” size=”small]E[/dropcap]ditor’s Note: This is a guest post from Toni Dawn, a writer, blogger, and former personal trainer from Bristol, Tennessee… She has kindly offered to do regular guest posts on living a healthy lifestyle with a Chronic Illness. Today she’s talking about diet. For more from Toni, head over to her blog at The Girl in Yoga Pants.
Many people have experienced dramatic improvements in their chronic illness from changing their diet. The reason is simple. If you don’t feed your body the micronutrients your cells need to produce energy, you are starving your cells. Starving cells cannot function properly, which manifests as fatigue, brain fog, pain, and a host of diseases. With chronic illness, it’s important to eat plenty of vegetables and to identify hidden food intolerances that may be aggravating your illness.
Eat Your Veggies
The one thing you can do that probably any doctor will agree with is to make sure you are giving your cells the micronutrients they need in order to function optimally by eating plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits. Take a cue from Dr. Terry Wahls, who reversed her progressive multiple sclerosis (yes, you read that right – she reversed her supposedly irreversible disease) by eating 6 to 9 cups of vegetables a day. If you make just one change, this should be it, and most doctors will agree.
Identify Hidden Food Sensitivities
Another important aspect of a healing diet is to eliminate foods that may be causing your body harm. Your body will have a harder time healing if you are constantly eating foods that have become a burden to it. Hidden food allergies and sensitivities (also called intolerances) are common among those with chronic illnesses, so it is very worthwhile to make every effort to identify any offending foods that may be contributing to your symptoms. While symptoms of a food allergy will usually (but not always) leave you without any doubt that you should avoid that food, symptoms of food sensitivities can be as mild as increased fatigue, irritability, pain, brain fog, or other vague symptoms without any sign of gastrointestinal distress.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you’ve eaten a certain food all of your life without any previous problems that the food is not causing a problem for you now. Many people have found that they suddenly develop an intolerance or allergy to foods that they have eaten all of their lives. With the added burden of a chronic illness, the body sometimes simply no longer has the resources it needs to properly digest the offending food, or the immune system dysregulates and begins to view the food as a dangerous invader.
The Difference Between Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities
It’s important to realize that there is a difference between a food allergy and a sensitivity. A food allergy causes an immune system response that is often very serious and requires immediate medical treatment. A food sensitivity, however, causes a much more subtle reaction in the body that does not involve the immune system. This is why food sensitivities are more difficult to identify.
Your doctor can test for the most common food allergens, but may not be able to identify less common ones, such as food additives or dyes found in many processed foods. However, your doctor will not be able to test for most food sensitivities.
In order to identify sensitivities, you will need to conduct an elimination/challenge diet. During the elimination phase, you remove the foods that you suspect you are sensitive to from your diet for a period of time (usually two weeks, but some experts recommend up to six weeks), while you note any symptoms that disappear. After you’ve refrained from eating these foods for the recommended time period, you then reintroduce each food one at a time to “challenge” your body and note any symptoms that appear.
Foods to consider eliminating from your diet include:
- All processed foods
- Sugar substitutes
- Nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, tobacco)
If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), one particular thing you may need to watch out for are FODMAPs (an acronym for Fermentable Oligo-, Di- and Mono-saccharides, And Polyols – which is why acronyms are so awesome). These are types of carbohydrates that cause gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating in sensitive individuals. You can view an extensive list of FODMAP foods here.
Because the list of foods is so long, it’s probably best to work with a registered dietician if you suspect you may have a problem with FODMAPs. Most of the time, thankfully, you will not need to completely eliminate these foods, but simply eat less of them.
Even if you do discover a food intolerance, it doesn’t mean you will never be able to eat that food again. Sometimes your body just needs a break from it. Many people are able to slowly add offending foods back into their diet after six months or so with no problem. This doesn’t work for food allergies, though. You will want to continue abstaining from foods you are allergic to.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry. Most of the time, it’s enough to just eat your veggies and stay away from junk foods. That’s the best place to start. The rest are suggestions in case you’re still having problems or you suspect that certain foods are affecting your health, but can’t figure out what.
Changing your diet can seem like a daunting task, especially if you’re suffering from a chronic illness. Start by making small changes, such as eating more fresh vegetables and fruits. This one change will likely lead to decreased cravings and give you more energy. Uncovering hidden food intolerances takes more time. It is well worth it to investigate, however, to relieve your body of any extra burdens.