Warning: this post mentions digestive issues in detail. If you don’t want to read about bowel habits, skip it.
The reason I went vegan initially was due to my IBS.
For as long as I can remember I had GI symptoms, alternating between diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, the works. I didn’t discuss it when I was younger because it’s an embarrassing subject and not really something that comes up in everyday conversation. Of course, my parents were aware when I had flare-ups because I would be in the bathroom calling out for Pepto-Bismol and Tums. In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious I had IBS from the get-go.
I stopped tolerating lactose in college. At least, that’s when I officially recognized the link between dairy consumption and digestive issues. This was a rough time for me because I really started noticing the way my GI problems were inhibiting me. And the more I paid attention to what I ate, the more I realized that certain foods were more aggravating than others. Unfortunately, back then (circa 2000), there wasn’t as much awareness for GI disorders as there is now (it seems gluten free news stories are mentioned daily now). And I didn’t have the background to research things on my own. So I ignored the issue until it got to the point that it could no longer be ignored.
How was I to know that my “normal” didn’t match up to everyone else’s “normal”? People didn’t talk about these things. Why would I bring the topic up? How would I have known it was even something that needed to be addressed? I don’t mean to throw myself a pity party, but I definitely went with the suffer-in-silence route (way better than bringing up constipation at the dinner table). My first boyfriend was the first person to really bring to my attention that I might have some kind of GI problem. I won’t go into the specifics but suffice it to say I was averaging one bowel movement a week. Sometimes two weeks. I didn’t keep track but once I started to then it was like something clicked. Whoa!? I guess I really don’t go the bathroom very often at all! As you can imagine, when my gut did decide to do the damn thing, it was a pretty horrible day for me. I had no idea this was abnormal. I felt it, but I never discussed it.
Finally my parents took me to see a gastroenterologist and I got the oh-so-vague diagnosis of IBS.
As anyone with IBS will tell you, it’s not a very helpful diagnosis.
From there, I really didn’t know what to do. I think I chose the worst thing though, which was to stop eating aggravating foods. It was a well intentioned plan, but since I couldn’t detect any patterns with which foods were the ones that produced symptoms, I wound up eliminating food after food after food. I’d try something and feel horrible and never want it again. I was looking for a clear cut cause and effect relationship (which I now know was a pointless mission). I didn’t realize there was no rhyme or reason to my GI tract acting up.
If there’s one thing I learned during that horrible phase of my life, it’s that IBS can take over your life if you let it. My family and friends, bless them, were so supportive during this time.
I don’t know if there was any specific thing that sparked the turning point for me, but eventually I decided to take my health into my own hands.
Fiber became my best friend.
I tweaked my diet over the remaining years of undergrad, nursing school, and beyond, but the one thing that remained constant was my need for fiber. Veggies and fruit made up the bulk of my diet. It wasn’t nutritional perfection though. Looking back there are definitely parts that make me cringe. I ate canned peas and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for weeks on end. But I also enjoyed monster salads almost daily. When a Whole Foods opened in Westwood my grocery bills went through the roof, but I began noticing the way clean, real food made me feel. I liked how fruit and veggies tasted, but I liked even more the way they made me “go”.
I can’t remember exactly when I went completely meatless, but it was some time while I was in nursing school (2006). My diet was already lactose-free and plant-centric, so the change wasn’t huge or sudden. At the time, I was learning a ton (more) about nutrition and it’s role in health so I started doing my own experimentation. I embarked on a mostly vegetarian diet, and because I was on a budget, quality animal products weren’t in my price range. As a result, my meat consumption diminished with each passing month until I was basically a lactose free vegetarian.
Since I was doing all my shopping at Whole Foods, I began to dabble in the world of specialty diets. Every once in a while I would I sample a new product like gluten free granola or veggie burgers or soy cheese. But throughout it all, getting plenty of fiber was my #1 concern. Going several days without a bowel movement felt awful and I didn’t want to return to that way of living.
I have maintained this plant-based, mostly vegan, diet for almost 5 years. I still have IBS flare ups, and my bad days are still bad. But I have way more good days. When I get discouraged, I remind myself that I cannot to let my digestive system control my life. I refuse. The days of cutting out food for fear of painful consequences are behind me. I’d rather err on the side of discomfort and enjoy my meals than return to that scared way of living.
Cut to present day…a few months ago I discovered the world of FODMAPs.
When reading up on it, the first thing I thought was “whoa, this is describing my GI issues to a ‘T’!”
The next thing that went through my mind was “whoa, why do so many of my favorite foods contain FODMAPs?”
Suddenly it clicked. No wonder sometimes I felt fine after a meal, while other times the same food left me feeling bloated and gassy. No wonder I felt pregnant when I ate apples and hummus together, but on their own, each was way more tolerable.
The more I researched the diet, the more it made sense to me. I finally felt like my specific problems were those being targeted with this diet plan.
But now that I had this new information, what was I to do with it? I have IBS-C. Without these fiber-ful foods, I don’t know if my digestive system will function.
Which takes priority in alleviating my symptoms? Having a bowel movement (and thus clearing the gut) or removing fermentable carbohydrates (and thus eliminating gas in the gut).
[to be continued...]