For as long as I can remember, every day has been filled with some sort of stomach discomfort. A sensation that usually creeps in following lunch, but occasionally after breakfast too, more days than not left me wanting to slip into sweat pants and just lay on my stomach. Regardless of how much water I had had in the previous hours, regardless of how “clean” my diet was, and regardless of the portion sizes of my meal, I pretty much always had some sort of uncomfortable, cramping like sensation in my belly. For a while, I chalked it up to my digestion just being what it was. I tried various pills and potions, but nothing seemed to calm the discomfort. Bouncing around diets from Veganism to swearing by the, “magical powers of keto”, my digestion just never felt “smooth.”
I’ve always prescribed to a predominately plant based diet, and I think that the key to successful nutrition is stated succinctly by Michael Pollen when he said, “eat food, mostly plants, and not too much.” But what happens when most plants make you want to double over in pain?
Low FODMAP to the rescue.
On a cold December evening, with my belly distended and a warm lavender heating pad draped across my stomach, I vowed that something had to change. This had become an all too familiar evening routine, and being in so much pain was not an option I wanted to keep on the table. After following a nutritionist-turned food blogger on instagram for a while, I decided to take a look into the approach she was touting to manage her IBS. Could it be that all this belly pain I was experiencing was IBS? I always thought that the three (and sometimes four!) trips to the restroom in the morning was just a result of a diet rich in fiber, and that the constant (and honestly, really smelly) gas was just because I ate a lot of vegetables. I had heard of Low FODMAP diets before but never wanted to succumb to the realization that perhaps the foods I’ve been swearing by daily were the causes of my pain. No apples? Garlic? Cauliflower!? The staples sworn to fend off cancer and said to be pillars of nutrient dense perfection…how could it be that these foods were my problem?
FODMAP stands for fermentable, oligo-, di, monosaccharides and polyols. Foods that are high in fodmaps are not digested properly by people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and common symptoms that can occur are bloat, diarrhea, constipation and gas. Depending on the type of IBS that you have, your symptoms can be totally different. And in addition to varying symptoms, the foods that you may be sensitive to may be different from someone else suffering from IBS. For example, someone with IBS may be able to support bananas (either unripe or extremely mushy), while another unfortunate soul may not. Every body is different, and the only way to truly understand what causes discomfort is to test them out.
Per the recommendation of my doctor, I embarked on an elimination diet. Following a (pretty) strict Low FODMAP approached, for two weeks I was really, really careful about the quality and diversity of foods on my plate. Staying as far away from foods known to be sensitive for people with IBS, for the first time in forever, three pm rolled around and there wasn’t a single uncomfortable sensation in my stomach. I felt normal. Not too full, not hungry, not bloated or laden with cramps. It honestly felt life changing. Dinner was no longer an obstacle I felt like I had to skillfully maneuver. So long as the food I was preparing was low in FODMAPs, I digested it no problem.
Admitting that perhaps the staples in my diet were the root cause of my digestive woes wasn’t easy. I dutifully prescribed to one (sometimes two) apple(s) a day, and you wouldn’t find a typical Gabi nourish bowl without diced red onion and smashed garlic for both heart boosting benefits and a powerhouse of flavor. Hummus was/and still is my favorite food group — but understanding that chickpeas in high quantities can cause bloat and indigestion, I finally realized that making the switch to saying, “no thank you,” was actually one of the best things for me.
Maintaining good nutrition, and a social life.
IBS sucks. It makes going out to eat really tricky. What’s also difficult is that sometimes you have a flare up despite eating a perfectly low-to-no FODMAP meal. Our bodies are not perfect and we don’t always react to food perfectly either. What is important throughout your journey to figuring out digestive peace of mind is making sure NOT TO STRESS about it. Life isn’t meant to be restrictive, and coming from someone with a history of disordered eating, putting boundaries once again on what I can and can’t eat isn’t always good for my recovered state of mind. I will admit however that being pain free after eating a meal definitely outweighs being a pain while ordering in a restaurant.
If you are someone suffering from IBS, do the small things. Drink more water, get more sleep, and try to be a little more mindful of the sensations in your body. In addition to following a Low FODMAP diet, make sure to diversify as much as you can. While it may be scary, reach out to all the food groups that are tolerated in the elimination phase so that your body is receiving an adequate array of nutrients. Drink plenty of water, and don’t forget to keep stress at a minimum (if you can).
Other tips and tricks.
The elimination diet seemed incredibly daunting at first. What on earth are you allowed to eat? Instead of focusing on what you can’t eat, I would strongly recommend honing in on all the protein sources, vegetable and fats that you can eat. My favorite app that has proven to be life saving in terms of quickly referencing if a food is lowfodmap or not is called, “FODMAP.” Brilliant name, I know. I found it on a quick search in the Apple App store and it’s incredibly useful. Other helpful resources are blogs such as this one, and doing as much research on IBS as you can — such as reading publications and websites like this.
On the morning I decided to embark on the two week elimination phase of a Low FODMAP diet, I took screenshots of various FODMAP graphs and food lists to have on my phone so that when I went to the grocery store, I could easily pick out fruits and vegetables that are tolerable. I also invested in a peppermint oil supplement, as well as a digestive enzyme to take before meals. And while I can’t honestly say for certain if they’re working or not, I know that in conjunction with my lowfodmap diet, I’ve had pretty much no bloating to speak of.
The quest to zero bloating is a long one. Life doesn’t always play fair, and sometimes being social means sacrificing a bit of stomach comfort…and that’s just life. I wasn’t gifted with a perfect digestive system, and now that I’ve come to terms with that fact, it’s so important not to stress about eating if you have to go out.
A perfect example would be the night of my boyfriend’s birthday. Elan adores Indian food. And I do too, but it has always given me stomach aches upon returning home. In hindsight, I realize that pretty much every curry under the sun is made with garlic and onion (my biggest triggers), and heavily flavored with various potent spices; both of which are not great for people with IBS. So on the evening of his birthday, with both of our families in attendance, I popped two of my digestive enzymes and forced myself to relax. I told myself to enjoy the food in front of me, to eat slowly, chew thoroughly, and drink plenty of water. When the ingredients are out of your control, and you know you’re ingesting food that may trigger a flare up, do your body a favor and try to just enjoy it. You’ll only make the sensation of discomfort worse if you worry about.
I'm not an expert.
I am by no means an expert on IBS. But I firmly believe that the more you educate and experiment with the foods that may be causing you flare ups, the more control you can start to get back from your life. Eliminating the foods that have caused me discomfort has really been life changing. It feels incredible to actually see my abs again. For someone who has toted health and well being, I never actually felt healthy. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that my body wasn’t properly absorbing what I was putting into it — because it didn’t tolerate it!
I have a long way to go before I can confidently say that I’ve figured it all out. And maybe I never will. But right now, I’m taking it one day at a time, and in the end, isn’t that all you can do anyway?
To come along my IBS journey, click and follow the social channels below! And don’t forget to share with someone who may be suffering from IBS — because the more people you have in your corner to chat to, the better you’ll feel about making positive nutritional changes.