I have had issues with food for a long time. So long in fact that I didn’t realise how bad the issues had become until recently, when their absence has been so shocking that it has become impossible to ignore the situation. Various doctors have mentioned the FODMAP elimination diet to me over the years but only in passing and I never thought that I would have to try something so extreme.
But about 6 weeks ago, my stomach issues became harder to ignore.
18 months ago I tried to cut out gluten and 3 years ago I mostly removed dairy from my diet. I say ‘tried’ and ‘mostly’ because I treated eating those things like drinking and accepting the hangover – I would make an adult decision to eat pizza if I’d had a bad day and accept that I would be lying on the couch moaning about it 20 minutes later. I would say that I was 90% dairy and gluten free and I thought I was pretty much fine: when I ate gluten I would balloon up like I was 9 months pregnant, waddling home from restaurants swearing never to eat pasta again. When I had dairy, my rosacea would flare up. But apart from that I was fine. Ish.
6 weeks ago I woke up in the early hours of the morning every single night for a week in agony. I lost 5lbs in 2 weeks because I wasn’t eating properly. I had a constant headache and couldn’t concentrate on anything due to brain fog. I had had enough so I went to the doctor. I’d previously had all the tests for Coeliac, allergies, and IBS with negative results (though I still doubt the latter). The doctor thinks it’s a combination of food intolerances, my endometriosis and stress. So he suggested the FODMAP elimination diet.
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Monosaccharides And Polyols. It sounds terrifying and super complicated. But to put it simply, all foods have FODMAPs but some are higher than others. High FODMAP foods cause issues in some people because not only do they take longer to digest in the small intestine, but they also ferment quicker than low FODMAP foods. This means they draw water from the body by osmosis, bloating the intestine and causing pain. I got home from the doctors, looked at the list of foods I was going to eliminate and felt so overwhelmed. It’s a long list and there are some big hitters in there: gluten and dairy were manageable as I knew there were alternatives out there… but garlic? Onion? Avocado?!
It was only when my husband told me to focus on the foods I *was* allowed to eat that I felt less scared and more positive about the whole thing. I spent a long time getting advice from friends who are doing it or have done it in the past. All of them said it was the best thing they’ve ever done, which really helped to stop me freaking out! I looked at a lot of recipes on Pinterest, but took it all with a pint of salt – it’s easy to get caught up in complicated and time consuming recipes when really I just wanted to keep it simple. I’m not a huge cook any way so I didn’t want anything too OTT.
The elimination stage of the diet is simple: you cut out all the foods for a month to see how your body reacts. Then, you slowly start to reintroduce the foods one by one and keep track of how you feel. I have now finished the month-long (and my god did it feel long!) elimination stage and I have just started reintroducing food. If you follow me on snapchat you will have seen my absolute joy at having avocado on toast for the first time in a month!
FODMAP Elimination Diet – The Things I Struggled With
Eating out – This is practically impossible unless you resign yourself to having the most bland food in the world (in which case, you might as well just eat at home!) We only ate out a handful of times in the past month and I felt nervous with each one as it’s so difficult to explain FODMAP to people. Most people are now aware what you mean if you say ‘vegan’ or ‘gluten free’ (and there are whole restaurants and shops dedicated to those diets), but FODMAP? Blank stares. Trying to explain it is really exhausting as it covers so many different things. I found it easier to start from a very basic meal (e.g. a side salad) and add things to that, rather than start with something complicated and take away 80% of the ingredients. Having said that, the waitress in Jamie’s Italian looked at my like I’d feel out of a tree when I asked for a simple salad with chicken, sliced tomato and mozzarella. She had to go ask the chef if it was okay… bizarrea! In most places I ended up with some form of meat and chips. Not very exciting!
Be suspicious of what’s in EVERYTHING – Most people don’t know that lots of burgers, sausages etc have flour in to bulk them up, as do sauces and marinades on meat and fish. You have to get used to asking about and double checking every aspect of your meal so that you can eat without fear of a reaction. You also have to remember to check the ingredients listed on anything you buy – even things like dark chocolate sometimes contain gluten.
Snacks and food on the go – Most evenings (before FODMAP) my husband and I would have snacks to eat while we devoured whatever box set we were obsessed with at that time. Hummus, crisps, sweets, chocolate… Every night it would get to about 8.30pm and I would crave something. And now? My options of dark chocolate or ready salted potato-based crisps got very boring after a while! Travelling is also a nightmare. We drove up to my in-laws’ house one weekend and stopped to get coffee and food. The only dairy-free milk option from Starbucks was soya (which isn’t allowed on the FODMAP elimination diet) and coconut milk (nice on some things but HORF in coffee). I walked around Waitress for ages looking for food but ended up leaving with a bottle of water and some prawn crackers.
So depressing especially when your husband is eating a massive Burger King meal! For the drive back I made a huge chicken and sweet potato salad to avoid the same issue, so – take it from me – being prepared is key.
Drinking – Alcohol irritates the stomach so your intake is very limited on the FODMAP elimination diet. You’re allowed a glass of champagne/red wine, vodka, whiskey or gin. Which sounds good, until you realise that most mixers are off the table as well. Gin with soda water? I’d rather go without, thanks.
Deprivation – As with any kind of diet change, you immediately crave what you’re not allowed. All I’ve thought of in the past month was garlic bread (even though before this diet I probably ate garlic bread once in the past year!), avocados, and gin and ginger ale. It’s really hard to stay motivated when you fixate on what you’re missing. About 2 weeks into the diet we had a death in the family and my reaction to sadness or a bad day is always food. I was so close to ordering a massive Dominos but I resisted. And I knew from that moment if I survived that day without eating anything bad, then I could make it through the rest of the elimination period.
FOMAP Elimination Diet – The Positives
Let’s start with the main one: I feel like a completely new woman. I hadn’t realised just how poorly I was because I had functioned at that level for such a long time. My stomach, although nowhere near flat, is now the flattest it has been in a very long time. I hadn’t even realised that I was constantly bloated, I just thought that was my body shape! My stomach aches have disappeared. I’ve been sleeping better. My headaches have gone. I have had only one upset stomach in 4 weeks – I cannot even remember the last time that happened, definitely not in the last five years. Perhaps not even in the last 10 years. If I hadn’t have seen such amazing results I probably would have given up after the first week but I can’t believe just how different I feel.
Weight – I hate telling people I’m on the FODMAP elimination diet as the word ‘diet’ is so loaded. It makes people think I’m being fussy and awkward because I want to lose a few pounds which is frustrating. However, I know people will ask so, yes I have lost weight. Probably just because I have been eating less with regards to portion size and just the amount of unhealthy foods I have cut from my diet. My clothes fit better as I’m not bloated and I feel happier because of that. Nothing quite dents your confidence like leaving the house feeling like you look great, but finishing the evening feeling like Violet Beauregarde!
Rosacea – Again, this wasn’t something that factored into my original decision but it has been a great bonus. My skin has definitely improved in the past month: my redness has decreased and my dry dermatitis patches are reduced and are easier to blast. As I start to reintroduce the foods, I’m going to kill two birds with one stone by seeing which foods affect my rosacea as well as my stomach. Hopefully I can then pinpoint exactly what makes both unhappy. What a happy coincidence!
Wow. This post was a lot longer than I intended! A few people have asked me to do a post on what I ate during the elimination period so I will get that up in the next week or so. I will also do a post updating you with the reintroduction stage of the diet. It’s not quite as fun as it sounds: you reintroduce something (e.g. I chose avocado for my first food. Not that I’m obsessed…) but then you take it back out before reintroducing the next food. This is to avoid any delayed reactions affecting the results. So in theory, the elimination stage will probably go on for another month. Keep your eyes on the prize, Lex!
I hope you found my thoughts on the FODMAP elimination diet interesting. Obviously, if you think that you may benefit from this diet, this is something you should talk about to your doctor. It’s a serious undertaking and, as with any drastic diet change, you should get medical advice. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below!