I'm sitting here eating sautéed salmon with cabbage and kelp noodles. Except it's sautéed sole, which doesn't taste nearly as good to me, but is more affordable than wild salmon. What I really want to eat is pizza. Thick crust pizza with pesto and tomato sauce, oozing with mozzarella... I actually have a slice of gluten-free pizza with my own crust in the freezer, but it's in there so that someone else can eat it. It's next to the homemade gluten-free chive bread. Again, waiting for someone else to eat it. My freezer is full of things that I've baked, but can't eat. There's a loaf of molasses brown bread on the counter. Gluten and dairy free. It's good. Really good. It's sitting in a container that says, "Please help yourself." It's a recipe I'm working on for the cookbook, but I can't eat it. In the fridge is a $7 container of sunbutter. I bought it so that I could have a quick snack on hand for those days when I'm running short on time. Actually, I bought it so I could have a quick snack, period. A snack that doesn't take work. But after eating it for three days, I can't deny what's going on. I'm having a reaction to it.
What happens when I have a reaction to food? What doesn't happen? It changes all the time. Sometimes I get bloated and gassy. That's the least of my problems. I've been dealing with that my whole life, and I always thought it was just normal. If that was my only problem, frankly, I would eat whatever I wanted. But it's not. I also get itchy around my jawline. I get this strange feeling like I've suddenly developed a double chin. For the record, trying to explain that feeling to a doctor is very difficult, and the only two people I've ever met that knew exactly what I was talking about are gluten-free friends who also have various food sensitivities. What else? I get headaches, deep, pulsing pain in my temples. My jaw becomes tight and I find myself grinding my teeth more at night. I know this because I wake up with teeth clenched and a creaking jaw. This relented in the five months from January to May when I was eating an extremely strict diet, but has gotten worse as my willpower has waned. And there's more. I get depressed. I have intense mood swings that leave me in tears. I feel like it's hard to think straight and my thoughts are being pushed in every direction through a crowd of juggling clowns. Just thinking about it makes my brain hurt. Simple tasks suddenly seem like monumental hurdles. And I get tired. So tired I can barely keep my eyes open. So tired I need to take a nap at 6pm or I fall asleep waiting at the curbside while I pick up a friend at the airport.
Both of these things happened to me today. I struggled to stay awake while driving to the airport, fell asleep in the car waiting for my friend to get her bags, and promptly took a nap when I got home. I had to force myself out of bed at 7pm to eat dinner. Maybe it was the sunbutter I ate. Maybe it was the slice of molasses brown bread I allowed myself to have last night. Maybe it was the mooncakes I attempted to make today for Go Ahead Honey, It's Gluten-Free. They were gluten-free, vegan, nut-free, sugar-free, and xanthan/guar gum free. I thought they would be fine. But as I finished eating one, I could feel my jaw tense up and begin to tingle. Within minutes, I felt like I was going to fall asleep. I slept a full eight hours last night and did yoga this morning. I was feeling good. It wasn't stress or not taking care of myself. It wasn't in my head, and it wasn't psychological. It was something I ate.
Sometimes my reactions happen immediately as they did today. Sometimes it happens a few hours later. Sometimes the next day. That's what makes it so hard to pinpoint what I'm reacting to. Although at this point, there are so many things on my list, it's almost not worth trying to figure it out anymore. Now it's more about making sure I stock up on the items I know I can eat, and pray I don't develop sensitivities to those as well. These days, it's a lot of fish, grass-fed beef (because the thought of eating factory farmed beef is worse to me than the thought of being broke), vegetables, fruit, and seaweed. Luckily for me, I can eat tons of kelp noodles, nori, and seaweed salad, and feel great. Even luckier is the fact that I love and crave these foods.
So why am I telling you all this? I'm in a bit of a catch-22 these days. I've never hidden the fact that I struggle with bingeing. Bringing that to light was one of the reasons I started this blog. If I begin to fall back into old patterns of bingeing, I talk about it. I go to counseling. I journal about it or write about it here. I don't try to hide it. Down that path lies only more bingeing, and I've dealt with that long enough to be sick and tired of it. I will be the first to admit that I am recovering from an eating disorder. Binge eating may not be as understood as bulimia or anorexia, but it's equally destructive and possibly more prevalent (but underdiagnosed). One of the things I've learned is that when I restrict a food, I begin to crave it. I know this. I want what I can't have. The problem right now? There are a lot of foods I can't have. My naturopathic doctor wants me to go back on the diet I was on for five months. I felt amazing. But I couldn't eat anything. No gluten, dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, high-amine foods (like bananas, chocolate, avocados, tomatoes, and more), dried fruit, sweeteners in any form other than stevia...the list was long, but I'll leave it at that. There were foods I had to avoid that were traditionally "binge" foods for me, like cheese and sugary sweets. But there were also a lot of healthy foods I had to cut out like avocados, tomatoes, and bananas. I want to eat everything in moderation because I know that's what's best to keep me from bingeing. But I can't. Because that's not what's best for my body, and when my body is out of whack, my mind gets out of whack. And when my mind gets out of whack, it all begins to spiral downward...
People ask me if I've ever tried just eating what I want and not worrying about it. People ask me that a lot. Sometimes I can see the question just hovering in their eyes, but they refrain from saying anything. Yes. I've tried that. That's actually what got me where I am right now. From January through May, I stuck strictly to my diet, and I was feeling better every day. For a number of reasons, I decided to try a few foods I'd been avoiding, healthy foods like almonds and avocados. I felt okay, so I allowed more foods in. Before I knew it, I was eating everything again (except gluten). Before I knew it, my headaches were back, and I had a few new symptoms as well. Sore throats, ear aches, and yeast infections (actually that last one wasn't new, I just forgot about it earlier). Oh and did I mention weight gain? Seven pounds in a month. And believe me, I wasn't bingeing. I was just eating foods that caused inflammation in my body.
I've been feeling worse and worse, but continuing to eat foods that I shouldn't. I still eat healthier than most people I know. I'm eating gluten and dairy free. I don't eat any processed foods. All baked goods I eat are homemade. To most people, my diet looks unnecessarily strict. Yet in my eyes, I'm failing because I've been eating eggs, nuts, and unrefined sugars like honey. I've been eating high amine foods like canned tuna. I know these are healthy foods, but my body can't handle them. And as long as I continue to eat foods that I'm reacting to, I won't be able to calm my gut inflammation down long enough to heal.
Here's the thing. Being on a strict diet is difficult for anyone - and I'd like to make clear that when I use the word diet, I am not saying that I'm trying to restrict the amount I eat, simply to avoid foods I'm reacting to. Being on a strict diet as a food blogger, cookbook author-to-be, and graduate nutrition student is especially difficult. Add to that my history of binge eating, and I can only tell you that it's exhausting. I want to go out to dinner with friends. I want to be able to go to a friend's house for dinner and know I won't pay for it later. I want to be able to come home after a tiring day and grab an Amy's meal from the freezer. Hell, I want to bake a loaf of bread and be able to eat a slice without feeling sick later. But I can't. At this point, the best thing I can do for myself is work my way back to my strict diet, and hope that my doctor can help me to heal my leaky gut. The best I can do is hope that I can eat a more normal diet someday.
So now, here is the real reason I'm writing this. Yes, eating like this is hard. It's a struggle to stick to the foods that make me feel better. It's even harder when I start getting looks. If you have a food sensitivity, then I'm sure you know the look I'm referring to. The one that says, "Oh come on. It's all in your head." The sideways questions that are really trying to ask, "Are you sure you don't have an eating disorder?" Well actually, yes I do. And I'll happily talk with you about it. But that's not what's going on here. My food sensitivities are real. My symptoms are real. And my struggle to deal with it is real and not helped by your belief that it's in my head or that I'm being silly by refusing to use the same cutting board that's been used to cut regular bread. I try not to get angry. Because I know how it looks. I can see from the outside how crazy my diet must look, and sometimes I even have to ask myself if it's in my head. Then I eat something, have a reaction, and am reminded of the truth. It's not in my head. And then I do get angry. And I get sad. And I feel even more isolated.
I tearily confessed my concerns recently to The Assistant. He admitted that more than one person had asked him if I had an eating disorder. I wasn't surprised, but I was frustrated and upset. This was about a month ago. I'm still frustrated. I'm still upset. It still makes me cry to think about it. It bothers me that I can't make people understand what's going on in my body or how I feel every time I eat something as innocuous as an egg. Frankly, it sucks to have to tell a friend, "Sorry I can't eat that," and then watch the look on her face that tells you she thinks you have an eating disorder. It sucks to not be able to eat the food, it sucks to have to watch her eat it, and it sucks to know what she's secretly thinking. It sucks equally hard to give in, eat the food to feel normal for a few minutes, and then pay for it the next day by waking up depressed, bloated, gassy, or any other of my reactions. Take your pick as to which one I'll end up with. Maybe one, maybe all.
I've noticed there are two prevailing beliefs about eating disorders and food sensitivities. One is that food sensitivities don't really exist and that the best way to heal from an eating disorder is to allow yourself to eat whatever you want in order to take the supposed power away from that food. This is the view espoused in Intuitive Eating, a popular book that I both agree and disagree with. The other view is that certain foods can be physiologically addictive in the same way that alcohol can. This is why we crave them, and the only way to stop that craving is to stop eating the food. Of course, there are shades of grey in there, but those are the two ends of the spectrum as I've seen them.
When I first started really dealing with my bingeing, one of the ways I learned to deal with it was to allow myself to eat whatever I wanted in moderation. If I wanted dessert, I had dessert every night. I stopped telling myself that there were "bad" foods or that I was bad if I ate something rich and decadent. It worked. Sort of. When it came to certain foods, especially those with sugar, the cravings didn't go away just because I stopped restricting those foods. If anything, the cravings got stronger the more I ate them. It was around this time that I began having headaches and suffering from depression. Since then, I've started to believe that "everything in moderation" only applies to some people. The people for whom the cravings are purely psychological. But for a lot of us, I believe there's something else going on. Something real and something insidious. Something that can only be cured by abstaining from the food altogether. Now, I know some of you will agree with me, and some won't. And the literature is inconclusive at this point. But right now, here's what I believe for myself:
I believe that I have a "leaky gut" and until it's healed, I will continue to be sensitive to a large number of foods.
I believe that eating those foods causes a myriad of symptoms, not the least of which is depression. This is not in my head, and no matter how much yoga I do, how much sleep I get, or how much I smile, eating foods I'm sensitive to is going to lead to emotional problems.
I believe that sugar (and for me, that includes honey, maple syrup, and most other sweeteners other than stevia) is the major cause of my mood swings, and abstaining completely is the only way they will stop. I've seen this happen. They've gone away when I stopped eating sugar, and always come back within three days when I start up again.
I believe that I simply have to learn to ignore what other people think and do what's right for me. But I urge you, if you know someone who has to eat a certain way for her health, to have compassion and help her follow her plan. To have faith that she knows her body best. To think twice before assuming that her problems are in her head. I know that disordered eating is real and can often be masked as food sensitivities. But I also know that food sensitivities are real, and can be confused for disordered eating. If you're reading this, you probably know that too. I realize I'm preaching to the choir. But I felt it needed to be said, or at least I needed to say it. To stand up for myself before strengthening my resolve to get back on my strict diet and back on my road to health and healing.
I realize at this point that there's so much more I have to say, but this post is long enough as it is. But there's more: my thoughts on stress and inflammation, Intuitive Eating, Women Food and God, orthorexia, and more about my own health and recent testing and bloodwork I've had done. I'll let you all go for now, and just to throw another thought out there, I'm leaving you with a link to something I read while in the middle of writing this post. Despite everything I just wrote, this helped me to put it all in perspective... Remembering 9/11.