Jan. 16, 2016

Happy 2016 - Getting Personal

Hello friends and happy 2016! I hope everyone had a great 2015 and are looking forward to new and wonderful things in the new year.  Last year was a year of changes and beginnings for me, including this blog. Like many start up years, it took me a bit to find a rhythm. One of my biggest struggles last year was the worsening of my digestive problems and frustrating failure to get them under control. That is part of the reason that I have not posted for the last few months. Now in 2016, I am trying some new tactics to correct my issues and have great hope that by this time next year, I will be feeling completely different . I can not really call it a new year resolution, but rather a convenient intersection of test results, "ah ha" realizations and the determination to change what needs happen to make a course correction. I am sharing my struggle with the hope that I can pass along what I have learned and glean tips and ideas from all of you who have dealt with similar problems.


Anyone who has read my blog or sees my Facebook page, knows that I am all about healthy cooking and eating. It has been a passion of mine for quite a long time. However, my style of cooking has evolved through the years as I became more educated in nutrition and as popular notions about diets changed. Sorting out the facts from the fads has been a bit tricky over the years. I still remember vividly the eighties, when popular diet books were touting a low fat diet was the way to a healthy weight and  sugar was a low calorie "quick energy" booster . Can you imagine? They advocated for sugar in our diets! But over the years, I learned more and more about dietary pitfalls. I learned how to eliminate many of the harmful additives and harmful cooking practices. Lucky for me, I am fond of vegetables, don't have much of a sweet tooth, and tend to prefer less refined foods. Plus I love to cook and experiment with creating dishes, so I know exactly what is in most of my food. With all of that going for me, you would think I would be the picture of health. Unfortunately, not so much.


When I think back, I probably have had digestive problems my whole life. As a child, I often had stomach aches, joint pains and was always prone to constipation. I frequently had esophageal spasms with food obstructions and would vomit easily. My first inkling that my problems are related to food was the reaction that happened every time I baked with wheat flour. I always knew that as soon as I dipped in to the flour canister, the very next thing was sneezing fits, itchy eyes and throat. Then if I tasted the raw batter or dough, my throat would swell and tongue would itch. In my child's mind, I rationalized that my problem was with the raw flour and stopped sampling the uncooked product, but continued to eat the baked goods. I never understood that my stomachaches were most likely an inside reaction to the ingestion of an allergen. Flash forward many years and my digestive system problems had become ten times worse. As far as the wheat flour went, I had cut way back on using it because my reaction to even touching it had gotten to the point that I would break out in hives. I still didn't make the connection. I still ate store bought bread and other wheat based products. My abdominal pain, fatigue and constant bloating finally got bad enough that I was referred to a gastroenterologist. After many tests, a whole host of medical problems were found. However, Celiac Disease (for more information https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coeliac_disease ) was not one of them. But the most profound and simple solution that came from the consultation was the recommendation to eliminate wheat from my diet. So simple but so effective. To be clear, I did have other issues that had to be treated with medications, but I suspect those problems may have been able to proliferate due to my body's constant allergy induced inflammation . Within weeks of going gluten free and completing my course of medications, I felt so much better. I dropped ten pounds without even trying, which was probably due to the reduction in inflammation. That was about eleven years ago and I wish I could say that everything is yippee skippie today. Alas, things have changed again.


After religiously following a  gluten free diet for a number of years, I really thought I had found my key to feeling good. Occasionally I would have an accidental exposure to wheat and the ensuing symptoms would remind me what I used to feel on a daily basis. Then about five years ago, I began to have the same old symptoms, plus a host of new symptoms. Suddenly, I gained 10 pounds even though nothing changed in my diet or life style. At first I just chalked it all up to work stress. Eventually I figured out much of the changes were coinciding with menopause. I took steps to relieve symptoms from both of those issues. But the familiar old digestive symptoms seem to be back with a vengeance, even with the gluten free diet.  Clearly there is something else or multiple something's in my diet that are an issue. To top it off, I have been seeing changes in my annual lab values, such as my cholesterol, triglycerides, and liver enzymes. Considering that healthy eating is a daily practice for me, I am more than a little annoyed that this is happening! Apparently, a generally healthy diet and active lifestyle is not enough. It is time for me to "double down" and whoop this thing in the butt.


To keep all of this in perspective, reaching the age of menopause and having a duel family history of atherosclerosis and heart disease, these developments shouldn't be too much of a surprise. My genetic body type may just be one of those that is more prone to laying down visceral fat and producing excess cholesterol in the blood. But that does not mean that I have to just accept it and wonder when my first heart attack will be. I am also at risk for other long term problems if the inflammation in my body continues. While I can not control my genetics, I can control what I put in to my body every day. Figuring out the perfect diet for my specific needs has been a bit of a challenge…even for a heath food geek, hahaha.


Where to start? I actually started with my doctors. Once again, I found myself undergoing several tests and procedures. What this did, was help identify what is and what is not a problem within my body. And once again, I am on some new medications. When it comes to my dietary changes, I looked in to what will be the most beneficial to reach my goal of normal lipid levels, normal liver levels, and reduce inflammation. It can be a little confusing when comparing different diet types. Sorting out conflicting claims about the "healthiest" eating modes can be maddening. I do not plan on following a prescribed diet. My plan is customized by me to reach specific goals. At my next blood test I will evaluate how effective the diet has been and adjust accordingly.  So here is how I plan on addressing my medical issues.


Allergens - This is actually the toughie. I have been paying close attention to what may have proceeded each flare up. Right now, Xanthan gum ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xanthan_gum )  is high on my list of suspects of my allergens. Xanthan gum is often an ingredient in commercial gluten free products. For now I am avoiding it. There may be other things that I am reacting to and  I plan to visit an allergist soon.


Vegetables - Lucky for me, I already am a big veggie fan and they are the bulk of what is my diet base. Some anti-inflammation diets recommend avoiding nightshades, but at this point I am not avoiding them. I am careful about the amount of potatoes I consume due to the carb load. I have added a powdered green drink in addition to the mounds of fresh greens I already eat. As always, I insist on organic.


Fruit - If I am guilty of slacking in a food group, this is it. I tend to forget about fruit except when they are in season and abundant. Currently, I am consciously making an effort to eat more fresh fruit but taking it easy on juicing fruits. If I add any fruit to a smoothie, it might be some frozen blueberries. I do add a lot of fresh citrus juice to water and dishes.


Grains - My personal habit with grains has been to lean toward whole grains and limit refined grains. That is fine for me but the family is not so fond of things like brown rice. So I used to compromise once and awhile cook up some fragrant Jasmin rice, then try to not over indulge. Considering refined grains like white rice can raise your blood sugar and triglycerides, they are a no-no for me right now. For the past couple of years, I have been doing a lot of experimentation with replacing grains and grain flours with alternatives like seeds (quinoa, buckwheat, etc.), tubers (sweet potato, cassava, etc.) nuts and nut like (almond flour, peanut flour, coconut flour) and vegetables or legumes (cauliflower, sweet potatoes, lentils). There are so many different ways to approach a familiar dish.


Meat - Here is the biggest area of change. I have been practicing meat reduction for some time and what I did consume was limited to high quality, local and as humanely produced as possible. I am choosing now to go virtually meat free. The rest of my family may not necessarily follow this but I will abstain at least 6 out of 7 days. When I do choose to consume meat or seafood, I will continue to hold my standards of sourcing.


Eggs - I will continue to consume eggs and am lucky to have locally produced "happy chicken" eggs.


Dairy - I am saying no to dairy. Luckily, I switched to non-dairy milks quite awhile ago but cheese, sour cream and butter was a little harder. Due to the high saturated fat in those products, I tried to tread lightly.  Eating these things sparingly just isn't enough, not to mention my personal feelings about the main stream dairy industry. Switching to non-dairy cheeses and butter alternatives is not all that new to me because I have been experimenting for a couple of years. Now I am committing to it.


Beverages - More water! Luckily, I like water. In fact, I don't drink sodas and rarely drink juices. I just forget to drink enough water. I don't know why that has been a trip up. I also am abstaining from alcohol for the time being. Even though my typical intake fell far below the USDA guidelines of safe consumption for a woman, I am cutting it to zero until my liver enzymes are back to normal. The same goes for medications like acetaminophen or anything that is harsh for the liver to metabolize.


Sugar - No big changes for me here. I have practiced very minimal sugar use and stay away from refined sugar. What I have noticed over the years is that when your taste buds get used to less sweetness , it becomes the norm. If I do indulge in something sweet, it doesn't take much before I've had enough. Typically I go to natural sugars like date or coconut. Stevia seems to be the sugar replacer that has the least amount of after taste.


Fats - Eliminating butter is the biggest change. Vegan "butter" will replace dairy butter on those occasions where it is needed for flavor or that silky touch in a sauce or gravy. I use a lot of coconut oil, olive and avocado oil. On the rare occasion that I fry I use peanut oil. One thing I can be better at is replacing fats (in baking) with fruit and veggie options like applesauce, bananas and avocados.


Soy - I am on the fence with soy. There are reported health benefits from soy but also concerns about possible health risks. I am keeping it in my diet in moderation but make sure it is always organic and non GMO. Lately I have been finding sprouted tofu and was recently given a method to make my own. I am looking forward to giving that a try.


So there it is - There are no drastic changes but I am very hopeful that these tweaks in my diet will get me back to feeling like myself and all systems working at their best. This  does not mean that I will never deviate from the plan. There will be parties, special occasions and holidays. As long as I don't drastically deviate and get right back on the path, I am not too worried. I purposely glossed over the list of symptoms that I have been experiencing for several reasons, but if you have questions I would be happy to discuss details further via email. The changes I am making in my diet is based on my circumstance alone and am not suggesting that anyone else follow my lead. Diagnosing abdominal and / or epigastric pain can be quite complex. There are so many different causes for abdominal  pain but can have similar symptoms. What I will say is, if you are having any chronic symptoms that are interfering with your daily life, consider starting with your doctor. Even if the causes are not immediately discovered, there is value in finding out what is not wrong. I am also a fan of a multidimensional approach to health care and find value in a number of "alternative" practices. Sometimes, the state of our bodies is a tangled little knot that must be teased apart to root out the issues. We live in a complex world and are exposed to a multitude of outside substances every day. My  goal is to enhance the helpful exposures  and mitigate as many of the harmful exposures as I can.


I hope you all have a very healthy and happy 2016