Experiences · Health and Food

A Summer of Eliminations

On the early days of a reduced gluten, reduced lactose, tomato free and citrus free diet.

The word ‘diet’, in any context, has the great ability to conjure up negative, often sneered at, images of ‘trendy’ fad diets. Add the terms “gluten free”, “lactose free” or God forbid both at once – especially when it’s accompanied by “I also don’t like chocolate, don’t drink caffeinated drinks and am cutting out fried foods and fizzy drinks” – and cue the parade of eyerolls.

For me, a trendy fad diet could not be further than the truth; although it is true, I don’t like chocolate nor do I drink caffeinated drinks! By way of a very, very brief backstory, as this is not what I intend this post to be about, I have made the decision to eliminate or reduce the aforementioned food types, as well as a number of others that are detailed below, due to gastroenterological problems (great word, hint: I mean stomach aches). Over the last couple of years, I have often found myself very frustrated about the fact that I have come no closer to identifying the cause of the problem, nor, subsequently, to finding a solution, and this has led me to conclude that I need to make active efforts, independently of the (limited) advice given, to find a solution. So, as a result of intense research and even more intense stomach aches, I have made the difficult decision to eliminate or reduce a number of foods and food groups, that have shown themselves to be common causes of stomach aches and food intolerances. This post is dedicated to documenting –  across several days, in an almost diary-like style –  my initial experiences of cutting out these foods, how easy/ difficult I have found it and what challenges and obstacles I have encountered and had to overcome.

Keep reading to see how badly I end up cheating… I’m writing this introduction on Day One, so who knows how well this is actually going to go!

Friday 4th August

From the offset of this dramatic alteration in diet, my intention is not one of cutting these foods out indefinitely, as I do wish to slowly reintroduce different foods throughout the course of this summer holiday. However, as I have only just encountered a few days of very bad stomach aches (and am still experiencing intermittent milder stomach aches), I am temporarily following a very strict diet, which involves eliminating and reducing as many foods as possible that are common triggers for stomach aches. Currently, the extensive list of banned foods is as follows:

  • Tomatoes: Fully eliminated – I had actually predominantly eliminated these before this last bout of stomach pains, as I suspected that they were disagreeing with me
  • Citrus fruits e.g. oranges: Likewise, already (completely) eliminated
  • Brown rice / pasta / bread: Switched to white flour in the majority of cases (but not all – balance is important too), due to its lower fibre content (also cutting down on gluten products in general)
  • Dairy / Lactose: Reduced when possible, e.g. Switching to almond milk (although a full cut of dairy produce in cooking seemed impossible)
  • Fried food / food cooked in a lot of oil: Eliminated
  • Spicy food: Eliminated

Hence, today’s lunch involved a very bland and rather tragic bowl of white pasta with a pinch of salt, following the conclusion that there was really not much else in the house that I could eat (I declined a second portion of plain rice that I had eaten the night before). For dinner my family had a chicken and chips takeaway, which I was able to tweak to fit my diet – grilled chicken instead of fried, which I washed the peri peri sauce off, and oven potato waffles instead of takeaway chips. My first impressions of following such a strict diet are that, tasteless though it might be, it is doable. That said, had it not been a takeaway and instead a meal out, there was nothing on the menu that I could have eaten in an unmodified form.

Saturday 5th August

As it is my sister’s birthday, today has posed a much bigger obstacle diet-wise. I started the day with cornflakes and almond milk, which was unfamiliar, but relatively bearable in small quantities. I initially attempted to drink the almond milk; to say that it was simply ‘unpleasant’ as a drink would be a gross understatement. After breakfast we went to the cinema, where I summonsed all the willpower that I possessed to pass over the snacks and, despite feeling slightly envious of my sister’s nachos, I acknowledged that I should probably just congratulate myself for taking a small step towards general healthiness. So, so far not too bad. Lunch, unfortunately, posed the biggest problem as of this point: Pizza Express is not really intended for the abdominally challenged! I initially intended to order a gluten free version of their new vegan pizza, but due to the tomato base and the fact that tomatoes are the food that I am mostly strictly eliminating, I settled instead on ‘Pollo Forzo’ pasta (pesto, cheese, chicken, mushrooms). Whilst undeniably tasty, this pasta was very rich and so caused me to feel a bit sick; now, I understand that I have to enforce the restricted dairy aspect of this eating plan more rigorously, and stay generally aware of rich creamy foods in addition to my other eliminations. Dinner: plain white pasta, naturally.

Tuesday 8th August
By chance, I stumbled upon lactose free milk in Tesco Express and I am an absolute convert! Lactose free milk is every bit like normal milk, and tastes just the same, but doesn’t bring with it the stomach aches that normal milk does. So, the days of choking down almond milk are over, replaced by a substitute that I didn’t even realise existed! For breakfast I am still eating cereal everyday – and I have recently switched Cornflakes for my new love in life: Crunchy Nut – as I have now modified my diet again, to completely eliminate glucose / wheat for breakfast, instead opting for a lower fibre cereal. As for other meals, as we have been staying in an AirBnB, I have finally broken away from my white-pasta-at-every-meal diet. However, eating out remains to be a massive struggle. For example, at Zizzi, after scouring the allergen menu, I soon realised that there was nothing tomato free that also catered to a gluten or lactose free diet. More importantly though, was my surprise that Zizzi actually had its own separate allergen menu, with pages of tables drawn up illustrating what foods fitted into a ‘dairy free’, ‘vegan’ or ‘glucose free diet’ and further charts detailing common allergens. Whilst these charts may have been slightly redundant to me – because of my not so common elimination of tomatoes at an Italian restaurant, no doubt – to many people these tables would surely be incredibly useful, and probably something that most people are completely unaware of.

Thursday 10th August – My experiences so far: 

As expected, this switch of products is not proving easy. However, neither is it as difficult as one, myself included, would imagine. Dairy free living is particularly noteworthy in how surprisingly unchallenging it is. Indeed, with more and more people embracing a vegan lifestyle, be it for health or ethical reasons, nearly every restaurant menu has vegan options (including Pizza Express and Zizzi, to name a few common chains) and if you enquire, some restaurants even have their own allergen menus. Furthermore, dairy alternatives in supermarkets are plentiful, with even the most basic express supermarkets stocking soya and almond milk at the least. However, for me, who is not going vegan but rather avoiding lactose, the discovery of lactose free milk has been particularly exciting and invaluable, as it means that I can continue drinking something that tastes identical. (Also, since becoming hyperaware of my lactose consumption, I’ve come to realise just quite how much milk I drink!).

As for the gluten reduction: much less easy. Brown carbs are pretty much omnipresent in my family’s diet, and with pizza being my go-to meal out, I think that a complete glucose elimination would have been impossible for me. But, my mum has switched to cooking white rice and pasta for the time being which, due to its lesser fibre content, has certainly made a difference. Furthermore, I have made the decision to remove bread from my morning meal, as this is often when I find it affects me the most. Instead, lower fibre cereal provides a welcome relief.

Tomatoes are definitely a thing of the past for me, at least for the time being. I am lucky that my favourite Italian restaurant actually has a whole section of non-tomato based pizzas and that my mum has started making tomato free options for me, so so far this has been a relatively painless process. However, I have not yet been confronted with the proposal of ordering a takeaway pizza, as a tomato free option does not look too likely! Whilst I have identified tomatoes as the food that I am eliminating most strictly, I have also come to understand that it is objectively the most difficult food on my list to eradicate. It is not a common allergen and is so vital to most cooking. However, the fact that I am succeeding to find alternatives – including at restaurants – demonstrates that it is possible to eat fulfilling meals even without such a presumed staple food.

And lastly, fried food, sugary food, spicy food. Fried food: slightly difficult for me than it should be, simply because crisps are my absolute weakness. But, I have not caved and have instead simply eaten a lone crisp out of my mum’s or sisters’ packet every time that they have been brought into the house. I have also turned down chips twice, and have felt all the more healthy for doing so. Sugary food: easy. Unpopular opinion or not, I’m not a fan and never have been. I imagine (at least judging by the disbelief that often greets me admitting that I don’t like chocolate… or cakes… or any desserts really) that other people would find this elimination more difficult, but to be honest I was largely there anyway, so have not felt the need to modify my diet in this sense, as the amount of refined sugar I eat is minimal regardless. Spicy food: a mixed experience. My mum loves cooking a curry as much as the next Asian mum (!) so we will see how that goes, now that I’m back home and away from the world of out food.

I am going to write a follow up post at the end of the summer holidays, dealing with how this diet fairs up on holiday abroad (help!) and on the process of reintroducing certain foods… so stay tuned for that. 

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Culture and Languages · Experiences · Health and Food

Ramadan Reflections ☪

Provided that I have successfully figured out how to schedule blog posts and this publishes when I hope that it will, we will have just come to the end of the month of Ramadan. Unlike last year, when I was unfortunately unable to fast, this year I have been absolutely determined to do so. Thus, this Eid has approached with renewed importance, as it marks the end of the challenging, yet enormously rewarding, month.

So… my reflections as of Wednesday 21st June, aka the 26th fast, at 2:11 pm:

Hunger: The obvious starting point when it comes to everything to do with fasting. Well, I would love say that the hunger has decreased and that fasting has become second nature, but it wouldn’t be true. I have just calculated that there are seven hours (and eleven minutes) to go until iftar and, honestly, I’m instantly regretting have worked that out, because that is a LOT of time. Unlike in Bahrain, when fasts would finish at about 6pm, or in winter here, where I assume it is even earlier, during the long summer days sunset is not until well after 9pm. Hence, 16+ hour-long fasts and the fact that my stomach feels like it is going to implode!

Strength and perseverance: But, the amazing thing is that it won’t implode! Even on the longest day of the year (i.e. today… brilliant…) fasting is more than manageable. And, if it wasn’t, well then I would end my fast – just as I had to one day last week, due to a bad stomach ache.  Whilst it is important to push oneself, it is just as important to be sensible and know one’s own boundaries.  However, it is certainly nice to find out that your capacity is bigger than you think. As I was unable to fast last year, to say I was concerned about fasting this Ramadan would be an understatement. But here I am, almost at the end of the month, and I feel fine! Despite the undeniable hunger at the end of the day, half an hour into iftar this feeling is reduced to a distant memory. Thus, even when fasting has felt most difficult, being strong and persevering has never been in vain, and has only added to the sense of personal achievement.

Productivity and solitude: Admittedly, some days this month have been characterised by pure sluggishness, particularly in the hot weather. On the whole though, this month has been an opportunity to take time to do things that often get overlooked. For example, I have finished reading three books this month – The Bell Jar, Heart of Darkness and Sumitra’s Story – something that I have simply not been able to find the time to do during the busy academic year. However, almost on the opposite end of productivity and achieving things are those equally important moments of calm. Indeed, Ramadan has provided many such moments (particularly due to my whole family’s new tendency to nap of an afternoon). Without the constant buzz of the television or headphones in my ears, silence*, stillness and solitude has provided a welcome change from the chaos of day-to-day life. *Just a shame about next door’s building work really… win some lose some.

Challenge and achievement: Certainly, this has been a challenging month. More so than the absence of food, going hours without water during the hottest and longest days of the year has been particularly testing. However, for me personally, the biggest challenge that this month has brought is that of not knowing how to fill my time. Indeed, as well as not eating and drinking, I have also refrained from watching tv and listening to music during the daylight hours. As for socialising, even for things that I technically ‘could’ do, when you haven’t eaten for ten hours already, you don’t really want to do much more than lie on the sofa. But, this challenge has been important, as it has forced me to find other ways to fill my time; and it has also made me evaluate how much I tend to eat just for something to do, rather than out of actual hunger! Over all however, fasting this month – both of food and entertainment – has been a great personal achievement, and an undoubtedly rewarding experience.