Personal Stories – My Tummy Struggles

I’ll admit I wasn’t the best eater as a kid.  I did always love my veggies, but if I had to guess I’d say that spaghetti and bagels made up about 85% or more of my diet.  I was always fortunate enough to be slender despite going through incredible amounts of these high carb nutritionally void foods.  Then one day it hit me like a ton of bricks.

In October of 2004, I completely lost my appetite.  I was 17 years old, and I could go an entire day without eating or drinking anything.  Not only would I make it to the end of the day without feeling hungry at all, I actually felt stuffed!  I even felt as though I was gaining weight, despite barely eating at all.  Some days, I’d get home from school and force myself to eat just because I thought I should, and I’d always regret it afterwards.   My stomach felt literally sore from being too stuffed.  I’d look in the mirror in disgust at my potbelly.  So instead of forcing myself to eat food when I wasn’t hungry, I would try really hard to make myself hungry by thinking about food, smelling food, looking at pictures of food…nothing worked.

Eventually I went to the doctor, because clearly something was wrong.  Unfortunately, all he saw was a small teenage girl saying, “I’m not hungry and I’m gaining weight even though I’m not eating food.”  He told me that the mind is a powerful thing, and that if I thought I needed to lose weight I could convince my body that I wasn’t hungry.  He pulled my mother aside to talk to her about eating disorders.  I was not a happy camper when I left the office that day.

And so for the next five years I struggled, continuing to feel overly full for no reason all the time.  One little tiny piece of cheese could hold my stomach over for hours, but mentally I was so unsatisfied.  Then one night I was watching House.  This particular episode began with a man dying from complications from Celiac disease, which is a serious gluten intolerance that can lead to stomach cancer if it goes undiagnosed.  The symptoms described sounded an awful lot like what I was experiencing.  I took it upon myself to read up about it.  When I was convinced I had Celiac disease that had gone undiagnosed for 22 years, my doctor finally took me seriously.

He referred me to a gastroenterologist, who relatively quickly ruled out Celiac (phew!)  He diagnosed me with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome.)  IBS is a fairly common gastrointestinal condition that is basically a collection of symptoms.  Some people experience only certain symptoms, while others experience more or all of them.  The cause of IBS is mostly unknown, but it is understood that it is directly related to a few things such as gut flora/bacteria, stress/brain activity, and hormones.  The symptoms that I experienced the most were severe bloating, constipation, lack of appetite, and anxiety attacks.  This diagnosis was a major step in the right direction.

When I was first diagnosed, I was not vegan.  I made some changes to my diet based on my doctor’s suggestions, and that helped a lot.  He gave me a list of foods to avoid.  That list consisted of a lot of meat and dairy products, but it also included very acidic things like onions, garlic, and citrus; as well as high fiber foods like broccoli, and fruit and vegetable skins.  Three years after my diagnosis, I became vegan.  The relief and change in the way my stomach felt was almost instant.  I thought I had my IBS as under control as I could, paying close attention to that list of foods to avoid. Little did I know that I was only halfway there, and eating a plant based diet was the key to getting me the rest of the way.  Better yet, since going vegan, I can enjoy the fruits and vegetables that I previously avoided!  I have no problems with onions, garlic, citrus, broccoli, or fruit and vegetable skins.  Best of all, I can’t even remember the last time I had an anxiety attack.  My IBS is not gone completely – I still experience some symptoms if I eat too much food at once.  But the fact that I can eat breakfast, go to the bathroom in the morning, not look pregnant all the time, and make it through my day without being on the verge of a meltdown are all things that I greatly attribute to being vegan.  I remember a time when food was the enemy.  I wished I never had to eat again, and I could not come to terms with it.  Today, food has become a passion of mine, in every aspect.  I love to cook – I have more kitchen appliances and gadgets than anyone really should.  I make everything from scratch.  I always know exactly what I’ll be making and eating for the next several days.  I’m known as the “foodie” among my coworkers.  I’m intrigued by using food as medicine.  For about two years, almost all of my free time was spent reading recipes and studying nutrition.  Being vegan drastically changed my relationship with food, and subsequently changed my life and my health.

Artichoke Melt at all-vegan Chaco Canyon in Seattle