“Have you tried giving up gluten?”
Yes. If there is a post somewhere on the internet claiming that a food can cause or trigger anything, I have cut it out. I have been carb-free, fat-free, gluten-free, FODMAP-free, fibre-free, meat-free, dairy-free… And yet still the suggestions keep on coming. People will tell me, knowing full well that I studied nutrition for four years at university, that the reason I am sick is my diet. People are obsessed with the idea that every chronic condition is caused by a poor diet. People also love to tell chronically ill people all about some TV show they just saw about how everything they are currently doing is wrong. These people include friends, family, strangers you just met, strangers on the internet, and perhaps saddest of all, some healthcare professionals.
I was told to put protein powder into milk and gravy, that I couldn’t consume any sugar (including from fruit), that my vegetarianism had caused my illness and that it was the reason Linda McCartney had got cancer. I was told I was to blame, and that I had poisoned myself. I was told to buy probiotics I couldn’t afford, I was told to cook with coconut oil, I was told to go gluten-free. I was told to avoid snacking even when starving hungry. I was told to drink fizzy water before all of my meals, I was told to drink peppermint tea after them. I was forced to eat fish, and when it made me feel both physically sick and emotionally queasy, I was shouted down. When the weight piled on, I was told to “avoid the biscuits”, count calories, and weigh all of my portions. Whilst suffering terrible fatigue I was told to simply “increase my exercise” to counter the absurd dietary regimes that were messing with my appetite and digestion.
Shopping lists were handed to me demanding flaxseeds, protein shakes, goji berries, nuts, salmon, xylitol, sucralose, agave syrup, and exotic teas. And I listened, not because I am stupid, or gullible, or had an abundance of cash to waste, but because I was desperate to be better and I was devasted that this had clearly all been my fault. My mum got rid of cupboards full of perfectly good food because she was scared of making me even more sick. Food was no longer a joy, it was to be endured and tolerated and used as a medicine.
But here’s the thing, food is not medicine.
After finally getting a diagnosis I can say that not one aspect of my illness was improved or worsened by any diet I had at any stage of my life. Having now studied nutrition (for far more years than everyone who ever gave me this advice put together), I can say it with absolute confidence. I did not cause my chronic illness. Nothing I did caused my chronic illness. I am just the lucky winner of a slightly shit lottery. The only thing that made it worse, however, was the stress of feeling as though I was to blame, the stress of restricting my diet to such a limited range of foods, the stress of feeling like a failure for not being able to survive – emotionally, physically or financially – on organic eggs scrambled in coconut oil.
I will say it again. Food is not medicine.
Food is delicious and pleasurable and enjoyable. It is sociable. It is unctuous and crumbly and gooey and crunchy. It runs down your chin and sticks to your fingers, splashes down your t-shirt and gets stuck in your teeth. Food brings us together. Yes, eating a healthy diet is important for your physical wellbeing, but a healthy diet isn’t an overly-restrictive one. We don’t eat because we need nutrients, we don’t even eat just because we are hungry, we eat because food is an integral aspect of our culture, and when our diets get so drastically and needlessly restricted, so do our lives.
This article refers to unnecessary restriction, and does not refer to medical diets prescribed by a doctor or dietitian. Nothing written here is substitute for medical advice.