Recently I had a friend come to me and ask me if I would talk to a friend of his who recently found out she was having some issues with food allergies. He explained to me that she was so worried that she’d eat something that would cause a problem, because the food reaction she was causing her so much pain that she was avoiding food. She didn’t know where to begin and he wanted me to talk with her and help her out, which got me thinking – does anyone know what to do in that situation?

I thought back to how scared I was when I was first diagnosed with IBS and wondering how I was going to be able to strip out the foods the doctor told me I couldn’t have anymore. Or how frustrated I get when I have new flare-ups from food and I have to suss out and eliminate a new food that’s causing issues. Where to begin…

I think my first advice to someone new to the dietary restrictions world is that if you have a sudden onslaught of “food allergies” or reactions to food that cause extreme pain and bowel movements would be to contact your family doctor and get seen or referred to a Gastrointestinal doctor. Sudden reactions to food could be caused by a number of different medical problems, some of which can be more serious than a simple digestive disorder. It could be an indication of a stomach parasite that could be life threatening. I remember when I was seeing the Gastrointestinal doctor that the first thing they checked me for were parasites, viruses and other conditions that can cause intense stomach pain and extreme cases of vomiting, diarrhea and constipation before proclaiming I have IBS. If all those test come back negative, and the Gastrointestinal doctor says a colonoscopy needs to be done; make sure they do a biopsy. I didn’t find out until I moved and got a new doctor that my previous doctor didn’t do a biopsy of my stomach lining. I had to go through a flexible sigmoidoscopy so my new doctor could take a biopsy because there are several other digestive disorders out there that look like IBS but are microscopically different. Don’t go through a similar procedure twice. Make sure all your bases are covered on the first run through. Also, if the doctor comes back and says you have IBS and they prescribe you something called dicyclomene, be careful with it. Yes it will help when you are having a huge flare up of diarrhea, but it can cause extreme constipation. It is an antispasmodic drug. Your stomach naturally contracts to digest your food; when you have diarrhea it is contracting to fast and when you’re having constipation it is contracting too slow. Throwing an antispasmodic drug into your system could cause it to slow down too much. That’s my problem. Since I am D/C; dicyclomene isn’t very good for me.

So you’ve been to the doctor and they can’t find anything serious. You have IBS or some other digestive disorder like Chron’s or Gurd. They might tell you certain foods you need to stay away from, but they won’t have a full list. IBS and digestive disorders are different for everyone. I can’t have dairy, but I’ve known people with IBS are just fine with dairy but wheat and gluten tear them up. It all depends on your body. How do you find out what you can and cannot have? Pay attention to what you are eating and how your body responds to it. I keep a food diary. Every time I eat or drink something I write it down. When I have a flare up I can review what I’ve had recently (sometimes it’s not my last meal) and then add things that I’ve had to future meals to see if it causes a flare up. Through this process I’ve figured out that I can’t eat tomato skins. I’m fine with tomato sauce, and tomatoes without the skin. But a tomato with the skin still on and I’ll be in the bathroom about an hour after I eat it. Sometimes stomach pain isn’t an indicator; your bowel movements will be. Tomato skins cause no stomach pain; just sudden onslaughts of diarrhea.

I’d like to point out that you should never avoid food out right or let it scare you. It can confuse you when you try to eat something. Go long enough without eating and eating too much will make you sick. It might make you think you’re having a flare up. This could create false positives and make you exclude food that could be just fine for you. When you have to be on a restricted diet, you don’t want to limit the things you can have because you think that it’s a problem. It could keep you from getting all the nutrition you needed. When I suspect something of causing flare ups I don’t out right stop eating it. I try to see how much I can consume before I have flare ups. Like recently, at the recommendation of a friend, I found I can have up to 3 ounces of lamb without causing a flare up; so I can have small portions of a very particular red meat. Beef is still out entirely; but lamb is easier for me to digest. Too much over 3 ounces and I start having flare ups but even being able to have a small amount is nice. Really, it’s all about trial and error. It’s what it comes down to in the end; finding what works best for you and going with that.

So, you have digestive problems; you’ve come up with a list of things you cannot have. Now its time to find alternatives and ways around it and make sure you’re getting the right nutrition. For me there are plenty of nutrients I need that I am missing out on. With a non-dairy diet there is a lot of calcium missing from my diet. I supplement with calcium rich vegetables and almond milk. When I was drinking rice milk I would get the rice milk that was enriched with calcium. With limited amounts of red meat I have to increase my iron intake else where. Again, I focus on consuming vegetables that are rich in iron. There are always ways around nutrient deficiencies due to diet restrictions. It just takes research and careful meal planning. It sounds like a lot of work, but its worth it. I can definitely tell the days that I am bad and eat something I know I shouldn’t. I always end up feeling really ill for a couple of days afterwards. I know I shouldn’t but I know what I am missing and sometimes my willpower isn’t always that strong. It’s hard. It really is, but if it’s what makes you feel right and good on the inside than it’s what you need to do. It sucks to feel sick and really have no reason other than I ate something I shouldn’t have. It can make me feel like I have a cold. I feel lethargic and I don’t want to do anything.

Taking things out of your diet that your used to having is hard. It’s even harder when it isn’t your choice. To live on a restrictive diet, regardless of choice in the matter, takes a lot of willpower. Most people on a restrictive diet know what they are missing. I remember cheese and how glorious it tastes melted on a sandwich. It’s been years since I’ve had a legitimate cheeseburger though; even a cheese turkey burger. Trust me, those cheeseburgers my husband eat smell delicious and make my mouth water, but I know how I’ll feel I eat them. Most days that’s all I need to tell myself no. Other days, well let’s just say I have to touch the stove to know its hot still.

A restrictive diet is really a balancing act. You have to know what you can handle, be prepared for surprises and make sure you’re getting everything you need. It’s hard work, but you can do this and you’ll come out the stronger for it. Feeling healthy and having your life under control is worth it. You’ll do fine; just remember falling is easy but getting back up is the hardest. So, don’t feel bad if you don’t get your dieting right the first time. Catch yourself and then get right back into. You’ll get it eventually. I still have difficulties staying away from dairy products 100% of the time 5 years out from diagnosis. I spent 2 decades consuming dairy products only to suddenly not be able to have it.