woman checking food labels at the grocery store

How Diet Plays a Role in Managing My Crohn's Disease


I have always struggled with the concept of diet in relation to Crohn’s disease. For so long, I wanted diet to play a role in my disease; that would enable me some form of control. Unfortunately, over the past seven years, I have learned that is not quite the case.

Don’t get me wrong, certain foods definitely have the ability to aggravate my stomach. There is a difference, however, between discomfort after eating, and a flare leading to a hospitalization or a course of prednisone. I think food can best be conceptualized as an exacerbator of what is already going on inside my GI system rather than the perpetrator of disease activity.

 

To minimize the less serious symptoms of my Crohn’s disease, such as bloating and stomach pain, I stay away from fried food, oils, popcorn, green apples and a few other random things. I also struggle with eating at restaurants if the food is oily/greasy. I will treat myself to a pizza or burger every once in a while, but most of the time I prefer to have my body feel good and be fueled well.

Maintaining a balanced and healthy diet primarily based around nutrient-dense foods is critical for anyone, especially those of us with a chronic health condition. Through my own experimentation and inquiries to other members of the IBD community, I have found that each person is different in what works for them. When I find a food that does not bother me, I tend to stick to it. I enjoy eating the same meals every day if possible because that provides me with a sense of mental comfort and routine… one less thing to have to worry about.

For example, a staple in my diet is oatmeal. I can eat oatmeal every day and be perfectly content and satisfied. Mix in some protein powder and that provides me with a great fuel source for my morning. I also gravitate toward brown rice and other basic carbohydrates and avoid high-fat foods. However, this might not be the answer for someone else with Crohn’s disease. I have friends who swear by the paleo diet to maintain remission, others who are plant-based vegans. I have tried both of those extremes and have found that neither approach is right for me.

On that note, I gave vegetarianism another shot this past winter. I was a vegetarian for a few years in high school for purely ethical reasons. I still struggle with the idea of eating animals and animal products, but I know that in my situation, my body and nutrition needs must come first. I even went a step further and was recently a vegan for a few weeks. During that time I actually felt much worse, despite ensuring I was receiving enough vitamins and protein. I was bloated constantly and felt deprived of foods I love and consider healthy, such as eggs. I went back to eating lean meat (chicken and fish) as well as eggs and feel better than when I was eating a purely plant-based diet.

There are times when I can barely stomach any food due to nausea or pain, and instead of feeling obligated to provide an explanation  to others or myself, I just go with it. Some days are worse than others, but that is just part of life with IBD. I think anyone who has Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis struggles with a similar battle, but the issue is there is no universal solution.

I am definitely still learning about what does and does not work for my body. I used to feel ridiculous having to explain to family and friends what new approach I was taking or why I was avoiding specific foods, but I have learned to worry less what others think. I can barely keep up with myself when it comes to nutrition, so I don’t expect anyone else to.

I have yet to write in depth about my thoughts and experiences with disordered eating and Crohn’s disease, but trust me, there is a connection; I will elaborate on this topic eventually. Since my diagnosis, I have obsessed over nutrition and learning everything I can about diet to better help myself. This creates a problem for me personally because, like I said, I have found I can’t completely manipulate my diet to heal myself; there is no perfect solution. I struggle to accept that fact and still, though to a lesser degree now, try to control what goes on in my body to the best of my ability without mentally exhausting myself.

On the bright side, I am extremely knowledgeable about nutrition. Prior to my diagnosis, I would eat anything I wanted without considering the impact food has on my health. I am now passionate about learning, researching and reading all I can about how certain foods impact our bodies in various ways. Contrarily, I constantly am reminding myself that maintaining a perfect diet does not equate to a cured disease in my case.

Currently, I practice moderation, which sometimes means enjoying that dessert or whatever else I’m craving. Balance is crucial for my mental health. Most of the time, I feel better with simple meals, and to be honest, that is what my tastebuds have learned to crave. But hey, some days, I just want to eat pizza.

In short, no, diet does not affect my Crohn’s disease in a significant way. Stress, however, definitely is a major contributor in my experience (read about my latest stress-induced flare here). Do you have foods or stressful situations you avoid because of your IBD?

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Thinkstock photo via Danilin.

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