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Finding the Right Diet When Food Affects Your Chronic Illness Symptoms

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Like many of us with chronic illness, I have challenges when trying to eat. I have to eat a special diet in order to keep my stomach happy and to avoid having flares. I eat a low glycemic index, high sodium, high fluid, pescatarian, and low histamine diet. Which is to say: I eat within a really narrow range of “safe foods.” Does this sound familiar? Maybe not the same diet, but the same struggle?

Eating this restricted kind of diet can make others think that there is no joy in your food. Well, if that’s the case, I’d argue that you’re doing it wrong. I love food. I love the experience of having a good meal with great company. The truth is that I’m just not going to eat something if it tastes gross or feels awful in my mouth. A diet being an awful experience is the biggest reason people don’t stay compliant with their diets. And it doesn’t matter why someone is on that diet; it could be to lose or gain weight, for sugar control, to reduce inflammation in their bodies, to avoid trigger foods, or to try to nutritionally support their bodies.

Science has demonstrated that what we eat matters. Our foods have a major impact on our health. That being said, it isn’t a one size fits all kind of solution. There isn’t one diet that is going to meet everyone’s needs and there isn’t some magic equation that will lead you to the diet that is best for your body. Each person’s genetic makeup will affect how their body uses various nutrients. Some people have a baseline fast metabolism while others metabolize more slowly. This will affect the baseline number of calories that you need each day. Having chronic illnesses will also impact what diet will best support your health. Avoiding trigger foods and allergens will also be a factor in your diet. Your life goals and lifestyle will also have an effect on your diet. Your dietary needs will look different if you are a competitive bodybuilder vs. if you are someone who struggles with their mobility.

There are some important principles that do apply to everyone, though.

Eat as much variety as possible. The more variety in your diet, the more nutrients you will be getting. You can go about getting variety in different ways. You can think about your foods as groups (dairy, fruit, proteins, grains, fats) or you can think about making sure that there are a lot of different colors of foods on your plate. Either way, the key here is to try not to eat the same thing every day.

You don’t have to be perfect. You can have cheat days or days that you don’t do as well as you’d like and still be a healthy person. Our bodies don’t require perfect nutrition every day in order to function well. This means that having a flare day and not being able to eat anything for one day won’t equate to having crappy health. Look at your overall trends. How do you do when you look at your intake over a week or even a month? Do you eat well on most days? Then you’re doing all right. If you are not eating in an ideal way on most days then it is time to re-evaluate. Maybe this isn’t the best diet for you. Maybe there are other things that can be put into place in your treatment plan to help you meet your nutritional goals.

You need to enjoy the foods you are eating in order to make a lasting change in your life. The more you enjoy what you eat, the more likely you will stay on the diet you have chosen. Try looking up recipes for the diet you’re on. Try different styles of cooking. Be adventurous and keep exploring to find things you enjoy. Don’t settle for any unpleasant because it won’t last over time.

Make your meal times a social event or a time to spend with important people in your life. You could also make it a quiet time for self-reflection. Either way, make the way you consume your food pleasurable too. Don’t make it just about refueling your body. Make it also about refueling your soul.

Changing your diet is a change in your lifestyle. When you change your diet, it means changing what foods you buy and keep in your home. It means changing the way you think about your food. It can also mean changing the way you feel about food. For many of us, food has long been seen as the enemy. It has been the temptation that makes us fat, the trigger for our flares, or even the allergen that cascades deadly body reactions. So, having emotional baggage regarding our food makes sense. But if we are going to be successful with our diets, we need to re-evaluate these relationships.

Having good nutrition isn’t just about what you eat. How much you eat and when you eat can matter just as much. Some people do better with frequently snacking on small amounts throughout the day while others do better with structured meal times. Something is better than nothing.

When you are in that place of having a difficult time eating or keeping food down, keep in mind that getting anything inside your body is better than starving it. While it is best to get our nutrition from food, we sometimes need to rely on supplements to help our bodies get what they need. This doesn’t mean that we are failing nutritionally. It means that we are doing what it takes to give our bodies what they need. If you are eating a high potassium diet and your potassium levels still come back low, it’s time to take a potassium supplement. If you’re too depressed or have just run out of spoons and cannot make yourself eat, try a meal replacement drink.

So, how does someone go about tackling the challenge of figuring out what is the best diet for them? The thing is to keep in mind that this is like anything that has to do with our health. It’s not easy. It is a trial and error process to figure things out. It will take time. And just to make things more complex, our bodies’ needs change over time, and because of that our dietary needs will as well. The most important thing is to look for a diet that helps you feel well and helps reduce your health risks in the future.

If you have complex health needs, it can be helpful to see an expert in the field. It’s important to know that there is a difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist. Which will serve you better depends on your clinical situation and needs. It can be helpful to look for someone that specializes in the disease you have. When you have more than one, that option gets more complicated and may even mean speaking with more than one specialist. It’s also important to know which of these services are covered by your insurance. For most insurances, a dietician is an option if a referral is made from a doctor that is managing the medical problem in question. For example: getting a referral from your neurologist or cardiologist would be appropriate if you wanted help with setting up a POTS diet.

It is also important to recognize when our emotional or mental health is affecting our diet. There are times that we emotionally eat or fail to eat due to depression. We can also have food aversion due to anxiety because of the traumatic experiences we have had related to food. All of these things should be addressed with a mental health professional for an ideal dietary outcome. Because, just like everything else in our health, our success with our diets is not something that can be achieved in isolation. We can only reach our optimal health goals when we approach them holistically.

Getty image by bit245

Originally published: December 6, 2022
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