Navigating Food Intolerances with a Healthy Mindset

 Loved me a few bites of the biscuit and a slice of this sourdough bread - all gluten-filled!

Loved me a few bites of the biscuit and a slice of this sourdough bread - all gluten-filled!

Food intolerances and food allergies are real for many people, yet there is also a fair amount of hype about the dangers of certain foods that have caused many us to be unnecessarily afraid of them. Gluten and dairy tend to be the most popular, especially amongst the paleo crowd (of which I used to be a dedicated member). The purpose of this post isn’t to discuss whether or not someone should or shouldn’t be eating those foods, as I fully believe that another person’s diet is none of my business. Or yours. Not to mention that there are some very real and serious health conditions that warrant such restrictions.  My only suggestion is that we all use some critical thinking and step outside of some (perhaps) dogmatic ways of thinking to consider whether or not these foods actually do affect us negatively, and if they do, how we still maintain a non-obsessive or restrictive relationship with food.

Like many, I’m still in the process of determining my threshold for certain foods, and while it used to be a source of great frustration, I now understand and accept that my body is ever-changing and will always be in a state of flux. That doesn’t just stop at its appearance, as it most certainly includes internal processes too. Most notably digestion for me and many others.

I was diagnosed with lactose intolerance when I was 22 years old after completing the Lactose Intolerance Test and Hydrogen Breath Test explained here, and it was quite a relief to know that my physical discomfort wasn’t just a product of my mind.

Gluten, on the other hand, has been a different story. Celiac disease is present on both sides of my family, but due to my former low-carb ways, I never ate much gluten inadvertently. In order to accurately test for gluten intolerance, you have to be eating a decent amount of it, so the tests weren’t going to be productive nor accurate for me. As a result, I did a strict elimination diet and reintroduced gluten into my diet to determine whether or not I had any negative reactions.

I was still very much engrained in my obsessive and restrictive ways of thinking at the time of this elimination diet, so I believe I convinced myself that I was having negative reactions when I may not have been. The placebo effect in action!  I’m still playing around with adding gluten back into my diet (this time with an open mind) and assessing its effects, and I’m realizing that it’s largely dose dependent as opposed to an overall intolerance.

For example, if I have more than 1-2 slices of sourdough bread then I don’t feel well, but I feel just fine with a slice of quality bread. Is this due to the gluten, or simply due to having processed foods that I don’t usually consume?  I can’t be sure, but it’s worth considering both scenarios.

I have also realized that I tolerate foods that are lower in wheat as opposed to just gluten.  I know for certain that when I drink a wheat beer, I’m unable to breathe normally through my nose and am stuffed up for several hours. However, if I have a few bites of gluten-filled dessert, drink a Guinness, or enjoy other reasonable servings of gluten, I don’t notice a reaction.

While these differences may seem small and meaningless to some, for those of us who have struggled with orthorexia (obsession with healthy eating) or any form of disordered eating, it’s important to be honest with ourselves about why we make the choices we do. Some questions to ask ourselves:

 

Am I still afraid of foods based on a narrative I inherited long ago? (i.e. someone told me it’s bad and I shouldn’t eat it, so I blindly listened and acted accordingly.)

Do I genuinely not feel well when I eat this food?

Can I adjust the serving size of the food to see if the reaction is dose dependent?

Am I avoiding this food under the guise of an intolerance, when it’s actually another method of restriction?

Is it possible that I’m creating a physical reaction in my head (i.e. placebo effect) and can change my experience by viewing this food differently?

 

These are all important questions to ask ourselves, and honesty in our answers is even more important. It’s quite liberating to question what we’ve always thought to be true and find our own answers.  For many, slowly eliminating these food rules we’ve established for ourselves as a method of control can be terrifying. But once we start to make these decisions for ourselves instead of outsourcing them, our trust and confidence in ourselves will continue to grow.

Think of it as a snowball effect. You make one choice that differs from your previously held beliefs or control mechanisms, realize you’re OK and may actually be better off, you subsequently build more trust in yourself and your instincts, and you then feel more comfortable challenging other assumptions.  This doesn’t just stop at our diets, either.

After doing an honest assessment with yourself, if you determine that you’d still rather stay away from a specific food, then rock on with your bad self. And if you do in fact feel physical reactions from gluten, dairy, or any other food, then it’s important to acknowledge why you’re removing the food from your diet (if you choose to do so).

Unless the consequences of consuming the food or drink are severe, we can certainly continue making the same food choices. And I see this ALL the time, even with myself! Sometimes I just want some of the real ice cream, not the vegan version. I pay the price, for sure, but I know what’s coming, accept the consequences, experience the discomfort, and then don’t make that choice again for a long time. I make the decision to consume dairy and lactose in servings greater than a few bites only when I feel that it’s really worth it.

For others, consuming foods and drinks they know they don’t tolerate is a daily occurrence. This is usually due to the following:

  • Being disconnected from our bodies: While the connections between specific foods and our bodies can be obvious to those of us who spend our time and energy managing our physical well-being, for others who aren’t interested in or knowledgeable about how to feel their best, it’s difficult to draw the connection between the food or drink and the physical discomfort.
  • Simply not caring: this tends to be the more common one, as many people are just not willing to give up their gluten, dairy, or any food that makes them feel like shit in the interest of feeling better. The issue here tends to be a question of why they don’t feel motivated to show up in the world as the best version of themselves and/or treat their bodies with respect consistently, and until that is addressed, things likely won’t change.

For those of us who do care about feeling our best and are subject to food intolerances to any degree, it’s important to remember why we’re deciding not to consume these foods or drinks. Rather than removing foods as a product of self-hatred, hustling for a better body, or as a method of control, we can choose not to consume them in order to show up more fully as ourselves. It’s a completely different narrative; one that is empowering rather than inhibiting. When treating ourselves with respect and by putting our well-being at the forefront of our actions, it becomes really easy to make choices that best serve us. 

And if we do choose to consume these foods, we know that we’ve made choices that are not in the best interest of our physical bodies, but they may be in the best interest of our overall well-being at the time (i.e. enjoying a special cake you get a few times a year or a shared experience with a loved one). The more we practice integrating foods and drinks that may not make us feel our best, the better we’ll become at discerning when it is or isn’t worth it. Nothing that involves our relationships with food or our bodies is linear, so don’t be afraid to experiment, gather data, and adjust next time.

While food intolerances are not ideal nor enjoyable, they can serve as a gateway for becoming more in tune with our bodies. And consider questioning their validity as they relate to your own body, as they may be a product of hidden food fears similar to myself.  It’s all a learning process! One that only makes us more knowledgeable and self-aware along the way if we allow it.