Approximately a year and eight months ago, I came down with a nasty bout of food poisoning that gave me an ultra-sensitive stomach. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out exactly what set me off, so I was avoiding things like processed wheat while trying to focus on grains and plants.
Turns out I react to fructans – which are present in some wholegrain foods (but not all), some fruit (but not all) and some veggies (but not all). That’s right, I’m allergic to whole grains, fruits and vegetables. No fructose sweeteners, honey and agave. No asparagus, no apples, no black beans, no yogurt. Garlic and onions set me off, and avoiding them is difficult given their prevalence in pretty much all the kinds of cuisine that taste good.
Except there are exceptions, and usually I can tolerate small doses of objectionable food if they are accompanied by something neutral, like potatoes and other glutenless carbs. Herein lies the source of my recent weight gain.
It’s a very mysterious condition to have. Sourdough bread is just fine but regular French bread makes me puff up like a pufferfish. Portions and other alchemy count: a little bit of apple cut up in my salad is delicious, a whole apple eaten in one sitting is enough to put my intestinal bacteria into a military coup, a bottle of hard cider or a sprinkle of apple cider vinegar calms everything down. I might be fine with the spaghetti at restaurant A and paralyzed with bellyache at restaurant B depending on how much garlic the chef likes to toss into the sauce, and whether I encounter ricotta (very bad) or brie (very good).
Most of my new forbidden foods are things I didn’t really like anyway, like cauliflower and peas and asparagus. Avoiding them will be easy. With regard to the dairy, I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with plenty of lactose-free milk and ice cream and sour cream. We’ve also got some world-renowned sourdough bread, which has become my new sandwich default – keep that fancy cracked wheat junk far away from me. I will miss cashews and mangos very much. As far as apples, I went through a several-year period where I ate an apple and a granola bar for lunch every day, and I could wax poetic on the subtle changes between apple seasons and varieties, and all the different notes one can find in a fine apple, because apples are far more subtle than grapes. I will still enjoy them from time to time, in their less toxic versions.
None of this stuff is likely to kill me. It’s more about lying around being uncomfortable than shock and seizures. It kills my appetite until my bellyache goes away, unless I re-irritate it by eating more fructans, which is the cycle that’s been messing with me. It’s hard to focus on anything else when your belly is giving you grief. After looking at my food diary, and after making a concerted effort to avoid fructan, I’m noticing some improvement.
The difficult part is recalibrating my inner mental list of good, clean food. The one that elevates things like humble bowls of organic lentils to elevated levels of healthiness, while hating on perfectly innocent french fries that never did any harm to anyone. That tendency to order fruit desserts instead of chocolately ones, or whole-grain pancakes instead of bacon and eggs. Not a belief grounded in science, rather one that’s been shaped by thousands of conversations and magazines and Facebook posts and restaurants and all those fad diets that are supposed to make you healthy and gorgeous. Political sensibilities too, the kind that insist on avoiding heavily processed corporate food while focusing on the organic. All those agendas trying to get between me and my bellyache.