When I’m stressed or run-down, my stomach is on the front lines of the minefield that is my mind. I’ve experienced a mix of relief and resentment ever since I became diagnosed with food allergies and autoimmune conditions that set off my spastic gut. When my doctor gave me the news five years ago, I laughed at a memory of a friend asking me why I was so “weird about food” during a potluck. Until then, I thought I was possibly a hypochondriac, because that’s what friends kept telling me, but now I had an official answer for my stomach discomfort.
Leading up to my diagnosis, I spent an exhausting year teasing out the source of my pain with blood tests, colonoscopies, elimination diets, and my all-time least favorite—poop tests. I eventually found some reprieve using an expensive combo of natural supplements, prescription medications, yoga, meditation, and abdominal massage. Throughout this discovery process, I pictured myself as a modern-day Nancy Drew (with dreadlocks and more melanin!), searching for clues on how to make my body stop screaming so loudly from the inside out.
What I ultimately discovered was that food had a pronounced impact on my mood and overall physical healing. At the risk of using a cliché, there’s no other way to say that food truly is a powerful form of medicine—and it makes sense because, as some scientists believe, your gut is your “second brain.” To that end, I’ve been thinking about (and sending love to) all of the Rookies I’ve encountered who also have managed food allergies or chronic illnesses that have affected what they can eat. If this sounds like you, and we haven’t had a chance to talk, you’re not alone.
I’ve personally dealt with the alienation and sometimes embarrassment that comes with not being able to fully participate in social and professional gatherings due to my dietary needs. While the reality is that most people attempt to be accommodating, it can be difficult to ensure that events and gatherings are safe and accessible for those of us who can fall ill, or get seriously hurt, by being exposed to certain foods. Since we’re living in a time when food allergies, and our stress levels (which can trigger autoimmune symptoms) are on the rise, I’m devoting this month’s Club Thrive to nourishment.
Even though we’re all human, our bodies are as diverse as we are. Work with a doctor to help determine what’s best for you, and always be gentle with yourself, because it takes some time. I know I’m one of many folks on a quest to find healing and creative options for self-care that are safe for people with sensitive bellies. Here are some of my favorite resources, which might also be helpful to you.
When my tummy pain was at its worst, I turned to psychotherapist Belleruth Naparstek’s meditation series every morning after I crawled out of bed. Her calming affirmations, guided imagery, and supportive guidance helped calm my mind and alleviate stress. After recently discovering that I picked up a parasite on a trip abroad, I returned to Mama Belleruth (the nickname I’ve given her that she doesn’t know she has!) to stay centered during my treatment, and it helped! There are many other ways to practice mindfulness, too. Experiment with practices that keep you connected to your mind and body until you find one that works for you.
Are you ever bored, ravenously hungry, or fatigued because you’re sick of having to eat the same cardboard-tasting, allergy-friendly food over and over? Try picking up a cookbook that is mindful of both your taste buds and dietary needs. A favorite of mine is Chupi and Luke Sweetman’s What to Eat When You Can’t Eat Anything. It’s a thorough guide with easy-to-follow tips on how to make tasty dishes that can be adapted to fit your personal food sensitivities or allergies.
The Sweetman siblings wrote their book while they were teenagers, after Chupi was diagnosed with several food intolerances. Their guide advises on how to shop for allergy-friendly groceries, stock your cupboards and fridge, prep your food, and make comforting favorites that you may have thought you’d never have again depending on your sensitivities. (Get ready to make flapjacks, chocolate cake, sorbet, focaccia, and aromatic soup.)
Make cooking a healing ritual.
I’ve found that managing the logistics of my diet can sometimes take the fun out of food prep and eating. This is why I was thrilled to discover my friend Natalie Eve Garrett’s new cookbook The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, a collection of juicy and impassioned stories with colorfully illustrated (and several allergy-adaptable) recipes from Joyce Carol Oates, Edwidge Danticat, Francesca Lia Block, and more. Preparing Joyce Carol Oates’s simple but sustaining breakfast omelet from her “Recipe in Defiance of Grief” comforted me after losing my grandma and my cousin. Her writing and accompanying illustrations reminded me to access the healing ritual of cooking when I’m heartbroken. The process of lovingly preparing your food is just as soothing when it’s allergy-friendly. It’s a meditation in itself.
Are you tired of only being offered the plain salad option at restaurants? I feel you. Or, do you feel tempted to eat things that you know might set you off because you’re tired of being hyper-vigilant all the time? Same here.
Sometimes we get caught in situations where we are rushed, or unable to find the foods we need while traveling or out with friends. Whenever I’m faced with making a decision on the spot, I ask myself, Will this nourish or drain me? And I follow it up with, What will add vitality? Or, What options are here that will restore my energy? This can be a helpful tool to remind us that food is fuel that keeps the magical ecosystem of our bodies moving, dancing, creating, and exploring. The silver lining is that after asking myself, Does it nourish or drain me? so often, I now also apply it to life when I’m prioritizing tasks and requests.
Organize your people.
One of the saddest parts of having food allergies or intolerances has been opting out of some of the social aspects of communal eating when there aren’t viable options available. Now that I’ve been living with my sensitivities for a while, I’m usually able to find alternatives by calling and planning ahead, or bringing my own snacks (for example, I take roasted chickpeas to the movies because I’m sensitive to corn). But there’s nothing like enjoying a shared meal where I don’t have to worry about cross contamination or limitations.
This is why I’ve started inviting friends to join me for meals at allergy-friendly restaurants, which can be easily found through apps, and planning delicious picnics with friends where everyone can bring their own food. I’ve found that once people are informed about my needs, they’re usually open to making the experience as inclusive as possible. What’s more, it’s also a good opportunity to educate people around you about food allergies so that they can be supportive when they encounter other folks with allergies in the future. I have a theory that if we talk about it enough, it will become normalized. So, spread the word!
Befriend your body and your food.
If you’re like me, the onslaught of mind-numbing and often conflicting media messages about which foods have been deemed “good” or “bad” is also confusing and exhausting. Between articles that demonize gluten, to those who bash people for eating gluten-free, I’m more sick of food fear-mongering than I am from my actual allergens.
I’m here for some real talk: Fear of certain foods due to past flare-ups led me to develop some compulsive practices that got in the way of appreciating and savoring sustenance.* Once I worked with my doctor to connect with a health coach, I was able to work through some of these patterns. One helpful tip I learned from my doctor was this: “Cut out the repetitive reel of negative talk about or to your body. If you tell your friend they suck all the time they will probably quit being your friend. Your body is no different.” ♦
Looking for a little help with your self-care? Please email your question to [email protected] and include your name/nickname/initials, location, and age.
*If you find yourself feeling stuck, unable to cope, or notice that your eating habits have become restrictive, obsessive, or intrusive, consider also talking to a therapist or calling the National Eating Disorders Association Hotline.