People living with chronic illnesses often have issues with food. There are various causes- some problems are caused by the condition, others by medications to treat them, and even allergies, body type, and blood type play a part. This fact can make it kind of hard to figure out how to alter your diet to help you feel better. Please note: I am not a medical professional, and this is not a foolproof plan; it’s just how I’ve managed to make my situation at least tolerable.
My experience with food & chronic illnesses
Somewhere in the middle of all the surgeries, procedures, treatments, and medications that happened in the first few years after my initial diagnoses, I realized food was affecting me, but not really how much until I got pregnant with my daughter. During that pregnancy, many more food issues showed themselves, and didn’t resolve when I gave birth- they actually just got worse. Out of necessity, I had to start changing up my diet. Disclaimer : There were several medical conditions complicating my relationship with food. I have not gotten it fully under control, but I have drastically improved my quality of life by making these changes.
I’ve dealt with weight issues my whole life, so I was already familiar with all the mainstream diets and programs for weight loss. Like many, I’d tried many things without any of them sticking. When I approached the food issue this time, I started with a Google search to figure out how food affects my conditions. I did this by searching “connections between food and fibromyalgia, ” and proceeded to do this with all of my conditions to see what the similarities were. This gave me a starting point of what foods to get rid of.
I wasn’t the healthiest eater before all of this. I loved good food, especially cheeses, cream based sauces, and bread. I had tried to limit them before, but the cravings always won. At this point, however, I was so desperate to not be sick 24 hours a day that I was willing to do whatever it took to force myself to give up the foods that were hurting me. To figure out exactly which foods those were, I started choosing certain ones to eliminate for a week, or two, at a time. If it was something I usually ate daily, a week was generally long enough for me to figure out how it affected me (at least mostly.) If I only ate it a couple of times a week, it took longer to determine how it was affecting me.
If there was a question about the effects, I would try reintroducing the food to my diet after being out for at least two weeks. This usually gave me the answer because most effects were obvious after not experiencing them while the food was eliminated. Once I determined an item was a “problem food,” it got added to the Do Not Eat list (DNE.)
The first foods to make it obvious they were a problem were the spicy and dairy foods. I was able to determine fairly quickly that I felt much better when I didn’t eat anything that contained dairy. At first, it was things like cheese, milk, alfredo sauce, etc., that were all dairy or mostly dairy. I was still able to handle foods that had dairy baked into them, or just used one of the components (certain candies.) Eventually, even those things started causing a reaction and I had to give them up completely.
Tasty replacement suggestions for “problem foods”:
- Milk- I have tried Lactaid, Silk Almondmilk, Coconutmilk, & the blend, and some store brands. Lactaid is still dairy-based, but doesn’t have the lactose. It tastes just like real milk, but still bothered me. I discovered I do not like the sweetened or unsweetened of any of them- only the Original, and I prefer the Almondmilk. The others are too thick for my liking.
- Ice Cream– Ben & Jerry’s wins this with the perfect taste of their non-dairy line (tap or click on their name to visit their site.) My favorite is the Chocolate Fudge Brownie non-dairy, but it’s pretty hard for me to find. I couldn’t find it on Amazon to actually give you a product link, but if you tap on Ben & Jerry’s name, it will take you to their site. I have no official affiliation- I just love them for making this non-dairy line. Locally, I can find it at all the major chain grocery stores, but the right flavor can be tricky. I hope that will improve as it gets more popular. So Delicious makes some very good cashewmilk ice cream, so I included some of their items. They also make very good non-dairy yogurt that there IS a link for.
- Creamy sauces, soups: Carnation Almond Cooking Milk has become one of my new favorite things. Although it doesn’t thicken up quite as well as the real thing, it is a very good substitute. I use it in potato soup and gravy when I can handle something a bit more rich.
Being the “foodie” that I was, giving up dairy was a depressing experience, and realizing which was the next culprit to be added to the DNE list didn’t exactly make it any better. Bread used to be one of my main staples (along with dairy.) I can still remember how it felt when I was eating it. Like I could never get tired of it (I told you I used to love food.) Now, I can barely handle a couple of bites before my body starts making it taste funny. It’s the same for almost any “bread-type” food, and many grains. Too much rice and oats can even be a big problem. The only thing I still give in to the craving for, and actually still love the taste of, is a soft pretzel. I love them soooo much, but I spread out the times I eat them so I don’t make it worse, and I usually make them from scratch so I know exactly what the ingredients are.
That’s the thing about this process– after awhile, what you think tastes good will change. Once you’re able to associate the correct foods with feeling good, and have eliminated the bad things from your diet- the bad things will start tasting bad to you. It’s like we have a built in ability to determine what is good for our bodies based on taste- we’ve just spent so much time ignoring it and forcing other things into our body that we can’t differentiate between the good and the bad- or in some cases, the opposite is occuring. We’re interpreting the bad as tasting good and the good as bad. (i.e. veggies are bland, sugar is sweet.)
In my case, I’ve even been able to tell the difference in taste of processed and natural foods. Before, I read the package. Now, I can usually taste it and know without ever seeing the package. Sometimes, I can even smell it without tasting. I can smell and taste chemicals in water way more than before, too. Sour cream used to be one of my absolute favorite toppings, but now I can smell it across the room, and it smells awful. Anything with dairy in it now smells sour to me. I have no trouble telling the dairy from the dairy-free items. Similarly, anything too processed either tastes like cardboard or is overly sweet, salty, etc. There is no real flavor to those foods anymore. I wouldn’t have believed this happened before experiencing it myself, but after all the time spent in agonizing pain and room-spinning nausea because of food, I’m far more in tune with what my body is telling me than the average person. It may be a bit more difficult to recognize the difference in taste for those who aren’t having to fight just to get a few bites down, so it may take the average person a bit more practice to taste the good and bad in the foods. The next round of suggestions are the only processed foods I eat. It’s a very small list because these are all I’ve found I can tolerate, and most of them still have simple and natural ingredients.
- Oreos are the only cookie I’ve found that does not contain milk. I really kind of love them for this, but I also don’t. I can eat far too many of the Oreos Dark Chocolate cookies for it to be healthy. I had to cut myself off for awhile. They are just so good though.
- Ken’s Steakhouse Honey Mustard has become my replacement for most sauces and dressings. I use it on tacos as “sour cream, a dipping sauce for anything that needs dipped (grilled chicken and veggies,) and even on sandwiches. As long as I don’t use a ridiculous amount, it doesn’t bother me.
- Pure Organic Fruit & Nut Bars– One of my replacements for milk chocolate bars.
- Larabar– More fruit and nut bars. The pecan pie bars really do taste like pecan pie. They also have Larabar Kids that are really good, too.
- Nature’s Bakery– Yummy brownies that taste like brownie batter without dairy and made with wholesome ingredients.
- KIND bars- They have so many different good ones.
Replacement suggestions for chocolate & the only processed foods I eat
After determining bread was a significant part of the problem, and eliminating it from my diet, I was able to clearly see more foods to target. Every time I ate something red, like spaghetti sauce, I would again have serious pain and nausea. Even plain tomatoes were a problem. Then I started eliminating spices from things and found that many had been a problem for me. A note here about spices- depending on what your conditions are, you may be able to actually increase your use of some spices to help with inflammation. Unfortunately for me, digestive issues prevent me from being able to use anything much except garlic and salt. I find anything else can really put me in some pain.
You’d think you couldn’t go wrong with fresh veggies and fruit, but I’ve found several that I can’t handle. Broccoli, cabbage, and beans were some of my favorites but they all make me sick now. I also have to avoid strawberries, cherries, and oranges if I don’t want to deal with an episode of extreme nausea. Pineapple, coconut, and watermelon have to be very limited, too, along with lettuce. There are times I have a hard time getting ANYTHING in my system.
Red meat is a big problem if I eat it more than once a week, and I’m allergic to iodine, so I have to avoid most seafood. I can do pork in moderation, and can handle chicken and turkey most of the time. Grease is also a big no-no, so I bake or grill everything, and stick with only fresh or all-natural simple ingredients.
As you can probably imagine- this eliminates a whole lot of foods from my diet, but as you can see, I have found several things to replace the foods I miss. Since I’ve had such an issue with food making me sick, any replacement absolutely must taste good, or I don’t even try to make myself eat it. Luckily, food products have come a long way. The suggestions I’ve given are all products that I know taste great and are dairy-free. Most have only a few natural ingredients. The couple of exceptions are with the cookies, ice cream, and the honey mustard, but they haven’t made me sick.
All of these suggestions are meant to help you on your journey to figure out which foods work best for YOUR body. We are all different, so the same foods may not bother you that do bother someone else, and vice versa. Start slowly and take notes about how you feel right after eating the food, 2-4 hours later, and the next day. In some cases it can help to make sure you’re not mixing foods to get a true reading of how each is affecting you. Just stick with it and have patience while you use my experience as a guideline for where to start, and adjust it to suite your needs. I hope all of this information is able to help someone out there improve their relationship with food.
If you’re dealing with pain and need something to distract you, check out Dida’s Distractions and More Distractions. If interested in reading about using distractions as a coping mechanism, my article is here: Using Distractions as Coping Mechanisms: Tools for Chronic Illness, Mental Illness & Addiction Recovery