One thing people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn's disease, tend to ask their doctor is, “What should I eat?” In the past, doctors used to say, “Diet doesn’t matter.” That may have been helpful to some people, but it did a lot of damage to my health.
When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, I only had a couple of foods that triggered my symptoms, but I ignored the signs. Over time, I began reacting to more food to the point where I felt stomach pain, fatigue, nausea, and bowel inconsistency 24/7. Even with all the medications I took, I was miserable. My health became so poor that I was hospitalized in the middle of a 3-month internship in Seattle.
It was then I decided to look more into dietary approaches. These days, there’s a plethora of information on how to eat -- Paleo, Keto, plant-based, gluten free, the list goes on. I share a lot about how I eat on social media, so I will use this space to discuss something that isn’t easy to find online: the mental and emotional aspects of modifying my diet.
First, I was the only one in the family who needed to make drastic changes, so I had to learn to cook for myself. I also stayed away from restaurants to avoid hidden ingredients and cross-contamination.
Making most meals from scratch takes a ridiculously long time, and an amateur like me spent every moment in the kitchen. It took a long time before I made something that I enjoyed. I was grieving over the food I used to love and stressed out over the lack of convenience. Cooking from scratch when you’re sick takes so much energy. There were many moments when I burst into tears over the stove.
Eating only meals that I made was also incredibly isolating. Food is a major social experience. I canceled many outings with my friends because I didn’t want to seem like the odd one not eating anything. And Arabs especially are known for showing their love and hospitality through food. Middle Eastern/North African cuisine is one my favorites, but unfortunately a lot of the dishes contain something I can’t tolerate when I’m sick.
I went to gatherings bringing my own food, which is considered very rude in my culture. It was even worse when elders tried to get me to eat some of their dishes. Egyptians are also known for being people pleasers when hosting, so I heard a lot of, “You will be fine eating this dish.”
I refused multiple times in certain events, which made me feel horrible because I understand that they wanted to help. Most of my tantes (aunties) got used to it and were happy when my health began to improve, but there were a couple who only talked to me to criticize. It made me so uncomfortable that I stopped going to any of their gatherings. I thankfully had some friends were supportive from day one, but it was still hard not to feel like an outcast.
Despite everything, I continue to eat the way that was best for my health and healed considerably because of it. I tolerate a variety of food and can eat at places that are accommodating to my restrictions.
For anyone who’s struggling to maintain a healthy diet, hang in there. It’s an intense journey both physically and emotionally, and there isn’t a one size fits all. Find out what works for you, be consistent, and connect with supportive people. You’ve got this!
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