Sometimes you just don’t want to be that friend that has to ask if there’s gluten in each and every menu item. I hear you. I must be a glutton for the public ridiculing by my friends and family, being gluten, dairy, sugar, caffeine and even currently alcohol free – and yet here I stand, a simple 23-year-old woman with a penchant for coconut milk turmeric lattes and the almost-weekly preparer, almost-daily consumer of bone broth. How does she do it? More importantly, why isn’t she being a normal 23-year-old and eating disgraceful and potentially dangerous amounts of greasy food and discounted chocolate?
Well, bear with me while I attempt to walk you through the how’s and why’s of how I came to heal my body and love my life through the power of proper nutrition, one friendly insult at a time.
In almost my entire living memory I had struggled with at times extremely debilitating mental health problems, and by the time I had finished high school and entered what some were tentatively calling “the real world” my struggles were often combined with sporadic, seemingly unrelated illnesses and often chronic pain. The stress of living out of home, working full time, studying and balancing a social life was a task I ostensibly managed, but inside felt constantly burnt out, depressed and consumed by anxiety that would inevitably rear its ugly head and land me in bed for a month at a time.
By my 21st birthday I was so incredibly unwell I struggled to work and isolated myself from my friends and family. Eventually my health crumbled to the point of losing my job, dropping out of university and letting go of my apartment. My incredible mum set up a doctor’s appointment which both solved everything and created an entirely new, unique set of challenges. I had answers; I had a condition called Pyrrole Disorder and a mutation of the MTHFR gene, both of which were manifesting in an array of disparate conditions. Excuse me, what the heck? I said, and thus my journey into the big wide world of nutritional medicine began.
The first step was “vitamin therapy”. A prescription for specially formulated vitamins, music to the ears of someone who had vehemently resisted medication and this seemed like a sustainable answer that wasn’t a life sentence to pharmaceuticals. (For the record, I completely understand the place of medication and would never think to judge anyone who needs it – medication can be life-saving. I personally had particularly traumatising experiences as a teenager that left me beyond uninspired by the idea of trial and error.)
Then my doctor referred me to a nutritionist. This wasn’t an unwelcome suggestion, however at the time I couldn’t comprehend the impact it would have. You see, I thought I already knew what I was doing when it came to food. I was a decent cook – had even been briefly employed as one – and obsessed with good quality food. I also came from a long line of hippies; where other children had bread and chocolate, I had buckwheat and carob. I had been vegetarian for most of my life, with brief dalliances in veganism, and truly believed my occasional abstinence from dairy and sugar made me closer to god. Now I’m not saying I’m a slave to trends, but if you told me drinking a glass of sand with hot milk would cure my skin demons, I wouldn’t have run away screaming. In any case, I thought my cupboard full of superfoods naturally meant I knew what I was doing.
Our cultural obsession with diets and fad foods has become so entrenched in the minds of young Australian females particularly, and I was not immune. According to the SBS, by the age of 45 a woman will have tried 61 diets and over her life will spend an average of 31 years dieting. ABS data from the Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results – Food and Nutrients, 2011-2012 report indicated that 2.1 million (13%) of Australians were on a diet. To draw the conclusion that we are utterly consumed by the promises diets assure they will deliver is no stretch of the imagination.
My experience seeking ongoing nutritional advice entirely shifted my perception of “healthy eating”. From the outset, the advice given to me challenged so much of how I had come to shape my life. I would need to start eating meat and drinking broth regularly, a concept every fibre of my being morally opposed. I would have to stop taking birth control, which may not seem hugely challenging, but let’s not diminish the importance of the sexual autonomy of young women. I learnt the overwhelming importance of gut health and geared my diet towards improving this mythical concept of good gut “microbiome”. I would need to cut out anything that might cause inflammation or intolerance, a long list which only just began with the obvious gluten, dairy, sugar and processed foods. Would I ever feel joy or the warmth of the sun again? A slightly melodramatic me thought to myself. Melodramatic, yes - however we live in a society where so much of our lives revolve around the plates we come together to share or the glasses we clink together. What, where and the way we eat informs and is informed by our social environments.
At the time, I was so ill I didn’t hesitate to take on the extensive list of recommendations and advice given to me by my nutritionist. I didn’t feel I had a choice, however I equally realised what this information would do for me that no doctor had ever been able to answer. Here was an opportunity to fix the why and not just the what that was happening to me – and that, to me, is the lesson of nutritional medicine.
It is my understanding that identifying what works for individuals to support their unique biochemical and genetic makeup and supporting those specific issues with nutrition and supplementation is not only effective treatment, but the only preventative treatment. I couldn’t ask my doctor for a prescription to prevent future depression or inflammation in my joints, but I could take vitamins and eat correctly for myself to manage it.
These days, I am naturally less strict with my diet when everything is going swimmingly, however I’ve learnt to recognise the warning signs of when my chronic illness is about to display symptoms and I can counter it without endless medical appointments and missing out on life. Yes, I bear the playful teasing of friends who laugh when I keel over after eating a pizza and we play the guessing game of how pregnant will I look after eating cheese. Do I care? A little – I have a constant thought process of making conscious choices which means my life looks very different to my friends. At the end of the day, does this matter to me? Considering how much my life has changed, no, not even a little bit.
And I still eat so much chocolate.
Written by Bella Skelton