Sometimes it feels like everyone I know is sick. There are a staggering number of people walking around with illnesses. Most of these illnesses are chronic, and few of them have reliable medical cures.
What treatments are available tend to come with side effects almost as bad as the condition itself. And so, increasingly, people are looking for alternative solutions: herbs, supplements, and diets.
At first, taking your health into your own hands feels empowering. When I first began the Low FODMAP diet to treat my IBS-C I knew it would be tough, but I also had faith that it would allow me to live symptom free. For three months I followed the strange restriction, cutting out all the banned foods—wheat, milk, garlic, artichokes, and apples, just to name a few—the result was mixed. I generally felt slightly better than I had before the diet, but I was far from symptom free. In the reintroduction phase the results were even more confusing. At the end I had a short list of foods to avoid (wheat, onions) but otherwise saw little correlation between meals and symptoms.
Certainly diet and exercise are key factors in health, but eating well and staying active isn’t a magical cure. Believing that every illness can be fixed by “clean eating” makes sickness feel like a punishment. Correlating diet and illness too closely makes being sick the sufferer’s fault, a symptom of undisciplined living, penance for lack of self-control. Illness becomes an expression of moral failing.
When I have an IBS flare-up, I go to the internet, searching for some solution I haven’t tried yet. My symptoms, I learn could indicate SIBO, Candida, or leaky gut, so I order oregano oil, probiotics, peppermint oil, caprylic acid. Most of these supplements make me feel worse.
Eating, which was once a pleasure, now produces guilt and anxiety. I worry about how much fiber I’m getting, if I’m combining foods correctly, if I’m eating too much protein, if I’m making things better or worse.
Planning meals feels a bit like making a magic potion, as if combining the correct nutrients can release supernatural powers from the plants and animals I consume. The internet is full of stories of this sort of magic, people whose health problems disappeared as a result of the Whole 30, GAPS, or high-fiber diets. My personal experience is far less positive and yet, despite the glib advice, “listen to your body,” I feel like a failure when I do just that, paying attention to my worsening symptoms.
Sometimes in restaurants I watch other people eat with fascination, trying to remember what it was like to be able to eat anything, to freely choose between a salad and a pizza. I watch people eating, easily, thoughtlessly, choosing foods that would leave me doubled over in pain. If food is magic, why don’t they feel the curse?
It seems reasonable to think that if food can heal it can also damage, that if certain foods are miraculous than others are hexes. But if this is true, it certainly isn’t true for everyone. Many people eat the foods that pain me with no ill consequences. Knowing this, I try to allow myself the grace of its opposite, that if food cannot destroy all, it may not offer universal healing. I may not be able to cure my mysterious symptoms. Living with them is hard enough without believing that they indicate a personal failing.