Our bodies are pretty savvy in sending us messages about taking care of ourselves. Most of the time the messages are simple and informative. Like when we’re tired, we get a signal that tells us to go to sleep. Occasionally they are a slap on the head because we’ve done something stupid. These come in the form of things like muscle strains, hangovers, or sunburns. Then there are the warnings that alert us to things that just aren’t right. They make up the lists of maladies we commonly refer to as symptoms. The real question is how much attention we pay to them and what we do about them.
My epiphany happened after my body had been delivering a cautionary message for over a year. I was having some very annoying digestive problems following months of chemotherapy. To put it politely, food was traveling through my system like an express train. Since chemo is the granddaddy of side effects, I just assumed my system had been compromised and there wasn’t much to be done. Nevertheless, every meal had me worried that I would spend some unpleasant time in the bathroom. I didn’t want to eat out because almost all restaurant food caused misery.
My primary care physician suggested I keep a food diary. I’m a compliant patient so I did just that, scrutinizing the list, looking for anything unusual or exotic that I’d eaten within 12 hours of an attack. After several weeks, I had a random list of totally unrelated foods. My frustration grew.
Then one day I re-read the information I received from my oncologist about digestion. It strongly suggested that a common side effect of chemo is lactose intolerance. It described the symptoms and the light bulb went on. I spent some time researching lactose intolerance. I resisted the temptation to stray into dramatic, weepy blogs about food allergies and stuck to responsible sites like Mayo, Cleveland Clinic, and WebMD. It all made perfect sense.
The only puzzle was that I’m not a big consumer of milk or cheese. So I began to dig some more. To my shock and surprise, I discovered that lactose products are everywhere. I’m an inveterate label reader but mostly for the obvious enemies – fats, salt, and sugar. Other things like instant non-fat milk, dairy solids, and whey (remember Little Miss Muffett) seemed harmless. But they are not if you’re lactose intolerant. And they are in breads, sauces, salad dressings, margarine, breakfast cereal, beer, caramels and condiments – just to name a few.
So I went on a mission to avoid lactose. It wasn’t easy but I did it by reading labels, buying lactose free products, and saying no to things like the chocolate chip cookies purchased at a well known bakery. I aggravated more than one waiter by asking for ingredients when I ordered the lunch special and I bored my friends with explanations about why I wouldn’t have a few bites of the key lime pie. Quietly, the intestinal issues began to subside. I felt like the construction company with a sign that says “14 days without an accident”.
Along the way I made some additional discoveries that took me deep into the world of food additives, enhancers, stabilizers, sweeteners, emulsifiers, thickening agents, and artificial coloring. Sad to say, we are eating foods that contain ingredients we can’t even pronounce.
Say butylated hydroxyanisole three times fast. You might want to learn it if you eat potato chips. And some things have been around long enough to convince us they are good — MSG, Olestra, saccharin, and sodium nitrate that keep our hot dogs red and flavorful.
Michael Pollan in his book, In Defense of Food, says that instead of food, we’re consuming “edible foodlike substances” — no longer the products of nature but of food science. Many of them come packaged with health claims that should be our first clue they are anything but healthy. He urges us to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. “
Somehow I came to believe that while lactose intolerance was a significant issue, I still had more to learn about food. I love to cook and have always prided myself on preparing and serving healthy meals. But the persistent message from my body was becoming a cautionary tale about what might be in my pantry. I decided to change some things about the way my husband and I ate. I started by buying a bag of Spelt flour and making “from scratch” whole wheat pancakes and cranberry oatmeal cookies. Yum!
I called a good friend who is a vegetarian and asked her to act as my shopping consultant on a trip to Whole Foods. (Thanks Paulette!) The experience was enlightening and a little daunting, but I was grateful for her wisdom in helping me select grains, nuts, seeds, bread, and cereal.
I must say, I was secretly in awe of the Vegans who tossed natural foods with earthy names into their baskets. But I came away with enough to create several new dishes without chemicals or things that might be better in rocket fuel than in our stomachs.
Over the next few days I made homemade peanut butter. Delicious! Homemade granola. Wow! Meatless meatloaf. Well..two out of three wasn’t bad.
I’m still adjusting. But what’s wonderful is that my digestion has reached a blissful homeostasis. Yes, chemotherapy had disrupted an otherwise “normal” process. But like all dramatic events in life, it lead me down a better path. And I thank my body for sending the painful messages that something just wasn’t right.