Over the last couple of years I started to notice myself having stomach pains and some unfortunate rushed bathroom trips and general discomfort. I put it down to dairy and cut out most of the dairy in my life: switched regular milk for almond, stopped eating cheese and yoghurt and cream etc. Whilst I noticed some improvement I clearly hadn’t hit the nail on the head as I sometimes still experienced awful symptoms after eating. I tried recording foods that triggered my symptoms but couldn’t find a common thread.
So in January I talked to my GP and she diagnosed me with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). I then did a lot of my own research about IBS and started to hear the term low fodmap popping up everywhere. Fodmap, I learned stands for fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharide and polyols. You see why they needed an acronym. Fodmaps are short-chain carbohydrates that can be difficult to digest, causing symptoms in people with IBS. Monash University in Australia are the research team behind fodmaps and they explain it all a lot more scientifically on their website.
Fodmaps are present in a LOT of foods, but some foods have higher levels than others and it is these high fodmap foods that are best avoided. The list of high fodmap foods is pretty long and scary including wheat, milk, onion, garlic, apples, pears – the list goes on. But I decided it was worth trying, to see if I could narrow down what was causing my IBS symptoms. I got Sue Shepherd’s “Two-Step Low Fodmap Diet and Recipe” book out of the library. Here I read all about eliminating all high fodmap foods for six weeks before reintroducing different groups and monitoring your symptoms.
All the new information was overwhelming and I had no idea where to start. But under the book’s advice I made an appointment to see a dietician who specialised in gastrointestinal health and the low fodmap diet. I also had a blood test to check for Coeliac’s Disease, as this can go undetected if you are already undertaking a gluten free diet. Prior to my appointment I kept a food and symptom diary for a week, this was helpful as my dietician could then go through this with me and suggest low fodmap alternatives to my standard diet. This initial appointment was incredibly helpful, my dietician even had a pantry full of low fodmap food products that were readily available locally.
I then came home with my very long list of foods not to eat, as well as foods that were restricted in portion (for example 1/8th of an avocado is low fodmap, any more is not). Mum was incredibly supportive in stocking the pantry with low fodmap alternatives to family staples such as gluten free flour and bread, garlic infused oil, maple syrup and spring onions.
At this point I did a lot of research finding recipes, facebook groups and food blogs online, along with cookbooks from the library and old issues of Healthy Food Guide magazine. I saved a whole heap of recipes to my Yummly account. Low fodmap recipes are relatively easy to find online but it’s also easy to make substitutes to normal recipes. I found Paleo or Gluten Free recipes a good place to start as they already exclude some major fodmaps. The Monash University App is also very useful as it uses a simple traffic light system to demonstrate the fodmap content of loads of different foods and ingredients.
The biggest challenge for me doing the low fodmap diet was being prepared with packed lunches and snacks for long days at uni/work/dancing. This is because it’s very hard to buy low fodmap food out of a cafe cabinet or as an on-the-go snack at a supermarket. Even health food/gluten-free/paleo snacks are often high fodmap due to ingredients like dates, honey, garlic or onion. Sushi and hot chips became a fall back which is not great nutritionally.
“I can’t eat that” became a bit of a catchphrase for me and it became challenging to explain to others what the low fodmap diet was, as most people had never heard of it. Most of the time I would say “oh I’m gluten and dairy free” but this didn’t work when the item on offer was an apple. But after following the diet for six weeks fairly strictly I felt great, I experienced very few symptoms during this time. I was also able to identify that my symptoms were worse when I was feeling stressed or worried.
I’ve had a follow up appointment with my dietician and I am now at the point of reintroducing different types of fodmaps in small quantities. This is to try and narrow down what food groups cause my symptoms. Continuing to follow the low fodmap diet long term is an option, but I found it very restrictive and difficult to eat out with. As I’m planning to go traveling next year I would love to have a short and sharp list of foods that my stomach doesn’t like, instead of the huge list of foods that are high fodmap.
Overall I have found following the low fodmap diet very beneficial. It has been a great learning experience, not to mention having less painful symptoms! Ka pai if you made it to the end of this mammoth post. I will be doing more posts in the future about the low fodmap diet including my favourite recipes and resources so stay tuned!