You’re not eating what?

The main reason why I opened this tiny corner of the worldwide web in August 2016 was to have a place to share recipes that taste good without relying on onion and garlic for flavour. Not an easy feat, since these ingredients are common in kitchens around the world. Moreover, it’s not as simple as just removing them. I’ve tried, and it has left me with many plain and boring meals. Along the way, the list of ingredients I no longer eat has grown. As has the number of insensitive remarks I have received when making others aware of my food intolerances. So, in an attempt to set things straight: I’m not omitting this many ingredients to make anyone’s life harder or because I’m a fussy eater. And me taking medicine in order to cook ‘normal’ is not a long-term solution. So let me educate you a little on the science behind my list and what happens if I do eat things that are on it.

All ingredients on my list belong to one of two categories: FODMAPs and lectins. Two things you probably haven’t heard of before. I did neither. Let’s start with the first one. FODMAP is an acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides Disaccharides Monosaccharides And Polyols. It’s perfectly fine to forget these names again right now. It’s more important to know what their effect is. These FODMAPs are fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates. In other words, they are indigestible sugars that provide fast food for bowel bacteria. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with these sugars since they come from fruit and vegetables. However, for people with a sensitive bowel, they are capable of causing a lot of trouble.

My response to FODMAPs is a non-immunological reaction. It does not involve the immune system, and therefore is not an allergy. I have been tested several times, and officially there is nothing wrong with me. My family doctor even told me he thinks I’m making my life unnecessarily difficult by avoiding onions, garlic, and milk. And to think that was just the beginning. Food intolerances, however, are very common, affecting about one in five people. They are the most common trigger of a broad range of gut symptoms, including abdominal pain and discomfort, bloating, changes in bowel habits, nausea, overfullness, excessive gas, a noisy abdomen, and pain in the rectum. Other common symptoms are headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches and pains. These symptoms do not necessarily occur together, but they often do.

That’s quite an accomplishment for small molecules. So, how do they do it? Since the body is hardly capable of absorbing these FODMAPs, it tries to dilute them by forcing water into the gastrointestinal tract, which can cause diarrhea and affect the muscular movement of the gut. In addition to that, the molecules that are not absorbed in the small bowel, continue to journey to the large bowel where they are broken down by bacteria, which produces hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane gases. The symptoms caused by this vary and depend on the amount consumed, the timing of the meal, and other meals consumed on that day. All FODMAPs cause distension in the same way once they reach the lower small bowel and colon, and therefore their effects are cumulative.

Following a low FODMAP diet has helped me tremendously. I went from just having enough energy to drag myself from my bed to the couch in the morning to living a reasonably normal life again. However, I still felt like there were some missing pieces on my journey to getting better again. That’s when I discovered lectins. Lectins are large proteins found in plants and animals. You have probably heard of gluten, the most infamous lectin. But there are many more. Lectins help plants defend themselves against animals. These proteins are found in the seeds, grains, skins, rinds, and leaves of most plants. They bind to carbohydrates (sugars) in the predator’s body after it consumes the plant, and can cause toxic or inflammatory reactions. The main symptoms some of these lectins caused for me are brain fog, migraines – at my lowest point even up to four times a week – and weight gain.

Sensitivity for these types of food doesn’t mean I can’t eat anything that contains FODMAPs and lectins. Sure, there are quite a few items I have to omit. But others I’m able to consume with slight alterations like removing the skin and seeds, or just eating small amounts. Moreover, not everyone on a low-FODMAP and lectin-reduced diet is equally sensitive to all the different types of sugar or all types of lectin-containing food. My gut protests when I eat food containing fructans, galactooligosaccharides, and fructose. The other types of sugar – lactose, and polyols- I tolerate in small amounts, depending on my overall health. And to complicate things a little further, there are foods on the list with sugars I hardly tolerate, that I can eat in small amounts. I think it’s safe to conclude that there isn’t a one size fits all approach to this type of diet.

I hope this gave you a little more insight into the choices I make when developing recipes, or why I ask you to comply with my list when you invite me over for dinner. What I shared with you is far from conclusive, so if you’d like to know more, I’d recommend reading a book on the subject. And if you’re dealing with food intolerances yourself, and have a family doctor that is as understanding as mine, seek advice from an orthomolecular dietitian. They are better educated on these topics. And if you have any questions concerning what I wrote, don’t hesitate to ask them below in the comments.

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