It is my mission to create diet plans for my clients that are as varied and colourful as possible. There are so many wonderful different foods out there: hundreds of varieties of fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, tofu, fermented vegetables and pickles, different kinds of fish and seafood, meat and dairy from organic, grass-fed, free-range animals, eggs … even without ever having to turn to processed foods, the possibilities are endless.
One reason why a varied diet is important is that what we eat shapes our microbiome: The gut flora changes rapidly with what we eat and although much about the bacteria inhabiting our digestive tract is not yet completely understood, we know that the more varied the bacterial population the better. Different foods attract different species, and dietary changes cause changes in the microbiome within days.
Another reason for variation is the vast number of phytonutrients (plant nutrients) contained in different plant foods. They have indispensible health benefits and the more different foods we eat, the more phytonutrients we get to benefit from. Many plant nutrients have antioxidant effects, fighting free radicals and thus contributing to our health. Different phytonutrients have different colours and are actually what gives our plants foods their colour, so by selecting fruit and vegetables from the whole colour spectrum you are making sure to cover a wide selection of different nutrients.
Despite all of these good reasons to have a rich and varied diet, sometimes it is unfortunately necessary to – either temporarily or forever – remove certain foods from the diet of individual clients. For example:
Gluten – those who suffer from Coeliac’s disease will have to remove gluten from their diet forever. Gluten is a type of protein contained in wheat, spelt, rye and barley. In people with Coeliac’s, the immune system reacts to gluten and damages the cells of the intestinal lining, resulting in digestive discomfort and malabsorption. For people with Coeliac’s, ingesting gluten can be life threatening. About 1% of the population is affected by Coeliac’s disease. However, gluten can be problematic for many more people: approx. 6% experience ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’ (NCGS). Symptoms are similar to Coeliac’s disease, but the damage to the digestive tract is less severe and lab tests do not find the same markers. The only way to test is by excluding gluten for a while and monitoring symptoms.
FODMAPs – This is an acronym that stands for “Fermentable Oligo-Di-Monosaccharides and Polyols”, a group of carbohydrates: fructose, lactose, fructans, galactals and Polyols, which are sometimes used as sweeteners (e. g. xylitol). People who are sensitive to FODMAPs may experience digestive symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea and constipation, and a low-FODMAP diet is often advised for people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A low-FODMAP diet is very restrictive and includes many otherwise healthy food. If you think that you may be sensitive to FODMAPs, find a qualified nutrition practitioner to guide you. It is not advisable to do this on your own and for a prolonged period of time.
Grains – Some diets, such as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), the Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet (GAPS) or the Paleo Diet are devoid of all grains, not just the gluten grains. A grain-free diet may be used for people suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases (e. g. Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis), dysbiosis, auto-immune diseases, mental health issues, autism, and addiction.
Lectins – These are proteins found in all foods, but the highest amounts are in grains (particularly unrefined grains), raw pulses and dairy. As humans, we cannot digest lectins. They can cause damage to the intestinal lining or cause problems once the gut lining has been damaged by something else (e. g. trauma, surgery). Lectin overload may lead to rapid evacuation of the gastro-intestinal tract (vomiting, diarrhoea, cramping), but can also cause an immune-response resulting in symptoms such as headaches, skin rashes and inflammation. The Paleo and GAPS diets are lectin-free. Some preparation methods, such as sprouting, soaking and fermenting can reduce the lectin content of foods and make them easier to digest.
Sugar – A sugar-free diet may be advised for people suffering from type II diabetes, Candida (yeast) overgrowth or inflammatory conditions. However, there is mounting evidence that virtually everyone would benefit from a sugar-free diet, as sugar has no health benefits at all, but causes many problems, not least overweight and obesity.
Dairy – This, but cow’s milk in particular can cause health problems for many people, particularly those suffering from hayfever, asthma or eczema (or all of these together). It regularly tops the list of foods people are sensitive to, causing digestive symptoms, skin conditions and respiratory problems for many. Casein, a milk protein, has been implicated in autism, and lactose (milk sugar) is indigestible for the majority of people on the planet as they stop producing lactase – the enzyme that breaks down lactose – after weaning.
Yeast – This, too, is a known food to cause sensitivity and must be avoided by anyone experiencing Candida overgrowth. Avoiding yeast is harder than most people think as it is not just used in baking or brewing, but also fermenting (vinegar, pickles, wine, mustard, mayonnaise).
Food allergies and intolerances – Some people’s immune system overreacts when certain foods are ingested. So called ‘true allergies’ cause the formation of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. This usually happens very quickly after ingesting the food, and the patient is therefore often able to identify such foods without testing. Common allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, fish, eggs, fruits, but we can become allergic to nearly any food. People suffering IgE allergies must avoid the offending foods forever. Some foods cause the formation of different antibodies: immunoglobulin G (IgG). Symptoms are very varied, less severe than those in IgE reactions, and may occur up to 72 hours after ingestion, which makes it very hard to identify the foods causing them. The most common culprits are wheat, gluten, eggs, cow’s milk, yeast, and celery, but again almost anything is possible. The best way of determining whether you are sensitive to certain foods is an Exclusion-Challenge Diet, which means following a very limited diet consisting of foods that rarely cause reactions for two to four weeks followed by a step-by-step reintroduction of foods while closely monitoring the symptoms. This is best done under the guidance of a nutrition practitioner. (NOTE: If you suspect to have a true food allergy (IgE), never challenge. You MUST strictly avoid your allergens! If you want to be sure, ask your GP for a test.) Unlike an IgE allergy, food sensitivity (IgG) can go away: Avoiding the offending foods and following a gut healing protocol can allow a reintroduction of the foods in question further down the line.
When clients first learn that they have to avoid certain foods – often their favourite ones, too! – for a period of time or forever, this may sometimes seem impossible at first: “What am I going to eat? What have I got left?” It may seem daunting at first, but that’s just because they have never had to think about what they eat before.
In the vast majority of cases it later turns out not to be as hard as they thought. With guidance and a little practice, many clients soon get the hang of it and in fact most find that their diet becomes more varied rather than more restricted! How come?
Most of us are stuck in a bit of a food rut, rotating the same limited number of foods all the time: Gluten, wheat, potatoes and dairy feature every day in most people’s diet. We tend to buy the same limited fruit and veg all the time, even though there are so many different ones available. If our health demands a change in diet, we are forced to rethink what we are eating and explore our options. In the end, many clients come across foods they never new existed and that they find they really enjoy. Moreover, the fact that they no longer experience discomfort and pain is a great motivator and makes it easy to cut out some foods, especially since there are so many others to choose from.
If you are affected by food intolerance, allergy or sensitivity and would like to learn more about how to replace common foods, read tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News, my fortnightly newsletter. It is not too late to sign up!