CW: Diet discussion as it relates to diagnosing health conditions. A little mention of disordered eating without description. Talk of the ways I’ve learned that certain foods affect my body.
I’ve heard a lot of people in the fat activism community talking about the struggle between wanting to find out how different foods are affecting their bodies and not wanting to fall back into a diet/ weight loss hole that we’ve worked so hard to get out of. This is something that I’d been wondering about, too.
So let me fill you in on my experience. Please understand that this is not advice or anything like this, it’s just a telling of what this experience was like from my perspective.
Here’s a little backstory about why:
I’ve had an inflammatory skin condition called hidradenitis suppurativa (also known as HS for obvious reasons) ever since I went through puberty. I had no idea that I had a skin condition until last summer when I started listening to the She’s All Fat podcast and Sophie started talking about her battle with it. After that, I saw on my friend Maggie’s YouTube channel where she devoted a few videos to the nitty gritty of how she treats and manages her HS. I want to tell Sophie and Maggie how grateful I am to both of them for talking about this publicly and thereby introducing me to myself a little bit more.
Don’t get me wrong, I always knew this was happening to me. I also believed that it was just something shameful and gross that was happening to me just because I was fat (I haven’t always been a fat activist, my friends) or because of poor hygiene or something else that I should be embarrassed about. I never questioned that conclusion—I came to it when I was 13 and never re-evaluated it. I never talked to my parents about it or a doctor or anything. The way that shame keeps us from caring for ourselves is so powerful. It’s bizarre the way that fatphobia shows up in our lives in brand new and exciting ways. At 34 years old I’m constantly uncovering ways that it’s been ruling my life in different ways.
HS isn’t a sexy disease and because of that, there’s not a lot of research done about it. There aren’t really any known causes or cures yet—it’s just a matter of managing symptoms. Both Maggie and Sophie talked about different ways that their diet affects the ways that HS shows up and disrupts their lives. So after thinking about it for nearly a year, I decided that I wanted to figure out what foods could possibly be affecting me, too. After doing a lot of research, I decided that I wanted to follow the Auto-Immune Protocol (AIP) for thirty days and then after that, I would slowly re-introduce foods—keeping track of the way that I noticed that they affected my body. Even though I had a lot of research under my belt and a lot of resources and support, this was still very scary for me.
Why Was I Nervous?
Let me tell you, as someone who has been doing very active work on my relationship to food after decades of diet culture, eating disorders, and generally just being cultured female—I was scared. Is that the right word??
Yeah. That’s the right word. But I tried to view this as another step toward healing my relationship to food. Food wasn’t the enemy here–this was just going to be a learning opportunity and nothing more.
I know all the ways that I’ve tried to trick myself into weight loss and dieting by just rebranding the exact same behaviors over and over again and giving it a new, shiny name. “It’s not a diet. This is a lifestyle change.” And “I’m not in it to lose weight! If that happens, fine, but I don’t care about that!” (Meanwhile trying on an older pair of jeans every other night begging them to fit again.) Nice, try, SELF! We’ve been in this cycle since before first grade. Don’t think I don’t know your tricks!
Even just overhearing a conversation about calorie counting and which foods are “good” now and which foods are “bad” will trigger the long-learned feelings of shame and failure that will then manifest itself in disgusting, harmful, and disordered ways that—at best, will take days to shake off. That’s why I walk away when you start talking about dieting. That’s why I hide your Facebook posts about your weight loss or the jokes you make about you how nice it would be if you could lose weight but you just like cookies so much. It’s not you, it’s me.
And diet culture.
With this self-knowledge in mind, the idea of going on a highly restrictive diet for thirty entire days was terrifying to me. But as my HS flare-ups were getting worse and worse, making it painful to walk around and enjoy my life, I knew that I needed to figure this out.
How did you prep for this?
I talked to Ryan about it and even though his life experience in this realm has been completely different from mine, not only did he completely understand but he helped me come up with some really helpful ways to care for me, safeguard my triggers, and protect us both from harmful practices.
For starters, he enthusiastically joined in! Having a buddy was so helpful for me.
Also, he suggested that we call it a “meal plan” and an “experiment” rather than a “diet”. Now, I’ve already talked about the way that it can be harmful to rebrand something as a way to trick your own brain—it’s something that I completely advise against. But that’s not exactly what was happening here. It was good for me to have an alternative so that I just never had to say the word “diet”. It kept that word out of my mouth and it kept me from worrying about explaining it to other people. I didn’t want anyone to think that I was doing this for weight loss because history shows me that someone thinking I’m trying to lose weight adds a weird little dynamic. I didn’t want anyone to think that they were invited to comment on my body. And when people think I’m trying to lose weight, they generally love to comment on my body and tell me how good I finally look even though literally nothing has changed.
We also completely removed “good” and “bad” in regards to food. If there was a food that we weren’t eating during these 30 days, it’s not because it’s a bad food. Soon, we could have it. We’re just not eating it right now. Saying over and over again, “bell peppers aren’t bad, they’ll just disrupt the experiment” made it a lot easier to also say, “ice cream isn’t bad, it’ll just disrupt the experiment.” This is a life-changing habit that I’ve continued implementing into my life even now that we’re several months past our AIP experiment.
Now that I’ve discovered which foods affect me in different ways, you won’t catch me saying “I don’t eat ___ because it’s unhealthy.” I’ll say, “I am not eating that because it will cause an HS flare-up in me” or “if I eat that right now, it might make me feel sluggish for the rest of the day so I’m going to make a different choice.”
I know people are not going to like what I’m about to say here but I’m going to say it anyway: There’s no such thing as good food or bad food. There’s just food.
Eliminating the moral judgment that’s been placed on food has been revolutionary for me and has opened the door to Intuitive Eating, which has been so calming to my anxious, battered soul. What’s healthy for one person might be exactly what harms another person. “Healthy” is a relative term. It’s currently, broadly accepted that leafy greens are foundational for a healthy diet. But hey, for someone who has certain digestive issues, a kale salad could land them in the hospital. To that person, leafy greens is a very unhealthy choice. Everybody—every body, is different. I’m very weary of anyone who speaks in universals—especially when it comes to health* advice. Universal health advice has kept me confused, ashamed, disappointed, and feeling stupid for the better part of three decades. But that’s over, now. No one knows me more than me.
So, that was a bit of a tangent but I needed to say make sure those things were covered.
*A reminder: Concern trolls like to spend a lot of time talking about how you can do whatever you want as long as you’re healthy. “I just want you to be healthy!” they say to me in comment sections. But whether I’m healthy or not isn’t up for discussion. I don’t owe anyone my health. There’s a lot of people walking around here who aren’t healthy! And they’re valid and important and deserving of love and rights and to not be preached at just as much as everyone else.
What did you discover?
Anyway, so after thirty days on the AIP Experiment, we started slowly introducing new foods back into rotation (I do not mean to breeze on past like those 30 days were easy because it most certainly was not fucking easy and the only reason that I refused to let myself “cheat”—for lack of a better word, was because I didn’t want to throw off the results of the experiment and then have to do it all over again). As we re-introduced new foods, I kept a very detailed journal about how different parts of my body felt after I ate different foods. This was another slippery-slope point where it felt very reminiscent of food-journaling and calorie counting but I was able to keep the experiment aspect at the front of my mind and never let myself moralize the food that I was taking in.
I’m not going to give you a rundown of the whole AIP stuff, you can research that on your own and see what might work best for you. I will say, though, that one part of the Autoimmune Protocol was to remove certain vegetables that confused me. On a very basic level, potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes (at least these were the most common nightshades that I usually eat). For me, this was the hardest part. I can do ok without the obvious things like sugar and grains and dairy and beans (I mostly hate beans)… but you know what’s in almost all the best spice blends? Peppers and chilies and stuff like that. Even black pepper wasn’t allowed (depending on who you asked—so after a week we brought it back)!
It was difficult for me to do without tomatoes and bell peppers. I love red bell peppers so much. And spaghetti sauce is one of my most favorite foods. Potatoes? What’s wrong with potatoes? They are a staple in a frugal kitchen and our kitchen is frugal AF! So, while I kind of didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to eat potatoes, I followed the rules anyway and trusted the process.
Okay, so after 30 days of elimination, my body was feeling mostly pretty good. I’m not going to pretend that this cured every complaint I ever had like most people do. But it did do what I was looking for. Not only had my HS completely cleared up but my stomach had stopped hurting. Do you remember me telling you that my stomach was hurting before? Oh yeah, I didn’t mention it because it had been hurting so bad and for so long that I mostly didn’t even notice it. It was my normal. I had been feeling so crummy for so long that I had grown quite accustomed to it. During the 30 days, I did have very regular headaches, though, so it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Anyway, I’m feeling pretty good in my body at this point. But my mental, emotional, spiritual health was… not in an excellent place. Let me tell you. So we were psyched to start introducing new foods.
Ryan went out and got French fries. Why French fries? Because we were craving them! The experts will probably not tell you to start your reintroduction phase with French fries but my brain was not in a place where it was able to make sound decisions. And because how bad can a potato affect me? IT’S JUST POTATOES! I ate a small order of fries and we waited… An hour later I was doubled over in agony and the next day my inner thighs were riddled with new sores—making it difficult to walk or get dressed.
I share this because it’s so fascinating to me. I didn’t realize how quickly my body would speak to me. And I didn’t realize how easily I could understand what it was telling me if I just listened to it. Every single time I have eaten potatoes in any form (hashbrowns, fries, chips, roasted, mashed, whatever) I wake up with a very painful HS flare-up (they don’t always give me stomach cramps, though. I think that was just having not eaten fried food in so long). Potatoes seem so innocuous! But turns out, not to me they aren’t!
Other foods that have proven to have varying uncomfortable effects on my body: eggs, kale, spinach, corn, tomatoes (especially if they’re cooked).
Does that mean that I never eat these foods? Nope. I let myself eat anything that I want to. It’s July in Kansas and if you think I’m not going to eat tomato sandwiches you’ve got another thing coming, buddy. Now, when the tomatoes aren’t that good anymore it’ll be a lot easier to say no to them. And I will. But homegrown tomatoes in the summertime are one of life’s greatest treasures. They’re only here for a little while and while they’re here, I’ll enjoy the hell out of them and accept that they’re going to cause some discomfort in my body.
It’s easier for me to say no to potatoes and eggs because even though I love them both, the way they affect my body are much more painful and, to me, it’s not worth it. Let me tell you—breakfast has lost a lot of its luster for me. It used to be my favorite meal but now that I know why I’ve never felt great after going out for breakfast, it’s hard for me to get excited about it anymore.
This is the way that these foods affect my body and only my body. Potatoes, eggs, spinach, kale, corn, and tomatoes aren’t bad foods at all. Are they? For many, they’re the cornerstone of a healthy diet. But not for me.
Well, I learned a lot about myself. Not only did I learn that it’s possible to feel better than I’d been feeling but there’s a way to address the problems without any guilt or shame attached to it. Before, I had a theoretical understanding of what foods you should eat and what foods you shouldn’t eat but I didn’t really know how they were affecting me. Now, though, I feel so much more in tune with and in control of my body.
I also learned that I’m capable of so much. I walked along a sharp ledge that could have taken me into dangerous territory but through preparation and self-trust, I was able to stay safe and that was an accomplishment that I feel so proud of.
I feel like I wrote a lot but I’m sure there are still lots of questions, so if you have any email me: libby (at) xoxolib (dot) com. And I’ll see if I can answer them for you. Maybe we’ll do a Q&A on an Instagram Live if we get enough questions. Let me know if you’re interested in learning about some of my favorite recipes while on the AIP or what some of my favorite meals are currently and I’ll happily make a post about that.
Anyway, go out there and take care of yourself in ways that feel good to you. Don’t push yourself too far too quickly, listen to your intuition and above all else, trust yourself. You’re trustworthy.
Here are some resources that I found helpful on this journey:
-As I was working on this piece, they released an article entitled Does AIP Cause Eating Disorders which I found important to share with you if that’s something that you’re mindful of like I am.
Be Nourished is a great resource that I lean on any time I’m struggling with body trust or need a little encouragement or information related to food.
-This blog post on Body Trust was insightful to me.