Looking beyond calories in vs. calories out

We are often quick to criticize the diets of others, and the habits we find foreign. It’s easy to scoff at a vegan for their ‘silly’ ways when you’re a meat lover, it's easy to shun the idea of gluten free when you love a hearty bowl of pasta, or a dairy free diet when you can’t go a day without your milk and yoghurt.

What on earth do these people eat?! Sometimes it’s impossible to fathom what a healthy diet might look like for someone with dietary restrictions. Whether they be self-imposed or out of necessity, it’s important we realize the diversity and the ability for food to nourish us whilst sticking to a meal plan that may seem strange to others.

I’m talking about the diets that have been around for years; Vegan, Vegetarian, Carnivore (or ‘normal’ as some people would say), and lacto-ovo vegetarian (consumes dairy and eggs). In addition to the more recently used Flexitarian, Raw, Low FODMAP, gluten and dairy free, as well as Paleo and Primal. Fad diets in this article don't get a mention.

All these diets are either chosen for us (genetics, disease, illness) or we have chosen to follow them for a number of reasons (ethics, religion, improved health, ‘diet du jour’ trends). What we may not consider, regardless of what we believe, and consume, is how to ensure we are giving our bodies what it needs. Simplifying food to calories, or macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) is simply not enough.

Have you been on a diet recently and felt really tired? Got really hungry? Got cranky? Movements in the bathroom really slowed down? Bad breath? Increased gas? All of these are signs of an unhappy digestive system and an unbalanced diet that isn’t totally agreeing with your body. You’ve heard it before, but what one person eats for good health, doesn’t mean it will be ‘healthy’ for you.

Natural foods contain macronutrients, micronutrients (vitamins & minerals), fibre, antioxidants, water, electrolytes, naturally occurring chemicals, acids, sugars and starches just to skim the surface.

What this means is that some of us can tolerate some foods better than others. For example, your friend’s favourite food might be a margherita pizza, and they could happily eat the whole thing (I don’t recommend this). Whereas you may have one or two slices and shortly after look 4 months pregnant, be curled up in pain, and wanting to crawl into bed with bloating, gas and an uncomfortable stomach. Alternatively, it’s summer and you have a big bowl of gorgeous looking fruit salad to share with your friends. There’s mango, watermelon, apples etc. That’s healthy right? Not for some. For those with a tummy sensitive to fructose, this is a big bowl of pain and bloating waiting to happen.

My point is, is that when embarking on a new diet, or assessing the diet you’ve always had, its important to recognize that your body is unique, and that food is much more complex than it seems. I don’t expect you to want to know everything about food, it may not be your interest. But if you have symptoms that don’t seem quite right, or you don’t quite feel your usual vibrant self, then you need to consider if your diet is actually right for you. Eating the ‘right’ foods is the first step. Ensuring adequate digestion of the nutrients from that food is the key to improved health, a happy tummy, better complexion, improved cognition and a leaner body. How do you do this? By eating the foods that agree with you. The timing and type of symptoms you may have, guide dietitian's (versed in the area of food intolerances) to pinpoint what you should avoid or limit, for your own optimal health. 

Things to look out for:

- Acid reflux

- Bloating, abdominal distention/discomfort after meals

- Irritated skin

- Stomach pains

- Regular headaches

- Hives, ezcema, inflamed acne, skin conditions

- Excessive gas, foul smelling gas

- Constipation, diarrhoea, both

- Fatigue, lethargy

- Nausea, vomiting

- Weight gain, weight loss (without trying) 

- Brittle nails, poor wound healing

If you have any of these symptoms, it's likely some foods aren't agreeing with you and you may have a food intolerance.

If you have an immediate intense whole-body reaction to something you ate that includes: 

- Swollen lips, eyes, face, tongue

- itchy throat, tongue, mouth, eyes or skin

- lightheadedness, fainting

- difficulty breathing

Seek medical assistance immediately, and later have challenge testing for food allergies under the guidance of a qualified health care provider. You may have a food allergy. If mild, symptoms may be managed with anti-histamines and limiting your intake of the food. If the reaction is severe, and/or life-threatening, complete avoidance of the food, including cross contamination from other food through preparation utensils/plates and friends/family etc is necessary. 

So next time you question why on earth someone would give up certain foods or complain that it's a nuisance having them over for a meal, sideline the judgement. Remind yourself that it's not weird, strange or silly. It's made their lives a whole lot better. For some, it's saving their life. Who knows, perhaps dietary changes would improve your life too?