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The powerful lesson I learned about food while I couldn't eat it

Jenna Birch is a health and lifestyle writer, lipstick enthusiast, aspiring yogi and diehard Wolverine based near Ann Arbor, MI. For more information, visit jennabirch.com or follow her on twitter @jennabirch.

Attaching emotion to food leaves us at risk for conditions like diabetes and obesity

"I'm... so sorry," the nurse said over the phone, prompting me to begin the grieving process.

Those words punctuated my test results: irritable bowel syndrome accompanied by fructose malabsorption. Fructose, the simple sugar found in nearly everything we eat, was the likely culprit behind the growing intensity of my problems — diarrhea and nausea every day, rapid weight loss and a looming feeling of desperation as my body rejected food after food. The answer? Give up anything that contains significant amounts of fructose or continue to feel miserable.

It was a food death sentence, especially for a chocoholic and dessert lover like me. "No dairy, no alcohol of any kind, no honey, no sugar alcohols like in gum, no onions or garlic even in powder forms. You should probably avoid gluten products, seriously limit your sugar...." The nurse's instructions went on.

This can't be serious, I thought. But it was. Truth was, it was getting very, very serious.

Food had been slowly destroying my livelihood. One year before, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an incurable chronic condition where my nerves misinterpret normal bodily sensations as signals for pain. Irritable bowel syndrome had been an extension of that, as my stomach was not immune to the problem. I dealt with the dizzying sharpness of stabbing aches each day, gut-wrenching in every sense of the word. I stayed tethered to my house, just feet from my bathroom. Getting out to the grocery store felt like a major accomplishment, because it rarely happened. I was scared to eat, fearing a new wave of pain. I was losing weight, all too rapidly. My doctor finally sent me for more tests, thinking something besides IBS might be in play. Fructose malabsorption — an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine when the gut digests sugar — was a new piece of the puzzle.

It cut deep. I'd lost most of my livelihood. Now, I was about to lose the joy of a giant bowl of ice cream and a slice of red velvet cake, too?

My dietician assured me it was short-term. I'd need to start an elimination diet, taking my eating down to the bare bones. When my system regulated, we'd slowly reincorporate foods, one by one, to figure out which my body could actually tolerate — but my body did not tolerate most of the safe foods. More blood tests, a colonoscopy and an MRI ruled out dangerous issues like cancer or autoimmune diseases. When the doctors said there was no easy fix, I decided the only person who could take my life back was me.

First off, I had to stop losing weight, learning to eat regardless of how food made me feel. Over a period of many months, I tried — and failed often — to figure out which foods wouldn't make me sick, compiling a list of the few that my body could actually digest. I conjured up a diet specific to me, created by the one person who could track my triggers best. My menu was simple: Coffee with soy milk when I woke up, oatmeal for breakfast, rice for lunch, egg white omelet with potatoes for dinner, cheerios before bed. And tolerable fruits and vegetables — like banana, avocado and cucumber — were added into the mix along with a multivitamin to make up for nutrient losses from lack of variety. I ate those foods every day for months.

It wasn’t a perfect process and sometimes I still got sick — fibromyalgia is funny like that. But, I got much better with time. Slowly, the pain in my stomach started to fade. I started leaving the house more. I started going out with friends again, shopping and driving into the city. I started feeling free from the hold food had on me.

It was hard in the beginning, seeing friends and family eat the things I used to love. My good friend is a pastry chef. Her decadent concoctions could occasionally cause a tug of wishful wanting. Walking next to the bakery at the grocery store stirred old memories of cinnamon rolls and pink-frosted, sprinkle-topped donuts. But most days it was OK, because I was OK. My body didn't yearn for foods quite like it had, because I adopted a new mentality: food is my fuel, not my life.

Many people struggle with eating, and not just those with chronic conditions. We attach so much emotion to food. Our lives are intertwined with it. Hard workweek? That slice of pie is well deserved. Friends coming in from out of town? Go out to dinner — eat a little too much pasta at the Italian place. We eat comfort foods to make ourselves feel better, sweet treats to reward ourselves and cheese-covered, sauced-up, calorie-laden indulgences to celebrate — and it can be dangerous thinking, contributing to deadly conditions like heart disease and diabetes and the rapid rise in obesity.

While my problem was different from the majority of people that will battle food in their lifetimes, it put the way we relate to food into perspective. If you struggle, you’re eventually faced with a choice: food or quality of life and longevity. I chose life.

Anyone can do the same. "Decreasing variety of foods can really help when it comes to weight loss," says physician nutrition specialist Melina Jampolis, M.D. "Eating the same foods can help you feel good too, as you’ll control blood sugar and hunger better throughout the day. This method can help with food addiction, eliminating trigger foods, which are generally high in sugar or fat, or both. You're taking some of the thought and emotion out of eating."

I eliminated emotion from my diet. There was no guesswork involved, no planning my next meal or thinking ahead to dessert. I knew what I was eating every day for every meal, which allowed me to live in the moment. Food was not my life anymore. It was fuel for my body to function at its peak — and science is beginning to back up this mentality. In a 2012 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers at the University of Buffalo found that eating the same foods can cause us to be less interested in our meals, which ultimately reduces calorie consumption. It unwinds the ties that bind us to food.

I channeled my emotion into things that truly have meaning and impact: playing with my 4-year-old nephew, going to a hockey game with my friends on a Friday night or working on the memoir I've been wanting to finish. As I did, I was able to start living again. I returned to myself — even before I got "officially" better, able to eat a wide range of food again with the correct medications. Even though I can eat anything, I eat fewer sweets and indulgences, because I don't need them. I know whole grains, vegetables and fruits will fuel me better. And I'd love for that message to resonate with anyone who has ever struggled with food.

My dad is one of those people. He's fought food for years and now finds himself fighting Type 2 diabetes, too. My eating problems echoed his, not because they're the same, but because the solution could be. "Maybe you have the right idea," my dad said one day when I was still sick. "Maybe that's the key: Seeing food as fuel, and that's it."

Fuel. Maybe emotionless, but spirit-powering, fuel.

Know this: The more you remove yourself from it emotionally, the easier it will become to realize its basic function over flashy fashion and the less you crave it. Soon, you'll just crave life.

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