Nutrition and diet can be a minefield and having said that this post is purely based on my experiences with diet and food groups.
You only have to turn on the TV to know this. One minute we should be drinking a glass of red wine a day, the next we are drinking too much? Coffee is good for you, then it is bad for you. Five fruit and veg a day or ten? Atkins diet or 5:2? To try and make sense of the world of nutrition is a full time job (literally for some).
It is a world I am trying to navigate. Since my diagnosis with Rheumatoid Arthritis I have taken a particular interest in food and nutrition. Well that isn’t strictly true, initially I just wanted to take whatever medication was prescribed; a quick fix? yes please! But more recently I have taken my diet more seriously, looking to treat the cause of my RA rather than simply the symptoms.
My ultimate goal is to treat my RA through diet, but I am a way off that at the moment, I’m not quite ready to turn my back on my medication.
Initially I dipped my toe into the world of autoimmune diseases (particularly RA) and diet by taking an interest and reading into inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods. I researched these and started to incorporate foods and cut food from my diet accordingly. Today I am diary free (an inflammatory food for me) and aim to have turmeric everyday, as there is so much evidence of this being an anti-inflammatory that I can’t ignore it.
However, the research around diet and the impact of diet on Rheumatoid Arthritis is varied. Some people claim to have been able to manage their condition completely through diet and others report no impact. For me it is a personal journey and everyone’s experience is different.
I believe that the modern diet has an impact on overall well-being, with more and more foods being treated with chemicals and additives and people choosing convenience over nutritional content as the demands of work and everyday life take precedent over our well being. I get it, I fell into this camp throughout most of my 20’s and when time is a scarce resource it is easy to understand why we reach for the take outs, the microwave meals and energy drinks. I turned my back on this diet, admittedly out of necessity rather than anything else. When you become ill with a chronic illness you are forced to re-evaluate your lifestyle, health hangs in the balance and is something to be nurtured rather than take for granted. So it was time for a diet overhaul.
When I say overhaul, that sounds like I changed my diet overnight, which certainly isn’t the case. I would say I more dipped my toe into the world of diet and nutrition. I read about different diets, diary free, gluten free and the Mediterranean diet to name a few (you should see my bookcase) but nothing really stuck. I expected instant tangible results so as with many diets , to treat illness or otherwise they never lasted, any sort of ‘diet’ is particularly hard during a flare.
For those of you that live with chronic illness or have read my last post ‘Spoon theory’ you will know that energy, or the lack of it is a battle on a day to day basis and particularly during a flare.
Most people will be able to relate to the fact that when you experience low energy your instinct is to reach for those carbohydrates, sweet treats and caffeine as saviours. It is exactly the same for those experiencing low energy as a result of RA. With RA however you often get fatigue during a flare up and when you are least physically active, for me any kind of strict diet during these times was near enough impossible.
Ironically at a time when your body is most in need of nutrition and a bit of TLC (during a flare) is the exact same time that you want convenience and quick energy hits. These foods often have low nutritional content and in some cases (dependent on the individual) can actually fuel the flare.
After a number of years (yes it took years) I became dissatisfied with this vicious cycle of ‘dieting’ and crashing. During flares I would eat ‘junk food’, have energy spikes and crashes and repeat. You could say it was eat, sleep, flare, repeat. So, it was back to the dieting drawing board. I needed something more sustainable, something achievable, what I needed was a way of life.
I knew and still know that I can’t cut large food groups from my diet right now, for two reasons. 1. To make changes that stick these have to be incremental (for me at least) and 2. I haven’t done enough research to fully understand the impact of cutting out major foods ie meat.
For now the approach I take is to avoid processed foods 90% of the time and cook from scratch the majority of the time, more recently I have started to take a more keen interest in a plant-based diet in search of increased energy levels and overall well-being, but as mentioned earlier this is something I am still looking into. I eat plant-based 70% of the time.
One area I fully embrace is food prep. To manage my flares and satisfy my need for quick energy sources and to avoid me reaching for the chocolate and low nutritional foods is to always have some ‘go to’ emergency snacks prepped in the fridge or freezer. My favourite prep in advance snacks are energy balls (made from mainly dates, nuts, seeds and an energy powder such as cacao or maca) or plant based ‘cookies’ (below)
In addition to having some ready-made plant-based treats on hand, my top 5 food hacks for convenience and nutrition are:
1.Keep those cupboards and fridges full – Going shopping when hungry or at the last minute makes those low nutrient convenience foods all the more tempting. Have key foods stocked. I keep a variety of fruit and veg in my fridge/freezer all the time, these foods take no prep – they can be eaten raw (and are actually better for you raw), if that isn’t convenient then what is?
2. Smoothies – If you’re struggling to get your 5, 8 or 10 a day (whatever number you work towards) then hit the smoothies. I prep in advance, normally at weekends when I have more time. I will chop and prepare my fruit and veggies (to keep down the sugar content I work to the 80:20 rule, 80% veg and 20% fruit), divide them into portions, pop in freezer bags and stick in the freezer until needed. Add a bit of water or plant-based milk and blend.
3. Make small changes – You don’t have to change everything at once, set yourself small achievable goals, dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate is an easy swap. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants and therefore may help with oxidative stress (source ‘The Autoimmune Fix’ by Tom O’Bryan).
4. Reusable water bottles – Keep hydrated! Most people know the importance of hydration but many of us do not drink enough. I used to be terrible at getting my daily water quota, whether that was because I was out and about, running between meetings or I was just too lazy to keep getting up to fill my glass. I bought a reusable water bottle and now keep it in my handbag or on my desk and that small change has really helped me stay hydrated. Adequate hydration is a quick win for increased energy and improved focus.
5. Overnight oats – For years I started my day with a flat white and almond croissant picked up on my way into the office. Although convenient, I found that an hour or so later I was hungry and following the initial increase in energy I was pretty sluggish by mid morning, leaving me reaching for the next caffeine hit. Breaking the fast of the night before is important to get the metabolism going and restarting your engine for the day ahead. If you are pushed for time in the morning overnight oats are a great solution. I prep these twice a week; Sunday night to last me until Wednesday and then on Wednesday night to last me until Friday. Add fruits, seeds and a spice such as cinnamon to help regulate blood sugars, which will help you avoid those sugar spikes!
I would be interested to hear from you on what your top food hacks are?
I am currently taking a holistic nutrition course to help me better understand nutrition, vegetarian and vegan nutrition and nutrition in the treatment of illness so I hope to be able to update my blog with helpful recipes and tips in the future.