06 May 2011

The Specific Carbohydrate Diet and Me

About a year and a half ago, upon being invited to our house for Thanksgiving dinner, a friend told me that she was on a very restrictive diet for medical reasons.  I didn't ask too many questions (people who care to share medical information usually do so without much prompting, and those who don't are usually happy for the privacy), and she sent me her allowable food list with the hope that there might be a few things she could eat, and the reassurance that it wouldn't be a big deal if she wouldn't be able to eat much- holidays are about family and friends, after all!

Based on that food list guidance, I changed my turkey brine to a honey based solution instead of sugar, and we had roasted butternut squash instead of sweet potatoes.  With the garlic green beans and warm spinach salad, I was quite pleased that there would be more interesting options next to the mashed potatoes and dinner rolls.  I consider fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and unprocessed meats the most nutritious part of a diet; the SCD food list seemed to set apart the most nourishing foods of our diet.  Queue the Friends clip [3:10] of guest star Brad Pitt:  "Two greatest enemies, Ross - Rachel Green and complex carbohydrates." 

Checking the food list so often in preparation for this meal, I learned that the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) was introduced in Elaine Gottschall's book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle.  From what I read, the diet was indicated for serious digestive problems like [links may have graphic images of intestinal diseases] Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis.  The book (that I hadn't yet read) detailed how the organisms that live in our digestive track (google 'gut flora' for more details) react to the different types of food we eat.  Apart from adding an interesting component to the holiday meal, I really didn't think much about the SCD at that time.

The following summer, while visiting my family, my sister mentioned her diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  When I researched the syndrome, most of the symptoms sounded strangely familiar.  The more I read, the more I realized that I have had these symptoms most of my life, without knowing that the symptoms were anything different than 'normal human digestion'.  Everything would seem perfectly fine for a week or a month, and then I'd have issues for a day or a month.  When you live with a condition for 15 years, how do you know what is normal and what isn't?

I read enough to discover that some people consider 'IBS' to be a blanket 'diagnosis' for general gastrointestinal disorders that didn't fall into any other category.  Considering one definition of diagnosis is "the identification of the nature and cause of anything", I agree that IBS does not seem like a diagnosis so much as an admission that we aren't really sure what is going on.  Since the causes of IBS are not understood, treatments seem to vary as much as the people who are trying to live with disordered digestion, which include diet, medication, and alternative medicines.  Considering there are many trillions of bacterial cells that live in our gut (10 times as many bacterial cells as our own human cells, according to wikipedia because all of the reliable, primary sources cost money to access), it will be a long time before there is a clear cut answer to why a friend and I can eat the exact same lunch and she will will go about her day while I will spend the rest of it in the bathroom.  This is where I get frustrated.

As the months passed, I read more about IBS and SCD, and at the time it didn't seem worth the effort cook every single meal at home from original sources (with one and two year olds under foot!) because many canned/packaged foods contain ingredients that aren't listed, and it is all perfectly legal [section].  Then I got to December 2010.  It seemed like even the 'normal' phase of my digestion included some discomfort, and nearly every weekend in December and January left me rushing to the bathroom all weekend.  By February 2011, I finally decided that the effort of trying SCD for one month was worth the possibility of symptom relief.

As an aside, I have never been diagnosed by a medical professional for any digestive issues.  While I had a doctor I trusted in Albuquerque, we hadn't found a family physician in Boulder, our new home.  As mentioned above, I consider SCD a nutrient dense diet, and the research indicated that it only takes a month to find out whether your symptoms improve.  It only took me 2 weeks to realize my life was changing.  Not just my belly, but my whole life.

I have always been an easily tired, low-energy person.  I was spending progressively more time in the bathroom, and at other times, I was uncomfortably bloated or painfully gassy.  There were times when I was with my boys in body, but mentally focusing on how bad I felt.  There were many days that I struggled to get the energy and motivation just to make sure we were all fed and the boys diapered and napping.  I day in pajamas is fine, if by choice, but never getting any of us dressed because I was just too tired many days?  That was not how I wanted to raise my family.

Now, 3 months into this experiment, I have energy like never before.  I have to spend more time planning meals, reading labels, and cooking.  However, I have the energy to follow through with the meal plan, keep some semblance of order in our home, and still play with my lovely boys.  We spend more money on groceries, but there are only two places in town where we can eat out, so we've saved a bunch of money on restaurants and take out.  Also, as my husband and I spend more time in the kitchen, our boys are far more interested in how our food is cooked and what they can do to help.  At the end of the day, I have achieved more than bare minimum, and I often have more energy left to even get ahead on some things.  I wasn't able to do that when I was single with no kids!

What does this have to do with parenting, willful or otherwise?  I find energy is the key to thoughtful parenting.  I didn't always have patience for the under-5 crowd when all I wanted to do was sleep.  With more energy, I have more patience, and modeling patience and thoughtfulness are a key part of my idealized goals as a mother.  I am not ready to head out and train for a marathon, but I now know that if it were a goal of mine, it would be achievable.  What once seemed like something that was just a lot of extra work has turned out to be an enlightening, energizing journey.

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