You are here

Change Your Diet, Save Your Life

Please Don’t Let Chocolate Be a Trigger
By Luisa Colón

Several winters ago, I landed in sunny Southern California with a migraine so bad I had to lie in a darkened hotel room for the rest of the day. So much for hitting the pool. I started getting these headaches in my early 20s, and they plagued me for most of my adult life, forcing me to use up sick days, cancel plans with friends and (unfortunately) max out hotel time on vacation.

Sometimes the pain manifested as a dull, throbbing ache on one side of my face. Other times it intensified quickly, feeling like someone was hitting my skull with a sharp object. When a migraine struck, I couldn’t go outside or sit at my desk or even carry on a conversation. Instead I crawled into bed under a blanket until it finally subsided.

Prescription drugs worked at first, then became less effective. Even worse, meds caused headaches to increase in frequency (known as rebound headaches) and pain. I was trapped in a cycle.

After a drug-resistant migraine that lasted three days forced me to crash my doctor’s office without an appointment, begging for relief, I decided I was done with conventional fixes. Online research led me to a highly rated book called Heal Your Headache by David Buchholz, MD. I stopped taking pain meds, and I learned that some people are believed to have lower trigger levels or “thresholds” for migraines. Some potential triggers, like weather changes, aren’t within my control. Dietary ones are—and they go way beyond the oft-repeated warnings I’d heard about red wine and coffee.

Please don’t let chocolate be a trigger for me, I remember thinking as I went down the list in the book. Ironically, I started that chapter on a lunch break while munching on a ham sandwich, only to find that sliced ham and other deli meats can contain a naturally occurring chemical called tyramine. A major player in sparking migraines, it’s present in coffee and aged cheeses, but also some unexpected foods like raw onions, fresh baked goods and, unfortunately, chocolate. I decided to follow the plan in the book and eliminate all problematic items for two months. Then, since everyone has different reactions, I could reintroduce some foods and see how I fared.

It turned out that by cutting out specific foods (including those with tyramine and some other no-nos like MSG), I was able to lower my levels. And keeping those levels down meant that now and then I could enjoy an indulgence.

These days, I only get headaches several times a year—and they’re not the vacation-ruining kind. Plus, being able to eat that chocolate they leave on your hotel pillow makes my victory extra sweet.

A Spoonful of . . . Cinnamon
By Michele Wojciechowski

This couldn’t be happening—not to me. Except it was. My triglycerides were high, really high. The red number 300 glared at me from my lab results. Highs tend to run in my family—high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high triglycerides. I had escaped the first two. The third one, though, was a problem I needed to fix. Triglycerides, my doctor explained, are the amount of fat in the blood. When they’re elevated (150 or higher) and stay that way, they can cause heart disease. That runs in my family too.

I intend to live a long, happy life and die a millionaire’s death: at a ripe old age, in my sleep, while snuggled under my favorite soft blanket. Learning I had high triglycerides was messing with my plan.

One option was to take medicine to lower them, and while I’m not drug-phobic, I didn’t want to simply pop a pill as the solution. My doc told me that if I lost 5 or 10 pounds, the numbers would probably go down. But I wanted to do more.

Improving my diet and exercising were key to lowering my triglycerides, keeping my LDL low and raising my HDL. So I added omega-3 fatty acids, eggs and supplements to my menu. Because cinnamon could also help, breakfast was often organic cinnamon cereal with a heaping spoonful of cinnamon on top. For lunch, I alternated tuna and spinach salads, both of which are faves.

When my husband came home to me spooning a delicate apricot sauce over some fish, he was stunned: “Is that salmon? You hate salmon.” Well, it turns out that I do like it with apricot sauce and herbed rice. We even tried a kale, sweet potato and chicken stew. Sounded gross, tasted great.

Alcohol intake, sugar consumption and overdoing it with carbs have a big impact on triglycerides, but my diet was good in those areas. I did, however, need to sweat a lot more. I wasn’t thrilled, but I hit the gym to lift weights, walk on the treadmill and use the rowing machine. In between complaints, I lost weight, felt stronger and became flexible enough to touch my toes.

Three months after my lifestyle makeover, I returned to my MD. As she printed out my lab work, my heart raced. She circled a number, then smiled. “You did it!” she said. I’d cut my triglycerides in half. I laughed and high-fived my doc. “Keep up the good work!” she added. That was three years ago, and my numbers have continued to get better and better. They say history often repeats itself. But I made sure that my family medical history didn’t—in the most delightful way.

I Miss Pizza the Most
By Wendy Wisner

Whenever I take my boys out for pizza, I watch them eat, the sauce and cheese dripping from the corners of their mouths. Oh, just one bite, I think. That can’t hurt. Then I remember the shooting pains in my gut, comparable only to childbirth. And the urgent trips to the bathroom, terrified I wouldn’t make it in time.

For years I suffered from a “sensitive tummy”—but sensitive doesn’t even begin to describe it. My symptoms included intense pain, extreme bloating (imagine looking four months pregnant every time you eat), and loose stools that alternated with constipation. Following the birth of my first son, things became remarkably worse, especially the diarrhea. Once, when he was 3, I had to stop the car on the way to a playdate, frantically strap him into a stroller and zoom through Macy’s at lightning speed, searching for a bathroom. I almost didn’t make it. Afterward, I sat on the store steps, head in hands, weeping. That was the moment when I finally decided to get help.

A series of tests enabled my doctors to diagnose me with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic condition of the large intestine. They suggested dietary and lifestyle changes like meditation, hypnosis and going gluten- and dairy-free. Nothing worked. So I struck out on my own.

One day while surfing the web, I came across the low-FODMAP diet, a nutrition plan developed by researchers in Australia that claims to help 75% of IBS sufferers. FODMAP refers to a group of carbohydrates (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) that are poorly absorbed by people who have IBS. These carbohydrates can be found in staples like onions, garlic, apples, milk, yogurt and wheat—all of which were favorite foods of mine!

The list of off-limits foods was intimidating. But the list of okay-to-eat foods (like salmon, blueberries, hard cheeses and more) was pretty long. Plus I was willing to do anything, so I started a two-week trial.

At first I desperately mourned the foods that had long been a part of my diet. How was I going to enjoy a stir-fry without onions? What was I going to eat for breakfast when yogurt had been my go-to for almost a decade? Luckily, there were some decent (and delicious) alternatives. I could consume the oil that onions and garlic were sautéed in as long as I removed them first. Avocado and eggs were my favorite substitutes for the rich, creamy dairy products that were no-nos.

Within two weeks, my symptoms were gone. I almost wept the first time I ate a large dinner and didn’t feel like my jeans were about to pop open.

I’ve been following the diet for five years now and enjoy a mostly symptom-free life. I don’t have to completely eliminate all trigger foods: The diet is dose dependent, so as long as I keep FODMAPs at a low level, I’m good to go.

But pizza—with that warm wheat crust, onion- and garlic-laden sauce and drippy hot cheese—remains a forbidden food. So I live vicariously through my children. Some pleasures in life just aren’t worth the pain.

My Love Affair with Cauliflower
By Stacy Finz

My refrigerator and pantry resemble the aisles of a health food store—produce, whole grains, legumes—all foods I used to turn up my nose at. Not anymore. I’ve embraced cauliflower rice and crispy kale and ditched pasta and chips.

I didn’t have a choice. In August my doctor diagnosed me with type 2 diabetes. It was either change my diet or watch my blood glucose levels continue to spike and risk cardiovascular disease, kidney damage and even blindness. The specter of those (and having to give myself daily shots) provided more incentive than watching the scale tip ever did.

My doctor said we could try going drug-free for three months and see whether changing my eating habits—my entire lifestyle­—would bring down my A1C blood glucose. I could definitely do that, I thought, relieved. But my A1C level was 7.9% and I needed to get it under 5.7%. That meant a lot of the foods I’d been living on were forbidden—bread, baked goods, chocolate.

Instead of sulking (actually, I did a good amount of that), I went to diabetes school. In four 3-hour courses conducted by diabetes specialists and dietitians, I learned how to navigate the disease. A short-term diet wasn’t going to fix this. Everything from how I ordered in a restaurant and what I ate at office parties to my habit of skipping meals and neglecting to exercise would have to be overhauled—forever. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I already had half a century of bad habits.

My first lesson was adhering to my doctor’s prescribed 90-gram-per-day carb quota. Not easy. The average slice of pizza, a favorite food, has 36 grams of carbs. Bagels, french fries, fettuccine—forget about it. I needed to completely rethink my plate. Instead of loading it with starchy foods, I now fill it halfway with veggies, a quarter protein and a quarter carbs.

I graze throughout the day as opposed to consuming most of my calories at dinner, and I quit skipping meals, which can wreak havoc on a diabetic’s blood sugar levels. As annoying as it is, I wear one of those watches that tells me to get up and move every hour or so. I’m walking my neighborhood track and working out twice a week with a personal trainer.

Truthfully, some days are overwhelming and, well, I miss eating cake. But the changes have paid off. In just three months, my A1C dropped to 6.8% and I lost 15 pounds.

I still have a ways to go, but my doctor has been pleased enough with the results that I’m still drug-free. Eventually, I’d like to completely reverse the disease. In the meantime, I’m learning to cook amazing things with veggies. I make a mean no-carb pepperoni pizza cauliflower casserole. Seriously—you can find it on the Internet.

Goodbye Wine, Hello Waistline
By Emily Rogan

I have a pair of black wool pants that I love. They’re lined and perfectly tailored, with a little flare at the bottom. I’d always felt great wearing them—except that last winter they no longer fit. In fact, on most of my clothing, zippers had stopped zipping and buttons wouldn’t button. A visit to my closet often ended in tears.

I’d heard women say that after-50 weight gain was inevitable, but I assumed it wouldn’t be a problem for me. I exercised frequently and hard; six of seven days I ran, lifted weights, did TRX, yoga and Pilates. It didn’t occur to me that simply exercising a lot would no longer be enough.

The day of reckoning came at my annual exam, when I found out I’d gained 6 pounds. I know—6 pounds isn’t a lot. But on my 5'3" frame, it made a difference. Not terribly concerned, my doctor said that gaining 6 pounds every year wouldn’t be good. No kidding.

At summer’s end I decided to make some immediate changes. Since there were no obvious culprits—I don’t drink soda or eat fast food or junky snacks—I decided to participate in #SoberSeptember. (Yes, it’s a thing. Google it.) No more crisp Sauvignon Blanc before dinner or perfect Pinot Noir with pasta. Bye-bye, rosé.

It was hard at first not to open a bottle while cooking. But I noticed that without a glass of wine in hand, I was less likely to nosh. Instead, I sipped regularly from a glass of lemon water I kept on the counter. Because my resistance wasn’t weakened by wine, I felt more empowered to say “No thanks” when someone went on a Ben & Jerry’s run after Sunday dinner.

That same month I switched from skim milk and non-fat plain yogurt to 2% (I couldn’t stomach full-fat) since I’d read that whole-fat dairy might help me slim down. I ate avocados daily—they’re full of  “good” fat that boosts energy and keeps hunger at bay—and forced myself to drink a lot of water.

I typically eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins and very little processed food, so I was looking for any opportunity to make even the smallest change. In the process I became more conscious of what I chose to eat, when, how much and why. It turned out my diet wasn’t as clean as I’d thought. I was having a cookie here, some chips there, without thinking about the cumulative effects or whether I was even hungry. I work at home and was taking full advantage of my proximity to the kitchen.

After two weeks I stepped on the scale and was frustrated to see it hadn’t budged more than half a pound; I’d imagined I would drop 5 pounds right away. But I did notice my belly was flatter, and without the wine I slept better and woke up refreshed, not sluggish. My mood improved. Energized, I pushed a bit more at the gym.

It’s been four months since I went wine-free and I’ve lost a few more pounds. I have an occasional glass now, but it’s less and only on weekends. When I’m craving a snack, I tuck into a bowl of yogurt with walnuts, pomegranate and a tiny drizzle of honey. I treat myself to a piece of dark chocolate now and then. My goal is moderation without deprivation—and to have my black pants fit comfortably again. (I can zip and button them but that’s about it.) Still, if
I have to settle for just the energy boost I’ve gotten, that’s a perfect fit too.

Experts Weigh In

“Depriving yourself will only last so long. Cut portions to feel like you’re included in the party, without the guilt or hangover the next day.” —Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It

“Diet is a powerful first-line therapy for lowering triglycerides, and often changes can happen quickly.” —Kathie Swift, RDN, education director of the Food As Medicine professional training program