By Nazeefa Ahmed, November 27 2023—
Trigger warning: Eating disorders
I was twelve years old when I first felt funny after having milk and cereal for breakfast. The feeling was just mild discomfort in the beginning, but then slowly transitioned to an ever-so-present cramp in my abdomen that wouldn’t go away. I chalked it up to a stomach bug the first few times, but the cycle of pain continued until I stopped having milk for breakfast, instead, choking down dry cereal with water and wondering why my body refused to cooperate with “normal” food.
As the years went on, certain food groups became impossible for me to consume. Bread and pastries gave me a stomach ache, ice cream was completely out of the picture and iced coffee was just a disaster waiting to happen. I hopped from family doctor to specialist, performing test after test without finding a clear cause for my digestive issues. When I turned 16, a pediatrician finally diagnosed me with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), suggesting that I avoid highly processed foods, as well as dairy, yeast products, and certain fruits and vegetables. Though my doctor had simply labelled my symptoms with a scientific term, the IBS diagnosis tumbled into a toxic relationship with food and disordered eating behaviours.
At first, I refused to give IBS any thought or importance. I continued eating harmful foods as my mental and physical health plummeted to its lowest — irritability and depression became a daily experience. I wrote exams in high school delirious and weak, still refusing to listen to my body’s needs. Years of abuse through improper diet led to a positive feedback loop of self-destructive behaviour that only exacerbated my sensitivities further.
It was when I was at my lowest, I finally accepted that my health would not change for the better until I took active steps to face IBS head-on. However, my methods for healing led to malnutrition and disordered eating patterns. Instead of eating carbs for breakfast, I skipped morning meals altogether, only eating when I was dizzy with hunger. At the time, I believed that in order to treat my condition, I needed to fear food — anything and everything could trigger a reaction. I read nutrition labels obsessively, looking for excuses not to eat. After a few days of restraint, however, I would crack under the pressure and give into my cravings, feeling intense shame and guilt for doing so.
I am twenty now, balancing IBS, allergies, lactose intolerance and gluten sensitivity with the intense desire to eat everything I shouldn’t. As the sensitivities grow, I struggle to silence the day-to-day frustrations of denying myself the foods I love. But I am slowly starting to achieve some form of balance. While acknowledging the fear and shame I feel around food, I am educating myself on how sensitivities develop from exposure to processed food, pollutants as well and pesticides that are used on our produce. I learned about a variety of sustainable, healthy diets and how people have recovered from IBS through merging diet with naturopathic treatment. Dietary health became something to learn about rather than something to fear — it became a prospective career and passion.
Part of my extreme behaviour in the past came from the conflicting information I received from medical professionals, government health websites, the mainstream media and people’s unsolicited advice. Modern medicine and the government told me to follow the food pyramid even though my body rejected half of the food groups. The mainstream media and advertisements promoted excessive consumption through marketing tactics aimed at making a profit rather than customer health and well-being. Some people in my surroundings didn’t really understand why I was so picky with my food, treating my selectivity as something nonsensical — little did they know how one wrong move could send me spiralling again.
Many struggling with IBS ignore it despite the mental and physical repercussions they face. Highly processed and harmful food is accessible, and it takes willpower to resist the myriad of cakes and pastries at social gatherings or a cheesy pizza after a long day. Many may not be able to afford healthy foods because of social determinants and financial barriers, eating whatever the food bank provides. Our individual relationship with food is incredibly complex already, and digestive disorders have the ability to consume our lives if we are not consciously aware of our sometimes debilitating internal monologue.
IBS is more than just a syndrome — it is a lifelong commitment to juggling food and our emotional relationship with it. IBS is managing societal expectations of what dietary consumption should look like with what our body desires and is capable of handling. To those freshly diagnosed or years into living with IBS: don’t be so hard on yourself. Prioritize what your body is telling you over what the world believes how your body should behave — seek help from people, watch educational videos and honour the promises you make to yourself. Living with IBS only gets easier after accepting your diagnosis and yourself to work through the hurdles without judgement.
This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.