It is now one year since we went (cow) dairy free, almost a year since we removed gluten and six months since we took sugar and grains out of our diet. Sounds like a really fun year when you put it like that! And a lot of it hasn't been fun, its been bloody hard work. For every positive blogger telling us all about how marvellous it is to be feeding their family from scratch (and apparently being able to do it all organically for £5 a week - pah!) there are plenty of families still having daily battles with food and mum's tearing their hair out at the thought of making another nut loaf. In order to save our sanity we have had to rethink lots of things over the last year and this is what we have learnt (or have been told by our nutritionist!)
1. No diet is perfect. There is no one size fits all.
This was one of the hardest things for me to accept and if I am honest I still struggle with it. It would be fantastic if someone could hand you down a set of rules and if you followed them perfect family health would follow. When we started GAPS I was sure it would be the solution to all our ills. However it quickly became apparent that whilst my daughter thrived my son didn't. A bad nutritionist at this point will tell you that you just need to try harder. A good nutritionist will help you accept that different bodies have different needs (and at different times). Unfortunately no-one author or even any nutritionist can give you all the answers because sometimes it is just trial and error and if you are too rigid then maybe you will never be in tune with your body enough to listen to it telling you what it needs. This is a work in progress for us!
As a nutritionist pointed out, the way we eat today is a relatively new phenomenon - small family units all sharing the same meal. Not so long ago in evolutionary terms we would have existed in larger communal groups and large scale food preparation would have been the norm and that would have meant more variety of dishes. That would have naturally allowed people to choose which food they want depending on what they needed that day. I think it can be very tricky as a parent to judge whether or not you should make your child 'clean their plate' or let them choose what to eat. My rule of thumb is if they have never tried something and are being picky I am happy to use a bit of bribery or strong arming (not literally) to get them to try stuff. However if generally your children eat a good variety of foods but wont eat every broccoli stalk you give them or don't feel like much meat one day, maybe they know what their body needs
2. Your friends, family and kid's teachers may well think you are bonkers ...or worse, a food bore
When we started changing our diet I went round with the evangelical enthusiasm of a new jehovah witness telling anyone who would listen about the horrors of gluten and how large scale dairy production was the work of the devil. A couple of friends tried goats milk for a couple of weeks. My dad claimed he eats like us anyway (completely forgetting he likes to eat Frosties every morning). Some friends feigned disinterest but have on the quiet adopted some of our practises. Some 'friends' have stopped inviting my children over to play, either because they panic about what to give them if they need a snack or don't want to say no to their own child if they ask for something that's contraband to us. Other friends have gone out of their way to invite us to dinner, take detailed instructions about what we can and cannot eat and have been very generous with their time and money making meals that fit our diet. People may tell you how 'stressed' it makes them to have you in their house - they may even start telling you guiltily the last time they ate fast food like they are in some food related confessional. Your work mates will think its all a big elaborate excuse because you just want to lose a few pounds and are dressing it up as a 'lifestyle improvement'. Your kid's teachers will probably think you are nuts. I know mine do although they kindly do everything I ask them to. NHS health professionals will probably tell you it's rubbish - they are still handing out leaflets that tell people to eat low fat dairy and swap butter for margarine so don't expect any support from them. After explaining our diet to a health professional involved with my daughter I suddenly started getting letters from my GP asking me if I would like to go in and 'have a chat' (in other words I was clearly a bit mad and needed some Seroxat)
I am slowly learning to accept that I cannot force anyone else to change their diet and its really not my business. A lot of people really are happy to eat shit. Even when you have pointed out that it is shit. They just like you less for pointing it out. Save your energy its bad enough having to get your kids to eat what you want them to without stressing that you need to save the rest of the world too. Also, and I hate to admit this it is more than a bit arrogant to go around telling everyone else what they should eat. Refer back to point one - your diet might not be the right diet for them, or the right diet for them at this time. Instead start a blog where you can be as dictatorial or as bossy as you like - no-one is forced to read a post!
3. Any fool can post something up to the internet (or read it)
I had a rash and I panicked. I decided I had chronic candidasis within five minutes on my phone I had self diagnosed myself and was all ready to spend a fortune on anti-candida supplements. I then discovered what I had was stress induced psoriasis. The internet is a fantastic resource for recipes and for inspirational stories of people who have succeeded in improving their lives by changing their diet. However it is not a substitute for a doctor a nutritionist or a therapist.
4. Know one's limits
My husband understands the chemistry of cooking. Put him on one of those shows where they give you five ingredients and he would come up with a fantastic curry or noodle bowl. Put me on a show with five ingredients and time pressure and I would come up with five cooked ingredients. They would be cooked properly but there would be little flair. However that is okay because most of the time with two small children what is needed is the ability to understand or adapt basic recipes. Oh and cook at the same time as helping one child do their homework and also glueing a bit of broken lego back together.
5. Be wary of hidden motives
I realised that I was spending an inordinate amount of time coming up with the best biscuit recipe ever, when my kids were perfectly happy with the recipe we already had. I was also moaning I had no time for myself. In reality I had made a choice and cooking was becoming a competition. Being a stay at home mum can be boring and thankless and its easy to turn things into 'projects' but actually its bloody hard making home made food all the time and add in the pressure for perfection and you are starting down the path towards a nervous breakdown. Also, and deep breath this is a contentious one, diets can be used as weapons to punish yourself or your family for not being 'perfect enough'. Parents with children with a disability or health issue are often overcome with guilt and sometimes forcing yourself (and possibly them too) into a punishing food regime is a dangerous form of self punishment. Or a desire to try and control everything in an unhealthy way. I recollect a party when I rushed to grab a banana out of my son's mouth because no one had checked if it was 'ripe with brown spots'. Hmmm not healthy behaviour and leads on to...
6. Don't make food an enemy
When we first started eliminating food groups I developed an unexplained infection. I lay in bed with terrible cramps and was unable to eat anything for almost a week. I realise now that was a physical reaction to how I was feeling mentally. I couldn't eat anything because I had become obsessed with what was wrong with all food types. I had become sick of checking labels and feeling like all food producers were bastards not to be trusted, putting all sorts of things in our food and not telling us. I was exhausted from trying to work out whether to go for the organic supermarket meat or the butchers non-organic local meat. There was literally not a thing I wanted to put near my mouth. Eventually a diabetic friend came to see me and force fed me a blueberry muffin. It was crap, caloric and definitely not gluten free. But for some reason it was what I needed to get back out of bed and start again.
There is also a tricky balance to maintain when you have children, particularly girls, and you change their diet. You want them to eat well but you don't want them to be so obsessed about what goes in their mouths that they develop an eating disorder. For us the health benefits for my daughter not eating gluten and sugar (for a prescribed period of time) outweigh that risk. But we are hoping that way before her teenage years we can introduce a bit more flexibility. We also try to monitor the language we use, we try to use words like 'strong' and 'healthy' and 'energy' rather than 'bad, good or crap' (easier said than done when they ask you why they cant have a MacDonalds!)
7. Forget romantic notions of back to basics and saving money - good food costs more
I don't know how anyone in Britain can save money by changing to a 'clean' 'gaps' or 'paleo' or even bog standard gluten free diet. There is a lot of cheap food in supermarkets that is no longer allowable. Cutting biscuits, bread and fast food out of the diet are not going to save you much money unless you mainly ate microwave meals from Marks and Spencers or out at restaurants. Most families with kids, even if we cook healthily use carbohydrates and pulses to bulk out meals and stretch budgets. Buying organic or grass fed meat is not cheap. Lots of cuts of meat that used to be cheap - lamb neck, oxtail are now rather trendy and can command a high price at the butchers. Raw dairy is astronomical. For us the improvement in health has made it worthwhile but we have had to make sacrifices - no foreign holiday, less days out etc. Initially I was so manic about change I never looked at what I was spending and maybe that is fine for a diet that has a specified time limit. However if you want to change eating habits for life chances are you are going to have to make some compromises. Again its easy to be consumed with guilt if not everything is organic or if you buy supermarket milk instead of sourcing it from a biodynamic farm in South Wales. I keep having to remind myself that we are eating a lot better than we used to and we are moving in the right direction. Perfection is not achievable!
8. Yawn, but organisation is essential
Gone are the days when I can rush home and stick on some Fishfingers (all be it Jamie Oliver fish fingers) or throw together a fried rice from left overs. If I want baked beans I need to think about this at least 24 hours before hand so we can soak the beans. Same with hummus. Nuts should be soaked and dried. You cant nip out and buy aluminium free baking soda in the corner shop. You can't just throw a packet or Organix at the kids to keep them quiet when you are at the bank. Even visiting my parents for one evening is a military operation ensuring I have home made yoghurt, stock, snacks etc. I have written more about this in my post about saving time but lets be honest, it s always going to be a million miles away from Jamie's fifteen minute dinners. I am trying to make peace with that. And I am going to have a telly installed in the kitchen.
9. Cold turkey or gradual withdrawal?
It took us six months to move to full GAPS. It was not necessarily intentional but the way it worked out we took out cows dairy, then gluten, then processed food and sugar and then grains. This might not be the ideal for everyone but certainly for us it gave our bodies more time to adjust and also time to come up with recipes. I think adults can cope with more change but for small children who think eating a melon is outrageous need to be given a chance to adapt. It is also useful to see which restriction actually makes the most difference. For example I think my son's health was improved by taking out dairy but I didn't really notice much difference with gluten. My daughter doesn't seem to behave differently when she has sugar. I felt better removing gluten but worse when I took out all grains.
10. Praise yourself for every positive change
Okay it sounds like something you would get on an American self love website but I mean it. Its bloody hard work changing your diet. You are swimming against the tide. You will spend more time and money doing something that you might, whisper it, find quite boring. It is easy to feel cheated, stupid, daft for having eaten stuff for years without questioning it but turn that on its head - it is hard to eat 'natural' food in a country where large scale food manufacturers exert such power. Fifty years ago people didn't have to go into a shop and worry about what to buy and spend half an hour reading labels because on the whole everything there was 'fresh' and 'natural'. They didn't have to deal with toddlers screaming because they are tormented by chocolate at eye level (not only in food shops but bloody Boots the chemist for god sake!). Don't kill yourself with stress because your child mineswept a mini Mars Bar at a kids party. (Says the crazed woman who spot checks bananas).