Today's inspirational interviewee, Kate, comes to us from Boston and shares with us how she defeated her debilitating condition with diet alone. In part 2 (next week) we'll also talk to Kate about vegan mommyhood, dating and making families with mixed diets work.
HH: First, the million dollar question. How long have you been vegan and what made you go vegan?
Kate: I have been vegan since March 2004. I went vegan shortly after I'd been released from the hospital for serious digestive pain and, er, issues.
Do you mind telling us about the issues and what led to your hospitalization?
I was diagnosed with IBS (the constipation sub-type) and in pain for years. I was on at least two different prescription medications and various laxatives. My GI doctors (that's plural!) did nothing other than order intrusive tests and monitor my medication. One actually told me it was "normal" to drink an entire bottle of Milk of Magnesia a day, every day.
What about diet? Was there any discussion on the foods you were eating or possible allergies and intolerances that may have been causing your digestive distress?
There was absolutely no discussion or concern by my GI doctors about what I was eating because I was eating what the medical community considers a "healthy" omnivore diet at the time. At the beginning of my doctor saga, my primary physician did mention in passing that I might consider giving up dairy, but he said it in a manner that made me think he didn't believe its effectiveness, so I never tried. No doctor that I ever met with gave much credence to diet as a way to alleviate pain or problems, which in retrospect is amazing to me. Doctors, especially GI doctors, should focus on nutrition, allergies and intolerances as these things can lead to all of the problems people deal with on a daily basis.
Although you suffered with pain and digestive issues for years, you ultimately experienced a breaking point that finally led to relief. Tell us about that.
After months of pain and no improvement, I was referred to a specialist who ordered a barium swallow test, which ultimately resulted in a visit to the emergency room. At the time, none of my doctors warned me that barium was extremely constipating, and because I was also on a nerve deadening medication for pain management (the medication made it so Kate wouldn't feel intense pain all the time), I didn't receive the distress calls from my digestive system until I was in severe, unbearable pain. The pain was so intense that I was crying uncontrollably, moaning and fighting off the urge to scream. Basically, I had a charley horse in my bowels for nine hours.
What happened once you were in the ER and later admitted to the hospital?
An X-ray revealed that I had about three weeks of food stuck in my intestines and my bowels were spasming. I spent the night getting enemas and being pumped full of laxatives.
What was your prognosis?
No one, even the GI specialists, could offer any solution other than more tests and more medication. I left the hospital disgusted with the medical profession and desperate for an alternative solution.
How did you hear about a vegan diet being a cure for IBS?
After my release I read Dr. Neal Barnard's book, Breaking the Food Seduction, and by the end of the book, I was vegan.
Did you experience any relief?
I saw results pretty much immediately. As it turns out, my IBS was not just the result of not being able to digest certain foods; dairy was the biggest culprit for me. When I went vegan, I was able to digest the foods I was eating. In the first week, I was off all my medications and I finally had no pain. Eating a plant-based diet was, and continues to be, a tremendous relief. I'm finally free of digestive pain and discomfort.
What did all the doctors say when veganism 'cured' your IBS?
When I mentioned I went vegan during a follow-up appointment with my GI specialists, and that my condition had greatly improved as a result, they scoffed at me.
Have you experienced any other changes since adopting a plant-based diet?
My ex-husband (also a vegan) lost 20 lbs. I didn't lose much weight, but I find my weight is stable even when my activity level fluctuates. I have also learned to trust food. When I was an omni, I was convinced that if I ate until I was full, I would end up fat. Mostly because that is what eating animal laden fare does. Most unprocessed vegan foods lack the brain cues that lead to overindulging - they are good for your body, and non-addictive.
Now that you have pinpointed dairy as the culprit, why stay vegan?
People always ask me why I don't start reintroducing some of the things back into my diet that I used to eat because I can't possibly be allergic to them all, but I have no interest in messing around with a good thing. Plus, now that I don't eat meat, I find myself very sensitive to animal issues. I am happy that the healthiest way to eat is also the most ethical. No one has to die for my dinner. Now that is what I call a perk!
You also recently found out you have a wheat sensitivity. A lot of people think being a gluten-free vegan is impossible. How do you make it work?
What is really hard as a gluten-free vegan (or "gluvee" as my co-workers have coined me) is going out to eat. You also don't really have pre-packed food choices as a GF vegan. Other than that, I don't feel very limited. I have always liked to cook, which is essential. There are several cookbooks out there. (Kate recommends the Flying Apron cookbook). GF baking is hard, I usually have to make a recipe a few times before it comes out right, but once you get the hang of it, you can make pretty much anything. Start small and don't give up.
One other thing about being a GF vegan is you'll probably need to take a B12 supplements. Most wheat flours, cereals, etc are enriched with B12 but GF fours aren't.
For those with tummy troubles or IBS, do you think a plant-based diet can help them?
Absolutely. I definitely believe a vegan diet can help anyone with digestive issues. It was amazing to me how my body could go from non-functional to working perfectly -- by itself -- when I changed the food I was putting into it. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense -- I have learned to appreciate what my body is telling me. I listen to it for cues for my overall health.
Thanks Kate! Join us next week when we talk to Kate about being a mom to two adorable vegan boys, dating as a single vegan lady and making a mixed diet family work!