My Forks Over Knives Story
One morning in 2012 I woke up with stomach cramps, acid reflux and an almost constant need to burp. It was as it my digestive system immensely changed overnight. I experienced these symptoms for days on end with no relief, so I visited my GP who trialled me on some light medications and antacid tablets but nothing was working, so after a couple of months he sent me to a gastroenterologist and two months later I underwent major stomach surgery.
But this is a story about how a plant-based diet has positively transformed by digestive system, far more than the ‘unnecessary’ stomach surgery I endured.
In this piece I will share the main life lessons and positive take-aways I hold on to from this journey, as I believe everything happens for a reason and that there is always a silver lining to be found.
Treatment 1: Stomach Surgery
I was lucky enough to have private health insurance, so I could get an appointment quite quickly and with a doctor at the top of his profession. The gastroenterologist first prescribed me some strong medications to trial and sent me for routine tests to check the acidity levels in my stomach. The medication did nothing and apparently my acidity level was higher than normal, so the next option was a pretty major surgery called Nissen Fundoplication.
The official diagnosis was a hiatus hernia of the stomach – meaning part of the stomach moves into the chest and can cause some air and acid to collect in a little pocket (hernia), which can cause issues such as severe acid reflux. The average patient profile for the Nissen Fundoplication surgery is a 50 year old obese American male. I was a 22 year old female with an optimal body weight. This rang a little red flag in my mind at the time but I was quite naïve and so desperate for a cure that I ignored it.
Long story short: I was on the operating table within two weeks, three weeks post-surgery all of my symptoms came back (plus five scars and a stomach which would be slightly bloated for the rest of my life). Post-surgery my GP looked at the pre-surgery analysis for the first time and was quite surprised that I was considered a ‘candidate’ for the surgery…But that was okay because the surgeon got paid his thousands and I would heal fully…right?! I attempted to take the surgeon to court but it eventually got too expensive and I was advised that surgeons insurance protections are too tough to break through. So, I reluctantly had to put that behind me.
But there was surgery reversal option. So my GP sent me to see some nutritionists and dietitians at the hospital to seek a cure, round 2.
Life Lesson 1: Always get a second opinion about medical surgery.
Positive Take Away 2: Recovery periods can be seen as a good time to mentally destress from everyday life and spend quality time with family and friends.
Treatment 2: Medical Diets
At the time, the Low FODMAP diet was quite new and still under development but I was offered it as a potential solution, so I took it. The Low FODMAP diet essentially means eliminating foods which become very fermented in the gut – essentially eating a diet full of foods that are easy for your body to process. It is a very strict diet, including the elimination of gluten, dairy, and numerous fruits and vegetables. Within 24 hours my symptoms of acid reflux and burping were almost fully gone and within 48 hours completely gone. It was like a mini miracle! Part of the diet plan is to stay completely strict for approximately 6 weeks and then slowly reintroduce foods back in. I was so afraid to have the symptoms back that I stayed on the strict level of the diet for 4 year. I had received mixed messages from doctors as to whether is was harmful to stay on the strict Low FODMAP diet in the long run, but I took it that it would do little harm if any at all.
Long story short: the diet had me free of acid reflux and burping but bloating and constipation actually grew worse. It wasn’t until I visited a dietician in a different country that I found out that while the Low FODMAP diet is designed to cure IBS, it is designed for IBS-D (diarrhea) and not IBS-C (constipation), so it could and had been actually making my constipation worse than ever before. I then knew it was time to start reintroducing foods and go once again on the quest for a sustainable cure…
Life lesson 2: Medical professionals can get diagnoses and treatments wrong.
Positive Take Away 2: I thought myself how to be a better cook and fell in love with the kitchen.
Treatment 3: Plant-Based Diet
During the time I was struggling to try to reintroduce foods back in to my diet, I came across some documentaries online which changed my view on many things, one being the consumption of animal products. My initial liking for documentaries came when I watched The True Cost on Netflix in early 2017. That documentary started my journey to a more sustainable and ethical lifestyle, which I am still developing every day. I have since consumed numerous documentaries and podcasts on the topics of human rights, environmentalism, plastic pollution, animal rights, veganism, and I am constantly trying to implement changes to my life so I can life as ethically and sustainable as possible.
The one documentary which really shifted my views on the human consumption of meat was Forks Over Knives. I had never known that meat and dairy was so damaging to the human body – it completely shocked me. I was already eating less meat and dairy and thinking about shifting to a fully vegetarian diet so I made the full commitment in August 2018. There are 3 reason I went vegetarian: for my health, for the environment and for the animals. I have to be very honest and say that it took me to make the connection between my health and the consumption to really make me commit. It is hard to say that, as I care a lot about my impact on the environment and I love animals. But I think it is only human to innately look after ourselves first.
Since then I watched further documentaries, some quite gruesome behind the scenes footage of slaughter houses. It then became more important to protect the animals than even myself. Which is when I started my plant-based ‘vegan’ journey.
Prior to the ‘overnight’ digestive changes in 2012, I had been diagnosed with IBS in my early teens and struggled with constipation as far back as I can remember. I went through years of it being the norm for me to only pass a bowel movement ONCE per week. This led me to using concoctions of over the counter and prescribed laxatives, none of which ever worked for more than 2 weeks – it was as if my body knew that I was tricking it. My gut was in a very bad way towards the end of 2018 and I was getting desperate again.
During the Christmas holidays in December I was feeling the most lost I had ever felt about my digestive issues. Since I was living a very healthy lifestyle, including CrossFit Box training, home cooked healthy vegetarian meals, drinking tonnes of water, sleeping 8 hours a night, practicing meditation, I didn’t know what else could I possibly do to improve my gut?! I had made an appointment to see a specialist gastroenterologist in the coming January but was not holding out much hope on that. Then suddenly an Instagram advertisement gave me the answer: The Happy Gut Course!
The Happy Gut Course is a 6 week plant-based (vegan) diet to follow with the support of a gastroenterologist, registered dietician, two chefs (The Happy Pear), and an online community of the other dieters. So, I decided to put my money on the vegan diet rather than the gastroenterologist and it was the right decision by a mile!
I followed the 6 week course and truly enjoyed it and learned a huge amount about how to transition to a vegan diet the right way as to not shock your body with tonnes of dense fibre, what nutrition supplements should be taken, and how to make the diet sustainable. I saw dramatic improvements from my first day on the diet - I was going to the bathroom in a way better than ever before (sorry if it is TMI but poo is naturaaaal!) I was sleeping better, had more energy in the mornings, zero reflux or burping, and had very little bloating.
Since I finished the 6 weeks, I have reintroduced gluten into my diet and have had no negative reactions, and I am enjoying vegetables and fruits that I had not eaten for 5 years. My body is now able to process certain food groups more easily and is thriving from it.
Only after I changed my diet down the line did I think back and realize that the only thing that doctor ever asked about my diet was “Is your diet healthy?”, my response was “Yes”, and that was the end of the conversation. To me I did eat healthily - quite a typical diet for a middle-class Irish family: whole-wheat bread or cereals for breakfast, salads or sandwiches that contained meet or fish for lunch, and meat and vegetables for dinner. But that clearly was not healthy for my digestive system!
Life lesson 3: Food should be the first method of medicine.
Positive Take Away 3: My knowledge of nutrition has grown and I am now able to pass that on to others to benefit from.
I do not currently follow a strict vegan diet but I would say I am 90% there. I am not ready to go fully vegan just yet, for a number of reasons, a prominent one being that I have just moved to Paris and the French are way, way behind other cities in terms of vegan, and even the vegetarian food movement! On top of that, the two things my stomach still cannot tolerate are onion and garlic, and boy do the French like them! I know I will be fully vegan one day because it is where my morals sit but I think that we have to remember to be kind to ourselves and just do our best in the current environment we are in.
One thing that is for sure, I will never again chose going under the knife as a cure over what I eat. This journey has shown me that the power of that we consume is greater than I ever thought possible.
P.S. Watch the Forks Over Knives documentary online and follow along with Laura on her Instagram and website and she documents her journey of living as ecologically sustainable as possible towards a better 2050