Fibre: Friend or Foe?

Fibre.  It’s one of those modern holy words that promises infinite health and conjures mental images of healthy elderly folk, jogging on beaches and enjoying what I can only imagine must be the benefits of their perfectly functioning bowels.  Every doctor in Christendom and beyond touts fibre as the intestinal cure-all and the advertising industry has latched on to this, peddling an array of high-fibre “health” foods and supplements.  But what if fibre isn’t the answer?

Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, creator of the Gut And Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet, claims fibre is in fact more trouble than it’s worth for some people.  Now, before all the critics start stomping their feet, let me clarify this.  No-one is saying fibre has been misjudged and is in fact an evil in society, cloaked in the shroud of health food (like, say, supermarket yoghurt).  No, what Dr Natasha points out is that fibre is fantabulous is you have healthy gut flora.  But if you don’t?  Then it’s downright wretched.

The reason fibre is so darned good for the digestive system is not just that it provides roughage, indigestible solids that slough along the intestinal wall, giving you an internal Spring-clean, but also because it provides a feast for intestinal flora.  They eat it, bathe in it, sleep in it, frolic in it and generally just adore being smothered in fibre.  As a result, the happy bacteria activate the fibre to absorb toxins, boost water and electrolyte metabolism, recycle bile acids and cholesterol and more.  So if you had, say, irritable bowel syndrome or gut dysbiosis, you would automatically think fibre would be the solution, right?  You wouldn’t be alone.  When I first began experiencing symptoms of digestive disorder I visited GP after GP, gastroenterologist and eventually psychiatrist and psychologist.  The first thing all of these medically trained practitioners wanted to know was how much fibre did I eat and had I tried a supplement?  It came to the point where I was so frustrated by answering the same insultingly obvious questions, that I typed up a chart of my diet, my supplements and what I had already tried.  Still, I can’t really be angry with the medical profession for asking about my fibre intake because, as we’ve seen above, it is actually really good for us if our gut is functioning properly.  It all goes horribly wrong you see if the gut is not working right.

Should you suffer from a disorder which causes your intestinal flora to be out of kilter, where the bad bacteria have overtaken the good, then fibre will not save you.  The problem is, funnily enough, the bad bacteria love fibre too.  The pathogenic strains will thrive in the high fibre environment but do not perform the same symbiotic functions.  Instead, the fibre is not processed properly and it further inflames and irritates the intestinal wall.

For these reasons, the GAPS Introduction diet dictates weeks of a virtually fibre-free diet in order to kick start the system, starving out the bad guys before repopulating with the good.  The problem with this is, no fibre often means no bowel movements and if you’re on GAPS due to symptoms of constipation or abdominal pain caused by distension, this is not going to heal your problems at first but initially make them worse.

To counter the unpleasant sensations that accompany the low-fibre diet, Dr Natasha recommends daily enemas but for many, this just isn’t a real possibility.  For those patients who have the courage to attempt what seems like a totally foreign act, they are time consuming, inconvenient, invasive and often painful.  Further, enemas, although widely used in Europe and the US, are not considered acceptable in Australia.  Enema kits are virtually unheard of and are associated with a stigma of something dirty, juvenile or perverse.  Requesting an enema kit in a pharmacy will be met with raised eyebrows and that’s if the staff actually even know what you’re asking for.  The only way to acquire a kit is to purchase online and for those who are have internet access, are techno-savvy enough and, let’s face it, are brave enough, this is a slow and expensive purchase.  Buying an enema kit from overseas can cost upwards of AUD$100 and the wait time on delivery can be weeks.  As such, many Australian GAPS patients struggle through the low fibre Intro Diet with no assistance to get things moving.

I was one of these unlucky patients and as such, I was thrilled when I finished the Intro Diet and was able to add foods like dried fruits and, praise be, beans!  Grains provide the majority of fibre in the “ideal” modern Western diet, closely followed by vegetables, then fruit and legumes after that.  Once the patient has re-introduced GAPS-legal vegetables and fruits, she can begin to introduce lima beans, haricot beans and lentils.  Of course, being the GAPS diet, nothing is ever simple.  You can’t just use any old beans, oh no.  The list of legal legumes must be properly prepared, involving soaking in water and whey overnight before cooking until soft.  Nonetheless, I was thrilled.  Having been a vegetarian by choice for many years, legumes form the basis of many of my favourite meals and I had sorely missed them whilst living on meaty meals.

The question is, once all the introductions are over, can a person on the full GAPS Diet actually get enough fibre without supplements?  According to the Mayo Clinic, adult humans need between 21 and 38 grams of fibre each day in order to maintain healthy digestive functions[i].  That’s a lot of fibre!  Fortunately, as a female, I need much less than the 38g and can settle for a reasonable 21g.  So what GAPS-legal foods are fibre rich?  I began constructing a list and it turns out it’s not that hard.

Dried figs

I love figs.  I am a fig pig.  When figs are in season I will gorge on them, finding a way to incorporate them into every meal and snack until they disappear from the farmers’ market again for another 11 months.  Dried figs are available all year around and as such not nearly as exciting, but they are nearly as delicious.  Just three dried figs for morning tea packs 10g fibre, that’s nearly half the day’s requirement!

Coconut flour

Coconut flour is the saviour of the GAPS and paleo diets, allowing almost traditional baked goods to be enjoyed once more.  It also just so happens to be extremely high in fibre!  A quarter of a cup of coconut flour has 12g of fibre compared to 0.8g for the same quantity of wheat flour.  Make yourself some coconut banana bread for brekkie and you’re well on your way to a high fibre diet for the day.

Avocado

I wouldn’t have thought of avocado as being a naturally high fibre food, being as creamy and soft as it is, but it turns out half an average avo’ contains 5g of dietary fibre.  It’s also a fantastic way to get more of those healthy fats in to your diet which are necessary to replace the calories we would normally get from grains.  Avocado is a great addition to salads, makes a great snack on its own and pairs beautifully with Mexican dishes.  I’m actually eating some chilli con carne with avo’ right now.  So tasty!

Beans/Lentils

Look, they’re called the musical fruit for a reason, ok?  But don’t worry, when soaked and prepared properly, legumes shouldn’t give you any excess gas or digestive problems.  Dr Natasha recommends soaking your legumes overnight in cold water and whey to activate them and to wash away all those nasty lectins (a naturally occurring protein that causes intestinal irritation for many people).  Some people swear by soaking beans in water with lemon juice and I personally find I can handle just plain old water.  100g of dried haricot beans will give you 7g fibre and a quarter of a cup of dried lentils provides about 15g of fibre.  Legumes are also marvellously versatile, good for breakfast lunch and dinner.  Remember that chilli I was eating?  Full of beans!

Nuts & Seeds

Nuts are a powerhouse of nutrition.  Full of good fats, protein and fibre, it seems impossible to conceive that nature might not have intended us to eat them (except of course if you are allergic, then definitely don’t).  30g of mixed nuts yields 2g fibre so tuck in.

Nut breads and nut butters add extra fibre to the table.  A wedge of almond bread for breakfast is a great way to boost your fibre intake.  Want more?  Try mixing dried figs into the batter before baking and serve with lashings of melting butter for a super-fibrous gourmet breakfast treat.

Berries

The only fruit, possibly even food, I love more than figs is raspberries.  There’s something about that sweet, tart, spongey little berry that tingles my palate in just the right way.  Serendipitously, they also happen to have about 4g of fibre per a lahf-cup and other varieties of berries have comparible fibre levels too.

Pre-GAPS I would scoff down berries with mascarpone, meringue and powdered sugar but they also make a delicious accompaniment to yoghurt or crème fraiche, drizzled with a delicately flavoured honey.  You can mix them into your coconut flour banana muffins or enjoy them dried with some nuts just as our ancient ancestors would have done.  And really, that’s what this whole GAPS thing is all about, isn’t it?


[i] Mayo Clinic, n.d., Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet [sic], online, available 14/09/2012, URL: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fiber/NU00033.

GAPS/Paleo Choc Coconut Fudge – yum!

Coconut oil is oft touted as being a supremely healthy superfood. In fact, this sumptuous saturated fat is reported to be beneficial for heart, thyroid, metabolic and immune system health whist also actually assisting with weight management[i]. Moreover, because coconut oil is rich in caprylic acid, it is a powerful natural fungicide, read to knock off both external fungi like athlete’s foot and internal, like the dreaded candida[ii].  What’s more, unlike olive oil which smokes at a low temperature (and will ruin your expensive non-stick pans!) coconut oil doesn’t break down at high heats, making it a perfect oil to cook with.  Aaaand, because it’s a solid at room temperature, it’s a great dairy-free/vegan substitute for butter in baked goods.  Is there nothing it cannot do?!

Personally, I like to fry and bake with coconut oil but I still didn’t feel I was getting enough in my diet.  Then it occurred to me that chocolate is primarily made of dairy fat and sugar, so what would happen if we replaced those things with coconut oil and say, some honey?  I’ll tell you just what happened- deliciousness!  Medicine has never tasted better.

 

Ingredients

  • 1 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup coconut oil (solid)
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 Tbs shredded coconut

Method

  1. Grease a fudge pan with a little coconut oil and line with baking paper.
  2. Place coconut oil, cocoa and honey in a blender or food processor and pulse until just combined, taking care not to over-process or the mix will separate.
  3. Pour mixture into a fudge pan and sprinkle with shaved coconut.
  4. Place pan in refrigerator for at least an hour or until set solid.
  5. Removed fudge from pan and slice into small pieces with a hot, sharp knife.
  6. Store any uneaten fudge (if there is any!) in the refrigerator to avoid melting.


[i] Dr Jospeh Mercola, 02/14/2011, “Coconut Oil Benefits: When Fat Is Good For You”, The Huffington Post, online, URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mercola/coconut-oil-benefits_b_821453.html.

[ii] Marek Doyle, 02/09/2012, “Medicinal Uses For Coconut Oil”, LiveStrong.com, online, URL: http://www.livestrong.com/article/213558-medicinal-uses-for-coconut-oil/?utm_source=undefined_R1.

Kefir Creme Fraiche Recipe

Cultured food, as you may have notice, makes up a large part of the GAPS Diet.  It’s oh so important to get those good bacteria back in to your system and while taking probiotic pills can do it, there’s nothing quite like the broad spectrum of goodies you get from eating food au naturale and crème fraiche is a very delicious way to do that.

I can sense your hesitation, I was ginger too.  Dairy is for so many of us with IBS, the enemy.  For some, it’s the lactose that gives them dreadful diarrhoea.  For me, it was the casein, the protein in dairy, that when consumed in bulk, would render me crippled with agonising abdominal pain.  The beauty of the GAPS Diet though is that it heals dairy intolerances and many who could not eat dairy before find that after being on GAPS for a while, all of a sudden they can- no problems.  While I haven’t yet had the courage (the guts?) to try drinking milk, I have slowly introduced crème fraiche, butter and even yoghurt and to my delight, have found that I am no longer experiencing the disabling symptoms I used to.

Crème fraiche literally translates to “fresh cream” which is ironic because that is precisely what it isn’t.  Ok, well it is cream, but it sure aint fresh!  Just as yoghurt ferments when cultures are added, turning it from plain old milk into a thick, delicious treat, crème fraiche is just crème that has been fermented and it’s so easy to make.

Dr Natasha suggests you first begin by making your crème fraiche with a yoghurt starter before progressing to kefir as the bacterial strains in the former are likely to cause fewer die-off reactions (the uncomfortable symptoms experienced when the bad bacteria in the gut are dying- they will put up a fight!).  I however, have never had any luck making my own yoghurt and, unable to find a commercial yoghurt starter, I decided to skip straight to kefir.

My first batch was made using a commercial kefir starter, basically a powder that you stir into the cream.  It worked out quite nicely but I felt as though I hadn’t quite achieved what I’d set out to.  I wanted the real thing but to make real kefir, you need kefir grains- clusters of microbes that eat the sugars in dairy and give off an awesome array of probiotics.  I found a lovely lady on eBay who sells live kefir grains and posts them anywhere in Australia, her username is Tumbletree.

Once I had my kefir grains, it was simply a matter of making a cup of kefir and stirring it through some fresh cream.  A word of warning: do not add kefir grains directly to cream.  You won’t be able to fish them out and not only will you lose your lovely grains (they are re-usable) you won’t be able to enjoy the cream either as it will have microbial clusters in it!  Not pleasant.

Kefir Crème Fraiche

Stuff You Need

  • Kefir grains – about 1 Tbsp
  • 1 cup (250ml) organic, unpasteurised whole milk
  • 500ml organic whole cream
  • Equipment
  • Sterilised jars
  • Cheesecloth
  • Rubber bands or string
  • Fine metal sieve
  • Large bowl

Method

  1. In a sterilisied jar, combine the kefir grains and milk.  Place a square of cheesecloth over the top and secure with a rubber band or some string.
  2. Place your kefir mix in an out of the way corner and leave to ferment for a few days.  If it starts to separate into curds and whey, it’s ready!
  3. Give your kefir mix a good stir and pour through a fine sieve into a large, clean bowl.
  4. Do not discard the grains! – Put these back in the original jar with another cup of milk and start again for your next round of kefir.
  5. Add 500ml cream to the kefir in the bowl and combine thoroughly.
  6. Pour or spoon cream mixture into a sterilised jar, top with a fresh piece of cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band or a piece of string.  Do not put the lid on, we want the creme fraiche to be able top breathe!  Now just leave your jar somewhere out of the way, at room temperature, and allow to ferment for a few days.
  7. Once the cream has achieved the tangy taste you want, simply place a lid on the jar and store in the fridge.  Simple!

Kefir crème fraiche is tasty with so many things, sweet and savoury.  Use it in place of yoghurt, fresh cream and sour cream.  I’ll be having it on top of my chilli con carne and with strawberries for dessert- yum!

Working With A Chronic Illness – Part 4: New Pathways

Accept It.

The key to dealing with anxiety is acceptance.  If you fight it, you will only make yourself more anxious about it and then, ironically, should you feel even the slightest hint of anxiety, you feel more anxious… about feeling anxious!  Humans can be very silly beasts sometimes.

Dealing with a chronic medical condition is hard enough at the best of times but trying to attend work when you’re sick is enough to make anyone feel anxious.  Once again, the secret to overcoming it, is acceptance.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying if you have epilepsy and you “accept it” that your seizures will miraculously stop and life will be peachy, I only wish it were that simple.  What I am saying is that if you, like me, have a condition that makes you feel sick sporadically and that makes you worried that you’ll be unable to work, then accepting your condition and your limitations may well be your ticket to freedom and happiness.

After a year of therapy with my psychologist and several months working with my biochemical doctor, we decided my gut problems might never go away entirely and although I could wait for my anxiety to subside before I went back to work, I wasn’t going to have any income until that day.  In addition, we agreed, the line of work I had been in was a very high-stress environment and possibly wasn’t suited to me.  The very notion of having to back to that job was making me feel anxious in and of itself so my therapist suggested looking for “new pathways” that suited my needs rather than trying to squeeze a piece of myself into someone else’s jigsaw puzzle.

So, what next?

So what next?  A different kind of law, perhaps?  It was what I was trained to do after all.  It seemed a waste to throw away 6 years of full time study (and a $30,000 HECS debt too, thank you very much Howard Government) but I wasn’t sure.  Law is, by its very nature, confrontational.  Law is generally about conflict and the clients who come to us are in states of high emotional distress.  Being the person I am, I can’t ignore that.  I want to help them.  I want to go above and beyond, bend over backwards and extend myself to help them, to ease the suffering.  This unfortunately at legal aid, resulting in me doing far too much overtime, feeling quite devastated when the cases weren’t successful and being especially crushed when my clients became angry and accused me of intentionally not helping them for whatever personal reasons they imagined I had.  My therapist said to me, “It sounds like you’re just not suited to being a lawyer.  That’s not actually a bad thing, you know.”

I tried to think what other kinds of law there might be that didn’t involve emotional clients.  Barristers didn’t have to deal with clients but they did have to deal with scary judges and even scarier, court.  It’s kind of funny; when I originally set out to study law I thought I would be a crash-hot barrister because I was a fierce and fearless public speaker, confident on stage and very quick at picking flaws in testimony.  But 7 years later, after 1 year in practice, the thought of attending court terrified me.  All of a sudden, it wasn’t about striding past the lectern, gesticulating wildly to a rehearsed and flamboyant speech about what we, as humans, can possibly ever truly “know”.  Now it was about real people’s lives and if I stuffed up, it wasn’t just my shame that would occur.  My clients could lose their homes, lose their families or go to prison.  The pressure was intense and I confess, I simply couldn’t handle it.  In a nutshell, I cared too much.

At this stage, my body was giving me grief.  Daily nausea and IBS do not make for a happy worker and trying to imagine a workplace where I wouldn’t be bothered by it was virtually impossible.  I decided to search for options working from home.

Working from home…

Anyone who’s ever tried to work from home will tell you, it ain’t easy.  First, there are no real opportunities.  I mean, what are you going to do?  You can set up your own online store if you have the know-how but so few of them are profitable, it’s a huge risk and you generally need financial backing to get started (I actually sell quite a lot on eBay but it’s only ever made just enough revenue to scrap by).  You can contract for someone else, there are typing jobs that can be done at home but you will need specialist equipment and software and the pay is low.  I actually decided to give that a go as I type fairly quickly, but after filling out countless application forms and online tests, never heard back from any agencies.  I decided this illness was my serendipity.  I had an opportunity to change my life, to start afresh doing something I loved.  Ok, so I’d studied law, big deal.  I never signed a contract saying I had to be a lawyer (and any lawyer would tell you contracts can be broken anyway) so why spend the rest of my life being miserable just ‘cause?  What did I love?  What was I inherently good at?  What would suit my needs now and forever?  Then it hit me; writing.

I originally studied law not because I actually have any interest in law (I don’t) but because I had a gift with English and I wanted a guaranteed income from it.  Let me tell you now, if your parents ever tell you to study law because “you’ll always have a job at least” (thanks Mum) do not listen.  In fact, as I graduated, two other universities in Adelaide were cranking out law grad’s like a catholic rabbit makes babies and my grades were not the best.  To add fuel to the fire, I happened to complete my studies right smack bang at the crescendo of the Global Financial Crisis and also happened to possess the dubious honour of being a woman of childbearing years… read: risky.  I applied for literally over a hundred jobs, interviewed for about ten and still it took me twelve months to get my first job in law.  Actually, it’s a bit of a funny story… I eventually got that job not because of merit or even because I applied for it but because a man abused my father on a holiday in Borneo and then wanted to do him a favour to make up for it.  Turns out he was a lawyer, so you can put two and two together…  It’s like an episode of Seinfeld!

Anyway, the point is, I like words.  I am a wordsmith (or so I like to think).  Other people out there were “writers” so why couldn’t I be one too?  Now was the perfect time to try.  I had time on my hands and my hands on my keyboard.  It might not happen straight away, but nothing ever happened without somebody starting it.

I’m not cut out for novels (short attention span) and I’ve never been good at fiction (lack of imagination) so I decided to start a blog.  I wrote my political opinions, product reviews, film critiques and quasi-comedic commentaries.  It was a bit of fun but it wasn’t going to draw an income.  I needed an actual writing job.

How to be a writer

I wish I had the answer to this question; I don’t.  I guess in a way I do… just write!  But of course, the getting paid to be a writer part, I’m still kind of stuck on.  Ok, so that’s not entirely true.  I am actually a writer now and I do actually get paid.  BUT I only have one client and I get paid peanuts.  So how did I get my first gig?  Well that’s the hard part.  Waiting for your first big break can be what puts most people off freelance writing and I’ll be honest, had I not struck it lucky, my patience would have run out too.  Being a sickie and something of an internet-freak, I spend a lot of time on Facebook.  And websites.  And forums.  *blushes*  Yes people, I am a nerd.  Now that we have that out of the way, we can understand how it was that when one of my favourite personal finance websites posted in my Facebook stream that they were looking for guest writers, I pounced.  Within 10 minutes I’d penned an extensive (rambling) application letter explaining my history, my health and my ambition to write.  I don’t think I even proof-read it, I just typed and clicked “send”.  Within a day I had a response, they’d love to have me, and before I knew it I was negotiating a contract to write regular articles for a prominent savings site.  Not everyone will get an opportunity like this and I must say, finding the next one has been much harder than I thought (editors it seems, will simply ignore your emails if they are busy or don’t like you).  But a start is a start!

But what about the money?

Writing a few short articles a week does not earn me much.  I am not Sarah Wilson or Mia Freedman with an entourage of sponsors and followers.  I have neither the credibility nor fame to charge high prices.  It is something I am building upon gradually, week by week my portfolio grows and one day I hope my name will be one that a few learned readers will recognise.  In the meantime, I have to do something else to make a crust.

I extremely lucky that my partner owns his own business.  Well, it’s a mixed blessing actually because it means he’s extremely busy and if he worked for someone else, he’d be making double and probably wouldn’t need me to work.  But c’est la vie; we play with the cards we are dealt and I choose to consider this an opportunity, not an obstacle.

When I became ill and was home all day it seemed silly that I not help out with the business.  I’d previously worked in an admin role and knew vaguely what needed to be done.  I started keeping a register of all incoming mail, date stamping everything and the like.  I drafted procedural documents, office policies, employment contracts and more.  As time went by and my health improved, I was able to come to the office and assist with more and more things, eventually taking over the invoicing and the accounts.  I became the self -proclaimed “administration and finance manager” and excelled in my role.

Having a job to go to can feel a burden when you are feeling really sick but it can also be extremely rewarding.  Even a relatively banal job like admin can be self-actualising in that you are actually doing something with clear and obvious results.  It may sounds silly, but I get a little kick every time I post out an invoice or deposit a cheque.  And what I love about business is that while problems do arise from time to time, it is not intrinsically confrontational.  Most people I deal with are friendly and happy and trying to make an effort to get along.  We are focused on building relationships and construction systems (it’s an engineering business) not destroying people and cutting them down.  I’m confident in what I do and I know if I feel wretched I can generally still hunch over my desk and get my work done without over-hyped clients thinking I’m not really listening or managers breathing down my neck about billable hours.

Onwards and Upwards

While I write about money to earn money, it’s not the love of my life.  It’s not my true calling and it doesn’t fulfil me spiritually.  Further, writing for someone else is a good gig in that you get paid regularly, but if the business isn’t in your name, you can never build upon the reputation and more importantly, the profits.  I don’t even own the intellectual property rights of my own articles!  I decided to start a different writing venture… one I could update when I felt like but knew wouldn’t be too mentally demanding to require research for each post.  I started “Get Well Or Die Trying” as my own little way of telling the world (or whoever would listen) about my stories, my experiences and, of course, my recipes while I was getting better.  Every time I write I feel better and I hope, my dear reader, that some of what I say can make you feel better too.

I’m not sure what the future holds for my career.  One thing is for certain, it looks good.  My partner has recently decided to expand his business to include an online shop and I, with all my eBaying experience and the anally-retentive attention to detail (typical undermethylator), am to be the e-commerce manager.  It’s a little bit exciting and a little bit scary but working for the “family business” is kind of like being your own boss and I’ve come to the conclusion that if you suffer an invisible chronic illness, that’s the way to go.