Lost Among Europeans

My yogurt, my diet

Today I wanted to write an article about making yogurt. When I started to write it, I realized I wanted to tell the story of how I came to make my own yogurt. It’s not a pretty story, be warned, but it’s been important for me, and it may be useful for people who are led to this post by search engines. I’ve put the gory story in this post. The next one will deal with yogurt making exclusively.

I started making my own yogurt over a year and a half ago. I had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease over a year before that, and though I was lucky to have a mild case, I would still get short episodes of pain, and often had cramps. At the time, I was under terrible pressure at work, and that started to push me downhill. Eventually I started having problems swallowing food, and my gastroenterologist, doctor Kim, told me I had GERD, aka acid reflux.

That was it. I don’t like being sick. Taking medicines for Crohn’s, pills for the GERD (only for a month), plus the probiotics Dr. Kim recommended was making me feel like an invalid. More than anything, I had no idea how to control my disease. Time for action and research.

I decided to start experimenting with nutrition. I reasoned that since Crohn’s and GERD affect the intestine, they have to be correlated to food. My colleague at Bear Stearns, Annie, had developed an allergy to lactose and gluten in her twenties. Perhaps I had developed an intolerance to some food, and that was triggering my problems. I started by eliminating milk, and giving soy milk, and nut milks, a try. I didn’t feel a big difference, and after I did some research on soy, I decided to drop the soy milk too, and soy in general. Then I tried eliminating pasta, and seemed to feel well. One day I decided to try eliminating bread too. That was a tremendous difference. After three days on this elimination diet, I felt much better.

I was happy and hopeful with the bread-and-pasta elimination diet. I investigated, and this seemed to point to gluten intolerance, which seemed to point to Celiac disease; not a nice prospect. I read books and books on Celiac, gluten intolerance, Crohn’s, and nutrition in general. One thing was clear: many people have trouble digesting grains, especially wheat. Another thing was clear: for any food there is, many people have trouble digesting it. Some of the books called for the elimination of many of the foods I love, and I quickly disregarded those books.

I went to Dr. Kim to get tested on Celiac or gluten intolerance, and it came negative. That was a relief. It did however, contradict my theory. I continued to read more books, and didn’t arrive to much other than thinking that nutrition is a very underdeveloped science. There is disagreement even on the basics.

Then, thanks to the magic of Amazon’s customer pattern matching, I was recommended one book: Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gottschal. It was a fun, convincing, optimistic little book. It had terrific ratings and reviews (now including my own) at Amazon, and seemed to have been a salvation for many.

The book explains that for people with a number of intestinal conditions, and even autism, digesting complex sugars (di- and poly-saccharides) is problematic and leads to reduced absorption. The reduced absorption is bad in itself, but it also means that there are undigested complex sugars in your gut. Those complex sugars serve to feed many bacteria that line your intestine, and those bacteria grow and multiply. Some of them produce toxins that negatively impact your intestine, or other parts of your body.

The cure is to avoid disaccharides and polysaccharides. These are found in milk and sugar (lactose and sucrose are disaccharides), bread and pasta, corn and its derivatives, potatoes, rice and other foods containing starches (which are polysaccharides). The only acceptable carbohydrates are those found in fruits, nuts, honey and vegetables.

I decided to give this a try. By then, the only starch that I was eating consistently was rice, so I gave it up, and also made sure to avoid granola and bread. The effect was immediate. I had a bit of an itch in the gut, and pain, for a couple of days, and then started feeling better than I had in a very long time. Within a couple of weeks, the pangs of pain, the gas and cramps, were gone. And I felt different inside; I could tell I was better.

With my new knowledge, a lot of things made sense. Periods of stress had been so bad for me, not only for draining me, but equally importantly, because they led me to to eat worse food. I would get home tired, and would reach for the processed foods and the sugars. In the office I would go for sweets.

Since I started following the diet, I haven’t had a perfect record. Sometimes I’ll eat bread, sometimes I feel obliged to accept an offer of pizza, or decide to have a sugary dessert at a restaurant so I can share, or reach for a can of soda in the office. As long as I don’t do it repeatedly, I stay well. Even when I do follow the diet, I sometimes have bouts of Crohn, but it happens rarely these days, and more mildly than it used to. At last, I feel in control, more or less.

Needless to say, I worship Elaine Gottschal’s little book, which by the way, has a following online. These are two sites devoted to her diet: Pecanbread and breakingtheviciouscycle.

I take the lady’s word very seriously, so when she recommended to eat home-made yogurt, I bought a yogurt maker, stopped buying the probiotics I had been taking (VSL #3), and started to cultivate an appreciation for fermentation.

And so ends this post, and so begins the next one.

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