It’s easy to define “healthy” as what you see in your Instagram feed. Whether it’s smoothies packed with hidden veggies like cauliflower and green peas, vegan cheesecakes made with soaked cashews instead of dairy, or sweet potato slices acting as toast, you don’t have to look (or, scroll) very far to spot some trendy, healthy dish that looks just about as appetizing as it gets.
Thanks to the handy-dandy save feature on Instagram, I took it upon myself to try as many of these recipes as I could—ricing cauliflower, blending zucchini into my smoothies to thicken them, and spiralizing anything I could get my hands on. Some attempts were more successful than others…while a pan of almond butter black bean brownies tricked everyone at a dinner party I held, one veggie packed smoothie tasted just about as unappealing as it’s brown hue appeared. But I continued with my efforts, testing replacements for sugar, butter, pasta, bread… the list goes on… trying to eat as “perfectly” as the meals on my phone’s screen looked.
My stomach did not appreciate my efforts.
I can’t remember exactly when my digestive issues started, but I also can’t remember what it feels like to go for weeks on end without some sort of GI discomfort. Cashews started to make me curl up in pain, while cauliflower left me bloated in mere minutes, and some grey area blechiness settled in about an hour after most meals. What could I possibly be doing wrong? I was eating so healthily—loaded salads, balanced grain bowls, jars of overnight oats, and smoothies full of healthy fats and protein. Even after I started avoiding cashews and cauliflower like the plague, I still felt lousy, and the uncertainty as to what was causing my discomfort was (and, still is) infuriating.
After finally seeing a gastroenterologist and getting some testing done, I was told to follow a Low-FODMAP diet, essentially eliminating a large list of foods that were high in certain molecules that can be difficult to digest. (You can find a more comprehensive explanation on what Low-FODMAP is here!) I was overwhelmed. Gone were many of my go-to and favorite foods, at least during the preliminary elimination phase to get the body back to a state of feeling good. No brussels sprouts, no hummus, no beets (no beets for the city beet?!), no honey, no black beans… But what I noticed most was a feeling of failure that I could no longer make these recipes that filled my Instagram feed. I couldn’t make brownies sweetened with dates, or make big bowls of garlicky, bean-filled vegetarian chili.
What exciting meals could I make that people would be interested in seeing photos of? Surely my brown rice with sautéed spinach, zucchini, peppers, and a fried egg would look capital-b BORING next to a bowl of cauliflower fried rice, roasted squash, dollops of hummus, and drizzles of intricate dressings. I tried to resist my stomach, in hopes that I could will it to tolerate the foods I wanted to eat. It didn’t work.
It’s only been about a month, but I’m learning to reframe my definition of “healthy.” Because it doesn’t matter if it’s slightly higher in sugar—a cookie made with a little bit of brown sugar will leave me feeling so much better than a black bean brownie sweetened with dates. I may be eating more starch than the girl eating the slice of cauliflower crust pizza, but at least I won’t feel as uncomfortable as I do when I try to eat the slice in her photo.
This is not by any means meant to shame any recipe that anyone creates, or any meal that anyone happily devours. Rather, it’s a reminder to myself, a declaration of the importance of eating what makes your body feel energized—what makes your body feel good. No matter how photogenic a meal is, if it leaves you feeling bloated, gassy, or rushing for a bathroom, the aesthetic appeal (and even the nutritional benefits) loses importance rapidly. So if you can down a smoothie thickened with cauliflower or peas and feel like a million bucks, have an extra gulp for me. But if you’re trying to follow a trend that your body is resisting, you’re not alone, and it’s probably not worth the stomach pain.
As hard as it was (and sometimes still is) for me to realize that all these “healthy hacks” were not the holy grail of healthy eating, there’s a lesson in there about owning what works for your body. And while there may be FOMO when you have to pass on a glamorous healthy dessert, you may be surprised at how much better your body feels after some plain ol’ butter, brown sugar, or peanut butter. There’s a lesson in balance in here somewhere—while I’ve found ways to make rice bowls with veggies my stomach can tolerate and wonderfully oozy soft-boiled eggs, i’ve also had to look my bias against certain “unhealthy” foods and ingredients square in the eye and learned to be a little more open-minded. A terrible stomach ache is a terrible stomach ache, no matter how you look at it, after all.