trigger warning ~ this essay contains descriptions of restrictive diets and disordered eating

Eating can hurt and food can be ouchy.

One midweek dinnertime in the dense hum-drum of middle school, my brother found a five-centimetre-long metal nail in his slice of quiche. We’d bought it from an institutional bakery (one we won’t name) in Melbourne, and the moment was silencing. He didn’t bite into it - who could - his fork probing the weight and girth of the thing. We returned the nail (washed, inside the box) and discretely told them about the finding, hoping an apology and perhaps a complementary fruit flan would be slid in our direction. Neither happened, to my memory. The nail must have fallen from the shelf above the bench-top, we were told, and that was that.

One of the oldest memories that lives in my noggin, is from when I was young enough to spend a lot of my time entertaining myself at a kids-sized activity table. Sunlight was pouring into our kitchen-dining area, and I was doing my thing in the kid-craft nook, eating some sort of processed cheese stick. Or at least trying to. A segment of it somehow got lodged up my nose and panicky calls for help ensued.

I learnt how to blow my nose and use a tissue that day. Exciting stuff, I know.

For an embarrassingly large proportion of my teenage years, I wore a plate. The orthodontic views of the dentist my family visited, were that my teeth could be straightened without the more drastic use of braces, but instead with a plastic plate and one incremental tweak of a wire every couple of weeks. This routine of regularly visiting the orthodontist to field the corny questions of so what did you learn at school today, was exhausting.

This routine meant my teeth were in slow, stubborn movement for over half of my adolescence, and my mouth was sore for most of that time. I learnt to chew food in every corner and bite down on chewy pieces of meat, bread rolls and juicy corn cobs with every possible nook of pain free jaw.

A few years ago I had my four wisdom teeth removed, and what followed was two weeks of mostly soft, slurpy, teeth-avoidant foods that could be funnelled down into my stomach, whilst avoiding the stitches on all sides.

More recently, I was making a vegetable tart with silver beet from the garden, squishy cashew cheese, rosemary, basil pesto, peas and artichoke hearts on gluten-free puff pastry.  Whilst the latter gets kudos for trying, it is far from the real thing. The gluten-lacking caramelised layers of alternative starches struggle to rise, forming shards of brittle, glass-like planes. I sawed through the assemblage with the purposefully laid out steak knives, then attempted to fold the pastry around the filling before stabbing my fork through it and popping it into my mouth for chewing. A sharp pain shot through the roof of my mouth.

Owaagh, I moaned, tears pooling in my eyes as I extracted the bloodied shard from my palate. Divine.

These stories sit in my bank of ‘mildly horrific experiences,’ that I can tell with gory embellishment at a later date with glee. My new dentist often comments on my ‘proven’ high pain tolerance – which I don’t necessarily agree with.  But having had four more teeth removed while awake because I had too many teeth for them to all fit neatly, then going through the rigmarole of braces (yes, I had the full menu of orthodontic delights) with a polite smile on my face, evidently paints the picture, that I do.

Short term, externally triggered physical pain has always been a lesser evil to me. A temporary inconvenience that you can deep breath through. A type of pain that has nothing on mental health struggles, period cramps or digestive discomfort.

The latter being another kind of ouchy.

There’s something about your core, the centre of your being - when it’s not well and you can’t prop it up on an ottoman, stick a booty on it or pop it in a sling. It can be all consuming. Sure, you can reach the pain in other ways, maybe through, pain killers, functional medicine protocols or long-term lifestyle changes, but it’s infinitely more complicated, and that triggers its own kind of mental duress. For example, over-thinking how the heck you got into a chronic digestive pickle and where you should focus your efforts in the hope of getting out of it.

In 2020, I was recommended to undertake the ‘gold-standard’ treatment for an incredibly frustrating condition called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, or SIBO. This involved a fruit salad of different antimicrobials, gut healers, herbs, binders, a u-biotic as well as a sub-set of the low FODMAP diet. It was so restrictive that even ‘recipe developer me’ struggled to make a meal out of it. Quite literally.

I will say that the process (in decontextualised terms) did ‘work’ for a time, in that my quality of life largely returned, but that still hasn’t stopped me from feeling rather salty about it. I don’t know that, even now, I’d recommend it to a friend (and yes - I’m not a health professional - but I do think my experience grants me license to having a few valid points about it).

I grew up in a high-pressure private school setting, revealing everything from funky relationships with food to full blown eating disorders (ED) in my peers. High school, and the years after were peppered with overt and covert struggles of eating disorders happening all around me. But hiking into visit friends in ED units at Psychiatric Hospitals every month or so, over multiple years – doesn’t leave you unaffected. You see how entirely consumed and debilitated you can become, unable to escape from such governance in your head.

I began self-publishing cookbooks at this time, and the ridiculousness of this cross over did not escape me. I always thought I was immune to eating disorders. Whilst I had my own hot-pot of neurosis - when it came to food - I thought I was solid.

When I was a young teenager and my anxiety started to flare to a point that it concerned my mum, she took me to see a naturopath who suggested I cut out sugar and gluten. I was furious.

I cried and kicked up a fuss the entire way home, outraged that this man who didn’t even know me, suggested I take out two of the most comforting pleasures on the planet, because – due to the anxiety – I must be experiencing too much unrivalled joy or something. Did he not get what anxiety was like, at all, I thought?

Needless to say, attempts to make such dietary changes were short lived, and it was shortly after that I properly launched myself into hobby cooking to regain some control over the amount of pleasure in my life, that I felt was being stripped away. Help in the kitchen was never unappreciated, and so as time went by, mum forgot the suggestion.

So when this heavily restricted low FODMAP diet was presented to me as the final piece to my protocol-puzzle, I resigned and committed as best I could for my own wellbeing’s sake, but was internally irate that this was happening.

I was wary about what this would do to my relationship with food, my internal dialogue telling me, this is like an eating disorder, or this would tip someone over the edge into having a full-blown eating disorder, on repeat. I imagined my friends from school who’d spent time in and out of ED programs, and how triggering this treatment-plan would be for them. How would they get better if they had SIBO, if this is the only way?

I’ve always had a firm defence against disordered eating habits and a highly sensitive radar for picking them up in others (not that they’re contagious). I never imagined that it would be a medical professional who would push me down that path further than I’d ever been.

This BiPhasic Vegetarian Diet drastically limits your carbohydrate intake to foods that help starve the bacterial overgrowth in your small intestine, while also aiming to reduce the unpleasant symptoms felt while these die off and exit your system.

It’s only designed to be temporary, they tell you - but with such strict rules even the minimum six weeks recommended put a new icky feeling in my gut – that on the other side, was hard to shed.

While my enthusiasm for food didn’t change immediately, before long the subtle rules of the diet began to pick away at it. On the list of allowable foods, there are those that are allowed and those that certainly are not (did the creators of this list not know the many ingredients that existed in the world?).

Foods started to feel good or bad, and the quantities of all foods were restricted - according to data that seemed to ignore the other crucial factors to good physical health. Be it community, being able to practice one’s culture or cuisine through food or relish the joy in flavour

Nip, zip-it, nup. No-go amigo. It’s stick to the allowed foods, regardless of how hard they are to remember, or the impossibility of eating intuitively with such constant self-policing.

As the protocol slowly did its work, it was hard not to think that the only thing this diet was achieving, was a cross-cuisine de-flavouring, de-carbing & de-joying of what it is to be human and to eat. Yes, you may not be actually diagnosed with an eating disorder, but a strict dietary prescription sure starts to feel like one.

While from a medical professional’s perspective, it’s short-term pain to achieve longer term relief from ouchy, life-quality altering symptoms, it is still a process which ignores your mental health in the prioritising of your physical. The mental gymnastics you go through limit your ability to fully engage in society and the community. You start to overthink how eating is integral to existing; going to work, being out and about, trying to build a career, hopefully travel, be in relationships and heal the relationship you have with yourself.

You learn that your body is against you.

In acquiring a lifestyle-related gut condition, you’ve messed up and will hurt your body if you eat something outside of a list of foods now seared into the back of your eyeballs.

My demographic (a young woman in an age cohort where eating disorders are rife) was not taken into consideration when I was told to undertake this treatment. Yes, the infinite complexity of gut health and research being in its relative infancy, meant it was perhaps the best course of action to pursue. But that doesn’t soothe the fact that how I eat and view food going forward has been indefinitely changed. And as a recipe creator and food writer, it’s highly likely I will pass on some disordered thinking to a vulnerable young person, despite my best efforts.

I’m still shedding layers of that protocol many months down the line. I long for a day when I find un-dulled beauty in cauliflower, onion and garlic like I once did.

I’m coming to terms with there being inevitable bumps in the road as I probably face a lifetime of gut flares and niggles. Still willing to trade for externally triggered pain, any day.