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Surviving Holiday Meals With A Sensitive Stomach

I would like to preface this article by acknowledging everyone's stomach sensitivity is different and will require different methods for relief. With that being said, I hope sharing my own struggles and solutions with my stomach provides ideas for how you can enjoy holiday food if you struggle with stomach issues like I do. Topics like this can feel vulnerable to share, but I know how annoying it is to feel like something is wrong with you nearly every time a meal is consumed. I hope to, at least, shed light on some options to test out if you have trouble with a sensitive stomach and love food just as much as I do.

I first encountered severe stomach sensitivity and IBS in middle school. Being the food lover that I am, when some of my favorite foods became the main triggers of my stomach symptoms, I was torn; I wanted to keep eating everything I was used to eating without thinking about the pain and turmoil it would cause later, though doing so just made my condition worse.

Despite excruciating pain from digesting dairy products, processed meats, and excess fiber, I continually disregarded these triggers of my irritable bowel syndrome. The holidays in particular enacted changes in my eating habits; the peak of my symptoms occurred when, at 13 years old, I threw up all over my grandma's couch on Christmas day after dismissing any control over the food I ate. I indulged in an antipasti, complete with processed meat, different types of cheese, and bread, and countless Christmas cookies; I chose to ignore my IBS altogether, which resulted in a disaster for both myself and my grandmother's precious heirloom couch (not my best moment).

I am lucky that I have a dietitian for a mother, as, after the Christmas incident mentioned above, she reorganized my habits to avoid my “triggers”. Pizza became a very occasional, almost forbidden food in my diet, ice cream and milk products were unmentionable, and, notably, I had to drastically change the way I was eating. I had to realize what foods other people could consume, and the ways other people consumed food, didn’t necessarily work for me in terms of what my stomach could handle before an *issue* arose.

After years of trial and error, experimenting with new tactics to avoid the pain that came from both my stomach and the embarrassment of ruining my grandma's favorite couch, I’ve finally come to a point where I have a sense of what is healthy and safe, yet enjoyable when it comes to eating.

Image Courtesy of Nutritional Therapy for IBD

My first step in “healing” was picking and choosing which foods work best for me; as someone diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) most of the FODMAP diet foods have proved best for my symptoms. The acronym FODMAP is short for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols; all of which are short-chain carbohydrates, or sugars, that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine, which individuals with IBS are especially susceptible to and affected by when these sugars are consumed. This diet excludes foods containing these specific sugars, which trigger symptoms pertaining to IBS and similar stomach conditions. The best part about this diet is that it doesn’t cut out entire food groups, but rather only certain foods in each group containing the short-chain carbohydrates listed above. Take different fruits, for example; while I purposefully refrain from “High” FODMAP fruits like peaches and pears, I feel much better indulging in grapes and berries, like strawberries and blueberries. Again, a diet like this is going to be super specific to what works for you individually; trying out different options might not be a bad idea, especially around the holidays. Knowing what your stomach reacts best to before going out can help make picking and choosing your plate a lot easier.

Although this tip might be something you’ve heard over and over again, eating in intervals, and getting up

between periods of sitting and eating, has helped me so much in making sure I don’t eat more than my stomach can handle. According to journalist Rachel Fairbank, scientific research shows that walking within 60 to 90 minutes after eating aids digestion and reduces blood sugar levels. I could eat a lot in just one sitting without movement, though when I do, I end up ruining my night after I finish my food from the subsequent stomach pain. Along with taking breaks in between periods of eating, drinking water while and after food is consumed is a great way to easily support the digestion process. Eating in intervals isn’t meant to limit how much we are eating, but it creates gaps in between eating portions so that organs have more time and space to properly digest food—something I learned the hard way…

Image Courtesy of Nutriplanet

I also try not eating too much of one food group. Variety aids in digestion more than you might think. Food combining is a more complex, yet super impactful way to aid digestion. For myself, I have found positive results in a few extremely impactful food group combinations. The most notable combination that works for me consists of pairing a starch, like rice, pasta, or bread, with a vegetable that digests well, like green beans, broccoli, or brussel sprouts, to create a meal. Especially around the holidays, I like to add fish, like salmon, and certain meats to my plate, which proves to work well with the starch and vegetable combination. While food combining might not be the easiest during the holiday season, it is definitely a practice to look into once the holiday meals start to fizzle out, and routine kicks back in.

I think a lot of people come to the conclusion that handling stomach problems requires completely cutting out everything you are used to indulging in and strictly sticking to some rigid, unrealistic diet. While there are definitely foods that are more likely and less likely to cause stomach pain and other symptoms, there are also definitely ways to continue to enjoy the holiday foods you love. Especially paying close attention to different tips, like refraining from eating a lot in one sitting, hydrating, and mentally taking note of how you are feeling, will increase the chances of an enjoyable, pain-free holiday season.

Image Courtesy of CultureReady

Holiday food, particularly food that is unique to our individual traditions and cultures, is something that should always be enjoyed. I’m not sure about you, but the food is one of the main things I look forward to during the holidays. For my family, cuisine evokes different cultural backgrounds that bring us even closer together. When we get together, we often share dishes from our different cultures that celebrate traditions and backgrounds. No one should have this experience taken away. By managing the way we eat, from eating food that makes us feel good to paying close attention to how we feel throughout meals, we can allow these eating experiences that bond us together during the holidays to remain a pain-free part of our lives.


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