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Healthy Eating: Understanding what works best for you

When I started my journey as an endurance athlete, one of the things I learned quickly was that everyone has different nutritional needs for training and racing, depending on the activity, the length of the activity, the intensity, the weather, and individual digestive ability and needs. Some athletes prefer liquid calories in the form of gels and sports drinks – others need solid foods. Some of us sweat A LOT and require much more salt intake than others or the average person not engaged in such a high level of activity in the heat. It took me a few years to gather the information to understand all of this. But as it turns out, I still had a lot to learn about nutrition.

After several years of amateur athletics, I thought I knew all there was to know about eating healthy. During my off-season training, I faithfully followed the Canada Food Guide. I happily ingested the recommended ratio of carbs, proteins, fruits and vegetables, dairy and portion of fats. I believed in the well-rounded diet, rolling my eyes at those who said they couldn’t eat red meat or gluten. I felt that if you ate healthy – what was recommended by most of the nutritional guides – then your mind and body would be healthy.

It was about 5 years ago when I started noticing my energy levels drop and my ability to concentrate at work and at home was sagging. I was sure there was something missing from my diet so I started taking supplements – iron pills, vitamin B, etc. Then came the bouts of severe abdominal pains and what I thought was constant bad luck with food poisoning. I just dismissed it as eating something bad or indigestion, stress, or maybe I didn’t get enough sleep. I also associated it with decreased activity levels during off season training. So, I adjusted the amount that I was eating but I still did not feel quite right, both physically and mentally. Despite my efforts, something was still wrong.

A year ago, during my annual physical, my doctor said “so – anything you might be concerned about?” Normally I would respond with, “nope – all good”, but for some unknown reason, I blurted “I guess maybe some digestive issues”. This had been going on for at least 4 years but I never brought it up before. I think the awkward silence made me feel compelled to complain about something. My doctor said “well, try eating earlier in the evening.” Then he added “It’s most likely IBS – but I’m going to recommend a blood test for Celiac Disease just to rule that out.”

I chuckled at this. I don’t have Celiac Disease.

Famous last words – the blood test confirmed an unusually high number of antibodies in my system that indicated an allergy to gluten (a protein found in wheat and barley). Despite my shock and denial, my doctor convinced me to see a gastroenterologist. A biopsy of my small intestine concluded that it was damaged – an autoimmune response caused by gluten allergies. I had Celiac Disease.

I still couldn’t believe it (talk about karma) – but after consultation with a dietitian and special diet information made available through the Canadian Celiac Association, I learned what I could and could not eat. Here I thought I was “eating healthy” by following the best food guides available to the public when all along I was one of those individuals who needed to better understand my personal dietary needs and food allergies.

After one year of being gluten free, I am feeling more energetic, no longer in a “brain fog”, and more positive about my health. I no longer have the abdominal distress that was caused by my food allergy. I learned to dial into what MY personal dietary needs were – while still consulting the Canada Food Guide with regards to the healthy foods I COULD eat.

Eating sensibly is an important aspect of living a long, healthy and active life. Following the guidelines and reading the educational materials is always a good practice. But there’s still a possibility that you might be missing something from your diet – or you might have a food allergy/sensitivity, such as lactose intolerance. Or possibly your body may not have the ability to absorb certain vitamins and minerals. Your digestive system is different than your friend’s. If you are following a nutritious, sensible diet, and still you’re still feeling “off”, or if you feel you should start a healthier diet regimen but you’re not sure where to start, remember that the guides out there are simply guides. To fully understand your unique nutritional needs, see your family doctor or consult with a nutritionist or dietitian. Healthy eating is not just a matter of adding the main food groups to your grocery list or daily menu planning – it’s learning to eat what is right for you.

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