My name is Susan Jane. Picture MacGyver in an apron with a grumpy husband who thinks he’s a restaurant critic and two ravenous little punks to feed six times a day. Food is my thing, it keeps me happy. People say my energy levels would rival Graham Norton on acid. But I wasn’t always so bionic.
Thirteen years ago I was a model student. Literally. Modelling became a valuable source of income at college in Dublin, and later, at Oxford. It’s supposed to be a glamorous job, but when you see what models live on – cigarettes and diet cola – you have to wonder. Back then, I never saw myself as someone who needed to change. I was hyper, stubborn and deluded – what could possibly go wrong? After all, there was nothing out of the ordinary about my diet: jam-filled scones, toast, pasta, breakfast cereals, toast, take-out sambos and more toast. Standard Irish fare. No wonder I tried to regulate my moods with criminal amounts of caffeine. I hardly thought to ask any questions about the ingredients in my energy drink or the Monster Munch I devoured with the giddy determination of a clamper kneecapping a Bentley in the bus lane. I blindly trusted the ‘food authorities’, whoever they were, and I never imagined that beef burgers, for example, might contain horsemeat, that chicken products could test positive for pork or that our modern diet would lead millions into diabesity. Like Alice in Wonderland, I was jumping feet first into a deep, dark rabbit hole. Except this was no tea party.
One day in the summer of 2005 my body said no, enough. First came the shakes. Horrid urinary infections. Constipation. Mouth ulcers. Exhaustion. But nobody suggested that maybe I was contributing to my ill health. My digestive system wheezed like an asthmatic snail, yet diet apparently had nothing to do with it. Ten years ago the medical community dismissed the idea of food sensitivities like tycoons scoffing at global warming. Contemplating such an idea was daft. After all, test results had shown I was not coeliac or diabetic. Case closed. The chronic conditions started to make themselves at home. Thrush. Earaches. Dizziness. Psoriasis. Headaches. Cold sores. But I didn’t have time to respect the symptoms and turned to self-medication. I had papers to submit and was hell bent on a place on Oxford Uni’s modern pentathlon team. There was literally no time to be sick.
I ended up in hospital, with tubes coming out of … well, everywhere. They sent in doctor after doctor. As the consultants handed me their cards, I noticed the letters after their names kept getting longer and longer. Yet no one could figure out why my body was as limp as a wet lettuce. I was numb, physically and emotionally. After twelve courses of antibiotics, several hospitalisations, a course of steroids, anti-fungal colon treatments and many futile vaccinations, I felt unlucky but in no way responsible. Then my white blood cells packed up (hello, lymphopenia!).
One afternoon in hospital I got chatting to an elderly lady called Lucy in the cubicle next to me. I wasn’t certain why Lucy had been admitted. She was frail but so sweet in her papery mint gown, smiling back over the sheets. We talked for hours. I cried inside when she asked to hold my hand to give her strength. Lucy cooed about her love of bread making, yet she was coeliac (so her body could not handle gluten). I remember thinking how strange that was: ignoring the signals her system was sending. Across the room, another patient was tucking into jelly and ice cream from the hospital canteen. She was being treated for ‘complications’ arising from diabetes and obesity. It was like death on a plate, and horribly ironic that the hospital staff were her accomplices. The sight sent a chill up my arms. Both women knew their poison but chose to ignore it. They were digging their way to their graves with their teeth.
A little later, I heard a loud flat bell. Doctors and nurses ran in and sectioned me off from Lucy. I never saw her adorable face again. No one did.
The following morning I looked in the mirror, and what I saw made me cry. I turned away from the mirror, and in that instant – a wrenching minute of pure self-knowledge, accompanied by a sort of grief for the person I was now saying goodbye to – I made the most important decision of my life: to take control of my health. Raising my head, I looked into that mirror once again. And I nodded.
My nutritional pilgrimage started with a journey to Dr Joe Fitzgibbon, a doctor who specialises in food sensitivities and fatigue, with clinics in Dublin and Galway. I travelled six hours by train for every visit. Together we tackled the elimination diet, stripping my meals to very basic foods like meat, fish, pulses, beans and vegetables. Every couple of weeks I reintroduced specific foods to my diet to monitor symptoms, like a food detective. It felt like someone was sucking the illness out of my body. That austere diet made me see the intimate connection between energy levels and the food we eat. Good food keeps you on your tippy toes. Poor food will have you on your knees. Wheat and sugar were lethal in my system, so I waved goodbye to bread, pasta, sugar and all manner of processed food. That was nine years ago.
Food intolerances are an opportunity to escape the shackles of processed food and the excesses of the Wheat-Sugar-Dairy merry-go-round. There are legions of grains, flours and funky beans to experiment with in place of boring pasta and bread, and healthy fats like walnut, coconut, sesame and hemp seed oils. Discovering this wealth of options was my second light bulb moment. My ‘restrictive’ diet was nothing of the sort. It was incredibly liberating.
By continuing to feed our bodies with one-dimensional foods made from white sugar, white flour and industrially produced chemicals, we condition our brains to accept crap. Breaking the habit is challenging, but once you experience the benefit of eating whole, unprocessed foods, you will never look back. Make no mistake, it’s a love affair like no other. But don’t just take my word for it. See for yourself. Of course you don’t have to give up wheat, sugar and dairy to eat well, and slip-ups are a natural (and necessary) part of the journey. Everyone has different needs and different poisons. That’s what makes humans so damn charming. But whatever your reasons for exploring new and nourishing foods away from the circus of convenience, you are very welcome to the Extra Virgin Kitchen.
Susan Jane White
Susan Jane White is a specialist cook, food columnist with The Sunday Independent, former president of Oxford University’s Gastronomy Society, and popular broadcaster on healthy eating. Follow Susan Jane on Twitter!
’The Extra Virgin Kitchen. Recipes for Wheat-Free, Sugar-Free and Dairy-Free Eating’ is published by Gill Books (€27.99/€22.39)
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