The burden of food sensitivities adds to the stress of (van) life
No one talks about the burden of food sensitivities. It’s embarrassing. Who wants to share the details of gassy bowels? But unlike contemporary digestive systems, food sensitivities are not picky; they attack everyone. The lack of conversation on the subject adds to the anxiety. I know this firsthand.
I was mortified by my unruly bathroom habits when I returned to work – my last office job more than fifteen years ago – after a two-week hospital visit at the age of 31. It was then that I made the decision to go freelance, a choice most people make in order to be a free agent. I did it to be close to my own bathroom.
At the time, I didn’t connect the dots, didn’t see how my badly paid job and bad relationships contributed to my poor food choices and subsequent poor health. It would take me years to unpick the long list of bad habits that upset my bowels. And even more to put a care system in place that enabled me to have symptom-free days.
Living in a van slams the problem of food sensitivities in your face, and then some. As a woman with IBS, the smallest upset can shut down my metabolism, bloating my stomach, blocking my bowels, leaving me in such discomfort, I can’t think or move for days. I live in dread of a flare-up. To mitigate the chance of one in the van, I’ve been using an old trick, limiting my eating.
THE FOOD PROBLEM
This means I’m hungry a lot, which adds to the intensity of settling into van-life. I’m constantly moving and arranging, sorting and fixing and using a lot of energy. So far, I’ve managed to workout twice a week, not that it matters, every day is a friggin’ Iron Man Contest in my Betty, the van.
As a result, my metabolism is humming – just a few minor flare-ups that lasted no more than two hours, usually in the evening. My bowel movements are regular, in sync with nature. I go to sleep when night falls and wake with the light. My goal is to shit in the woods like a hunter, digging a little hole, sending bits of me back to ground, earth to earth. For now, there’s a cubby bathroom in the van, and I use plastic bags for convenience – a tip from the previous owner.
Food is the bigger problem. I’m still fixing some electrical issues (normal with old vans), which means no fridge (gets fixed tomorrow) and being a van, limited storage. My usual system is to prepare food in bulk a few times a week, store it in containers in the freezer, taking what I need a day in advance, making food choice easy on a daily basis.
This system does not work in the van. Not yet. In order to avoid flare-ups, I’ve carefully researched some local shops that sell free-range meat and veg. There’s not much I can buy in a supermarket but there are some staples I pick up there, almond milk, cane sugar, hazelnuts and dark chocolate. There are some food aisles in the supermarket where there’s not one thing I can eat.
THE ITCHY DOG PROBLEM
For now, my shopping trips are circuitous and laborious, as I attempt to maintain my system, a stress on me, and the dog. On Monday afternoon, the dog crawls into the back seat of my old car, gets comfortable, and refuses to move. When I offer food, she snubs it. She’s had enough of van-life. My body is craving rest and nutrients and hot showers. The dog is ready to abandon me.
There’s no room to be sick when you live outdoors. On Monday afternoon, a cut on my foot gets infected causing my feet and legs to swell. I take some zinc, silver, and copper, vitamins, and Maca, drag the dog out of the car, into the van and head to the sea, a familiar spot, the park next to a beach hotel I’ve frequented for years.
Before I moved into the van, people asked if I had a list of destinations I was keen to visit? My only plan was to transfer my life from indoors to outdoors. I had visions of buying fresh vegetables from local shops, making colorful salads for lunch, working out in the woods, showering on the beach, and writing all evening while the dog lounged on her starlit bed.
My vision is still a work-in-progress, a hazy mirage. Right now, a bigger worry is the dog; she won’t stop scratching. She’s got a rash on her skin but the scratching is a nervous twitch. She does it anytime she wants something, attention, a walk, food, water, sleep, if there’s another dog around, if she wants a treat, if I take too long switching off the light at night. She does it all day long.
It’s like living with a grumpy old man who communicates via a sort of physical Tourette’s. Scratchy-scratch: lights off. Scratchy-scratchy-scratch: now, bitch, now. We’ve been together fourteen years. We’re connected at an enteric level. If she can’t relax, neither can I. And visa versa. Who knows whose nerves are fraying whose?
WHOLE FOOD IS MEDICINE
Tuesday is market-day in the village so I head over there and buy a bunch of fresh vegetables, take them back to the van where I fire up the stove and make soup. With every piece of veg: garlic, onion, asparagus, pumpkin, apple, and carrot I cut, I feel stronger. I add lots of spices, heavy on the ginger, cumin and turmeric, for their anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.
I eat it with minced beef burgers, and fill two containers for the next day. I’m so renewed the next morning I have energy to workout. This is the power of good food: it’s medicine that restores a compromised body. Although I’m guilty of not eating to manage my IBS, it’s not my preferred way to operate. I much prefer to have a constant supply of healthy whole foods because that’s the way to keep my body ticking and my mind sane.
On Thursday, it rains all day, so me and the dog are stuck indoors, in the van, Betty with her leaks and creaks. It turns out to be a peaceful day of much-needed rest. For a change, we’re well fed and in good form. The dog is calm. Though I do run out of drinking water. In the van, there’s always something. The next day, the hunt for food begins again.
Travelling with IBS is a challenge. The following tips will make the trip less burdensome. That said some of you will need extra help, such as Dulcolax for constipation, or Imodium for diarrhoea.
- Find a bakery that makes fresh bread and test some items, but nothing with rye, barley or oats. Try croissants or some other kind of light dough bread.
2. Many supermarkets now have a rotisserie counter selling roast chicken, often a safe option.
3. If eating out, pick a plain meat option, with a side of cooked veg and chips. Don’t get anything with mayonnaise, honey or cream.
4. Pack a bar of dark chocolate and nuts in your bag for when you need a snack. Your local health shop may also have dried fruit, peanut butter, biscuits or crackers you can eat.
5. Homemade is best. This is the safest option but not always practical or possible. If you can, prepare easy to pack items like bananas, boiled eggs, pre-cooked chicken legs, biscuits and bread, and only eat what you pack.
6. Don’t eat after 9pm at night. Make sure to get seven hours sleep each night. Drink filtered water first thing when you wake up, or a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon.
7. If a flare-up occurs, stop eating. Don’t eat for 12 hours. Go to bed early. Before bed, drink a cup of hot water, and add a spoon of turmeric or ginger.
If you want updates on my journey into van-life to overcome the challenges of IBS, make sure to hit that follow button.
Do you prepare food in bulk? What’s your favourite dinner? Is there a way that when you can make it, you can make extra and store it? If so, try it out this week.
If you need help mapping out an eating plan to manage your IBS, get in touch today at firstname.lastname@example.org