Julie Farrell writes about changing diet for the sake of health. Illustration by Paige Collins.
Food was always at the centre of quality family time in our house – from our Friday Film night, with the four of us all huddled on the sofa; to Mum’s epic Sunday fry-up – it was always an event. All of our dinners during the week were had at the table so we could take it in turns to talk about our day over our meal. In some ways, this element of breaking bread hasn’t changed for us, but we’re doing our breaking these days without the actual bread. I was a greedy eater as a child and my eyes were most certainly bigger than my belly. I have vivid memories of tangy-sweet chicken Chasni, pinkly oozing over a golden sea of saffron rice, the colour diluting as it merged with the pale gold of lamb Korma. Or the oil-slickened noodles of a chow mein caressing the crispy shell of a sweet and sour chicken ball. Friday film night always brought a take-away, usually from one of the Chinese or Indian restaurants.
I used to think about it all day at school and was ravenous for it by the time I got home, changed out of my school uniform, and stood with my Dad for a whole fifteen minutes in the take-away, sniffing at the tantalising air. I have vivid memories of my Mum’s stodgy, creamy macaroni cheese (topped with a cheese-and-onion-crisp and cheddar crumb), her exotic jambalaya, and those Sunday fry-ups; she had a unique (to me) knack of getting the tatty scones just perfect – crisp on the outside but warm and fluffy on the inside, with no oily residue. She’d come scooting in from the kitchen in wafts of steam and plonk a mounded tray in the middle of the table – we’d be at it like wolves before she even took her own seat. I ate a lot. I obsessed about food. I always wanted more.
I took a lot of comfort from eating. I was the tallest, sturdiest girl in my class by the time I was on my way to high school, and it’s no surprise. These glorious meals were always washed down with a glass of full-fat milk. I wasn’t overweight; but I was a heifer.
When my Dad was diagnosed with coeliac disease nearly 20 years ago, we had to adapt overnight. Suddenly so much of our diet was off-limits (we wanted to help by doing it with him). I was frustrated. I was also slightly intrigued. What would we eat? We had our fair share of meat and veg nights (don’t forget the buttered tatties) but carbs were half of our diet.
“There’s no end to the sense of satisfaction I feel as I heave a fold of glossy, sticky, chocolate and peanut butter brownie mix into a tin.”
Pizza. Pasta. Bread. We had recently bought a toastie-maker that was practically one of the family! We quickly realised that gluten can be found almost anywhere in almost anything – doubling our grocery shopping time as we scoured the shelves, Coeliac Society guidebook in hand. It turned out to be a fortunate thing, as we all started to get much more clued up about nutrition and how closely it was linked to our health. It wasn’t too long after Dad’s diagnosis that my sister was diagnosed with a wheat intolerance. A couple of years later, so was I. Coeliac disease is an auto-immune disease which today affects around 1 in every 100 people in the UK. It is caused by the body reacting to gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye and oats), which results in irreparable damage to the stomach lining, which can then lead to a plethora of other issues such as anaemia and vitamin deficiencies. If you have a first degree family member who suffers from it, then your chances of having it jump to 1 in 10. When my Dad was diagnosed it was seen as a very rare, little understood condition.
Life without gluten was pretty tough to navigate back then, because we all relied on convenience foods so heavily (this was back in the 90s). Most of the substitution foods were prescribed, and pretty much had the taste and texture of cardboard. I doubt the smell of my dad’s first prescription loaf will ever leave my mind – a sort of salty-sweet smell, not unlike sweaty feet. Of course, we’ve learnt a lot since then, and we now know a healthy, balanced diet, shouldn’t really contain convenience foods – or their gluten-free counterparts. But a long time is good for learning new tricks, and thanks to widespread coverage in the mainstream media, it’s easier now than ever to be gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, and more. So – several various health complaints down the line for me, I opted to go 100% gluten-free two years ago, which resulted in a marked improvement in my health (my fibromyalgia symptoms are a shade of what they once were and I no longer have to make time for my post-lunch change into a looser waistband).
Since then, I have gradually become egg and dairy free, and have cut almost all sugar from my diet; only consuming it in my own home-baked cakes – gluten, egg and dairy free of course. My diet and relationship with food is a complete turnaround from what it once was. I now look to foods that will nourish my body – it’s a bonus if they satisfy my belly, and luckily that’s not hard to do. Just pop over to the food section of any bookshop and you will see that healthy living is the new living, and there is plenty of inspiration for the apprehensive food intolerance sufferer (if not a little too much).
I will always be a bit obsessed with food, and I have found a new freedom and motivation to explore new ones, and different ways to make something simple taste delicious. Don’t get me wrong, it can be really challenging, and some days I could cry over the want of a fish supper (and may have done). But. There’s also no end to the sense of satisfaction I feel as I heave a fold of glossy, sticky, chocolate and peanut butter brownie mix into a tin, or as I fill up bowls of fragrant vegetable soup, that I have made myself. Not only is this going to taste awesome, it’s also not going to wreak havoc on my organs. Be it brownie, salad, stir-fry or casserole; post-swim, yoga, walk or snooze – whatever I’m eating and wherever I’m eating it, I’m feeding my muscles, bones, mind, and importantly, my taste-buds.
The creative freedom in cooking my own food knows no bounds and can be a balm to the soul as I potter around in the kitchen. No longer do I mindlessly munch my way through countless bowls of pasta or take-away without a care for what they contain, but instead I absolutely savour the effort, consideration and thought that I’ve put into the food that nourishes me; knowing my body will reap the rewards – and that I will feel so much better for it.