Repairing The Relationship With Food That Migraine Took From Me

Dinosaur chicken nuggets hold a small knife in their hand as the chop up other dinosaur chicken nuggets on a cutting board. Some of the nuggets attempt to escape to the arugula and tomato salad behind it.

Just this last week, National Eating Disorders Awareness week came to a close. For months I’ve been going back and forth on how to write this piece as every once in a while I see an old piece I wrote – My Migraine Diet – resurfacing and I’m reminded just how much I’ve gone through because of migraine and various medication trials that have completely changed my approach to food.

One of my biggest barriers has always been trying to figure out just how to discuss this phenomena. The phrasing disordered eating captures it really well. I have a complicated relationship with eating, with keeping myself fed, and with the way providing nutrients to my body often is at odds with various medication and lifestyle changes I’m going through.

I want you to know that this story has a happy ending, but that parts of this piece discusses diet culture and sometimes harmful habits that may be triggering.

My relationship to food was broken when my migraines shifted from being episodic to chronic daily over the summer of 2016. This was between the time I graduated from high school and began my college career.

Transitioning to college and dorm life in the midst of my migraines getting severe meant being on my own when it came to food. There were so many options for foods, but even looking at food caused me to feel wrapped up in all of the perceived smells and textures and aftertastes of whatever I chose. But because there were so many options, I got bored rather quickly as the “safe” foods I could eat became exhaustingly repetitive.

Perhaps part of this was a consequence of having home cooked meals growing up and always have a variety of meals throughout the week. And really good meals at that.

Campus food may have been expensive, but unless I wanted to dish out almost $10 on fancy boars head subs, the dining hall food was cafeteria like.

And because I continued to get sicker as the weeks went on, I found it rather easy to link the dining hall food to my worsening condition and the emergence of stomach problems. Eventually, I stopped going to the dining hall and ate a diet of minute rice, chicken tenders, and teriyaki sauce, the occasional pasta with spaghetti or alfredo sauce, and oatmeal. If I was really lucky I’d have some broccoli.

I was starving.

By the time I knew something was really wrong I’d past a point of no return. I was severely underweight and had become sensitized to most food groups. Any time I consumed diary or anything with much flavor I’d get sick. Which only pushed me to even more restrictive eating habits.

Second semester things began to improve, I had my car with me on campus and was better equipped to get a better variety of items from the grocery store while also more aware that eating needed to be my top priority.

By that summer I was living in my own place just off campus and for the first time had a kitchen at my disposal.

Learning to cook was something I wanted to do, but I mostly stuck with crock pot recipes and “dump” type meals that got baked. I ate a lot of strawberry covered waffles that summer.

By this point in time, I was aware that migraine could be triggered by food. This was some of the most dominant messaging I was exposed to. Even though triggers were an “if” food triggers were presented as the root of all of my problems.

I did my first elimination attempt and removed caffeine for a month. I didn’t have the initial coffee withdrawal headache I’d heard about and as the month went on my migraines remained steady. I slowly reintroduced coffee and my migraines remained steady. This seemed like an easy enough process. If I could avoid a “common trigger” maybe I could find what it was that was making things worse.

A year went by and the stress of a new job and full time school meant food took a back seat in my life once again. I had a few periods of time where I felt as if I was reverting back to not being able to eat anything, but it never became severe so much of that time has been forgotten. I wasn’t in control of much of my own food at that time as my roommate did most of the shopping and cooking and I mostly grazed.

During this year however, my food aversion during my migraine attacks got much more pronounced. Some days I’d get home and as I’d make my way to our end of the hall apartment, the smell of the roasting garlic would smack me in the face halfway there. The smell alone was enough to make me skip dinner that night.

As my migraines continued to climb towards severely disabling, food smells played a huge role in the deteriorating relationship I had with food. I eventually stopped going to restaurants, because even on days where I was okay the competing smells would quickly trigger a migraine.

Nausea became my worst enemy. This was my most pronounced migraine symptoms aside from the physical pain.

In the summer of 2018, my feelings towards food reached an extremely negative light. I’d always been against the idea of a food being inherently good or bad, but the “food triggers are your real problem” messaging pushed me over an edge. Blackberries were the first casualty.

They’d been on sale so I’d been eating them nonstop, preparing them over french toast, eating them straight from the container. And I noticed that within half an hour, the nausea would arrive. It was the blackberries. The blackberries were the source of my nausea. My trigger tracking told me it was so.

Shortly thereafter I moved home, still nauseous, disabling migraines, and absolutely no answers.

I made a commitment to myself to find the source of all of this.

One of the first months, I began having stomach problems again. I suspected I had IBS. Every time I’d get close to meal time, even if I’d been fine all day long, I’d be hit with a wave of nausea and then struggle to eat my dinner. I had learned from the year prior that I had to eat anyway, not eating would always result in me being sicker, and for much longer.

This time, I took it to my doctor.

Doctor’s love the idea that anything wrong with you can be blamed on what you’re eating, so they don’t really care if they’re glazing over the formation of habits that are destructive and harmful in the longterm. They’ll congratulate you for choosing to go gluten free and then forget to tell you that if you haven’t consumed any gluten recently, that bloodwork to test for sensitivities is actually useless. Because it relies on you having gluten in your system. But they are so proud of you for cutting out all that bad bread.

I continued to get sicker. But I wasn’t eating any gluten. And my gluten tests came back just fine.

I began eating bread again.

In the spring of 2019, the IBS reached a severe level that caused me to seek out urgent care. This was right at the point where I wrote about my migraine diet. Even though I was unwell, I though I had a grip on a solid relationship with food. Which, to be fair, I did. I’d gone through so much and was finally eating three meals a day. I had forgiven those poor blackberries for having an unrelated correlation to my nausea.

I knew at that point that food triggers weren’t something I had. But I wasn’t sure. I began to think that in season fruits and veggies were good, while out of season ones would cause problems. I thought citrus was a magical cure, sometimes. I had pinpointed that heavy cream was not my friend.

I applauded myself for the shopping habits I’d picked up along the years that told me to focus on the perimeter of the grocery store. That the middle of the store where all those preservative filled, ingredient heavy foods were was bad. I went so far as to make my salad dressings from scratch.

I knew that I needed a nutrient dense breakfast. I had found that my brief exposure to the keto diet birthed a useful snack habit of something protein rich like nuts and dried fruit.

So much of these concepts were rooted in diet culture and pervasive messaging that was contradictory and often unrelated to actual health outcomes.

But so much of what I knew to be true was slightly off base, and because of my own misconceptions the path I went down next destroyed my relationship with food all over again.

The one thing I got right back then when looking at my migraine diet was the importance of consistency. Not allowing myself to ebb and flow too much between states of fullness and hunger, maintaining a more consistent state within my body where blood sugar wasn’t rapidly changing perhaps causing migraines.

My stint in the hospital with my IBS flare was only made worse by the doctors who tried to “help” and prescribed a low fodmap diet were the same doctor’s who accused me of having a purge based eating disorder and insisted migraines weren’t real, they especially couldn’t be disabling.

Being congratulated by nurses for being underweight while being accused of having an eating disorder later in the visit planted the seed that down the road would prevent me from being able to seek help or fully name the disordered eating.

I was introduced to the concept of gut health by a pharma company I collaborated with and then the concepts they asked me to write about were echoed in a lifestyle program I had embarked on.

I took my tried and true half a bagel and 2 eggs for breakfast and I replaced it with homemade granola and fresh fruit over yogurt. Probiotics were my new miracle.

And I almost made it into remission for my stomach and my migraines.

But. Wait? Remission she says? Yogurt?

I was fooled once again by correlation and the lifestyle program was diet culture informed propaganda that continued to lead me down a spiraling well directly into a full blown eating disorder.

I was tracking every piece of food that went into my mouth. I was tracking every spice. Every source where the food came from.

I was learning to cook. We had dozens of recipes to try, most of them full of delicious fruits and veggies. Each week these recipes would guide us towards a new area of food to focus on.

I was being celebrated by my coach for how little my adjustments had to be because I was already a “good eater” and didn’t eat all that bad stuff.

This was early summer of 2019.

By mid-summer, I was trending backwards with my health despite my stomach being much more calibrated.

I was desperately shuffling through every food group to do elimination diet after elimination diet. The yogurt and granola had worked. Surely somewhere along the line I’d messed up. One of these other foods I was eating was preventing me from having my entire life back. I mean my lifestyle coach said it himself, he only got better when he took full control of what he was eating. He went so far as to eat completely different meals than what his wife was eating. His whole life was dedicated to food.

My whole life was dedicated to food.

Some weeks the eliminated items were easy. I was flying through it. But why was my health declining again?

And then we eliminated this group called nightshades. These are you peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes along with your yummy spices like paprika, garam masala, and cayenne.

The guidance this week was lackluster and focused on foods I couldn’t eat: primarily avocados which I am allergic to.

I was alone. I was getting sicker. I couldn’t find resources on food alternatives or recipes that I could eat and I took a mental dive off the deep end.

Because of course at this time, I was being programmed to think that everything I ate had to be intentional and untouched by the world of processing. So although the “elimination” was just nightshades, I refused to eat any kind of refined carbohydrate or processed food. My options for food consumption were close to zero. I was restricting myself under the guide of intention.

And my coach? He told me even if I eliminated these items for two weeks as advised, digestion is a strange thing and it may actually take weeks to notice how my body was reacting. I may react to the pepper that same day but a week from now I could have a migraine caused by the tomato I ate today and that was my job to do this kind of tracking to find those patterns.

These constraints? Weren’t realistic. These were not guides. These were excuses the coach could fall back on if I didn’t continue to get better. That I simply hadn’t worked hard enough.

Yogurt probably did a lot of good things for me.

But the reason my IBS cleared up? I stopped all of my abortive medications. I can look back at my charts and my notes and see that every time I took pain medicine, it dehydrated me and caused my entire digestive system to back up. Gut flora be damned, I was literally just dehydrated and stopping the cause of the dehydration, fixed the problem. I just happened to eat yogurt at the same time.

And yogurt? Yogurt also was the thing that told me I had a problem. You see, I used to pour off that layer of watery stuff at the top of my yogurt and one day I dumped an entire brand new container down my garbage disposal. And this was after 3 days of back and forth because I’d gotten the wrong flavor of yogurt delivered and was stubborn enough to go to the store to replace it to get the correct stuff. I had a yogurt crisis.

Crying over spilt milk…err yogurt. The problem was much bigger than yogurt but that’s just where it decided to erupt.

Fall was arriving. My lifestyle program was coming to an end. My migraines returned on an upswing.

I was a failure.

I failed the program.

And what I got from it? An actual eating disorder.

I had no idea where to go from there. The concept of food triggers had been taken to such an extreme that every time I’d try and plan a meal or grocery shop I’d have a breakdown. We’d done vitamin testing under the advisement of the program, but because my numbers all looked good I was too traumatized from previous experiences to even consider asking my doctor for help.

I happened across an ad for a meal delivery service at a steep discount. And I jumped at it. I could have a break from having to meal plan and grocery shop and I could shift that burden onto this nice green box that would be brought right to my door.

This was the first time I actually began to repair my relationship with food. I allowed something external to take on some of the responsibility.

I learned that I not only needed to have help, but I needed to actually learn to cook.

It sounds silly but these simple 6 step instruction cards with all of the ingredients already proportional to the amount of servings I needed taught me how to cook.

And because of the community I built around myself I was able to take full advantage of the various referral programs meaning that I was actually spending less money on these delivery boxes than I had been spending on groceries.

Over the next few months my confidence in the kitchen grew and I got myself on track to reaching weight goals that would prevent flare periods from pushing me back to underweight.

Even though I was doing well, my emotional state and my relationship to food was still incredibly fragile. And all of my time? Was still dedicated to food.

When the pandemic hit I lost control of large portions of food related things. I could no longer access various foods as different shortages hit. Acquiring food became an incredible disruption between weeks long wait lists for food delivery and the inability to be in the store picking out the fresh products I relied on.

I also relocated during this time and no longer had access to my own private kitchen.

I’ve talked before about the freedoms my own kitchen gives me and how it is an access need. A lot of it has to do with having control over the space, the smells, and the noise, but the other half of that story comes from the stress of fighting an eating disorder.

Having to prepare food in the presence of other people intensifies all of the negative feelings you may have. Having to plan food or coordinate meals that are inclusive of other people intensifies the stress involved with carefully crafting every part of what you consume. Having to explain every detail of what’s difficult, what foods you can’t eat, what foods you try to limit, and all of the accommodations you go through over and over again turns food into an enemy.

When food becomes an enormous source of stress it is impossible to try and mend your relationship with it. The best you can do is try and work with what you’ve got and ensure that you’re keeping yourself fed, but often at the expense of your mental and physical health.

Between the onset of the pandemic and the unraveling of other competing health and space issues, my progress with food was put on hold completely.

Many of my negative feelings and concerns about various food groups resurfaced in conjunction with my IBS returning due to a medication reaction. It felt like setback after setback.

In summer of 2021 I came down with Lyme disease and the subsequent attempt to treat symptoms and later the disease came around to shake the foundation I had with food to its core once more.

My first round of antibiotics came with restrictions on dairy consumption. Up until this moment, the one consistent thing remained my granola, fruit and yogurt for breakfast. I was absolutely terrified about what would happen to my gut health if I had to stop my yogurt. I was even more concerned about finding something I could eat in the mornings.

Consistency was one of the lessons I had learned early on in my journey with food, and consistency translates over to management of migraine and arthritis and IBS. So the uncertainty of what I’d eat for breakfast for the first time in over 2 years plus the knowledge that heavier foods like breads could bring the IBS back front and center forced me to move forward with extreme caution.

Along the way of this food journey, I discovered that it was imperative to eat a high protein snack each night before bed as this helped tied me over for the IBS required fasting that made it very difficult to eat prior to 10AM. This is relevant here as trying to find a breakfast one can eat that will sufficiently break one’s fast but lacks carbs is… pretty damn near impossible.

I struggled the first few weeks as a result and spent much of my time trying to combat hunger induced nausea. I wasn’t getting enough breakfast.

But as I discovered this connection and pushed my lunch much closer to my breakfast? The antibiotics stripped me of my appetite.

Every symptom that prevented me from cooking, and condition that made basic tasks damn near impossible aside, I stopped wanting to eat. Nothing tasted good. Nothing was satisfying. I wasn’t interested in anything. Which on days where the nausea was strong? Made it all that much easier to simply not eat.

My final course of antibiotics only made all of this worse, except with these I could safely have dairy again.

It was as if every inch of progress I had made over the last 4 years was wiped away. I was back at square one and although I knew how to cook now, access to alternatives like take out and access to groceries were vastly reduced.

By late fall, I could eat again.

But as the sun set earlier and COVID cases began to climb, the fatigue of rotating the same meals and being reduced to produce that would last between grocery trips took the fun out of cooking. It didn’t feel like I was doing much work towards food.

I never went back to yogurt and granola for breakfast. I tried smoothies. Sometimes oatmeal. I briefly went back to bagels and eggs. Sometimes I’d make a fancy waffle with blueberry sauce. Maybe I’d make some bacon. Or eggs on toast. Or hot grapenuts.

I was making progress that I wasn’t completely aware of. What had once been a non-negotiable part of my day suddenly had variety. This was the first change.

I didn’t get sick from eating carbs.

And I started trying more new things.

Often in very small bursts as much of the time my health still prevented me from consistently cooking the way I wanted to. But I tried new recipes. Some were terrible. But none of them made me sick.

I began to prioritize food a bit differently. Rather than viewing food as a means to health or as a burden, I tried to look at food through an effort lens. What could I always throw together as a meal. What foods would I have to keep on hand for these options. What food didn’t require that I give it any thought.

I started to eat a lot more meals with a Basmati rice base because it cooks quicker than brown rice.

I found that arugula is the best salad green because it stays fresh for a really long time in the fridge. Which meant I could consistently keep salad fixings on hand for one of my quick meals.

Dinosaur chicken nuggets were a stepping stone to making food fun again. Chopped up chicken nuggets are great on salads, but even more fun when they start out as prehistoric friends.

We yell at children for playing with their food, but maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe a little bit of play is what can save our relationships with what we eat.

I began to reinvent recipes I’d tried that I hadn’t liked with ingredients and flavors I did like.

I discovered a rather frustrating flautas recipe was made simple if I bought precooked smoked pulled pork, pre prepped pico de gallo, and assembled the dish in a single serve pan and tossed it in the oven.

One of the concepts throughout this time that I’ve come to really enjoy is about creating a colorful plate. Abandoning the ideas of good foods and bad foods and trying to eat multiple colors is fun. One challenge I’ve done recently is to try and collect as many colors as I can in a single day.

Apples. Tomatoes. Carrots. Honey. Arugula. Blueberries. oops I missed purple. Yogurt. Strawberry mochi. Peanut Butter.

I notice I eat a lot of red foods like tomatoes and apples and that blue and purple foods are a bit harder to come by.

I found that as time has continued to go by and my relationship with the act of cooking and eating fluctuate, meal planning and grocery shopping continued to be a pretty big source of stress.

I finally decided I needed to be a bit more flexible. Before the pandemic and when I lived a block away from numerous grocery stores, I would grocery shop multiple times in a week. Planning meals when you only shop once a week and may need to stretch to a week and a half between trips means that part of that meal planning happens with canned or frozen veggies or extremely limited fresh foods. There is no room for creativity and cooking something on a whim when ingredient acquisition has been scaled back tremendously.

I co-shop with my parents, so we decided to try something new. We will grocery shop every Tuesday and Friday.

The impact of this change was felt almost immediately.

Because I tend to cook portions intended for a family, each meal lasts upwards of four to five days. With meals like salads and quick throw together fill ins, each trip to the grocery store requires me to plan whatever meal I want right away and then grab an extra veggie that that can be used in whatever I eat next.

I’ve stopped meal planning.

Even on days where I know I don’t have any food planned, I suddenly have that extra bandwidth that had been completely dedicated to planning and shopping and ensuring I was feeling good enough on my “cook” day that I can just throw together a meal.

I can open up Pinterest or google an ingredient and pick out something that sounds good without being overwhelmed by choices or having to consider if I use that up what if I need it down the road, because there’s always a grocery trip in the future.

I find myself in a place I never thought I’d be. I’m free from the shackles of diet culture that had informed so much of how I navigated food and feelings around food.

I eat when I’m hungry.

I play with my food.

It isn’t perfect.

I still struggle and probably always will when it comes to discussions of food.

I still tend to get nauseous if people start talking about food I either don’t like or when the conversation lingers for too long and I can begin to sensationalize texture, flavor, smell. Which forces me to retreat.

I still stand pretty firm on what I will and won’t eat, which means that the traditional holidays full of food are something I will likely never participate in.

Restaurants are still too much commotion for me, and that’s okay. But that is tied more to my health than it is to how I feel about food.

I find encouragement in places some may not agree with. Nutritionists who dedicate their time to discussing whole foods, plant based eating, and the ways food is beneficial to our health are of great value to me. To some, this may be a segment of diet culture, for me natural/holistic based relationships with food help me learn and appreciate food in a positive light that continues to aid in the healing of this relationship.

There isn’t anything perfect about this journey.

But I’m falling in love with cooking again and this time I see food as simply food and for me, my intent is joy.

A.

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