Personal Statement: No more pretzels

Monday, November 20, 2017 - 1:49pm


Illustration by Amelia Cacchione


“Why even drink coffee if you’re gonna just have decaf?” I could probably buy my own coffee shop if I had a dollar for the number of times someone has asked me this.

“I like the taste but I don’t want to get addicted and then start to need the caffeine,” I would reply. Then it’d start a discussion about how they don’t taste the same. (Sorry, guys, even after having flirted with drinking coffee for almost half a year, I still taste no difference.)

Besides, I’m really much more of a tea person. But all tangents aside, the rationale for my seemingly backward coffee-drinking habits was simple: Drink one cup of cheap, decaf coffee when I crave the taste of it (coffee connoisseurs, don’t @ me) and that, in turn, would leave me satisfied for at least a month or two. I thought allowing myself to have a little when I was really craving it would be just enough to satiate my hankering but not so much as to turn me into a regular coffee drinker. 

Cue junior-year second semester. I was sluggish and tired, and the nausea and stomachaches I’d always had, but chosen to ignore, were now almost daily occurrences and were worse than ever. My mom suggested I see a nutritionist. After I described my symptoms to her, the nutritionist seemed to immediately understand what was going on.

“I think you have a candida infection,” she told me. “Essentially, there is yeast buildup in your bloodstream. So, you need to eliminate gluten and sugar from your diet. Some low-sugar fruits are OK, but in moderation.” (Read: no more than half-cup of low-sugar fruits per day.)

At this point, I was already intolerant to dairy products and, more recently, eggs, so this was the icing on top of a really burnt, dry cake. So, even though I saw it would be a challenging road ahead, because I’m one of those people who trusts health professionals, I let her send me on my way with a recipe book of dairy-free, egg-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, air-free (I’m just kidding) meals to cook.

Fast forward three weeks or so: I’m sitting in the newsroom of The Michigan Daily, munching on a salad from Au Bon Pain. It was the southwest chicken salad (hold the tortilla strips). It was the first real meal I’d had all day, and the second time that week I’d had this salad.

Almost immediately after starting the diet, I went back to school. It was my first semester as co-editorial page editor — a job that consumed at least 20 hours of every week — and four classes that had multiple assignments due every week as well as a mountain of reading for each lecture. (Thank you, sociology and Spanish majors.)

Just like any other busy college student, I had no time to spend hours in the kitchen preparing alternative meals. So, instead, I spent it obsessing, worrying about what I was eating. I started eating less and less, until I was only having one whole meal a day to avoid having to deal with the dreaded question “What was I going to eat?”

And because my eating habits became so messed up, I would snack on whatever fit the diet, and in large quantities — bags of popcorn, corn tortilla chips — because my meals weren’t satisfying enough. Then I quickly got sick of those foods, too.

Breakfast used to be my favorite meal of the day, but without toast and after being told I should “stay away” from gluten-free bread — “Who knows what preservatives they have in there!” — I had lost my favorite meal. I hated thinking about food.

This semester, I cracked. I started getting hungrier and unhappier. Because I hadn’t been allowed to eat so many things, I started eating more sugary treats and junk food than I’ve ever in my life. I started eating way more of the basic foods I’d loved but had been told to stay away from.

I began to lie awake at night, thinking about how bad I’d been at keeping with the diet and whether the pack of Starbursts I’d had was making my infection worse. This, in turn, made my sleep worse and my eating habits kept spiraling downward. If I was already giving up on this diet, what was another gluten-filled sandwich or pack of sugary fruit snacks?

One day, though, as I went to The Daily’s vending machine and saw I was about to take the last Starbursts pack (sorry, Michelle), I realized I’d eaten more Starbursts that week than I’d had in my entire life. I love Starbursts, but I’d always had them only once in a while, and they were a special treat I looked forward to.

But as I sat down with my fifth pack of Starbursts that week, I realized the only reason I was eating more sugar than I normally do was because of the unreasonable restrictions of my new diet I wasn’t used to. While the nutritionist may have been right to tell me I’d been having too many family-sized bags of pretzels, asking someone to eliminate something entirely is a tall order. Some may be able to do that fairly easily, but everyone is different and, for people like me, extreme restriction manifests itself as a stressor in an already stressful life. I could likely achieve the same goals of getting better sleep, warding off infection and leading an overall healthier lifestyle — if I just practiced limiting these foods in moderation. I knew my body best.

Now, I’m still not a coffee drinker. But it’s not because I forced myself to cut it out completely. I simply let myself indulge in a cup now and then, enjoying the flavors when I want to. Though I realize it’s not always feasible to practice moderation — as some people with allergies or severe intolerances have to abide by strict diets — I implore us as doctors, nutritionists and a society to work moderation into our discourse and health care programs to recognize that people are different and what works for one does not work for another.