When you can’t eat anything

December 15, 2016 § 4 Comments

Other people’s words about … IBS*

We’ve all been there. There are some days when it seems like everything you eat triggers an IBS attack. This is not your imagination; when your IBS is raging, your gastrocolic reflex can be so sensitive that simply drinking water can trigger dysfunctional colon contractions and IBS symptoms.

When this happens, you need to give your body a rest and stick to the safest foods and drinks possible in order to break the cycle of IBS.

from Help for IBS
a website by Heather van Vorous

* IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Honestly? The acronym definitely sounds better than the full name!

A long time ago, I promised you that I would never publish a recipe on this blog. Today I’m breaking that promise.

I’ve talked often about how much I love to bake and eat cake. These days, I enjoy every part of the process — stirring, whisking and beating the mixture; smelling it cooking in the oven; eating it afterwards. Sharing it with my partner. Setting aside slices for my parents when I next see them. Eating a sliver after dinner each night. I’ve come to believe that these things are, contrary to what one might think, healthy things to do.

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The older I get, the more I believe in these rituals, at least for me. For most of my late teens and twenties, and even during my early thirties, I was stuck in a pattern of abstinent eating, though my abstinence varied in its severity and compulsion, and definitely waned as I moved beyond late adolescence. At various times, I have been low-fat, vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten-free, wheat-free, bread-free, red-meat-free, dairy-free.

In the early days, the reasons for my restrictions were purely about trying to keep myself at an artificially low weight, though I would never have admitted this then, either to others or to myself. Later, the reasons for restricting my diet were less about my weight and more about my health. When I was diagnosed with IBS some years ago — which was an explanation, at least, for some of the weird ways my digestive system behaves — I obediently tried the Low Fodmap diet, as my GP suggested. (It didn’t work. I felt worse.) When I had glandular fever with persistent fatigue some years later, I tried a grain-free diet, on the advice of various paleo enthusiasts on the internet. (Uugh. This was a disaster. Never again.)

I discovered Heather van Vorous’s website and book some years ago, and found it more helpful than anything I’ve ever come across. She is not a doctor or a dietitian or a scientist: she is someone who has suffered from severe IBS all her life. Her suggestions read a lot like the dietary advice we were all given in the 1980s and early 1990s, and so run counter to the current prevailing dietary guidelines for people with health issues. In essence (and I’m massively over-simplifying here), she advocates regular and frequent consumption of foods containing carbohydrates and soluble fibre — particularly simple, starchy foods like white rice, pasta and bread. Meanwhile, she suggests reducing or altering your pattern of consumption of foods high in fat, like avocados and coconut, along with foods high in insoluble fibre, like lettuce and prunes. She also recommends reducing or altogether omitting consumption of red meat, dairy products and alcohol. I don’t follow her guidelines all the time, particularly the omission of those last three things, but when I am experiencing a bad bout of IBS, I find her guidelines both effective and comforting.

In the end, we are all individuals: our bodies react individually to whatever we put in them, and to the environment around them. There is no one perfect diet for good health and longevity. Health is a complex beast, referring to our physical and mental wellbeing, genetically inherited tendencies, life events and personal belief systems. Doctors and dietitians — and internet health gurus, particularly — would do well to remember that.

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What does all of this have to do with cake?

First, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that restriction and abstinence, in whatever form they appear, will never be healthy practices for me personally. They may make my body temporarily healthier, but my mind and my mental wellbeing suffer. And that’s no longer acceptable to me. It hasn’t been for years.

Second, when I’m sick, or experiencing a bad case of IBS, sometimes cake is the answer. That may sound counterintuitive, but, truly, there is a cake for every occasion. The recipe below is what I call my ‘comfort cake’. Even when my stomach is wobbly and uncertain — when cauliflower and bananas are no-go zones; when, as Heather van Vorous puts it, even a glass of water can trigger symptoms — I can eat this cake. Perhaps it’s the spices in it, most of which are carminative and some of which also have anti-emetic effects. Perhaps it’s the starch. Perhaps it’s purely psychological. Whatever the reason, this cake settles my stomach; it calms my system down; it’s safe. At the same time, it tastes good and it feels like a treat. I’d go so far as to say it’s my own particular everyday cake.

This may be the only recipe I ever post on my blog. I’m posting it here because it represents something that has become a core belief for me during the time I’ve been writing this blog — which is to say, the importance of finding, and sticking to, your own kind of wellness, no matter what anyone else says, even (especially?) the experts. I’m posting it, too, for those of my readers who have a wobbly stomach like me but haven’t found anything that eases it. (You never know — this might.)

Most of all, I’m posting this recipe because I hate that saying ‘have your cake and eat it’. Why would you have a cake and not eat it?

Chocolate comfort cake

Note:
This recipe is based on an original recipe by Heather van Vorous, although I have altered it, over the years, almost beyond recognition. If you make substitutions to it, please know that it may not turn out as you expected or as I have suggested. In particular, this cake does not work well if you make it with solely gluten-free flours, due to its lack of eggs and its low fat content.

Ingredients:

1 x 410 g can pears in natural fruit juice
2 cups spelt flour
2 small teaspoons bicarb soda/baking soda
1 tablespoon of almond flour or coconut flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa, sifted
1/4 cup oil

Instructions:

  1. Blitz the pears in their juice in a blender or a nutribullet until they form a smooth puree. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients until they are well combined and lump-free. Either almond flour or coconut flour works well in this recipe, depending on which flavour you prefer. The coconut flour will make for a slightly lighter but also a slightly drier cake.
  3. Add the pear puree and oil and stir well to form a smooth batter. Don’t overmix, as spelt flour has some gluten in it and over-stirring here will develop the gluten, making the cake tougher.
  4. Spoon into a greased and lined loaf tin and bake at 170 degrees Celsius for one hour or so, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean or with just a few crumbs clinging to it.
  5. Leave to cool in the tin for at least 20 minutes or until completely cool, as this cake, due to its lack of eggs and fat, is crumbly when still warm.
  6. Enjoy a slice or two with a cup of tea. If it is a sunny day and you have a balcony or a garden, go and sit out there and bathe yourself in sunshine while you eat!
  7. When your stomach is feeling stronger, this cake is good spread with a little coconut butter, butter or tahini. It is particularly nice shared with a friend.
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