When you have gut issues, dietary adjustments are often a pivotal part of healing and symptom management. The standard American diet is highly refined, inflammatory and low in fermentable fibers. These factors make the SAD disastrous on the gut.
Shifting to an anti-inflammatory, whole foods, nutrient dense diet is a necessary step to repairing and rebuilding your gut. Many sufferers have to also avoid their triggers to help manage their symptoms and promote healing.
Lots of SIBO sufferers avoid fermentable fibers like the plague in fear that fiber will feed the SIBO. In the short term, these diets can help manage symptoms. This fear can easily morph into a disordered eating pattern.
I used to irrationally believe that one Brussel sprout would tip me over the edge and set me back months! I was the perfect patient when it came to sticking to the SIBO Specific that I was prescribed. I wouldn’t cut myself any slack. To get better, I had to restrict with absolutely NO CHEATING!
But, as I have written before, diets that starve the gut bacteria of their fuel source can often make matters worse over time. That is exactly what happened to me!
The restrictions of this diet:
- Overwhelmed me
- Caused me to unintentionally under eat
- Wrecked my hormones (even more than they already were)
- Allowed opportunistic pathogens to take hold in the large intestine
- Developed nutrient deficiencies
- Isolated me from friends and family
- Increased my symptoms
While I have addressed my skepticisms regarding restrictive SIBO diets in the past, I haven’t discussed cheating before!
When I was on my super restrictive diet, I was chained to my kitchen. I hated going out with friends or family to restaurants. I often couldn’t eat anything on the menu and I was also embarrassed to ask the wait staff about accommodating my needs (no one wants to be the demanding person at the table).
The discomfort was equally as bad at parties and celebrations. I would often have to bring my own food and avoid eating any of the delicious foods prepared by the host. There was also the unrelenting questions by curious friends and family about your diet restrictions. It was exhausting!
The best way I could describe my experience on my SIBO diet was that I was “white knuckling it” and “hanging on for dear life”. I put so much into it and received nothing in return.
Are you really cheating? Or is your diet not the right fit?
When trying to figure out if cheating on your diet is ok, you first need to determine if your diet is the right fit. Mine certainly was not. My diet was unnecessarily restrictive to begin with.
Avoiding all fermentable fibers with SIBO is not the answer in most SIBO cases. If restricting fiber was the answer, then the more strict people were the better the outcomes. However, I see the opposite. The more restrictive my clients are the worse they usually feel.
If you always feel deprived and struggle daily not to “cheat”, then you probably need to loosen the reins on your diet. In my SIBO specific diet days, I would consider any foods in the no column as a cheat. But since I didn’t react to lots of the no foods, my cheat foods were a lot broader than they should have been.
Having tons of cravings can also be another indicator that your diet is too strict and you may not be getting the nutrients that you need. I see a lot of gut patient eating too few carbohydrates and they crave sugar/carbs, because their diet is not meeting their needs.
If you feel like I did, that you are hanging on for dear life trying to maintain your diet, you should narrow your definition of what a cheat is. Not every food that has fermentable fibers should be considered a cheat.
How do I define a cheat (or treat)?
First, I don’t really love the word cheat because it is associated with guilt. It makes you feel like you are doing something wrong. But, with SIBO and other gut issues, it can be nearly impossible to eat a perfect SIBO diet. Trying to maintain a perfect SIBO diet made me sicker.
I prefer to use the term treat versus cheat, because it shifts the focus from feeling guilty to feeling pleasure. It is 100% acceptable and enjoyable to eat out side of your diet now and again.
What a treat/cheat looks like is going to be different depending on each person. To me cheat/treat foods can be broken into 3 categories.
Processed and nutrient poor foods
I always think of typical junk food items in this category like ice cream, cookies, sugary treats, fast food, pop tarts, hot pockets, mac and cheese, restaurant fare etc. Many people with SIBO will not do well if these are incorporated into their diets on a regular basis. Plus, these foods are not nutrient dense and tend to be more inflammatory.
Many SIBO sufferers have trigger foods. For me, gluten was a big trigger. At times, I was also reactive to dairy and higher FODMAP foods like raw onions. These will vary greatly based on the person.
Spirits can be hard on the gut. As a reformed party girl, I found cutting the booze difficult during my SIBO journey. Looking back, I probably restricted my alcohol intake a little more than I needed to. I was ok have a little wine or vodka at special occasions without any trouble.
There are 4 key factors when determining how to cheat on your diet without derailing your progress.
1. Know which trigger foods are worth cheating
Certain treats may be more tolerable in your particular case than others. You need to be able to weigh the pros and cons of treating yourself.
Lets say you are at a football viewing party (don’t you love hypothetical situations). There are all kinds of treats there like pizza, chili, beer/wine, veggies with hummus and chips with guacamole/salsa. You know that you would be on the toilet all day and feel horrible bloating if you ate the pizza because dairy and gluten just don’t sit well with you. Therefore, the glorious moments of pleasure while eating that pizza may not be worth it to you.
But, you know that you can handle a moderate amount of hummus, chips with guacamole and the chili with only a mild increase in bloating. The benefits of enjoying the food and connecting with your friends over a shared experience might then out weight the mild increase in bloating.
2. Quantity of the treat
You may be able to tolerate a little bit of your cheats like beans in a soup or one cookie, but going overboard may cause symptoms. Allowing your self to have a tolerated amount of a treat can help you from feeling deprived.
3. Frequency of the treat
Try to determine how often you can treat yourself without noticing any increases in symptoms. I love dairy free ice-cream and I can tolerate it once a week, but I wouldn’t feel great if I ate it every day.
In generally for healthy patients, I recommend an 80/20 rule. Stay on your optimal diet 80% of the time, but give yourself a break 20% of the time. When you are going through treatment, you may need to be a little stricter like 90/10 or even 95/5, but you can still give yourself some leeway. What foods constitute the 90/10 percentages are going to vary based on the each person.
4. Current state of your gut
The frequency, quantity and types of foods that you can tolerably treat on will change at different points of treatment. During the initial phases of clearing and healing the gut, you may need to be a little stricter with your diet. But, usually when your gut heals and your bacteria have found a good balance, you will be able to tolerate more treats in higher quantities.
Your diet doesn’t have to be 100% perfect to heal. Having a small treat now and again can keep you sane during your SIBO journey.
Here is my new favorite treat that I discovered recently:
I have been very impressed with dairy free ice cream options. This one is especially on point 😊
I would love to hear about all of your favorite treats in the comments!