Medical Diets

When you’re struggling with your mental health, it can be very difficult to navigate the equally tough world of physical health. Sometimes, you get saddled with complicated medical conditions that require therapeutic diets. Conditions like IBS, diabetes, Chron’s disease, Celiac disease, epilepsy, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and more. These aren’t the diets you hear about in the media, like Atkins, blood type diet, detoxing, juice fasting, etc. I’m not going to go into those. These are diets that are supported by the medical community and are used to treat specific medical conditions.

Some of these diets are the low-FODMAP diet, the gluten-free diet, the Ketogenic diet, the DASH diet, among others. These diets should be closely monitored by a medical professional, as they are treatments for medical conditions. Once again, I am NOT a medical professional. I’m barely qualified to write a blog. Please see your doctor or dietician for advice.

Ok, so, how do you mange these diets when you already have a full plate (lame pun totally intended)? The key is to really rely on prep and proven foods.

For example, I have the unfortunate pleasure of being on the low-FODMAP diet. I have visceral hypersensitivity, which is a very painful condition in which it hurts when organs perform their normal functions. While I don’t have IBS, my doctor thought it would be helpful to go on this diet. I went on the diet once before, and I wound up giving it up because it got too depressing. This time, however, I’m determined to do it right.

So, what did I learn the first time?

1. It takes some planning.
One of the hardest parts about medical diets is that it’s hard to grab food on the fly. There’s no guarantee that a restaurant will have something you can eat, and even if there’s something suitable on the menu, there’s still a risk of cross-contamination (big problem for people with allergies and vegans). This is especially difficult on the low-FODMAP diet, where you can’t have any onions or garlic. Planning might include calling restaurants before you eat there, bringing your own food to a friend’s house, or carry a protein bar with you. Make sure you know exactly what you can and can’t eat. If it’s a long list, it might be helpful to carry it with you.

2. It takes some prep.
Even if you decide to cook at home, it doesn’t ensure you can buy the necessary ingredients. You might have to make your own salad dressings, condiments, baked goods, etc. For example, it’s almost impossible to find low-FODMAP BBQ sauce. So, I make my own, put it into little containers, and freeze it. That way, I don’t have to make BBQ sauce every time a recipe requires it. I also like to stock up on gluten-free pasta, gluten-free breadcrumbs, suitable vegetables, etc. since there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to find the ingredients on short notice.

3. Keep a tally of brand names of products on which you can rely.
This will save you an ENORMOUS amount of time when you shop, especially while you try to get into a routine. While you should continue checking the labels in case they change the formula, your shopping trip doesn’t have to revolve around it. You can make the process easier by guessing and checking, major allergen labeling, and using an app (such as UPC Sanner). Once you’ve built your list, you can send it to family members to make their lives easier as well.

4. Make it easy to differentiate “safe food” in your cabinets.
I like to store my designated products away from stuff I can’t have and then put a sticker on the packages. It might be overkill, but I like fun stickers.

5. Look for food in unexpected places.
In the days of the internet, we now have the ability to order lots of weird crap online! If it’s hard to find specialized food near you, check out Amazon. However, I would recommend only ordering from a trusted retailer. I’ve also had good luck at health food stores and ethnic food markets. If you do go to an ethnic food market (and can’t read the product’s original language), make sure you do some research online first. The labeling isn’t always phenomenal.

6. It’s okay to be pissed.
Seriously. It’s quite the loss, and it’s hard to do. Every time I visit the produce aisle, I still get sad about not being able to have mangoes. No more croissants, no more hummus, no more avocados. It’s difficult to hang out with friends and I hate quizzing the waiters about ingredients. But it does get easier and you’ll get in the groove of it.

Need ideas for easy recipes that accommodate your dietary restrictions? Visit the Clean Brains Pinterest board.


Secured Snacks

Here it is in all its glory

Here it is in all its glory


I’ve been putting off writing about this hack for awhile. This one is difficult to admit. Food, weight, and control are some of my biggest triggers, and here they are in one embarrassing life hack.

Let me start at the beginning: I’m on a number of medications, including antipsychotics. I take them at night, but there’s this twilight hour (sometimes longer) between the time the meds kick in and the time I fall asleep that is hell. All I think about is food, and my self-control disappears. If that twilight zone lasts too long, it goes into a cycle of binging and purging. I eat tons of stuff that I don’t even really like, and then Ctrl + z my stomach by puking. Again, and again, and again until I fall asleep.

To make matters worse, I eat in my sleep. There have been times when I wake up with half-eaten food in my bed and I have no idea how it got there. Chips, crackers, tortillas… even frozen (!) lobster ravioli. When the sun comes up, it shines on crumbs, shame, guilt, and one hell of a stomach ache.

I’ve tried everything to stop. Brushing my teeth, chewing gum, chewing wax, whitening my teeth, drinking water, drinking Diet Coke, taking my pills later, taking my pills earlier, mints, low-calorie snacks, trying to just say no, self-injury, eating more during the day, eating less during the day, “thinspiration,” positive thinking, negative thinking, eating acidic foods so it hurts to purge, journaling, art… this is only a portion of the list. And you know what it did?

Jack shit.

When I lived at college, I just didn’t keep any food in the room, but when I moved back in with my parents, I couldn’t control the pantry. However, when I moved into a new space with my boyfriend, I decided to accept the side effect and admit that I needed a stronger barrier than what my tired mind could provide.

And that’s where the bicycle lock comes in. I’ve designated one cabinet as a secure snack space. I put all of the foods I’m most likely to binge on or sleep-eat. It’s mostly dark chocolate (I have a small piece every night before I go to bed), high-carb food, desserts, and salty snacks. If it doesn’t fit in the cabinet, I only buy small portions. During the day, I leave the cabinet open. I only binge after I’ve taken my meds. Before I go to bed, I lock the cabinet and hand the key to my boyfriend P, who hides it somewhere around the house. Sleep-me can’t find the key, and awake-me often settles for a low-cal snack or just gives up. There’s something about removing temptation that sets me free and relieves stress. I don’t have to put so much effort into self-control if binging isn’t even an option. When P wakes up, he unlocks the cabinet or tells me where the key is.

The process started out as humiliating:

“I’m so pathetic that I have to lock my food up?”

“What does P think? I’m so embarrassed.”

“I’m a failure.”

But somewhere along the way, I realized that it’s not really me who’s binging. That’s Seroquel-me, not regular me. It’s not something I could really control even if I tried. There have been so many studies about gaining weight on antipsychotics and other psychiatric medications. If this is something I have to do to counteract Seroquel-me, I shouldn’t be embarrassed.

There are a few problems with this system. You can’t live alone (who would hide the key?). If you live with a lot of other people, they might not be happy about locking food up. It’s harder to lock fridges and freezers. Your roommate could forget where they hid the key. If you have guests, it could be embarrassing for them to see locks on the cabinets (I use a bicycle lock to prevent this- I take it off and no one is any the wiser). But who knows? It might work for you.

Let It Go: Sometimes you have to settle for Frozen

Let’s face it- sometimes, cooking isn’t an option and you settle on frozen meals. My favorite musing on frozen dinners comes from Eat This, Not That! Supermarket Survival Guide by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding:

So think of smart shopping in the freezer section as the equivalent of hiring a squad of nutritional bodyguards. Would you rather be eating a home-cooked meal of tortiglioni alla norma with a nice frisée salad and a glass of merlot on the side? Sure, and you’d probably rather be eating it in the sprawling dining room of your Greek Revival mansion overlooking Malibu Beach. But guess what: Sometimes you gotta settle for the best of two mediocre choices. And that’s where frozen foods come in.

I looked up a recipe for Pasta alla Norma, and I think I had a heart attack. And a frisée salad? There is WAY too much French in that recipe for it to be remotely doable on a bad night.

Obviously, a frozen dinner isn’t the ideal situation. As expected, they tend to include a lot of preservatives, including salt. In fact, some dinners contain half a day’s worth of sodium in one meal. In addition, many frozen foods have additives like glyphosphate and castoreum (safe and FDA approved, but still pretty gross).

But there have to be some good ones, right?

Yep! One of my favorites is Evol foods frozen meals. As they become more well-known, you can find wider varieties of their foods at many common stores. I grab mine at Target. Evol products are made out of GMO-free, antibiotic-free, all-natural foods. They taste good, and I haven’t gotten sick eating them (a huge plus, since I get sick from everything). They are a little more on the expensive side (as you’d expect), but worth it (in my opinion). Plus, if you save up enough points, you can get a free t-shirt, which I care about more than I really should.

Amy’s Kitchen is another brand that I trust (whatever that unofficial opinion is worth to you). They make a wide variety of foods and cater to various dietary needs, such as gluten free, vegan, low sodium, etc. They make some great burritos and breakfast meals. The one item I absolutely cannot recommend is their dairy-free, soy-free, gluten-free rice macaroni and cheeze (yes, the “z” is supposed to be there). I was on a very specific, very restrictive diet for awhile, and I gave that meal a try. I swear to God, I can still taste the disgusting orange goop. But apart from that, I like Amy’s.

I also recommend Kashi products. They make pretty reliable frozen entrées. Their Chicken Pasta Pomodoro is a decent pasta choice.

So, what are the foods you should absolutely avoid? Hot Pockets are up there.

Anything Hungry-Man should be off your table, especially since there are way better-tasting options (according to my brother, who used to live on frozen food). Chicken pot pies (while delicious), are also recipes for disaster (I’m rocking the puns today!).

So, when you’re evaluating frozen dinners, check out the calorie counts, fat content, and salt. As I’ve said before, Eat This, Not That! has helped me. I also tend to stick with the same foods once I know I like them.

Easy Eats

Time to prep a midnight snack.

Time to prep a midnight snack.

Let’s face it- a big part of what we choose to eat is what we see in front of us. Think about it. It’s late at night and a hour after you took your Seroquel. You get that nagging need to eat, so you raid your fridge and pantry looking for something to nom on.

What do you eat? Well, what’s there? Ice cream? Chips?

In general, it’s easier to find unhealthy snacks. They’re shelf stable, easy to package, and all the cooking is done for you. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are hard. You have to wash them and cut them. Avocados go bad, like, five minutes after you buy them. If you’re not feeling that great or if it’s late at night, your train of thought won’t be, “Oh wow! So happy I grabbed that zucchini! Let’s wash, peel, and slice that sucker. Maybe I’ll pan-fry that bitch in some Himalayan sea salt and olive oil.” Or, if that is your train of thought, I envy you, because mine is: “Are those chips? Are they more than crumbs? How stale are they?” Although, I’d still eat them even if they tasted like cardboard and I had to use a spoon.

So what do you do? Make it easier to eat the healthy option. If you buy fresh vegetables, wash and cut them all at once and toss them in the fridge. I love fresh berries. When I get some, I dump them in my Sistema colander/storage container, wash them with a veggie wash, and stick them in the fridge. You can also find pre-cut and washed apples, carrots, etc in the produce department of your grocery store. Yogurt is a great choice, especially those nifty Siggi’s tubes. And there’s also my old stand-by of hard boiled eggs.

If you need something shelf-stable, try almonds or applesauce. Besides the salt, turkey jerky can be a good choice for protein. Bananas and peanut butter are a good choice.

Once you have a selection of good snacks, make the unhealthy snacks harder to get. You can avoid buying them, have a friend hide them from you, put them in the basement, or keep them in your car. Worst case? Get one of these kitchen timed safes. Make yourself work a little for it.

Just a Taste

Photo Apr 30, 10 14 47 AMI’ve developed a coping mechanism that I like to call the “Just a Taste” process. It began when I gained about 60 lbs during the first year of taking an anti-psychotic. I started to watch my weight obsessively, making sure I didn’t gain more, making sure than I didn’t eat one calorie more than I needed.

I don’t think I need to tell you how much that failed. If I’m craving a particular food, I can’t stop obsessing about it. I build it up in my brain to be something it’s not, not a food, yet another limitation I have from being sick. However, if I always give in, I immediately gain weight and sink further into a depression. This cycle haunts me and has been responsible for some of my deepest regrets.

So what do I do about it now? I give in, but just a little bit. For example, today I stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts (a chain of fast food coffee shops) and was really craving a doughnut. I can’t even tell you why, but today I just needed to have one. Instead of denying myself a doughnut and becoming depressed, I instead ordered a Munchkin. It’s like a doughnut, but smaller. It gives me the satisfaction of a doughnut without the guilt. I got “just a taste.”

You can do this with most food items. Do you really want a Snickers? Grab a fun size version. Want a Coke? Grab one of those mini cans. Once you have a taste of the thing you’re craving, it loses its power. I got my doughnut, and I can move on.

Getting Started with Healthy Eating

Beginning to eat healthy can be a very difficult to start. If it’s something in which you’re interested, check out this downloadable “Quick Start” guide made by Whole Foods. It’s pretty easy to understand, accessible, and gives some great tips on building smoothies and breakfast bowls, along with a few recipes and a shopping list. You can find the ingredients at most supermarkets.


Download Guide

Eating with Chopsticks

Another thing that helps is to deliberately slow down how you eat. If you want a snack, grab some shelled pistachios. Try eating with chopsticks. Let candy dissolve on your tongue rather than chew it. Separate large bags of food into smaller bags of food and put them far away so if you want more, you have to get up. When you slow it down by adding challenges, you’ll naturally eat less.

Healthy Exchange

Try to find snacks that are close to the foods you enjoy and crave, but are a little healthier. When I first started to revamp my diet, I tried to replace my favorite foods with  vegetables. If I craved Cheetos, I’d grab some carrots. However, it was really disappointing and frustrating to crave Cheetos and munch on carrots. After too many rounds of this, I’d get so pissed that I’d just buy Cheetos and ditch the carrots all-together. As you can imagine, this didn’t help at all- if anything, it made me more depressed. While I still keep carrots in the house, I also have a variety of healthy junk food exchanges. My “healthier” versions have to meet one or both of my two criteria: They either have to taste roughly equivalent to my unhealthy versions but made with better ingredients or they are similar in both taste and nutritional value, but take longer to eat. i’ve yet to find a food that really excels in both categories, but it’s not impossible. It might take some time to find the exchanges that work best for you, but once you know what to look for, it does get easier. One of my favorite exchanges is to replace Cheetos with Original Tings by Robert’s American Gourmet Food.

Cheetos Comparison-01

The easiest way to determine a good exchange is to compare the nutrition facts and the ingredients list. The two biggest differences between these two are the fat content and the sodium. In addition, check out how many ingredients are in the Cheetos versus the Tings. By replacing one food with another, you can minimize the terrible weight gain associated with psychotropic medications.

You can find more of these exchanges in the Eat This, Not That series of books by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding. Some of the commentary in the books is a little harsh; however, if you ignore the words, you can glean quite a few good tips. They tell you a few of the most unhealthy options and suggest other items that are similar, but healthier.

Night Eating

One of the side effects I experience is night eating. I found that the best way to combat this is to have a snack before I go to bed to raise my blood sugar. I like to have a banana with a little peanut butter on top. That way, my snacking is defined, and I’m less likely to wake up in the middle of the night.

When this doesn’t work, I use my bicycle lock.


Now that I’m feeling better, I use the MyNetDiary service to monitor what I eat. This is a great service for tracking a number of different items. Not only can you track your food, but you can also record medication usage, blood glucose levels, symptoms, vitamins, weight, macronutrients, micronutrients, and more. It can be daunting at first, so I don’t recommend it if you’re already feeling overwhelmed. However, if you have the opportunity, it can be a great resource for tracking your food intake and monitoring how you feel at various points during the day. It also syncs with Fitbit in case you use that, too.