The Two Unlikely (And Super-Common) Culprits Behind My Gut Problems

The Two Unlikely (And Super-Common) Culprits Behind My Gut Problems Hero Image
Photo: Nadine Greeff

Can you imagine going two years without garlic and onion? If your answer is absolutely not, you are like the majority of the people in this world. These two allium vegetables are staple ingredients in almost all cooking styles. Whether it is the base of a stock, mixed into a dressing, dried, ground, and used as a spice rub, or simply roasted and added whole to dishes, garlic and onion are everywhere. For most people, this may go unnoticed. However, if you find yourself reading any of my recipes, you may realize that these two vegetables are never included. That is because I have not actively eaten garlic or onion for over two years.

Why did I remove garlic and onion from my diet?

Let's rewind to 2015. I had recently graduated college and found myself with newfound stressors in life: working full time, handling my own finances, moving to a new city, and something I never expected—suffering from gastrointestinal problems. As someone who never had digestive issues growing up, I found myself confused, frustrated, and in pain. For about a year I dismissed these problems and convinced myself that it was just my body taking out stress on my stomach. It wasn’t until I reached two ultimate lows that I finally decided to do something. The first was on Thanksgiving Day; after spending all day prepping and cooking, I looked down at my plate and suddenly realized I had no appetite. I was in so much pain and discomfort, and so bloated, that I could no longer fathom putting anything else into my stomach. Although I realized that this was no way to live my life, the ultimate reality check came when these gastrointestinal issues began to affect my ability to breathe.

My severe bloating paired with my inability to properly digest food caused such intense acid reflux that I was unable to take deep inhales without experiencing a coughing fit.
 
It was then and there that I realized something had to change. No longer was this simply a stomachache; it was now detrimentally affecting my health.

I researched numerous gastroenterologists in NYC, found one that seemed promising, and booked my new patient visit. After consultations, tests, and an upper endoscopy, my doctor told me that, fortunately, I did not have any severe life-threatening medical issues but, instead, had IBS. While this at first seemed promising and a hallelujah moment of finally finding out what was going on, she informed me that there is no cure for IBS. We discussed my options going forward and, as someone who would rather take the homeopathic route over pumping my system with drugs, we decided that I would start the low FODMAP diet, eliminating Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols, which are all complex names for the collection of molecules that are found in food. These sugars include fructose, lactose, sugar polyols (sorbitol and mannitol), fructans, and legumes. In nonscientific terms, while following this diet, you will eliminate a large list of foods that include gluten, dairy, legumes, sugars, and even some specific fruits and vegetables.

Finally, I started feeling like my old self again.

After six weeks, I finally started feeling like my old self again, and it was time to reintroduce foods and monitor my reaction. As excited as I was to eat some of the foods I had missed so much, such as stone fruit and avocados, I was extremely nervous to find out which foods I was intolerant to, in fear that it was something I loved. Never did I expect that the two main culprits would be garlic and onion. When I tried to reintroduce both of these foods back in to my diet I immediately experienced the IBS symptoms I had suffered from before. At first, I thought I was going crazy. Is it truly possible that these two healthy kitchen staples could be so seriously messing with my stomach? I immediately took to the internet and found that, thankfully, I was not alone.

It turns out, garlic and onions contain fructans that can be malabsorbed in the small intestine.
 
When these fructans are not digested properly, they then ferment in the small intestine and cause many of the dreadful IBS symptoms including bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.

When I began my garlic- and onion-free lifestyle, it was extremely daunting. I found myself asking a thousand questions at restaurants, vigorously reading the label of anything I put in my body, and constantly calling takeout restaurants to discuss their menu. After one too many nights coming home from work hungry and spending 30-plus minutes researching restaurants only to continuously find myself depleted and making the same sad eggs and toast for dinner, I knew something had to change. I took my frustration to the kitchen and began to create garlic- and onion-free versions of the foods I missed most. Turns out, they are all still delicious.

Since taking garlic and onion out of my diet, I have noticed an incredible change. I no longer feel the massive bloat I once suffered from, my digestive system works on a more regular schedule, and my acid reflux has disappeared. I have also spent a lot more time in my kitchen and have expanded my talents of cooking different types of cuisines. I have learned that these two ingredients are included in the majority of restaurant items and that, without eating them for a while, their taste and scent is incredibly strong.

Have gut problems of your own? It might be worth eliminating garlic and onion for a few weeks and seeing how your body responds.

If you suffer from similar symptoms and are in the state of frustration that I found myself in two years ago, try adopting this lifestyle for a few weeks. Although it worked for me, this does not mean that garlic and onion are your trigger foods, because each person is different. However, it never hurts to try. You may find yourself no longer craving that piece of garlic bread!

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