Victoria Young was distraught when she was diagnosed with a bowel disorder - but after radically adjusting her eating habits, everything changed.
When you see someone ordering food in a restaurant, putting a waiter through their paces asking if something is gluten/dairy/sugar-free, the chances are you roll your eyes. I don't blame you.
It's what I did for many years, until I became that person in the restaurant.
I ignored my symptoms for months: bloating, severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea. But then I noticed blood and an increased "urgency" to find a loo within about 30 seconds. My lowest point was when I had to cancel going to a friend's fabulous birthday picnic because I knew I'd need to be near a loo. Was this really what my life had dwindled to? I wasn't even 30.
My GP referred me for a colonoscopy. Being diagnosed with anything that contains the word disease takes some getting used to. For me, a twenty-something single girl about town (I'm now 42), being told I had ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune condition and a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), pretty much felt like the end of the world.
Then came the good news: take these pills, the consultant said, and you can carry on as you were. When I asked about diet, the doctor said medication was the only solution. I wanted it all to go away so badly that it sounded ideal. But once the shock had worn off, I did my own research.
Many people with IBD, it seems, start with medication (I was taking Asacol, a form of mesalamine) that reduces inflammation in the colon. When that stops working, steroids are introduced; when those stop working, surgery to remove part of the colon can be next.
With medication, my symptoms mostly disappeared, with no side effects. I made no lifestyle changes, and continued to survive on a diet of mainly pizza, pasta and Pringles (I was in my twenties, remember). I had occasional flare-ups, at which point my doctor adjusted my dose.
I probably would have continued on that path, but then I developed a hacking cough that antibiotics couldn't banish, and a colleague told me to see a naturopath. I was sceptical.
But I was also desperate. She linked my cough to the same inflammation that caused my colitis. She concocted some foul-tasting herbs that cured the cough within days. She also told me about the specific carbohydrate diet (SCD), which consisted of unprocessed food that was grain-free, sugar-free and starch-free, and how it could help with my condition.
She had several patients on the diet who had been symptom-free for years. I felt I had to give it a go.
Developed in the 40s by an American doctor, Sidney Haas, the principle behind the diet is that carbohydrates are classified by their chemical structure: monosaccharide, including fructose, many fruits, honey and glucose; disaccharide, including sucrose (sugar) and other forms of sugars such as lactose in dairy products; or polysaccharide, including starch (potatoes and cereals), dextrin (also produced by the body during digestion), cellulose (found in bran), pectin (in some fruit and vegetables) and glycogen (found in oats).
On the diet you can only eat monosaccharide carbohydrates, as the others require extra digestion steps. Any food that is not properly digested causes bacterial and yeast overgrowth, which triggers irritation and inflammation, which can lead to conditions such as colitis, Crohn's, coeliac disease and IBS.
Although only limited research has been done on SCD, a study last year by Rush University in Chicago concluded that it was effective.
It sounded crazy, as I had to give up refined sugar, all grains (so, no bread, pasta, polenta, rice or even quinoa), cream, milk, chickpeas, sweet potatoes and potatoes, soya and soft cheese (because the lactose has not been digested by bacteria).
I can still eat most fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, spices and herbs, oil and butter, hard cheese, homemade yogurt, nuts, seeds, honey and red lentils. I can also drink some alcohol - dry wine, vodka and gin - in moderation. But, ruinous as it was to my social life, the diet worked.
After a few months I felt confident enough to stop taking my medication. Since I had been told my diet played no part, this was a decision I had to make alone. That was seven years ago and I have been medication-free since.
I still go for occasional check-ups at the IBD clinic. The staff there tell me that they know the diet works for some people, but they don't endorse it because it's so difficult to follow and relapse levels are too high.
I have had flare-ups once or twice a year, but the symptoms are less frequent and less extreme. Since I was having flare-ups on medication, too, this approach feels preferable, even though eating out can be a minefield and, at home, I have to cook everything from scratch.
But there has been an upside: I've learnt to cook - really delicious food - despite the limitations of my diet. Although there is a lot I can't eat, I focus on what I can. Now, I make mouthwatering cakes and pancakes using ground almonds, butter and honey; pizzas using cauliflower (sounds horrid, tastes delicious); soups, stews and even fry-ups.I have stopped feeling deprived, and am excited about food again.
I wanted to show others that it was possible to enjoy eating even with a severely restricted diet, so I started my blog How to eat (when you can't eat anything at all). Difficult to follow as it has been, this new way of eating has given me my life back.