Mind and Body

Living FODMAP-free

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People: “So what does a low FODMAP diet entail?”
Me: “Well everyone’s personal intolerances are different but basically it’s no gluten, no dairy, no onion, no garlic, no apples or pears, no mushrooms”.
People: “Oh my god – what do you EAT? I couldn’t do it”.

Ok people – yes it’s hard, yes it’s led to a major shift in my diet but there are still plenty of foods available – and YES, even though you may think you can’t do it, you CAN.

For those who don’t know, the low FODMAP diet is the main evidence-based management strategy for sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It was developed by Melbourne Dietician and Nutrionist, Dr Sue Shepherd and is now being followed internationally. Given how little is known about the causes of IBS and the limited research and evidence for effective treatments at this time, the low FODMAP diet is currently one of the only management strategies with a strong evidence base.

Basically, the diet involves eliminating certain food groups containing FODMAPs, which are sugars that IBS sufferers have difficulty digesting. Initially, one must eliminate gluten, lactose (or for some lucky people like me, all dairy), onion, garlic, certain fruits and certain vegetables. After several weeks of following the basic diet, people are encouraged to systematically challenge food groups back in to their diet, one by one, to determine their individual tolerances. The aim is to eat as wide a variety of foods as can be tolerated by your body.

So……what is it like to suddenly turn your diet upside down?

My IBS symptoms came on very suddenly – one day I had to keep my cow’s milk cappuccinos to one per day, then the next day I had serious issues and went to the GP fearing a bad bout of gastro. After investigation by a specialist, I received the diagnosis I had feared – IBS. I feared it because I knew it was something for which there was no real treatment or cure and that would require a huge change to my eating habits.

Although, there could have  been much worse outcomes, I still found this news quite upsetting. As a woman of Mediterranean descent whose biggest love (other than my children!) is food, what did this new diet mean for me? NO onion and garlic? HELLO! Try adapting a souvlaki or veal ragu without the sublime taste of onion or garlic – forget it!

For anyone suddenly having to change their diet, it is normal to feel a little despondent and experience a short-lived “grieving” process – I did. The usual celebrations at restaurants turned from joyous events to frustrating challenges. I ate out and paid top dollar for some incredibly bland meals – mmmmm……steamed vegetables and plain meat with no sauce, that’s sure worth $40! And as lovely as sorbet is, if I am served one more FODMAP-friendly dessert consisting solely of sorbet I think I’ll pick it up and smoosh it in the chef’s face!
What I would say, however, is that there is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. Over time, things have become much easier.

So here are my top tips for dealing with a sudden change in your diet, be it FODMAP or other:

1. Acceptance of feelings

Don’t be embarrassed that you feel frustrated or sad about the drastic shift in your diet. It’s a big deal to learn a whole new range of foods, which packaged foods are “safe”, how to adapt family meals to meet your own requirements (if only there were more than 24 hours in a day!) as well as how and where to eat out at restaurants safely. Allow yourself to “grieve” a little.

2. Find a great dietician

A fabulous dietician will guide you through the process, help you explore the greatest variety of foods your body can tolerate, and ensure you are getting the right nutrition. This was especially important for me when I was pregnant.

3. Read packages carefully

Spend a few lengthy sessions at the supermarket reading packaging carefully. I’ve managed to find some really useful products that are FODMAP-friendly, even though they’re not labeled as such.

4. Don’t be afraid to adapt recipes

At first I felt compelled to follow FODMAP-specific recipe books…but over time have learned to adapt many of my existing recipes. Little tricks like making a big batch of your own stock and freezing it, or using garlic-infused olive oil, can help you to keep recipes in your repertoire, just with a slight tweak.

5. Be assertive!

For some of us, this can be difficult as it’s really stepping out of our comfort zone. But your health is of utmost priority. So if it means asking the host at the party to keep some salad aside without garlic/onion, or having the waiter go through the menu with the chef and advise which meals are safe for you….then do it! You’ll probably find that, once you ask, most people are really accommodating and you’ll have peace of mind knowing that there are ‘safe’ food choices available.

6. Keep a sense of humour about it.

If you need help doing this, check out “The Katering Show” on ABC iView…a hilarious take on FODMAP living which has certainly given me a giggle and helped me to feel like I’m not alone on this journey!

7. Research

Finally, check out the burgeoning FODMAP-friendly cafes such as Foddies in Albert Park, Melbourne or Red Robyn in Camberwell, Melbourne for safe and delicious food options. A friend of mine had been going to Red Robyn for ages without realizing it was an allergy-friendly, gluten-free café. So you never know, book a brunch at one of these places and your friends may not even notice!

So take it from someone who seriously thought she’d never enjoy food again….you can and you will.

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Malena is a working mum-of-two who lives in the ‘burbs'…..but dreams of being a fashionista, a writer, a flamenco dancer, a world traveller and so much more! For now, her creative outlet is writing for the Merry-Go-Round which she relishes in between naps, kinder pick-ups and the eternal search for something to cook for dinner!