After being lured into damaging habits by the high-gloss sheen of food and nutrition influencers in the 2010s, writer Alice Porter shares how she learned the hard way that eating an extreme amount of fruit and vegetables isn’t the answer to being ‘healthy’. In fact, increasing your fibre intake so dramatically can wreak havoc on your digestive system. Here’s what she learned (so you don’t have to experience it too).
Warning: this feature contains discussions of restrictive eating that some readers might find uncomfortable.
In the early-to-mid 2010s, influencers frequently preached raw veganism and fruitarianism – a brand of veganism that promotes living only on fruit – on their YouTube channels, sharing videos of what they ate and talking about how veganism allegedly cured their various health issues.
Looking back on that period of my life, I had already been vegetarian for two years. But perhaps unlike many other young women who’d been hanging on the words of people who promised vague health benefits from an alternative (and worryingly damaging) lifestyle, my transition to veganism was extreme.
I avoided the few meat alternatives that were available 10 years ago, and initially, saw positive results after committing almost all of my intake to raw food – it was an intense change that I really wouldn’t recommend.
After the first few months, I have to admit that I felt great. My skin had never looked better and I was full of energy. But after about six months, I began to experience bloating that quickly developed into severe IBS – a series of symptoms that have been linked to certain kinds of dietary fibre.
Unfortunately, over the time that followed, I found myself dealing with consistent stomach aches and tiredness. I was taking weekly trips to the hospital for tests to try and find a diagnosis before a dietician realised I had developed a fibre insensitivity.
Fibre is good for you; a sudden fibre overload might not be
I was confused by this – fibre is healthy, right? Registered associate nutritionist and dietician Kimberley Neve, however, explains that it’s not quite that simple.
“There are two types of fibre – soluble and insoluble. Both are beneficial if you don’t have gut issues, and it’s recommended that people have 30g of fibre a day,” she tells me. “However, increasing your fibre intake drastically all at once is not a good idea.”
Neve explains that fibres are fermented within the body, which is what causes bloat and gas. Increasing your fibre intake significantly – particularly insoluble fibres – can cause these issues, and they can damage your digestive system. “This doesn’t mean that fibre is bad; it’s just about increasing your intake slowly,” Neve says.
Eating vast quantities of fruit and veg and changing my diet so quickly led to me developing IBS, which then triggered a myriad of other symptoms. The dietician I saw at the time advised cutting down my fibre intake, which also meant slowly incorporating animal products back into my diet. Unless you survive on vegan junk food, it’s pretty common to find that most vegan meals will be particularly high in fibre.
My body has never really recovered from the effects of my raw vegan diet and I’ve been advised by doctors to limit my fibre intake to 50% or less per day of what is typically required for people of my weight. But, unfortunately, I still struggle with IBS and bloating.
Vegan diets aren’t bad – it’s how your body reacts to them that matters
The thing that I struggled to get my head around was why following a lifestyle that I understood to be ‘healthy’ ended up making me so ill. My dietician made the important distinction that it wasn’t the diet itself that was bad, but that my body’s response to it (and the speed at which I took it on) was.
This was when I realised just how harmful a one-size-fits-all idea around ‘healthiness’ can be. Traditional messaging around health and fitness can be frustrating for people like me with chronic conditions such as IBS, as it often requires further research or consultation with doctors to make sure you’re giving yourself exactly what you need.
Following my instincts and trying to avoid advice that doesn’t come from a professional has been the best way to manage my health. And after everything I’ve been through, it’s what I’d advise anyone who’s unsure about where to turn. What’s healthy for one person else isn’t necessarily healthy for another. The advice and recommendations from official bodies such as the NHS and the EatWell initiative are there for a reason. Nevertheless, I believe that ultimately we should all listen to our bodies closely and try not to make any dramatic changes to our diets too quickly and without the proper advice.
In Stylist’s new digital series Picture of Health, we investigate what health looks like for women today – from redefining mental health and fitness, to examining issues around race and disability inclusivity. For investigations, first-person essays and features check back here daily.
Images: Getty/author’s own