Convenience Isn’t Healthy: Chronic Illness and Diet

When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia three years ago, my diet was all about convenience. I came to the conclusion that eating healthily was just a luxury that I could no longer have. I tried to generally to choose healthier convenience food options. For example, a whole-grain cereal instead of refined grain, or a low-fat frozen lasagna instead of full-fat. A typical day looked like this:

Breakfast: Multigrain Cheerios with a banana (251 Calories)

Snack: Yogurt (115 Calories)

Lunch: sandwich with deli meat, granola bar, carrot sticks (348 Calories)

Snack: Trail mix (352 Calories)

Dinner: Spaghetti (store bought pasta sauce) (344 Calories)

Snack: Slice of Toast (69)

Total: 1538 Calories (Calculated at Super Tracker www.supertracker.usda.gov)

So, calorie-wise not so bad. However, as any nutritionist can tell you, calories are only a small part of the nutrition story. If I ate 1500 calories in chocolate, it would only be delicious, not healthful.

What was wrong with my diet?

  • Grain heavy: I had a total of 240 g of grains, which is over the USDA recommendation of 170g or 6 oz for a woman my age. While grains provide benefits like fiber, eating too much of this food group can lead to weight gain.
  • Protein policy: in total, 16% of my food intake was protein. While this is within the acceptable range set by the USDA, dieticians recommend your protein daily allowance should be calculated using this formula: 0.8 x weight in kg (easily converted using any online converter). For me, this comes to 52 g per day. Protein should be distributed between all meals to help sustain energy. In my case, breakfast and dinner were primarily carb based. http://www.livestrong.com/article/343966-how-to-calculate-protein-rda/
  • Sugar high: in total, I had over 90 g of sugar! The World Health Organization recommends that less than 10% of your daily energy consumption should come from sugar, with added health benefits coming from less than 5%, or approximately 25 g. My sugar total was almost 4 times that much! This is bad news for my blood sugar levels and weight management, never mind long-term health consequences. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/
  • Nutrition deficient: I had less than four servings of fruits and vegetables (banana, carrots, raisins, tomato sauce). This means I was getting an inadequate amount of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and losing out on the many other benefits of these healthy foods such as antioxidants and fiber. Furthermore, the servings I did have were primarily starchy vegetables or high glycemic fruits, which only added to my blood sugar concerns and weight gain.

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Overall, I gained 20 pounds in a year and went up a dress size. I was also permanently fatigued. For anyone coping with chronic illness, sustained energy is a significant challenge. Balancing macronutrients – carbs, protein and fat – along with factors such as fiber and sugar, is important for preventing spikes in blood sugar that inevitably lead to energy crashes. According to the Mayo Clinic, based on a 2000 calorie/day diet, the total daily allowances should be:

NutrientPercentageGrams
Carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits, grains)45-65%225-325
Fiber Female: 22-28; Male 28-34
Sugar Female: 24g; Male: 36
Protein10-35%50-175
Fat20-35%44-78
Saturated Fat7-10%16-22

Maximizing micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) is also key healthy eating. Adequate intake of nutrients like Iron and B vitamins have been linked to improved energy levels, while others like Vitamin D and Magnesium help reduce chronic pain. In addition, chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia have been linked to high rates of oxidation, so eating antioxidants is important to counteract these effects.

The USDA recommends at least 2 ½ cups of vegetables per day for women and 3 cups for men, and 1 ½ cups of fruit per day for women and 2 cups for men. The USDA recommendations have been critiqued, which is another post altogether, but provide guidelines that are much healthier than the Standard American Diet www.choosemyplate.gov.

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