Next up in our food series is Deniz. Eek, I'm especially excited to share her story! Deniz is the sweetest person I've came across in a while, who recently released her first cookbook! (Huge congrats!). She also runs an amazing, clever and scrumptious website all about her fructose-free life. If that's not enough, she also takes the most swoonworthy photos and her Instagram feed never fails to inspire me :) Here is her story of sugar free life!
- A few words about who you are, what you do, where you live and what you are passionate about.
Hi exPress-o readers, my name is Deniz, which means “the sea” in Turkish. I’m 31 years old, born and raised in Münster, a small German town where everybody owns at least two bikes, but am currently living in Istanbul. Before moving here I was working as a strategic planner in Berlin. And I still truly enjoy diving deep into specific topics and finding solutions, problem-solving basically is what I love and do. This passion has also carried over into other areas of my life. If I don’t know something I go and figure it out. And I have learned that there is never just one right or wrong way of doing things, but many equally valid approaches. I guess this idea is also what motivated me to figure out alternate ways of dealing with fructose malabsorption and to share my insights and inspirations with others by blogging about my fructose free life on Fructopia.
- When, why and how were you diagnosed with fructose malabsorption? What were your symptoms? What is fructose malabsorption?
5 years ago I finally received the liberating diagnosis. I say liberating because at the time I had been suffering from extreme stomach pains, flatulence, constipation and chronic fatigue for years. My doctor kept on saying this was normal that everything was fine. Back then I didn't know anyone else suffering from food intolerance so it didn't occur to me that she might be wrong. I also felt very uncomfortable sharing any of my symptoms with friends, seeing as it was and still is such a taboo talking openly about your gut health. If I would have talked about my pain, I probably would've noticed much earlier that something just had to be wrong. Eventually, I consulted with another doctor who made the right diagnosis: fructose malabsorption.
Research suggests that about 30% of the Western population suffers from fructose malabsorption. Crazily enough most people have never even heard of it! Fructose malabsorption occurs when your body doesn't absorb fructose properly, leading to symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, extreme sugar cravings, bad skin, obesity, fatigue, bad breath and mood swings.
Fructose is a sugar found naturally in fruits, vegetables and honey, but also in processed foods, sweets, soft drinks, agave syrup and regular sugar (50:50 fructose/glucose).
Technically there are two different kinds of fructose malabsorption: One you are born with and one that is acquired through a certain lifestyle. The latter one, the one I suffer from, usually gets worse over time if you don’t lower the daily intake of fructose. Fructose malabsorption is however highly individual. Some people tolerate more fructose than others. There is no cookie cutter diet to follow. Technically it is impossible to go completely fructose free as even rice contains small amounts of fructose. In fact, a standard Western diet can easily lead to a high consumption of fructose as there are hidden sugars in almost every processed food. (And in Europe we don’t even use high-fructose corn syrup, yet!)
Testing for fructose malabsorption is easy and done by a hydrogen breath test, similar to those used to test for alcohol.
- How did the diagnosis impact you?
It literally turned my whole life upside down. Not only the way I eat, but the way I feel about food in general. I had to unlearn everything I believed about food for the past 27 years as I was eating lots of junk food, processed foods and sugar back in the days. (Did you know that the food industry uses more than 30 different names for sugar?)
Only now I realize what a huge impact consuming excess fructose had on my life. Let me give you one example from my time at university: During my studies I also attended quite a few parties. But most of the time I was the first one to leave. After only two drinks (think vodka red bull!) I usually felt extremely tired or was suffering from severe stomach pains. So in a way I felt like I was constantly missing out on all the fun. To compensate the frustration but also in order to cater to my extreme sugar cravings I would sometimes eat a whole bar of chocolate. Of course this only made me feel worse. It was a vicious cycle. I was addicted to fructose and it controlled my life.
That’s why I can’t stress enough how thankful I am that I got the chance to reset my diet to zero. It wasn't easy, but I finally feel in control of my body again. I would even go as far as saying that fructose malabsorption was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
- What are the foods you must avoid? How do you substitute them?
The most troublesome foods are sugar, high fructose fruits like apples and pears, onions, garlic, beans and wheat. Even large servings of almonds or nightshades may cause symptoms. Symptoms are strongly related to serving sizes as all foods contain fructose, except for meat and dairy. Finding a healthy, balanced way of eating is key to a “fructose free” diet.
I imagine eating kind of like people ate before food came in boxes. I only eat small amounts of fruits, no processed or packaged foods/juices, sodas, ready-made condiments, sugar or sweets. I haven’t had a coke in five years and I’m pretty proud of it. I also don’t drink beer or rum. I sometimes have a glass of very dry wine though and am usually fine with it.
I also don’t take any supplements. I still eat small amounts of fruits and lots of vegetables. The vitamins I get out of my diet are more than enough to provide all the nutrients I need. In fact, I used to be sick a lot more before the diagnosis. I also suffered from low iron levels for years. This has changed ever since I stopped dumping excess amounts of fructose on my stomach, leaving it unable to absorb the vitamins properly.
When invited to dinner I usually bring some low fructose dessert. Agave syrup and honey contain lots of fructose and are an absolute no go for me. That’s why rice syrup is my favorite substitute for sugar when I want to add a touch of sweetness. Rice syrup is 100% glucose, the substance our brain feeds on. It is less sweet than normal sugar. If you are eating lots of sugar, you might even think it not sweet at all, because your taste buds are used to high sugar treats. Rice syrup doesn't result in quick blood sugar spikes. Instead its molecules are released slowly into the bloodstream, leaving us energized for a longer time and sparing us those common energy slumps.
- Did the diagnosis force you to change any aspect of your lifestyle? Your energy level, your well-being, shopping for food, going out for dinners, cooking at home?
When I first got diagnosed with fructose malabsorption I spent hours over hours in supermarkets reading labels. Most of the time I left the store with nothing more than 2 items in my basket. I was devastated to see where the food industry has led us to: Sugar is in almost every product!
In the beginning I was really insecure, no longer knowing which foods were safe to eat. After all the last thing I wanted was to go back to the constant pain, chronic fatigue and blowing up like a balloon after meals (sometimes looking like 7 months pregnant!).
Luckily this quickly changed. Nowadays I don’t even bother going to a regular supermarkets anymore. They’re full of junk anyways. In Istanbul there are farmer’s markets everywhere offering healthier, seasonal alternatives, while in major German cities we have an abundance of amazing health stores with a broad range of organic products. Whenever I am home for a visit I love browsing through their isles.
I usually cook at home. When cooking with friends they are usually very understanding. But when it comes to avoiding onions, everyone seems to get a bit tense! :) People sure love their onions. (I somehow always hated them :)
Even though more and more people are being diagnosed with food intolerance, ordering food in Germany can still be a pain in the a**. Waiters seem to think you are just being picky and don’t really bother catering to your dietary needs. In the US my experiences were the exact opposite. It was amazing how understanding everybody was. Waiters knew exactly which dishes were safe to eat and which weren't. In Turkey, well, let’s not even get started on that! Many people consider chicken vegetarian and don’t know if rice contains gluten or not. Now imagine me trying to explain, why I have to refuse that baklava and those onions!
- How does your life differ nowadays from before?
I always loved to eat and cook, but basically I didn't even know what real food means. I was also always struggling to lose a few extra pounds. Since changing to a low fructose diet and avoiding sugar at all costs I almost effortlessly lost 20 pounds. And I can feel how thankful my body is that I finally realized what it needs and most importantly what it doesn't! I really feel amazing. For one thing my energy levels are up, but I am also a lot calmer and more content with myself and how life is treating me. I didn't know that I’m actually such a positive person. I used to get angry a lot, most of the time for no apparent reason!
The hardest part about changing my eating habits was quitting sugar though. Only after giving up on sweets, did I realize how much our society revolves around sugar as a reward. Suddenly I was the only one at the table saying no to desserts. Even though I knew I was making the right decision, I couldn't help but feeling betrayed, deprived of my reward. When growing up we learn that sweets are what people treat themselves to after the work is done. Or think of your parents buying you ice cream because you did well in school or your friends celebrating your birthday with a huge cake. It all taps into the same feeling: Sugar is generally perceived as a reward. Research shows that even our brains fall for this: Sugar stimulates the same reward system in the brain as cocaine! Makes you think, doesn't it?
I had to internalize this. I had to break down these mental habits and stop seeing sugar as a reward to be able to quit. I think it is very important to reward or treat yourself once in a while. But this reward can be something as simple as a coffee at your favourite cafe or nothing food related at all. It doesn't matter if you treat yourself to a new book or a visit at the spa, as long as it makes you feel satisfied. But please stop seeing sugar as the only way to reward yourself!
- What‘s your daily/weekly go-to meal plan? (Breakfast, snacks, lunch, dinner)? Food basics that you swear by?
Even though it sounds like I need to avoid a long list of foods, my diet is still pretty diverse and mostly plant based. I've discovered so many new foods, it’s crazy! Among my new favourites are black rice, millet, turmeric and tigernut.
For breakfast I usually have a warm bowl of porridge (mix of oat, millet or buckwheat flakes) with nuts, seeds and a small serving of fruit, preferably berries. Sometimes I change things up with a thick green smoothie made of avocado, citrus fruits, chia seeds and leafy greens. Two-three times a week I skip breakfast all together. I like to have these short fasting periods lasting from dinner to lunch time the next day. They help my guts reset, calm down and get a rest.
Lunch or dinner usually consists of gluten-free grains such as buckwheat, millet (did I mention that I love millet!?) or potatoes alongside a generous serving of veggies like spinach or zucchini and fresh herbs. I then add whatever else I have on hand, usually sprouts, goat cheese or homemade pesto.
There are only two rules I follow when it comes to creating my meals: 1) I always add a sufficient amount of healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil or ghee, which are key for a truly satisfying dish and help keep me full. 2) I use spices, herbs and superfoods such as hemp seeds, black sesame seeds or nettles in abundance as they help prevent sugar cravings. For snacks I pack chia puddings, homemade granola bars or bananas. But I try to stick to proper meals instead of munching all day long.
- I love your cherry stems tea. Do you have any other feel-good food secrets?
Soups! I know this sounds weird, but to me soups are liquid happiness. My boyfriend often makes fun of my obsession with soups. I don’t know, maybe it’s the Turkish blood running through my veins. In Turkey almost every meal starts with a soothing bowl of soup. Some even have it for breakfast! Soups are like pre-digested meals, thus very easy on the stomach. The guts can happily focus on absorbing all nutrients immediately. I whip up a vegan green soup with lots of spices at least two times a week. My favourite spring ingredient is stinging nettle, something I discovered here in Turkey. I didn't even know it’s something people ate. In fact, stinging nettle is a true superfood: It has energizing and cleansing properties, helps to clear up skin and reduces inflammation in the body.
- And any other aspects of your journey you’d like to share with us...
Just to clarify this: Our bodies don’t need fructose at all to function properly. Our brains actually feed on glucose, fat and amino acids. Also, most likely because fructose was a scarce resource when mankind evolved, the brain never learned how to deal with excess amounts of fructose. It won’t even signal us if we've had enough of it, thus leaving us unsatisfied after meals.
It might not be a piece of cake, but I can only emphasize and encourage you to quit sugar yourself. Even with as little as 4 weeks without sugar you are most likely to experience a major difference. Food is information. If you eat cake, don’t be surprised if you feel spongy and sluggish afterwards. When you eat sun-kissed greens and veggies you should feel the energy working wonders in your body. Quitting sugar is your chance to reduce inflammation in your body and reset your tastebuds. Try for yourself! Give up all sugar and high-fructose fruits (berries are ok) for 4 weeks and then try a piece of your favourite sweets again. It’ll taste so sweet you won’t even want to finish it. Quitting sugar is literally quite the eye-opener!
Thank you, Deniz for sharing your truly amazing story! xo
P.S: Also, Drea's vegan story and Ashley's holistic lifestyle story.
P.P.S: Plus, my thoughts on food.
(All photos by/via Deniz and Mia)