A diet with as little fiber as possible— that couldn't be healthy, right? For Marnina Cowan, along with many other sufferers of Crohn's disease, it is. Marnina and her boyfriend, Seth Coburn, run the food blog IBeafooDie (get it, IBD), which focuses on healthy and delicious foods for folks with irritable bowel disease. While Marnina's diet is far more restrictive, the two team up to cook delicious eats that are all "Marnina friendly." And along the way, they've picked up a few tips for anyone in a relationship with someone on a restricted diet— vegetarianism, allergies, and gluten-intolerance, too.
Marnina, can you tell me about your diagnosis with Crohn's and what that means for your diet.
MC: Sure, I was diagnosed with Crohn's when I was a sophomore in high school back in 2003 … And then my health really fell apart in February 2004 and my body just complete collapsed. I hadn't really seen a physician yet and I went to the hospital for 10 days. I looked like a skeleton basically … I was very tall but I weighed only 88 pounds…
To this day, I still don't eat many foods and I am very careful about what I eat. For example, I don't eat anything whole-grain. So whole grain bread, brown rice; I don't eat any corn or corn products. I don't eat anything with seeds or nuts. These are all triggers and things that can get stuck in your intestines. Anything fibrous, basically, [like] raw vegetables… So that is the opposite of what is considered, for a normal person, "healthy."
When I met Seth, it was a total turnaround for him… He was someone who was totally into nutrition and really healthy, and here I am and I can only eat white bread and white pasta and some fruit. And it's really just a lifestyle change to incorporate that into my life and accept it… Diet is a very important part of my life. So it's something I continue to live with on a daily basis.
Seth, I'd love for you to tell me a little bit about how Marnina's restricted diet has affected what you do and don't eat.
SC: When we cook together, when we buy things, we always think about what she can and can not digest. Pretty much everything we buy and everything we order at a restaurant is, as we say, 'Marnina-friendly.' I've adjusted my diet to adapt to her needs… I should mention, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in college and I don't know if it's psychological or physiological, but a lot of stuff that bothers Marnina also bothers me. I also avoid nuts and whole grains because they irritate my stomach. So over the years— we've been dating for about five years— our diets have become more and more similar.
MC: At the beginning, it was like a constant struggle. We'd go to a restaurant and Seth would be like, 'Here have some of this,' and I'd be like, 'I can't eat that.' So that would happen over and over again. And eventually that kind of disappeared and he began to understand what I could and couldn't eat. And as that happened, his stomach problem started becoming more prevalent and he started shaping his diet. So I don't really know what the connection is, and I don't want to say I gave him stomach problems, but we joke about it.
SC: But it could be all psychological. During the first few years we were dating, we were always talking about her Crohn's, so it could be that somehow, through osmosis, I developed stomach problems. Or it could just be that I was more sensitive to it or I was thinking about it more and I had my own stomach issues.
I'm really interested in what Marnina was saying about Seth having what would be considered a traditionally healthy diet prior to the two of you meeting, and I'm curious how you ensure you're still getting enough nutrients and how you maintain a healthy diet.
SC: We're still able to incorporate all the nutrients. We're getting the vitamins and minerals we need. We just have to cook things in a different way… We modify everything, we chop it into small pieces, we cook it, we change it, which allows your body to more easily digest foods.
MC: We're basically eating all the vegetables you need to be eating… but we're cooking everything. We're cooking it down so it's easier for my body to digest. To be honest, I don't know how much my body absorbs in terms of nutrients, so I take all my vitamins and supplement with everything.
SC: We're still fitting in all the food groups, it just takes a little more time. We can't eat anything raw.
MC: And I don't need the fiber in my diet, that's not healthy for me to have as much fiber… What's healthy for one person is not necessarily healthy for another person…
SC: It's hard for us to look at nutrition recommendations that say 'you should try to get at least 25 grams of fiber per day,' because if we did that, we would be in the hospital.
MC: I would be in the hospital.
SC: You would definitely be in the hospital.
MC: We own a food processor, an immersion blender, a regular blender. We have to process foods before I can eat them. We peel and we puree. And we cook to death. That's a phrase we like to use. We cook every vegetable to death— that makes it Marnina-friendly.
I read your story, Marnina, on your blog. Tell me a little bit about staying active for the two of you. Do you exercise together?
MC: I'd say we're both gym rats. I'm in the gym six days a week and Seth is, too. We just have different schedules during the week, so it's harder. But I'd say one day every weekend we always go to the gym together, and we bike a lot together.
SC: We motivate each other. We're not at the gym together but we often talk about our aches and pains and how we can modify a workout.
MC: Both of us feel like we can't start our days until after we go to the gym. Currently we're both about to start training for a half marathon we're going to be running on June 2nd for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. We're going to be raising $4,000 for research for the diseases to hopefully find a cure. And we're hoping to cross the finish line together. So we're going to be training for that really soon.
SC: I've found that in managing IBS, exercising really helps.
MC: I can't exercise when I'm sick— then it doesn't help. But if I exercise to maintain my healthy lifestyle, then I feel great.
For anyone who's in a new relationship with someone who has a lot of dietary restrictions, like you do, what kind of advice would you give them?
SC: I would say just educate yourself as much as possible about your significant other's condition.
MC: Or [dietary preferences] if they're vegetarian or whatnot. Make an effort.
SC: Right, make an effort to learn about the person's restrictions and preferences. Obviously it's that person's choice whether they want to adapt themselves. For example, when we go out to eat at any restaurant. The dish that I order will often be Marnina-friendly just because I want her to be able to sample some of it. In my case, I embraced her Crohn's disease. Everything in our kitchen right now is Marnina-friendly.
MC: I would say you don't have to adopt the other person's lifestyle but you have to respect the other person's lifestyle and food choices.
Do you or your significant other have major dietary restrictions? How do you make it work?