The Diet That Saved My Life
The Extreme Fat Smash Diet (you know, the one from "Celebrity Fit Club") lasted twice as long. I managed four days before brown-rice-and-bean fatigue set in. Atkins was an eating plan I would maybe commit to for a day, but there was no way my carb-loving self would be able to deprive myself of bread and sugar, no matter how great my love of bacon.
The only diet that I've managed to stay on for more than a week was one that was borne of sheer necessity. I've had to do it a few times, and it wasn't to lose weight, although with its limited amount of "allowed" foods, it features that as a side effect.
Every five years, I have to go on a low-iodine diet to make sure that my cancer has not returned. I was diagnosed with stage II papillary thyroid cancer when I was 20. Stage II cancer means that the tumors have spread beyond the thyroid gland. I had a large tumor in my thyroid and several tiny ones in my lymph nodes. Treatment consisted of surgery to remove my thyroid, then a dose of radioactive iodine therapy.
This is where my dieting nightmare began.
Iodine is an important nutrient, and your thyroid needs it to make thyroid hormone, which is the fuel for your body's metabolism. Too little thyroid hormone, and you're sluggish and gain weight easily, a condition known as hypothyroidism. Produce too much thyroid hormone and you become wired and may not be able to gain weight, which is known as hyperthyroidism.
Radioactive iodine is absorbed by the remaining thyroid cells in your body and destroys them along with any cancerous cells. For radioactive iodine to best do its job, your body should be depleted of as much iodine as possible, so you have to eliminate your body's iodine reserves by dieting. Unfortunately, iodine is a component in the following (delicious and not-so-appealing) foods, and they are banned from a low-iodine diet:
-- All dairy products: cheese, milk, ice cream, yogurt, etc.
-- Whole eggs (egg whites are OK)
-- Iodized salt and sea salt (Kosher, non-iodized salt is OK)
-- Any processed food because it's impossible to know if the salt is non-iodized
-- Chocolate, unless it's really dark
-- Most soy products
-- Dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale
For a college junior who lived off ramen and other processed delights, this was tantamount to telling me to just never eat anything. I subsisted on Cream of Wheat for breakfast (one of the few cereals allowed), steak, chicken and salad with homemade vinegar & oil. As a picky eater who only enjoyed about three brands of Italian dressing, I found this to be salad torture. The meat was allowed, but only in limited portions, so I still felt deprived because just about anything I would eat to make my meal more substantial was banned.
I had taken the semester off to undergo treatment, and I was miserable. Not only was I stuck in a culinary Groundhog Day: Cream of Wheat loaded with sugar (one of the few saving graces of this diet is that if your sweet tooth is willing to accept dumping sugar on anything like you're Will Ferrell in Elf, you're set), steak or chicken, salad. Lather, rinse, repeat. I also was stuck in my hometown with no support system beyond my parents. All my high school friends were away at college and all my college friends were 250 miles away at school.
I watched a lot of TV because my understandably overprotective parents were afraid to let me out of the house. I had become Officially Sick and not allowed to do anything, despite thyroid cancer not being contagious and not requiring immuno-suppressing chemotherapy. My excessive TV consumption meant I became obsessed with food commercials. Every time I saw a Pizza Hut or Domino's ad, I would dream of how delicious a greasy slice (processed tomatoes, cheese, industrial dough -- BANNED!) would taste.
But pizza wasn't my dream food. I had one craving that I kept telling my mother to have for me the minute I was allowed to eat like a "normal" person again. I wanted, more than anything, a chocolate chip muffin. I can't even begin to explain why; I didn't care for muffins all that much. But there was something so simply decadent about the forbidden chocolate chip muffin that it became an obsession.
When I went into the hospital for my radioactive iodine treatment, I had been on the diet for two weeks. Because I had just ingested an ungodly amount of radiation that was doing its job destroying any residual tumors or thyroid tissue, the doctors told me I could have one off-diet item, a "cheat," if you will. I finally got the chocolate chip muffin, and it was ... disgusting. I kicked myself for not splurging on pizza or any other multitudes of processed, iodine-laden goodness.
All told, I lost 10-15 pounds during this whole ordeal, which on my then slender-to-average frame made me look quite gaunt like, well, a stereotypical cancer patient.
I blame -- or is it credit? -- my low-iodine dieting ordeal with my inability to stick with diets. It has made me adopt a "life's too short to deprive yourself" attitude toward food. This doesn't mean I'm stuffing my face 24/7 with Cheetos and pie, but that I'm not going to kick myself for consuming something "bad" in moderation.
After all, when I need to deprive myself of all dairy, processed food, seafood, etc., I've been able to suck it up for two miserable weeks. I don't want to live my life without delicious food, and the miserable low-iodine has allowed me to live.
Heather Muse is a frequent contributor to MyDaily. She has been in remission for 15 years and has maybe eaten one chocolate chip muffin since her days of radioactive iodine treatment.
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