By Sari Huhtala
“You will remain the same until the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than the pain of change.”
When Jodi Bager read these words, written by Elaine Gottschall, author of Breaking the Vicious Cycle, she felt compelled to do whatever was necessary to break the cycle of pain that her severe ulcerative colitis had caused in her life. The time for change was here and now.
The most difficult part of change is getting to the point where one is ready to embrace change, says Bager, a Toronto-area resident.
“You have to have made the leap already that you want to do something proactive versus reactive,” Bager says. “You have to be the person who’s already decided you’re going to be in charge of your health and your life. Once you are there, the leap isn’t far, but if you don’t get there then it’s far.”
“I was already the kind of person who wanted to be proactive,” so initiating a dietary lifestyle change – in her case a specific carbohydrate diet – merely required know how, she says.
Bager was first diagnosed with signs of ulcerative colitis after the birth of her second child in 2000.
“I didn’t realize it was a chronic disease,” Bager says. “I had a doctor who put me on drugs and became impatient because I wasn’t responding quickly to the medication.”
Antibiotics were part of the course of treatment, she remembers, but the resulting effect for her was a 24-hour transformation from a normal person having one to two bowel movements daily to a “crippled person” going to the bathroom 24 times a day, with energy waning moment by moment.
She suspects the antibiotics triggered a cascade of symptoms in her body. Her physician suggested she continue taking the medication, to “stick with it.”
Yet, despite continuing the course of antibiotics, she continued to be crippled by the symptoms. At the time she hadn’t considered the dietary aspect as a potential intervention.
“I ate like everyone else does,” Bager says. “I never had a weight problem and never had to diet. In the past I could indulge in different foods without consequence. I generally ate healthy.”
This was a “dark” time in her life, she recalls.
Barely muddling through each day, lethargic and always feeling ill, it took every ounce of energy from her just to manage day by day with her children, one of whom was a baby at the time and the other school-aged.
“I was devastated. I had no life. It didn’t get any better. This was the beginning of discovering the disease.”
Her stepfather had noticed how her health had deteriorated so rapidly over the course of a few weeks of being on the antibiotics and had contacted his own gastroenterologist and urged his doctor to see Bager. He had said “You have to see my daughter Jodi. I don’t think she’s going to make it. You have to see her,” Bager remembers.
During her first visit with the gastroenterologist she was prescribed two types of medication, one of which was prednisone, the other salofalk, used to treat mild ulcerative colitis and Crohns.
“I realized it was going to save my life,” Bager says. “Within four hours of taking it my symptoms stopped. I had energy. It stopped the worst of this disease, but other symptoms came over a short period of time.”
She developed acne, extreme night sweats and a ferocious appetite, but perhaps the most disturbing side effect was a shift in her personality, she says.
“I suddenly had a temper,” Bager remembers. “I’d lose it at the drop of a hat. It was devastating how it changed my personality.”
A week into being on the medications she went in for her first colonoscopy. Full blown pan colitis was what the results showed, which meant her entire colon was diseased, she says.
Still not realizing it was a chronic condition, she felt she had saved herself with the medications, but believed she could wean herself off of the prednisone, while still continuing salofalk. Six months after weaning off of the prednisone her symptoms resurfaced. That’s when she starting paying attention to diet.
Going on a gluten-free diet did little to change her condition, so she shifted to a raw food diet after noticing an online post about a man who had cured his colitis through a raw food diet.
The challenge, she says, was that it seemed so limiting. Being a foodie type of person, she didn’t want to give up the adventure of experiencing a vast variety of foods.
“I found myself sitting down to a plate of raw broccoli for supper and thought, are you kidding me?”
A friend had told her about the specific carbohydrate diet (SCD) as a possible health intervention.
SCD is based on the premise that an individual with a damaged colon can not digest certain carbohydrates, like grains, starches and refined sugars. As a result, it fosters a growth of harmful bacteria in the gut, which irritates the colon even more. Eliminating these carbohydrates allows the colon to heal. Author Elaine Gottschall popularized the diet in the 80s after her daughter’s ulcerative colitis was healed.
“I saw the diet and said ‘Oh my God, look at all the things I can eat. I can do this, no problem.”
“Within three days of being on the diet my symptoms started to abate. I’d gone from going to the bathroom 10 to 12 times a day to only three to four times a day. I kept a food journal and kept track of all my symptoms. I was beginning to feel a lot better.
“I really believe it was the diet that had cleaned my system, thus allowing the salofalk (medication) to do its job.”
Family members worried that once she was off the prednisone her health would take a downward spiral once again, and had urged her to go back onto the pharmaceuticals to manage the symptoms, but she continued, knowing the steroids only managed symptoms, without treating the cause.
Gottschall, whom she had met at a SCD potluck, recommended she follow the diet strictly and fanatically for one year at least, until the symptoms disappear, but Bager kept at it fanatically for four years.
There are absolutes she follows even to this day, like absolutely no sugar; she only allows herself to eat raw honey. Raw honey, has natural probiotics that help increase healthy bacteria. All other sugars are off limits, she says, including any condiments like ketchup, barbecue sauce, etc. She focused on reviving health gut bacteria through daily probiotics in homemade yogurt.
This path led her to begin experimenting with recipes to create goodies that followed the principles of the SCD.
“Because I needed to be able to eat sweet stuff I started to create my own goodies in my kitchen and started baking with the things I was allowed to eat. I started baking with almond flour, honey and fruit and started adapting recipes. Because I cut out all the sugars, my need for sweetness was reduced.”
Almond flour, she discoverd, in baking is the simplest of ingredients. It’s always moist and it has such a subtle taste to it, she says.
“The key to being able to stick to a healthy diet is to find substitutes that accurately mimic the foods you’re used to eating.”
Seven years after her first diagnosis, she received a clean bill of health from the doctor. A scope showed scar tissue existed, but there was no evidence of active disease within her colon.
In 2001 Bager co-authored a cookbook – Everyday Grain-Free Gourmet and has since published a second book. Her journey to wellness spawned a business, Grain-free JK Gourmet.
JK Gourmet creations are gluten free, refined sugar free and peanut free. Most people can eat pure healthy foods, says Bager.
“My job is to build addicts for healthy food.”
“This diet changed my life and without question it saved my life, but it also gave me my life. I have a place in this world and that matters.”
Her products are now sold in health foods stores across Canada, and in parts of the U.S.