Over the past few years my relationship with food has completely changed. I went through a number of major health challenges, and ultimately I realized that one of the ways to a healthier life was to commit to better nutrition a little bit at a time.
Two years ago, I was traveling with my family on a holiday in Iceland. One would think it would be quite a relaxing trip. But in the evening after our activities, I saw this red patch on my leg. I wondered what it was but eventually, I just ignored it. But the following night it got bigger, and more patches kept popping up. By the time I returned from the trip my entire leg was covered in patches, which had spread to my back. I scheduled an appointment with an immunodermatologist and it was confirmed that I had psoriasis. I was devastated to learn that chronic psoriasis is a permanent condition and can only be treated, not cured. I am now classified as a person with a disability because this condition is permanent. It was devastating to me.
Acceptance, coping, and realization
It was a struggle to see my skin that way. I used to wear shorts — I could wear anything I wanted — and my skin was clear. But to see my skin with scales and red patches was deeply upsetting. This is a warm country, but I couldn’t wear shorts anymore. I couldn’t wear a dress higher than above my ankle. So I packed away all my favorite clothes, out of my closet and in a bag. That was my form of acceptance.
I was told that my psoriasis had to do with lifestyle choices. A lot of it was driven by work stress. I was a very bad sleeper. I ate anything that was in front of me. I used to exercise, but I stopped. With an autoimmune disease, a lot of my symptoms would depend on what I put in my body and the lifestyle I would adopt.
Taking control of my lifestyle
I decided to deal with it by making lifestyle changes. Now I do yoga three times a week. I bike at home. I use a rowing machine three or four times a week.
I also had to change my eating habits and diet. It was tough. The most difficult to cut down was sugar and starch. My first step was to cut back on eating rice. As one could imagine, this was quite challenging as Filipino dishes are best eaten with rice. Though I’m not 100% rice free, I limit my intake to six tablespoons a week. I stuck with it for the first 12 months. I shifted to sweet potato instead and I’ve gotten used to eating soupy dishes on their own. I also eat more portions of vegetables instead of red meat. It was tough for the first few weeks, but I have gotten used to it after over two years. My next step was sugar. I’m such a dessert person — and being 95% sugar free was a big challenge. I try to source non-dairy and sugar-free ice cream. When it comes to fruits, one of my favorites is mango, but I have learned that they contain a lot of sugar so I had to limit myself to a quarter of a mango at a time. I have incorporated more nuts and low sugar fruits in my diet as an alternative. For example, after dinner, I eat a cranberry walnut dessert which tastes just as nice without the high sugar.
After implementing all of these changes my skin is 97% clear.
Allow me to share what I have learned throughout this experience.
Eating healthier does not mean depriving yourself. There are so many alternatives that don’t make you feel deprived of delicious and satisfying food. At the beginning it was really difficult. For the first few months I was so focused on what I was missing. I had to stop having ice cream and cakes, which I love. But eventually I started to learn more about what I can eat. Even my kids started to do research and tell me, “Oh mom, you can eat this and this!” Now I don’t feel like I’m losing out. I can still choose to eat, just not the way I did before.
Be open with people closest to you. I was open with people at work and told my boss and team about my condition. I could have kept it to myself, but I wanted to be open about it and show that we all struggle. For six months I couldn’t take late night or evening calls because my team would say “Ira, we have what we need from you, you need to rest.” During a working call, my team will tell me, “You need to get off now.” It’s very humbling. And I truly appreciated how supportive and caring my team has been.
Live your life. I share my story because when you keep it to yourself, people will think you don’t have struggles. I continue on my nutrition journey, I stay active, and at 56 I’m feeling amazing.