This post was written by Harriet Smith (BSc Hons, RD). Harriet is a Registered Dietitian, an award-winning Health Writer, and founder of the company Surrey Dietitian.
Harriet also lives with several chronic illnesses herself (scoliosis, joint hypermobility syndrome and chronic pain), and she enjoys helping others in similar situations.
Those who suffer with chronic illness are often vulnerable to nutrition messages which are misleading, and sometimes even unsafe. So I am delighted with this post from Harriet which provides reliable and practical advice about what and how to eat with a chronic illness.
Eating well with a chronic health condition can be challenging.
Chronic pain, nausea and fatigue are just some common symptoms which can affect our food intake. When you’re feeling unwell, food might be the last thing on your mind.
I’m a Dietitian living with several chronic illnesses myself, so I really know how it feels to not want to cook or prepare food. In this blog post, I share with you my personal top tips for eating well with a chronic illness.
Is nutrition advice different if you suffer from a chronic illness?
With a chronic illness, there may be certain foods that you are unable to eat despite them being part of a recommended healthy diet.
For example, it is essential for those with coeliac disease to maintain a gluten-free diet. If you have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a low-fibre diet may be helpful during active flare-up. Following a low-histamine diet can help manage allergic type symptoms from everyday foods such as cheddar cheese, avocados and fermented foods in those with histamine intolerance (1, 2, 3). These diets can be tricky to manage whilst ensuring you don’t miss out on vital nutrients.
You may come across a number of diets claiming to have cured everything from MS to IBD by juicing and detoxing. It may be tempting to try these but unfortunately quick fixes and fads don’t work.
There is also a misconception that ‘free-from’ diets are healthier. There is no evidence that a gluten-free diet is beneficial unless you have a medical requirement (i.e. coeliac disease), and in some cases it may lead to a diet lower in fibre and higher in sugars and fats. A vegetarian or vegan diet is only as healthy as the food choices made by each individual following the diet. They can still be high in salt, sugar and saturated fat such as coconut oil.
The point we’re making is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
It’s important for you to follow trusted and credible nutrition advice provided by a Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Nutritionist (RNutrs).
What are the barriers to eating well with a chronic illness?
Some people might find themselves managing a variety of symptoms due to their chronic illness(es).
Trying to prepare food when experiencing nausea, chronic fatigue, pain, low mood and lack of appetite means that it’s sometimes more difficult to eat well.
When it comes to cooking, it’s important not to let these feelings overwhelm you. With a bit of planning you can manage your symptoms and still eat well.
How to overcome the barriers
When your symptoms get in the way of cooking, don’t be afraid to use ‘ready meals’. There are plenty of nutritious ones available, just try and avoid those high in sugar, salt and fat. Reading the food label on the front of the pack can be useful when selecting a healthier readymeal. There’s more info on this here.
Don’t overlook the benefits of frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables.
These forms of foods are often cheaper, and can be kept in your freezer for months. What’s more, there’s some scientific evidence suggesting that frozen fruits and vegetables are more nutritious than their fresh counterparts.
Nausea can be helped by having smaller meals or snacks rather than aiming for three larger meals. Some people find that ginger and sipping cool and refreshing liquids can help too.
Try to make things easy for yourself and make use of online food deliveries. You can even save your usual food shop online so that you can repeat your order at the click of a button each week. You could also think about trying some meal delivery services such as Gousto, Hello Fresh, Cook and Graze. Lots of these websites offer discount codes for your first order.
On good days try bulk cooking and then divide into single servings and freeze for later (see below for suggestions for bulk cooking).
Remember to label your tupperware with dates so that you know when the food was prepared. Enlisting help from partners or friends can also help to ease the burden of preparing and cooking meals.
It is possible to eat well with a chronic illness. With some trustworthy nutritional advice and small steps you will find a greater sense of control over these barriers.
Healthy Snack Ideas:
Research into the health effects of snacks and snacking behaviours are limited, however snacks can play an important role in adding nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables and fibre-rich foods into your diet. For days when you’re not feeling great or don’t have the energy to cook, snacking can help you to get some energy and nutrition without much effort.
Try to keep a supply of snacks in your cupboard and fridge for flare up days (or general hunger pangs!). Some foods which I like to snack on include:
- Hummus, carrot sticks and mini wholemeal pitta breads
- ½ avocado mashed (or 2 tbsp guacamole) with a handful of tortilla chips
- Chopped up apple and cheddar cheese with oatcakes or rice cakes
- Cream cheese, smoked salmon/ham, sliced cucumber and ryvita
- Yoghurt, frozen berries (defrosted in microwave) with a handful of granola
- Flapjack (homemade or store bought) with a banana
- 30g nuts or mixed seeds, 2 squares dark chocolate, several pieces of dried fruit
Quick, Easy Meals for Flare up Days:
- Baked beans, wholemeal toast, grated cheese
- Pre-cooked packets of rice with a fillet of fish/meat/tofu and a tin of ratatouille
- Slice of quiche, salad, jacket potato
- Breaded fish/fish cake/pre-cooked fillet of fish with new potatoes (or ready cooked mashed potato) and frozen/tinned veg
- Jacket potato with filling (i.e. tuna mayonnaise, cottage cheese and pineapple, baked beans and cheese, chicken, sweetcorn and natural yoghurt) and salad
- Wholemeal Pitta pizzas (toast them first, cover in 2 tbsp passata/tomato puree, add toppings of your choice and a sprinkling of cheese – grill until cheese has melted)
- Pasta, jar of tomato-based sauce (check the food label for low salt and sugar versions), mix in sweetcorn and tinned tuna
- Cheese on toast with sliced tomato
- Soup with bread roll, cheese and side salad
- Wrap or sandwich with protein (i.e. chicken/hummus/falafel), salad and flavourings of your choice (i.e. spring onion, mashed avocado, herby cream cheese, caesar dressing)
- Cous cous (made in minutes with boiling water) with frozen roasted vegetables and feta/halloumi
- Bowl of wholegrain breakfast cereal (or porridge) with milk and 2 handfuls of fruit
Meals Suitable for Bulk Cooking:
If freezing meals, ensure that the dish has cooled to room temperature before storing in the freezer. Don’t forget to label it with the date you made it and a ‘best before’ date. More info on how to store leftovers here.
- Chilli con carne with rice and sweetcorn
- Bolognese sauce (use a tin of ratatouille to save time and frozen, ready chopped onion)
- Meat or vegetable curry (buy a jar of ready made curry sauce – I like Lloyd Grossman sauces)
- Casserole (can be made in a slow cooker)
- Soups (most freeze well)
- Pasta dishes i.e. lasagne
- Homemade fishcakes or bean burgers
Foods to Keep in Your Freezer:
- Frozen fruit and vegetables (I always have frozen berries, pre-chopped onions, peas, green beans, spinach, broad beans and roasted Mediterannean vegetables)
- Frozen potato wedges/chips (regular or sweet potato depending on your preference)
- Frozen bean burgers and fish cakes
- Several ready meals for days when you really can’t cook (I like frozen moussaka, fish pie and lasagne. Cook do an excellent range of home-made frozen ready meals which can be delivered to your door, but it is quite expensive)
- Frozen fillets of fish (plain or breaded), sausages (veggie or meat)
Foods to Keep in the cupboard:
- Nuts and mixed seeds
- Popcorn in mini bags
- Malt loaf/flapjacks/cereal bars
- Dried fruit
- Dark chocolate
- Nut butters
- Tinned vegetables (tomatoes, sweetcorn)
- Tinned fruit (I like mandarins, grapefruit, pears)
- Salad dressing
- Baked beans
- Ready made pasta sauces and curry sauces
- Pre-cooked rice (I like basmati and wholegrain rice)
- Couscous and pasta
- Tinned fish (i.e. salmon, sardines, tuna)
- Wholegrain breakfast cereals
Useful Websites & Resources for Simple Recipes:
- Jamie Olive 5 Ingredients Cookbook Recipes
- BBC Quick & Easy Meals
- Budget Bytes Recipes
- Amy Shepperd Instagram Account Recipes
- BBC Good Food Student Recipes
- Asda Good Living Recipes
- Healthline Simple & Healthy Snacks
- BBC Under 20 minute Recipes
I hope you find these tips useful, and if you’d like more information on eating well with a chronic illness, head over to my website https://www.surreydietitian.co.uk/blog or follow me on social media @surreydietitian