Jo Stepaniak is the author and coauthor of more than two dozen books on vegan cuisine, health, and compassionate living. Having struggled with IBS for decades, Jo knows what it’s like to feel that no food is safe, even when eating healthy vegan fare.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody! Hi there! I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’re listening to It’s All About Food, thanks for joining me today! I’ve been telling you that I’ve been in California for a while, I’m still here. For those of you who don’t know I’m normally in New York City–that’s where I live. But for the last few years we’ve been coming up to California around this time and it’s great to be able to travel around and check out the vegan scene on the left coast, and visit some of my favorite eateries–which I’ve been taking a lot of advantage of. Okay, so, I’m very very excited in looking forward to the next half hour because we have a wonderful guest with us, and if you don’t know her, you’re going to find out how many people she has touched and influenced in such a positive way when it comes to veganism and nutrition. My guest is Jo Stepaniak and she is an author and a co-author of more than two dozen books on Vegan, cuisine health, and compassionate living. Today we are going to focus on IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) which she has struggled with for decades, and she knows what it’s like to feel like there is no food that is safe, even when eating healthy vegan fare. As a result, we have her beautiful new book, Low FODMAP and Vegan Diet. Welcome Jo! How are you today?
Jo Stepaniak: I’m fine Caryn, how are you?
Caryn Hartglass: It’s a beautiful day here, I’m just bouncing off the walls. I’m feeling really exceptionally good today! [laughter] I wanted to tell you that the last time I spoke with you was seven years ago. You were one of my very first guests on this program, It’s All About Food, and I’m very grateful for that. You gave us a very informative interview and since that time, here on the progressive radio network–on it’s 7th year, we have a great following wonderful audience that has grown significantly. I’ve learned so much hosting this program and just talking to so many wonderful people, like yourself. So it’s good to be able to talk to you again!
Jo Stepaniak: Aw thank you! I feel the same way.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, I want to talk about this book that you’ve written, but before we get to that, the bio that I read about you is very small and compact. But you’ve done so many wonderful things for this movement–you were elected for the Vegetarian Whole Team in 2008, you’ve edited so many books, guided so many people in writing their own books, and so much more. You’ve been a vegan for decades, and the thing that amazes me is that (I look at many cookbooks are you do), but you were really one of the founding people who have guided us through so many great recipes. I don’t even know that people really realize that when they’re seeing some of the new cookbooks come out, that you were part of our foundation.
Jo Stepaniak: Thank you, I appreciate that. My books have been around for a long time and I’m honored to think that, perhaps some of the newer authors have used my recipes as a foundation and jumping off point for their innovative ideas. So, thanks! I appreciate that.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re very welcome. It can be frustrating sometimes because as the decades go on, some of the younger generations don’t really realize how they got to where they are today. Things were harder decades ago.
Jo Stepaniak: That’s very true. I know they always get tired of us, older folks, talking about how much harder it was way back then. But, it was and we didn’t have all the advantages, products, prepared foods, and all the information–including the web. So, things are quite different now, and it’s amazing how much progress has been made so quickly.
Caryn Hartglass: Exactly, now the thing that I was so surprised to find out is that you’ve struggled with IBS for a while. So let’s start there and talk about that.
Jo Stepaniak: Yes, it’s been actually quite a very long time that I have. When I became vegan, which was–well I don’t want to say, it’s been ages. Longer than many new vegans have been on the planet. But, I had expected to feel better. I think that when most people turn to a vegan diet and vegan lifestyle, they do expect to feel better. But when they don’t, they can be extremely disappointed. It’s hard to find support, because most people actually have the opposite effect. They usually do feel that their health is improved, they’ve lost weight, their energy has risen–when they take on a vegan diet. But when that doesn’t happen, it’s hard to find support. It’s hard to tell other vegans that you don’t feel good, and you don’t know why. When you do tell them, everyone has an answer–everybody is telling you what you’re doing wrong.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. Now did you have trouble before you became a vegan?
Jo Stepaniak: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: You were young when that happened?
Jo Stepaniak: Yes, well I had been a vegetarian before I became vegan. So I had been having a pretty healthful diet, compared to most people, for a long time. But, when you have IBS, first of all, there’s no structural damage to your intestinal tract. It is very difficult and frustrating for physicians and the mainstream medical community to figure out what’s wrong. Only recently, has IBS been getting more attention in the news. The Low FODMAP diet, in general–which is not geared towards vegans, and what makes this book unique has been getting a significant amount of attention in the media recently. That’s awesome.
Caryn Hartglass: Can you tell us what the acronym FODMAP means?
Jo Stepaniak: It is a group of difficult to digest carbohydrates. Everybody, to some degree or another, has difficulty with these particular carbohydrates in foods. The word FODMAP is an acronym full of words that people don’t know and won’t relate to, so it’s just easier to say FODMAP. But it stands for the types of carbohydrates that are problematic for many people with IBS. Just like cholesterol is only found in animal products, FODMAPs are almost always only found in plant foods. There is lactose, which is found obviously found in animal milk, and that is one of the five maps. But, all the others are found in plant foods. That’s what makes being vegan with IBS so very challenging.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, the other thing about all that is we know that in terms of most chronic diseases is that plant foods are beneficial, especially for heart disease and diabetes. A high-fiber plant food diet is what boosts our immune system and lowers our risks. Yet, for most people that discover that they have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, they’re told not to consume fiber and they avoid vegetables, plants, and things that are beneficial. I’ve always found that for all disease and illnesses–except this, plant foods tend to be the obvious answer to give you immediate relief. Yet, this particular illness seems to go against that in some ways.
Jo Stepaniak: Well, in some ways it does. The problem is that the way that IBS works and the way that these short-chain carbohydrates work is that they ferment in our digestive tract, and depending on the type of IBS you have, these carbohydrates can go quickly through your digestive tract, or they can sit and ferment, or they can simply irritate the digestive tract, and cause other problems such as: bloating, gas, pain, and all the things that nobody ever really wants to talk about in social settings. But the key to managing a vegan diet with IBS, is to learn which foods are safe for you and which ones aren’t. So basically, the Low-FODMAP diet, is an elimination diet to start with. So, it can help people with IBS pinpoint their trigger foods. That way, you don’t have to eliminate everything for the rest of your life. You just have to find the foods that are specifically problematic for you. You don’t even have to totally eliminate those. Having a low-FODMAP diet is about learning the frequency and portion size of the certain foods that you can have. So you might be able to have a tablespoon of legumes, but you might not be able to have much more than that. So it’s really about a learning process of what works for you, but the problem in the past has been that we have to be able to figure out what our triggers are. So most people with IBS, particularly vegans with IBS, have been afraid of food–totally. Since we can’t figure out what it is that is causing our problems. There’s so many foods that do.
Caryn Hartglass: This elimination diet that you spoke about I think is really important. The medical community wants to find one fix for specific ailment, and this is where we discover we are all unique, and in many ways, not just with IBS–we’re the best gauge to find out what’s best for us. Very often, through an elimination diet, which can be a little challenging, but will let us know what will work for each of us as an individual–and nobody else can do that.
Jo Stepaniak: Right. Well the thing with the Low-FODMAP diet, and some of the signs that they are sensitive to many many foods they can stick with the diet closely for a longer period of time, but usually people find that there are specific foods that cause them more problems than others. Like you said, everybody is different, and IBS affects each person differently, in fact ALL digestive issues affects each person uniquely. So there is no such thing as “One size fits all” unfortunately, I wish that there were. But there are certain foods that affect people more so than others. Although, again, some people may not have any problems with those. But, in particular, legumes, onions, and garlic are the biggest offenders.
Caryn Hartglass: This is fascinating to me, primarily because I’m a big fan of Dr. Joel Fuhrman. He has some protocol for dealing with IBS, but his big things are G-bombs: greens, beets, onions, mushrooms, berries, rice, and beans.
Jo Stepaniak: [laughter] A lot of those are high in FODMAPs. Just so listeners know, FODMAPs are real. These have been proven scientifically, test after test, to exist and to exacerbate symptoms of IBS. A lot of times, we want to feel like we are eating the best, most nutritious, most nutrient dense diet possible. So we might follow something like a nutritarian diet, and we don’t feel better. And in a large part, it’s because we are eating those foods that are triggering our symptoms that are high in FODMAPs.
Caryn Hartglass: Are you at peace with your diet, Jo?
Jo Stepaniak: [laughter] Well maybe, yeah, because IBS is unrelenting. I would love to say that I’ve found the secret cure, but I haven’t. I have found ways to manage my symptoms as best as I can, but I still have good days and bad days. I’ve accepted that that’s just the way that it’s going to be. But on my good days, I will experiment more with some of the higher FODMAP food. When I’m not feeling good, then I’ll go back to a more strict low-FODMAP vegan diet.
Caryn Hartglass: What are your triggers?
Jo Stepaniak: [laughter] Everything.
Caryn Hartglass: It just made me think, because you’ve created so many wonderful cookbooks, yet there has been so many challenges along the way.
Jo Stepaniak: Well, I think when people come to veganism, because of ethics, you really want to make it work. You want to do everything in your power, and you just keep trying everything. And I have tried everything. I’ve had IBS for an extremely long time and I’ve tried every approach imaginable from oil free to nutritarian, from raw to food combining, you name it! I have tried it. I have tried fasting. I have tried juicing. I have tried absolutely everything. That’s why it makes me laugh when people say, “Well have you tried this”? The answer is yeah, yeah I have. I wish that I had fewer triggers, but I can tolerate some things in moderation, like higher FODMAP foods when I’m feeling good. But really, right now nobody knows exactly why people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, feel better on some days and not on others. And why some foods are more tolerable on some days, and not on others. It’s difficult. That’s what makes it so challenging and frustrating for people who have it because there are currently no answers. There’s more being found out. There’s more information in terms of physiological changes that are being detected that most of the medical community never thought existed. So that is creating opportunities for testing that allows people with IBS to get a diagnosis sooner, and not have to travel from doctor to doctor–getting nowhere. Once they have this diagnosis, they can start taking action on their own. The personal steps they need in terms of dietary changes, such as trying the low-FODMAP diet. Which has been effective for a large percentage of people with IBS.
Caryn Hartglass: Now what about Irritable Bowel Disease and Crohn’s Disease? I’ve often heard IBS lumped in with those other illnesses. Can you talk about them too? Because you don’t really mention them.
Jo Stepaniak: Sure, Irritable Bowel Disease is different from Irritable Bowel Syndrome in a number of ways. But symptomatically they can be very similar. Their structural damage to the intestines, depending on which type you have, whether you have Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis. That can be detected through examination. With Irritable Bowel Syndrome, you can have an examination, such as a colonoscopy, and there will be no visible structural damage. These diseases, the IBD, the inflammatory bowel diseases are progressive. They are also very difficult to control, however, mild forms of IBD can be very similar to IBS in terms of symptoms. People with severe IBS might even be more symptomatic and have more struggles with path of daily living, than people with IBD. So right now, the very recent view of the gastrointestinal community and physicians, is that digestive orders are spectrum diseases. So, they can be all across the board. Regardless of which type you have, it can range from mild to severe.
Caryn Hartglass: I know that the drugs that they use for Crohn’s disease, for example, can have tremendous side effects and increase the risk of cancer, So that’s a very scary road to go down.
Jo Stepaniak: There really has been no good solution and no headway into finding causes of IBD in the last fifty or more years. And the only solution, which are pretty typical of the conventional medical community has been new drugs. There has been really no ways to control, manage, and figure out the cause of inflammatory bowel disease. There has actually been a little more progress with IBS then there has been with IBD in the very recent years.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve read about worms and fecal transplants.
Jo Stepaniak: Yes, fecal transplants have been successful. They’re not very appealing, but they have been successful with some people who have inflammatory bowel disease. They have not been tried, at least on any large scale, with people who have IBD. I can understand why because our quality of life when you have IBS is deeply affected. But IBS does not progress- you don’t have a risk of cancer or IBS turning into IBD. IBS is not life threatening. So if we eat a food that triggers us, we just feel pretty rotten for several days. But, with people who have IBD, their disease is generally progressive. Occasionally people go into remission, and that’s awesome and that type of remission can happen for years. But, that doesn’t happen that frequently and the disease can progress and it can become life threatening. It can require major surgery. It’s extremely serious in that regard.
Caryn Hartglass: So we’ve heard about IBS, and we’ve just touched upon Crohn’s Disease and IBD. Now, let’s go to the bright side and talk about your book and the recipes. Because, I like to say, every time I’ve restricted my diet going from an omnivore to a vegetarian, vegetarian to a vegan, and then a vegan to a raw vegan for a while… Every time I restrict foods, I discover a whole world of other plant foods that I never thought about trying. I’m not sure if it’s the same way with eating low-FODMAP, but there are many many foods that are safe.
Jo Stepaniak: Absolutely! I’ve found that too. I find it kind of exciting to look for alternatives. How can I satisfy my taste when I can’t have certain things? So that was the fun in creating the recipes for this book. To think about what I can’t have, what isn’t available commercially, and how can I create something to fill that gap? For instance, Ketchup– people love ketchup. It’s a wonderful condiment, but it contains onion and garlic. People love sriracha sauce, that’s a fabulous condiment these days, but it contains tons of garlic. So, I came up for options for both of them, that I think are equally tasty and incredibly easy to make. They’re delicious and last a really long time in the refrigerator. [laughter] Which is important if you’re not going to make them that often. I came up with a wonderful chili paste, herbal seasonings, and spices–all kinds of things to fill the gap that are there when you have to restrict your diet. Especially, in terms of garlic and onion. Both of them are indigenous. They are in everything. If you go to any store and look at any prepared foods, the deli, the frozen items, the packaged foods, veggie burgers, cheese alternatives– you name it, they have garlic in them. It is so difficult for people with IBS to find solutions that don’t contain foods with those savory items.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m thinking of the Jane Cuisine, where they don’t believe in using onion and garlic, is there any connection between IBS and the Janes?
Jo Stepaniak: [laughter] not that I’m aware of. Although Janes in general–there’s a movement towards veganism. But Jane’s in general, have dairy products in the package. They don’t get away with that one.
Caryn Hartglass: But I just wonder, what the real reason is for not eating onion and garlic from centuries ago.
Jo Stepaniak: From what I understand, and I am not Jane. But, from what I understand between the connection of not eating onion and certain strict Hindus–for instance the Harikrishnas, they do not use onion and garlic either for spiritual reasons. They would probably be able to explain a whole lot better than I could, but it has to do with making your mind work in a way that it shouldn’t. It’s not very spiritual in terms of how active it is. So I will let someone from those backgrounds explain that.
Caryn Hartglass: So you have in the cookbook, some of your favorite go-to comfort foods that are safe?
Jo Stepaniak: Oh, I think they’re all comfort foods because that’s what I’m big into to. When you’re not feeling good, you really do want something that’s going to make you feel soothed, comforted, and loved–because you don’t want to feel deprived. I try to make everything high in flavor, soft and tender, just really appealing–whether you’re feeling great or not. There’s all kinds of different recipes to, I have: coconut curry, Indian style chard, potatoes, carrots, smoothies, short ribs, BBQ sauce– but all low in FODMAPs and all mild enough that they won’t inflame a sensitive digestive system.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m very glad to see that kale and collard greens are on the safe list.
Jo Stepaniak: They’re my favorite foods! When it comes to low-FODMAPs, dieticians and physicians are often saying that you really do need to have a dietician to guide you through the process so that you don’t get deficiencies in any nutrients. But we also hear that same thing when we become vegans, and people say well you’re going to be missing out on so many nutrients. What though? I ask myself what. Because I look at what I can have on a Low-FODMAP vegan diet, and you can have a lot. But it’s just knowing what. There are plenty of safe fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds–there are even a couple safe legumes in the right portion size. So there is really not a lot we are missing out on in nutrition. But it is understanding the portion that isn’t usually a trigger for most people, finding out your specific triggers–but there are lots that we can have. The primary challenge is prepared foods and eating out. Those are the biggest hurdles.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I understood that. My heart was breaking for all people that are suffering from IBS and living in this modern social world. The restaurants and prepared foods manufacturers are getting better when it comes to all kinds of allergies, nuts, all kinds of allergies. But, they’re not there yet with onions and garlic.
Jo Stepaniak: They are! I keep trying to reach out, but nobody seems to be listening right now. In Australia, where this research was conducted originally and where it’s emanated from. They actually have a low FODMAP map insignia, for food products–just like we have for vegan products. Here it’s not really controlled by any one organization, but they do have that for low-FODMAP foods in Australia. It would be wonderful to have something like that here in the United States.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m sure it will come, hopefully sooner than later! Thank you once again for leading the way with food, with your latest book, Low FODMAP and Vegan Diet.
Jo Stepaniak: Thank you Caryn!
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, thank you for joining me again, and feel good! Okay.
Transcribed by Victoria Nguyen, 8/4/2016.