Meet our 2020 Blog writing winner, Victoria Bell who shares her story below.
Confessions of a Nutritional Therapist That Will Surprise You
Does ‘healthy eating’ seem like one of those elusive concepts that isn’t quite for you? Do you associate the idea of healthy eating with rabbit food, zero sugar and zero fun? Read on to find out how one desperate mum turned this idea on it’s head to turn her life around.
'I hated my greens!
If you’ve ever had a child that rejects all things green, or found that some of those wholesome vegetables that we’re all supposed to be piling up on our plates can’t even pass your gag reflex, you might be able to relate to the kind of child that I was.
Despite my mum and my nan’s best efforts to feed me all the good old-fashioned meals that were the only item on the menu at the time, I was super fussy. Back then, the rule was, if you don’t finish everything on your plate, you cannot leave the table. And if you don’t eat all of your dinner, you certainly don’t get pudding, which was on offer every night.
At the time, it was what every parent did. Households were so much better at not wasting food, because we didn’t have food to waste. But, like many other children, I learned to force down food to get the reward of pudding, and I learned to ignore the full signal that should stop us from overeating. Kids are actually really good at regulating their appetite, if they are given the freedom to make that judgement for themselves.
Fad diets and junk food
Roll forward a few years and I had become a vegetarian who hated vegetables. Our meals had moved from the dinner table to our laps in from of the TV, and so a further move away from intuitive eating started. Fad diets were becoming increasingly popular, as were a whole host of convenience foods that were entering the market. It was hard to get away from talk about bodyweight, body image, and foods being naughty or good. And so a preoccupation with being slim and at the same time a massive shift in how much junk food we were eating was happening.
As a teen I could burn off any excesses of takeaways, pizza and chips from the school canteen, chocolate and crisps (all available at school too) - I had taken up smoking, which seemed like a great idea at the time. I had replaced half my meals with cigarettes, and my lunch money often went on my new habit too.
I had always had a really sensitive stomach as a child. If I look back now, maybe it was that early that the IBS kicked in. But that was just considered ‘normal’, just like it wasn’t considered particularly unusual that I was always ill. I frequently missed school with chest infections, tonsillitis and flu as a child. I’d also had eczema since I was born, diet was never once considered a trigger.
What didn’t feel too normal in my teens however, was the crippling period pains where I couldn’t walk, the joint and severe muscle pains. I popped ibuprofen and paracetamol several times daily, had some physio but generally sat around feeling unable to move. It was frequently an excuse to get out of PE.
Dealing with anxiety
Heading into my twenties and I was experiencing severe bouts of anxiety. I had quit smoking at age 20 and then had to deal with the almost 3 stone that I gained afterwards. At the time I had great success with a popular diet club. I was enjoying piling my plate high with their ‘free’ foods and had no idea what a normal portion should look like. I was in for a bit of a shock when I tried to come off the diet and use what I had learned when going ‘back to normal’!
So, for a few years, I swayed between the latest quick fix diet and falling dramatically off the wagon. Some of the diets made me feel like death. Some of them were so ridiculously restrictive I lasted a matter of days. In the lead up to a new diet, I would go all out on all the foods I was about to cut-out – surely it would be more motivating if I had more weight to lose in the first week?
Eventually I became so obsessed with whatever the latest healthy eating trend was, I started to take it to the extreme. It became all consuming, an obsession that created more anxiety. I needed to control all my food intake and if anyone took that control away from me it would cause panic and often arguments. Ironically, I was so obsessed with counting calories and zero fat, that I would only eat packaged foods that had those numbers on them.
All through these years, I was regularly ill. And as we are conditioned to do, I medicated with cold and flu remedies, painkillers, and had plenty of antibiotics. Somehow, I had got to age 26 before a severe IBS flare up caused me to come home early from a wedding. I was in so much pain I nearly went to hospital. Luckily, a GP quickly diagnosed the problem and packed me off with some new medication – woohoo!
Around that time, my obsession with healthy eating had created a hobby in which I started to educate myself on what proper nutrition should look like. But I was reliant on health magazines and the media as my sources of information – it was far from ideal.
But I also started to link food with health and to notice how foods might trigger my IBS. Don’t get me wrong, I spent several years stabbing around in the dark, being sent home with various medications by the doctors. Frustrated, I started to do my own detective work. But only after experiencing burnout due to my lifestyle and excessive working hours, then having two children and being very ill during their first few years.
I was desperate. I knew that there must be a way of feeling better. I had become intolerant to all the medication that I had previously relied on – it caused severe nausea and my last of antibiotics in 2013 gave me temporary depression. Plus, I had two children to educate about a healthy lifestyle, and I wanted to be fit and well to watch them grow up.
An article changed my life
A chance reading of an article one day changed the course of my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. One sentence in the article suggested that we often crave the foods that are causing us harm. So, I found a private food intolerance test and went to have the test in this strange man’s flat, as you do. I had researched the test – the solid science wasn’t there to back up the accuracy of the test. But anecdotally, plenty of people reported that it had given them well-needed answers.
Luckily the test went fine, the man (who I am not sure had any qualifications to do this test) told me I was intolerant to a few foods, confirmed my suspicions, but left me with a long list of foods to avoid. I spent weeks reading ingredients lists, becoming anxious (again) about avoiding foods and not really feeling any better. I took my test results off to the GP and awaited a referral to an allergist.
During this time I had started to read up on intolerances. And the idea of a damaged or leaky gut first entered my sphere of awareness. It seemed that with the help of nutritionists or nutritional therapists, there was hope that I could heal my ‘leaky gut’ and maybe one day build up a tolerance again to those foods. Which was lucky because the list seemed to be growing.
I saw the allergist for the first time and she diagnosed me as being lactose intolerant. She gave me some really helpful advice about some dairy foods that are actually low in lactose which was the best news ever. Butter and cheese were back on the menu! In small doses of course. I left with some handouts of what to avoid, but no advice on ways to get better.
One day, I was in my local health food shop, and the food intolerance test man was there, holding clinic in the middle of the shop. I heard him telling a client that she would need to avoid all gluten foods for the rest of her life. It made my blood boil – who was he to provide a diagnosis? The science just didn’t stack up to support the reliability of this test. How do you know who to trust? I started to research nutritional therapy and how to tell who is adequately qualified.
A change of career
At the same time, I was facing a return to work after almost 3 years away from my Finance Manager role. In the pit of my stomach, I was filled with dread. Going back after having my first daughter had been one of the hardest things I have done in my life. It was impossible to enjoy time off with her fully as I was always required to put in unpaid overtime and would get calls on my evenings and days off.
I started to jot down everything that I loved, and a lot of it seemed to revolve around food and health. Plus, what I had really missed about the earlier years of working for my last employer was having the time to listen to my team and colleagues. Being there for them when they were going through hard times – the freedom to do that had changed when I went back after maternity leave. The company had completely evolved from a fun fast-growing new business to an established corporate engine.
So, the idea of re-training as a nutritional therapist occurred to me. I had grown to really love eating whole, natural foods but I still felt like I had a lot to learn. It nearly didn’t happen.
Two days before I was set to meet a course consultant at the college I had chosen, my younger daughter, then 2 had fallen backwards off the sofa onto the hardwood floor and narrowly missed a trip to A&E. I hadn’t slept for two nights with worry that she had a latent brain injury (I had called 111 and been told to keep her home) and so when I tried to get parked at the train station and couldn’t find a space, I had a full on panic attack. How could I spend days away from my children when they were still small and needed me? So, I cancelled my appointment and focused on my family.
Back to studying
3 months later and I knew the sacrifice would be worth it for all of us. I made that overdue appointment and enrolled on the spot. For three years, I spent weekends in London at college. In the first year, it was 10 weekends, mostly at Birkbeck University. As I had never been to uni, I felt so lucky to be there. The first year is Biomedicine with all aspects of anatomy, physiology and pathology (which actually means when things go wrong with the body) and it was pretty intense. There’s a phenomenon amongst biomed students whereby many of them spend their time imagining that they’ve got half the illnesses that they’re studying so I had some work to do to address health anxiety in that year!
The second and third years involved all our nutritional, therapeutic and clinic training – 17 weekends a year. Assignments were to degree level, exams had an 80% pass mark. We were really put through our paces and it was exhausting. I regularly had to take steps to recover from the hours of intensive study as I started to tune in more quickly to the signs that my body was under stress. It was that or keep going and come down like a lead balloon with illness.
Better health for all!
But during those years, the health of myself and my family improved massively. If I had only done the course out of personal interest, it would have been worth every penny. Our lives are so much better for the knowledge that I have gained, how I feed us all and the attitude that my children are growing up with to food, body image and health.
And now, I love sharing this knowledge with the public and my clients. Setting up my own practice has been harder than I could ever have imagined, but after passing every exam and assignment with high marks first time, I know that I can achieve anything I put my mind to. And with the right coaching and support, so can my clients!
Victoria Bell is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, offering online nutritional therapy consultations and at her clinics in St Albans, Watford and Croxley Green.
To find out more go to: www.victoriabellnutrition.co.uk