An Arthritis Foodie: Emily’s Story

by Izzie Clough

Arthritis Foodie

We all love food, right? Well, 27-year-old Emily loves it so much that she’s set up an Instagram page all about food, specifically for people with arthritis!

Diagnosed at age 20, Emily’s arthritis transformed her passion for food into a passion for cooking and living a healthy lifestyle, all while eating lots of delicious grub. Her Instagram page, Arthritis Foodie, is choc-full of recipes and advice. Oh, and she’s also writing a book, so watch this space for that.

Since receiving a letter on her birthday telling her she needs to shield until the end of June, Emily has continued to be a ray of sunshine (or maybe a sprinkle of summer seasoning?) for her followers.

I spoke to her to find out how being a self-proclaimed foodie has helped her cope with her condition, as well as some top tips on cooking when your joints are giving you grief.

Food is a pretty big part of our lives and our culture, but being diagnosed with a chronic illness can change what and how we eat. Have you always been a foodie, or did your love of cooking develop after your arthritis?

To be honest with you, I’ve always loved food, especially quite indulgent food! But it was after I was diagnosed and started Arthritis Foodie that I began to really look after myself and eat well. I started cooking everything from scratch, so I really had to learn the basics upwards, because before my arthritis I really was not a good cook at all! Mainly I’d just buy, say, a frozen chicken kiev and stick it in the oven – I was very much about convenience foods. Now I make nearly everything from whole foods and my passion for cooking has definitely developed since having arthritis. I can see how much food impacts me, and can impact and help other people… I just absolutely love food!

EmilyYou’ve got quite a large following on your Arthritis Foodie account and even a Facebook forum! How has this community helped you to cope with lockdown?

Running the account always makes me feel less alone, no matter what I’m going through. It’s such a useful resource and such a lovely community of people going through the same thing; so absolutely, it’s helping me through lockdown so much. My housemates are absolutely wonderful people and they do so much for me, but Arthritis Foodie is like an ‘extra arm’ where I can get support from others or they can get support from me. It’s definitely helping me to keep going with my cooking. I’m also very honest on there – it would be ridiculous for me to say ‘do x y and z’ in the middle of a pandemic – so if I’m having a bad day, I talk about that as well.

Outside of the pandemic, how does cooking and food help you to cope with your arthritis in general?

For me, my lifestyle is the one thing that I can do to help my body, my mind and my arthritis. Back in 2017 I had a really bad flare up in my ankles – I was in excruciating pain and couldn’t even walk for a minute without needing to sit down. I felt like I had no control, so I just put everything in my rheumatologist’s hands, even though it was my own body. I just thought “it’s arthritis, they’ll sort it out.” What I did in my day to day life seemed separate from my arthritis, so I felt like it didn’t matter. And that’s just not the right approach at all!

Now, everything I do with food and my lifestyle is my way of having a say in how I am in my own body – mentally, physically, all of it. It’s definitely helped me a lot. And you know, cooking is time you’re spending on yourself. It’s almost like meditation, you just focus on the measurements of each ingredient, learn different flavours and just get on with it! It’s lovely – it’s a break from your phone and from everything.

Are there any methods or things you use to cope when your arthritis makes it difficult for you to cook?

Stir fry

Emily’s simple stir fry recipe can give you a yummy nutritious meal in 15 minutes.

On days when I don’t feel up to cooking, I usually chop vegetables at the kitchen table while directing my housemates on how the recipe is supposed to go – I think it’s very sweet of them to do that for me! I mostly sit down at the table to chop and peel anyway, but especially when I’m struggling. I’m very fortunate that I haven’t had any really bad flare ups in my hands since last summer, but I totally appreciate that for lots of people with arthritis hand mobility is a big problem. If there’s anything I need to do that makes my hands feel a bit funny, like peeling a huge butternut squash, I always ask for help.

I also try to cook meals in big batches, so I have lots of different meals in the freezer, like curries, soups and various bits and pieces. That way, if I’m having a bad day, I can just heat something up from there as a go-to. In terms of my recipes, I really try to keep things simple.

Things like 15-minute stir fries for dinner (find the recipe here) or a smoothie you can whizz up for breakfast (find the recipe here) are really great for when I’m not feeling up to cooking. Sometimes it’s difficult because the more I enjoy cooking, the more steps I want to add to my recipes! But I do try to make them accessible and easy to do.

There are some mixed approaches to managing arthritis through food and lifestyle choices out there, which can be confusing. It’s great to hear that your lifestyle helps you cope mentally, but has it also helped you manage your physical symptoms?

That’s such a good question, and one I often get from people in the community. Firstly, I want to say that I am on medication and I want to emphasise that changing your lifestyle isn’t about curing your arthritis. It never is, it never will be – this is something I’ll live with for my whole life.

But yes, food and exercise has helped me massively with my physical symptoms. I usually know pretty soon if I’ve eaten something that isn’t the best thing for my body! Everybody is different and what might work for one person may not work for another, but the main principles of looking after yourself have really helped me. That is, eating lots of colourful vegetables, plenty of fibre, moderate intakes of grains and gluten and things like that. Just being aware of how different foods affect you and tracking it can be really helpful.

Some people may say it’s not connected, but you know your own body, you know when flares are happening and how you’re affected by them. I know it’s kind of controversial but I do think that managing your symptoms with medication and with food and lifestyle is the best thing you can do for your mental and physical health. For me, it’s the balance of the two that really helps.

SmoothieDo you have any advice for people with arthritis who are thinking about improving their cooking skills and integrating more whole foods into their diet, but might be scared to start because of their condition?

I think the best thing to do if you’re struggling is to start small and simple. Try adding in one extra piece of fruit and one extra piece of veg a day, and then slowly build from that. One of the easiest ways to get more fruit into your day is to have a smoothie in the morning. Soups and salads are also great staples if you don’t feel up to the longer recipes. And if you need some help or inspirations, have a look at the recipes on Arthur’s Foodie or drop me a message! I’m always open to chatting to anybody who needs support or wants some advice.

For more amazing recipes and tips, follow Emily on Instagram @Arthritisfoodie and join her Facebook page to be part of a community of food-lovers with arthritis.

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