Fructose is not my friend - East Valley Tribune: Columns

Fructose is not my friend

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Stacie Spring is a general assignment reporter for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-5645 or sspring@evtrib.com

Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2011 5:16 pm

I was once asked as way of introduction to name the most embarrassing song on my iPod and one strange thing about me.

The music was a tossup - it's probably between early Britney Spears and The Sound of Music soundtrack.

But the strangest thing about me? Well, that's an easy one to answer. I have fructose malabsorption, or non-hereditary fructose intolerance as it's often called.

Basically, my body has an impaired ability to digest fructose. The problem is fructose is in practically everything most Americans eat.

Fructose is the natural sugar found in nearly all fruits and most vegetables. It's also a component in high fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, agave and brown sugar. Basically anything that has "syrup" or "caramel" in the title also has fructose in it.

I should state explicitly that there is no reason why a perfectly healthy person cannot enjoy fruits and vegetables. But it is my opinion that perhaps more people would do better to limit their fructose consumption.

This whole fructose thing started about two years ago. I was in college, eating moderately healthy by college standards. For whatever reason, I started getting sick all the time - with a full range of gastro-intestinal problems. I'll try to spare you the details, but suffice it to say I was, among other things, vomiting about once a week.

After months, I was getting sick even more often and living nearly exclusively on the BRAT diet.

The BRAT diet, if you're wondering, stands for bananas, rice, apple sauce and toast and is one of the most bland, boring diets ever. I was basically off and on it for months in the spring of 2010.

Finally, it nearly entered a period of time where I was throwing up every day.

"I know this sounds bad, but I feel better when I don't eat anything at all," I told my mom one time. I found if I went about a day and a half without eating (and still drank lots of water), I felt normal for the first time in months.

It took a summer full of doctor's appointments to explain to me why fasting made me feel energized and relatively normal. In May and June 2010, I had at least one doctor's appointment a week. I had a colonoscopy, an endoscopy, three different tests that involved swallowing a thick, chalky mixture, an ultrasound on my abdomen, a gluten test and two hydrogen breath tests.

Test after test came back normal. Yes, I had a lot of irritation in my stomach and esophagus, but I had also been vomiting for months.

The fructose hydrogen test was the last test. I began thinking I was either crazy or had some new disease no one had ever had. I mean, how could I be intolerant to fruit? I'd been eating it my whole life.

Only this test was different and I could tell right away. Yes, fructose was my problem.

The biggest challenge for me was learning how to adapt with my diagnosis. The first trip to the grocery store nearly ended before it began - in tears.

Everything I picked up had some form of fructose. Cereals, breads, chicken strips, ketchup, deli meats. And I knew I couldn't have fruit or vegetables or anything that contained them.

But then I found Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. It was a staple from my childhood and my go-to comfort food. It has absolutely no sugar at all in it and it was the first food I put in my basket. I also went home with sugar-free jello, potato bread, cheese and milk. I ended up eating a lot of homemade chicken alfredo fettuccini, grilled cheese sandwiches and barbecued steak (oh dang).

A week later I visited a nutritionist. She explained that I probably could add most glucose and table sugar back into my diet. From there, it would be trial and error to find how much fructose my digestive system can handle.

I can have about five blueberries. Salads with romaine lettuce are fine. I had a sliver of apple pie at Christmas that didn't bother me too much. For whatever reason, tomato products (sweetened with sugar) don't seem to bother me at all. Margaritas in any amount are not a good idea, even a sip.

My nutritionist also told me one other very surprising thing. She's seeing a rise in the number of fructose intolerant people sent to her office. In the last 20 years, she would normally see one person a year with the condition. But there have been increases in the last five years. By July 2010, I was her third patient referred for fructose malabsorption that year.

However more common it is becoming, it still remains a very small group with very little online information and only a few online support groups.

While this condition has drastically changed my eating habits and lifestyle, it hasn't been all bad. I know exactly what I eat all the time. I make a conscious effort to ensure I have all of the vitamins I would normally be getting from fruits and vegetables. It gives me a really good excuse to not eat asparagus.

Going out to eat is difficult, but not impossible. I generally stick to things I've had before and know will not make me sick.

What's difficult is getting people to understand why I can't drink fruit smoothies or have candy. Or why my coffee add-ons have to be sugar-fee.

If I could give anyone one tip, it's this: Know what you're eating and read the ingredients.

There's a type of frozen pizza I wouldn't touch with a 39-foot pole, even if I could eat it.

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