How Imitating My Dogs’ Diet Cured My Digestive Woes

After a bad illness, Dogster columnist Julia Szabo calmed her angry gut by taking cues from her dogs' grain-free diet.


Some years ago, in the middle of the night, I found myself at the hospital with a high fever and septicemia, drenched in a cold sweat, seeing stars, and being wheeled into emergency surgery for a perirectal abscess. Ouch is an understatement. This brush with death involved an excruciatingly slow and painful recovery. At the time, I was a successful fashion journalist; I succumbed to this decidedly unfashionable condition right before Fashion Week. Incapacitated, I was unable to cover the collections (or even walk my dogs). Apparently, I would later learn, a buildup of bad bacteria in my gut had eaten through my intestine. My poor dietary habits had almost killed me — not to mention my career. Happily, amid all this upheaval, the newspaper I worked for at the time graciously offered me a great pet reporting gig that would last for the ensuing 11 years.

At one follow-up exam, I asked the surgeon who’d performed my operation what I might do to prevent a relapse. “Don’t get diarrhea,” he said. How would I do that? “I don’t know,” he replied. “Just don’t.” What the good doc didn’t tell me was the logical corollary to that advice: Don’t get constipated, either. Both forms of gastric upset are your body’s way of telling you you’re not eating right, and overtaxing your digestive system as a result.

Like many in his profession, my surgeon just didn’t set store by integrative medicine and didn’t take a holistic approach to healing (or a shine to having an inquisitive reporter for a patient). Wanting at all costs to avoid ending up under the knife again, I spent the next several years experimenting with different diets, tweaking my eating habits to figure out just how to prevent unpleasant occurrences. It took lots of trial and error. Thanks to my dogs, I succeeded.

You see, all I had to do was observe the foods that worked best for my dogs’ digestive systems, then apply what I discovered to my own diet. I faithfully checked the consistency and regularity of the dogs’ poop. Seriously! This not only made me a more attentive dog parent, it also helped me take better care of my own health. Unbeknownst to them, my pack of dogs became my live-in dietitians and health coaches.

In 2002, my dog Pepper (a sweet darling of a Pit Bull who passed away in 2009) developed an allergy to the food she’d eaten for years. She blew up in enormous hives: It was a scene straight out of a horror flick. The veterinary allergy specialist placed Pepper on a grain-free diet of venison-and-potato kibble. She happily dined on this food formula and never experienced another allergic reaction for the rest of her life. And she produced picture-perfect poops!

I also noticed that Pepper’s physique was suddenly a lot more svelte than it had ever been. My little piggy-dog’s nickname had been “the portly Pepper-pot,” but after a while, it simply wasn’t fair or accurate to call her that. Pepper had grown lean and lithe. So I switched my other dogs — who had all packed on unwanted pounds thanks to their grainy kibble — to a grain-free diet, too. Soon everyone in my pack was looking gorgeous. Especially my late, great dog Sam, who had bravely battled cancer. Forgoing carbs turned out to be the best thing for Sam, since it’s thought that cancer cells thrive on carbs. His new diet had to be one reason he lived to the ripe old age of 17.

What would happen, I wondered, if I adopted my dogs’ dietary regimen and went off grains myself? The low-carb Atkins Diet was one option. But I confess, I do love my carbs (in the form of potatoes, pasta, and bread especially). Finally, I narrowed down my problem to rice. Although I’ve always loved every variety of this edible grain, I cut way back. Rice had a way of expanding once it reached my gut, causing me all sorts of discomfort. That’s just what rice does. In fact, I recently learned an amazing fact from my brilliant boyfriend: Many shipwrecks have been caused by rice becoming waterlogged in the hold, causing the vessel to sink! As I weaned myself off rice (no easy task, for I could be perfectly content eating it all by itself with a spoon), I began to notice a big difference in my, ahem, movements. I also felt lighter and better after eating — and significantly less bloated.

Then I learned about “food combining,” and adapted my lifestyle to this simple and effective way of eating. My problem hadn’t just been rice. It had been the years of eating that starchy carb together with protein. Your digestive system works most efficiently when you feed it starch or protein, not both at one sitting. If consumed together, one will go undigested, hanging out in your gut and fermenting there, which causes all sorts of problems, from bloating and flatulence to skin eruptions to bad bacteria buildup to, yes, diarrhea and/or constipation. But properly combined, food travels with ease through the GI tract, leaving no distress in its wake.

Starches need an alkaline environment to be properly digested; proteins need acid. The great news is that vegetables may be eaten with starches as well as proteins — and salad promotes digestion of both. So at the outset of a meal, decide whether you’re in the mood for a carb fest or a protein platter. Order one or the other with a side or two of veggies. Jonesing for a burger? Skip the bun. Have a salad or slaw and extra pickles (the acid in the pickles helps your gut break down the meat). If you’re going the carb route — say, pasta with veggies — give your gut a boost by avoiding vinegar. Dress your salad with olive oil and lemon (which, believe it or not, is actually alkaline, not acidic). Likewise, don’t squeeze lemon over your seafood, and remember, cheese and nuts are proteins, so don’t go mixing them with starches, either.

If you’re opting for protein, don’t dip into the bread basket before your order arrives, or you’ll be priming your GI tract to digest carbs instead of protein. By the time the meat hits your gut, it will just sit there undigested. If you’re eating Japanese, try ordering sashimi (raw fish without rice) instead of sushi. Get a side of edamame or steamed spinach or seaweed salad. If Italian’s on the menu, don’t order a side of pasta with your chicken parmigiana — ask for sauteed broccoli rabe instead. You’ll feel such a happy difference hours after your meal, I guarantee it!

If, like me, you adore carbs, know that there are carbs that happen to be much easier on the digestion than rice: the ancient grains millet and quinoa, both high-protein, gluten-free, and deliciously satisfying. Wouldn’t you know, I learned to appreciate millet after noticing that it’s an ingredient of a kibble formula, Nature’s Variety Prairie venison flavor, that happens to agree with all of my dogs (except, of course, the strictly carnivorous Desiree). These days, I eat millet and quinoa as often as possible (they’re wonderful with coconut oil), and never even miss rice.

Here’s another helpful tip: Don’t eat fruit for dessert, ever, whether it’s fresh fruit or fruity pie or fruit ice cream. Fruit digests very quickly, in about 20 minutes, and if you eat it after, say, dining on meat, you’re headed for digestive upset. Here’s why: That meat takes three to four hours to move through your gut, while fruit sits there, fermenting, undigested, with no place to go. Nice! That explains why, for so many years, I dreaded the prospect of Thanksgiving. After the festive holiday meal, I always became painfully bloated because I’d eaten (gasp) cranberries and apple cider with turkey. My dog Magnus happens to love bananas, so I take care to treat him to his fave fruit shortly before his main meal, but never after.

To help my digestive system process everything efficiently and maintain a healthy environment of beneficial bacteria in my gut, I take a daily dose of probiotics. Upon seeing the huge difference this supplement made in my overall well-being, I added it to my dogs’ diet, too. After all, it was the least I could do to return the huge digestive favor my dogs had done for me.

This all sounds much more complicated than it really is. Once you get the hang of food combining, it’s a piece of cake, even when you’re out on a romantic date at a fancy restaurant. (Trust me, waitstaff have heard it all.) What I’ve learned from feeding my dogs has changed my life for the better. Food combining can help, whether you (or your dog) experience trouble dropping that last few pounds, or you get frequent bouts of gas, or you have an inexplicable case of teenage acne but you’re well into your thirties. I hope you’ll consider giving it a try. Here’s a helpful chart of food combinations.

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