Reehan became lactose intolerant in his 20s, fructose intolerant in his 30s and gluten intolerant in his 40s. This means that, in effect, he can’t drink milk, eat most fruit or consume anything that contains even a teeny bit of wheat. If he does, he can expect anything from bloating and a severely upset stomach to even seizures. “Intolerances are interrelated and they probably existed way back; I just didn’t know,” says Reehan 43, who, despite these dietary restrictions, is a lean mean marathon runner.
“I used to eat a lot of junk food like everybody else, would fall ill and blame outside food or tap water. But once when I must have had a stomach infection, a couple of things pointed towards lactose issues. It is hard to say whether the infection caused it or if it existed before,” he recalls how lactose intolerance triggered off. “That meant having no more milk or dairy products.”
|Undeterred. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh|
Some years later, eating fruit became problematic. “In my case it is fructose malabsorption; there is a slight difference — malabsorption is when your body cannot digest fructose, while intolerance, which is more serious, is when your body produces a reaction to fructose,” which meant that he had to avoid all fruit juices.
“In the US, most sugary drinks and sweet stuff (especially packaged sweet stuff) are sweetened with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which should be avoided. Other sweet stuff containing regular sugar only is OK; although, I have completely given up on sweet stuff. As for fruits, the ones to avoid are those that have a higher percentage of fructose, while fruits that are low in fructose and are safe to eat. Some vegetables too are high in fructose like onions and asparagus.”
Gluten intolerance happened much later. “Fructose and lactose intolerance is quite common, while gluten intolerance is somewhat a grey area caused by a fructan in wheat that is a polymer of fructose.”
Once when a cupcake gave Reehan a terrible reaction “I sat back and asked myself if the joy of eating that cupcake was actually worth feeling dreadful afterwards, if I wanted to go through the same suffering one more time. Of course, I didn’t. A cupcake can feel heavenly but the after-effects can be equally terrible and the agony lasts a few days. Now I can walk through the bread aisle without being tempted anymore. Of course, if I see gluten-free stuff, I’ll have that.”
|Proper diet is important with so many intolerances. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh|
Reehan learnt over the years to figure out what he can eat. “Now I have eliminated all carbs, like eating breakfast minus toast and Pakistani food without the roti. I can cook desi food without onions, but I usually eat Thai food as it doesn’t have onions and rice doesn’t have gluten. But there are certain foods that you can’t work around, like pizza, for instance. Even if I substitute with gluten-free flour, I can’t do much about cheese.”
His food intolerances became an inspiration to learn cookery. “The point is to take out as many positives as you can out of anything. I am the kind of person who researches a lot on stuff that relates to me. I took cooking courses and for vacations I opt for culinary tours. Fruit, dairy and bread are out for me but often there are hidden devils in food like wheat in soy sauce! They have gluten-free meals now on flights but it could have onions in it so I play it safe and carry my own snack. The key is to always have something in your bag that is ready for you to eat.”
Undaunted by food issues, Reehan took fitness more seriously in his mid- 20s. “I went to the gym more and rode my bike but I was focused more on exercise and less on eating healthy.”
His inspiration to run came in late 1999 when he travelled to Ireland to support a friend who was running the Dublin Marathon. “I was amazed at what all the runners accomplished and the amount of support they received along the way. I started running shortly after that and trained on my own, running on a fairly regular basis and later in five and 10km races.”
In 2002, Reehan ran his first Chicago Marathon. “It took me five hours to complete; my only goal being to finish the marathon but I have continued with running since then.”
Without Gatorade and carbs? “Yes,” he laughed. “The thing with running is that anything more than five kilometres, you actually start to burn fat or the sugars stored in your body so when you run long distances, you need a higher protein and fat diet than a higher carb diet and that works for your advantage.
“My running and nutrition discipline started in 2010 and in 2013 I ran my best marathon to date in NYC. I finished in three hours and 44minutes.”
That was when he undoubtedly started to see the benefits of managing running with his diet and his mind through yoga, meditation and actively trying to reduce stress.
Last year Reehan helped raised money for Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital in New York City marathon. “There were thousands of people from the UK, France and India but only six Pakistanis. Unfortunately there was no official Pakistan representation, since all of the Pakistani runners were US/Canada residents. I volunteered to be in the opening ceremony parade and the official Pakistan flag bearer as a way to represent somehow. My family came down to watch me and carrying the Pakistani Flag was a great moment for me.
|On the tracks. Photos provided by Reehan Sheikh|
When coping with food intolerances, the ‘people reaction’ only adds to one’s challenges. “I have been told that I am a picky eater; I have been told that it is all in my head,” said Reehan. “What happens is that people are used to the known facts, i.e. you have a stomach infection so take this medicine or if you have heartburn take this medicine and it will go away. The minute you try to tell them that it is something that is ongoing and cannot be treated, people refuse to understand. Culturally, there is a home remedy for everything; like you should have a glass of hot milk to help you sleep; your stomach’s out so you should have yoghurt. But when your body cannot tolerate something, it treats that food like a foreign body. None of those remedies work for intolerance and its side-effects.”
Reehan explained the strong gut-mind connection. “There are more nerve endings in your gut than the rest of your body so it is almost like your second brain and hence the terms ‘gut feeling’ and ‘gut reaction’. When your gut is disrupted, your mind is disrupted too and you feel light-headed, your nervous system is depressed, you are irritable, short tempered and can’t concentrate. As soon as your gut clears out, you are lifted from your mental fog. You can’t ignore these things and it does have a long-term effect on you. For your own sanity, it is better to manage what is happening in your gut to be able to manage what is happening in your mind.”
Reehan has some tips for people with food intolerances. “The first phase of realising your intolerance is worrying about what you can and can’t eat. You have to start planning your meals. If you know you will have a busy day, plan out your meal. If people are ordering, tell them specifically what to order for you, and let the suitable meal arrive for you. Timing is another thing that is very important. You eat when you have to eat, even if it means not waiting for others or an event to happen. I usually go off for my lunch if there is a family meet around say lunch and there is a delay. It took a long time and effort but now people know that if I am going to eat with them it has to be around a certain time. In the beginning friends won’t like it and family will make a fuss but then they will understand that this is better for you.”
“I run 200km a month so that’s about 12km a day as I am training for a marathon scheduled in November this year.” That and plans for a culinary tour in Morocco for his next holiday; Reehan’s got plenty on his plate, just not any roti to go with it! n
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014