London, I Think It’s Time to Break Up

Dear London,

We’ve been together for just over three years. We’ve shared some good times, and we’ve shared plenty of bad, but I think it’s come time that you and I call it quits.

Yes, 2012 was a fantastic year. First, we celebrated the wedding between me and my husband. It was a fabulous day here in Richmond–the setting was perfect, and everything went according to plan (even the weather cooperated). Then we celebrated along with the rest of the country the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Unlike me and my husband, the Queen did not get sunshine on her special day, but rather had quite a miserable day for her celebration. Despite that slight hiccup, people still went out in droves to share in Her Majesty’s special day.

And then the Olympics came. London, this event was your crowning glory, and I can say with confidence that it is an experience that I will not long forget. The torch passed through my borough twice, and both times the atmosphere was amazing. On a typical day, people seem aloof and unfriendly, but the Olympics had the power to utterly transform the people who call this city home. It was the most welcoming atmosphere I’d felt since I moved in 2009. It was so wonderful, that I found myself rallying behind Team GB even when there were competitors from my beloved Team USA. For once, I was proud to be [somewhat] British. With athletes like Mo Farah, how could you not be excited?

All the excitement from the Olympics elevated my spirits and my expectations of you, London. I started planning my next career move last year, and instead of focusing on moving back to America, I decided to give Britain, you, London, a try. I attended more networking events at work, a professional development seminar, and started getting myself out there and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Hell, I even signed up for a workshop called the Blogcademy so I could network more and improve my blog on expat life within your borders.

And then I went back to America for Thanksgiving. It’s one of my favorite holidays, and I’m a bit bitter that a holiday of such gluttony, shopping and getting together with friends and family doesn’t exist here (and I don’t mean Christmas + Boxing Day). I had a brilliant time–one of the best times I’ve had in the past year–a tall order considering all the good times we’ve had together this year. But the problem was that it was almost too good. I came back to you December 2 and felt instantly rejected. Almost like you were upset with me because I had too much fun with my family, friends and cats in America. Like you thought I’d cheat on you with Chicago because I do, in fact, find it a lovely city with far friendlier people. Or maybe it was just that 2012 was such a fantastic year for us, that there is nearly nothing left for you to give.

I’ve done my part to try to make things work, but it’s not been good enough, and I dunno what you could possibly give to me now that I couldn’t get back in America. Sure, you provide more safety in some cases, but you don’t provide the things that make me truly happy. You’ve not helped me build enough lasting friendships (though those I have built, I will treasure forever), I have no close family here, and I do not have to two little critters I left with my family when I moved here, K2 and Whitney. Not to mention the sunshine, ocean views, and fantastic beach towns I miss from California.

Maybe I’m just homesick at the end of the day, but London, we’re through.

Best regards,

Carrie

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Name Change

It has been a hectic few months, and I cannot see things becoming any less so in the near future. I managed to make it back to America for Thanksgiving, did some travelling for work, celebrated Christmas and started wedding planning.

My health has been quite good, in fact, and I managed to regain all the weight I lost while ill and then some. I got up to 54 kilograms (approximately 119 pounds), which was a new high for me. I’ve trimmed a bit off in recent weeks, but I’m still at or above 50 kilograms.

In addition to successfully regaining my weight, I’ve also taken up running again. I spent nine weeks on the Couch to 5k program, which I found to be incredibly enjoyable. Even better were the Couch to 5k podcasts posted on the NHS website. The aim of Couch to 5k is to get people who do not run running for 30 minutes at a time in nine weeks. Weeks 1 through 6 have participants running for a few minutes with walking breaks between. So week 1 for example is one minute running, one minute walking eight times, and progresses to 90 seconds running, two minutes walking in week two and so on. It felt like quite an accomplishment to get to 30 minutes of non-stop running at the end. Unfortunately, I had a bit of a set-back a few weeks after completing the program consisting of knee and ankle pain. I figured this might have resulted from over-training, so I decided to pick up Couch to 5k from week 5, and go from there. Additionally, I received a heart rate monitor for my birthday, so I am using that to ensure I do not over-train. My pace has been almost painfully slow since using the heart rate monitor, but it does ensure that my workouts are not overly strenuous, and has been a good indicator of effort.

Besides trying to lead a healthier existence, my boyfriend and I have been busy planning for our wedding in April. A few things I’ve learned so far:

  1. Weddings are expensive (though we realised this earlier)
  2. Three months is not much time to plan a wedding
  3. In an ideal world, you need more than three months to properly order a wedding dress

I had a few mini panic attacks after talking to friends who got married in the past few years, realising three months was not much time to get things done. But as I’ve managed to cross a few of the bigger things off my to-do list (venue, dress, etc.), I’ve calmed down considerably and find myself more relaxed. Don’t get me wrong, we still have plenty to sort out, but we’ll get there soon.

I’ve decided with the new year that a name change for my blog was in order. People mention on a regular basis that I’m sounding more British in terms of terminology and accent (mostly according to people who are not British), and I find myself moaning about everyday things as much as the locals. I’ve gotten used to rainy days, and dare I say this place is starting to feel a bit more like home. Of course, none of this changes the fact that I want to move back to California some day, but for now, I’m going to roll with the punches and see where this takes me.

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Fun with Stereotypes

 

The proceeding excerpts were recently posted as part of a web-comic, Minor Differences, Part 4 by The Oatmeal. This is one of my favourite web-comics, and I highly recommend checking out a few of his others, namely The Bobcats and The Pterodactyl. However, if you are sensitive to “naughty” language, or have you have absolutely no sense of humour, they may best be avoided.

 

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Things I Look Forward to Eating

In the weeks leading up to trips back to America, I always make a mental list of the different places I want to go out to eat, and various food products that I want to pick up that I cannot get easily (or cheaply) here in the UK. This most recent trip home, I wanted to visit a few restaurants (in order of preference):

  1. The Log Cabin: true to Midwest living, these guys serve up oversized portions of delicious Midwest comfort foods (things like roast turkey with the trimmings, open-faced sandwiches, traditional breakfasts, etc.). This is one of my favourite restaurants back home, and I was really disappointed that I wasn’t feeling quite well enough to make it during my most recent visit.
  2. Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream: two words: blue moon. A mysteriously bright blue ice cream that has no discernible flavour other than delicious. Chocolate Shoppe serves up some incredibly rich, creamy ice cream made of only the best local dairy ingredients. It’s a perfect treat any time you find yourself wandering State Street in Madison, Wisconsin.
  3. Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry: burgers are better in America. Period. And some of the best burgers I’ve ever had were served up at Dotty’s. Favourite burgers here include the Runnelstone, California Burger and the Heart Throb. Again, this was another restaurant I didn’t manage to visit during my most recent trip, and during my Thanksgiving trip when I did make it, I wasn’t feeling well enough to enjoy one of their delicious burgers (but I can say the corn dogs are pretty good!).
  4. Pizza Hut: OK, this may seem like a strange one since Pizza Hut actually exists in the UK. But, there is a difference between American Pizza Huts and UK Pizza Huts. Actually, there is even a difference between Pizza Huts in different states, as I learned when I lived in California. Wisconsin is lucky enough to have Pizza Huts with all-you-can-eat (how gluttonously American of them) lunch buffets. I remember telling my partner only days before the trip about these, and my dad actually suggested visiting one after the three of us did some touristy stuff one day. While I did make it to a Pizza Hut buffet, I wasn’t feeling up to actually eating too much, which was highly disappointing. It’s hard to pass-up all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta and bread sticks!
  5. Library Mall Food Carts: these are a bit difficult to explain unless you’ve actually spent time on the UW-Madison campus. Essentially, there are a number of food-truck type carts that set up shop outside Memorial Library from spring to autumn serving a variety of different foods including African, Jamaican, Mexican, Thai, etc. My favourite while I was in uni was the Cuban food cart called Guantanamera. Unfortunately, he seems to have gone out of business since, and my partner and I went to the Buraka cart during out most recent visit instead. I’ve never been disappointed by Buraka’s take on African food, and really enjoyed the coconut chicken curry I had on my most recent visit. An added bonus of the food carts is that you can take your lunch and enjoy it at the Memorial Union Terrace when the weather is good.
  6. The Eagle Inn: I always enjoyed the hot beef sandwich here, but their breakfasts are really good too. Oh, and the pies, those are fantastic. This was one of the restaurants I did manage to visit, and I had an awesome short stack and sausages here, and the food is such great value-for-money!
  7. Original Pancake House: I’ve not been here for years, but damn, I have dreams of their bacon pancakes. If you’re and American who’s been in Britain on Pancake Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday a.k.a. Fat Tuesday), you know that British pancakes are not the same as American pancakes. And if there is one breakfast food I desperately miss, it’s a nice stack of pancakes (which used to be one of my standby dinners when I was too lazy to make anything else).
  8. Lao Laan-Xang: I first tried this place recommendation of a co-worker at the coffee shop I worked at during my last year of uni. The curry squash here is absolutely phenomenal, and it’s one of those dishes that’s made to the level of spiciness you prefer. With two locations, one on Willy Street and another just down the road on Atwood Avenue in Madison, you have some choice in where you can enjoy your delicious dinner (though you’re more likely to get a table at the Atwood location).
  9. Culver’s: a home-state fast food chain that delivers some deliciously unhealthy burgers, and equally unhealthy frozen custard. I managed to get one of their turtle sundaes in just before I left on my recent trip. This is a sundae consisting of frozen custard, hot fudge and caramel sauce, topped off with some salty pecans and a cherry. Ooh, that combination of salty-sweetness is making my mouth water at the thought. The burgers are really good too, with the Wisconsin Swiss Melt being my favourite because it is most like a patty melt (and I have a weakness for patty melts).
  10. The Old Feed Mill: I worked here for five years from high-school through uni. I wanted to go here more or less to see how much has changed since I stopped working there seven years ago, but I was also interested in showing my boyfriend where I spent my younger days working. Even though this is one of the only restaurants actually in my home town, we’ve never actually made it there for lunch or dinner. Perhaps on our next trip we will.

In addition to visiting local restaurants, there are always a variety of foods that I either ask my parents to pick up, I pick up myself at some point during my trip, or we make at home. These include (in order of preference):

  1. Hostess orange cupcakes: my boyfriend will tell you I am absolutely crazy for these things. When we were in Wisconsin over Thanksgiving last year, we literally would drive to every convenience store within a five-to-ten-mile radius to see if they had these delicious morsels. Luckily, I found one could buy an entire box of eight at Wal-Mart, which saved us many unnecessary trips during our most recent visit.
  2. Waffles/pancakes: as I mentioned above, I absolutely LOVE pancakes, and waffles are a close second, if not tied. My family usually has what we call a “big breakfast” during each visit home where we all gather and have pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage, etc., but because my stomach was not cooperating, we never had a chance to do this during my last visit.
  3. Pumpkin bars: my mom makes some amazing pumpkin bars. I tried making these myself when I lived in California, but they never tasted quite as good as my mom’s. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait until Thanksgiving to have some of these, unless I am prepared to spend an arm and a leg buying canned pumpkin here, and face the frustration of trying to use British ingredients.
  4. Reese’s Pieces: similar to M&Ms, but filled with sweet peanut butter rather than chocolate. I would have actually put down Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but I’m lucky enough that the local Waitrose now stocks these at only 60p for a package of three cups.
  5. Cream of fruit instant oatmeal: I do not care whether I get the Quaker brand, or some generic store brand, but I absolutely love eating this stuff for breakfast.
  6. Bagels and flavoured cream cheese: in the UK, it seems one can only get two flavours of bagels: 1) plain; 2) cinnamon and raisin. Where I grew up, there is a place called the Bagels Forever and they had a great selection including my favourites bluebarry (that’s how they spell it), cranbarry oat, hole wheat and standby cinnamon and raisin. Not only that, but you could get some really nice flavoured cream cheeses including strawberry and blueberry. While I did not make it to Bagels Forever, I did pick up some delicious blueberry bagels and blueberry cream cheese (blueberry overload? I think not; it was delicious).
  7. Corn dogs: how could anyone not love a hot dog dipped and coated in cornmeal then deep fried to a light, golden brown? I’ve not really found a place in my family’s area that serves up really good corn dogs (like Hot Dog on a Stick on the West Coast), but I have been known to buy the frozen ones at the supermarket and eat them at home. Sure, they’re not the same, but they’re still all right.
  8. Home-made cookies: yes, you can make cookies in the UK, but I’ve not bothered trying after some other disasters I’ve had with British ingredients (let’s just say British flour–even the plain stuff–isn’t the same as American flour). Not only that, but the concept of chocolate chips does not seem to exist! As it turns out, my partner is really good at baking cookies. We used to spend crappy afternoons baking cookies when we lived in the Bay Area, and on our most recent visit home, he made a really nice batch of chocolate chip cookies; even my parents had a hard time resisting them.
  9. American cereals: these includes ones like Lucky Charms, Fruity Pebbles, and Froot Loops. Choosing one of these cereals is always a tough decision because I only ever have a week or two back home at a time, and I usually prefer to eat the oatmeal mentioned above for breakfast. Since I thought the oatmeal was causing me a bit of intestinal distress this last time, I opted for Fruity Pebbles, and I even had enough to bring back and enjoy in the UK for a few days. Interestingly, I learned last summer that one can purchase Froot Loops on the Continent. However, they lack the unnatural colour of the American cereal, and don’t quite taste right (i.e. not as sweet).
  10. Hamburger Helper: minced (ground) beef mixed with pasta in a cheesy sauce, how could one not love it? I managed to smuggle two boxes back to the UK with me, and learned that British beef isn’t quite as tasty as American beef. Regardless, I look forward to enjoying my last box of Hamburger Helper once I’m able to eat solid food again.

So there you have it. A list of places and foods I like that show how truly American (i.e. gluttonous and unhealthy) I am. I’m certain if it wasn’t for my Crohn’s, I would be the size of a house.

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Socialised Medicine Isn’t That Bad After All

Almost a year ago, I logged a post about my frustrations with the NHS. This boiled down to two things:

  1. despite paying taxes like other UK residents, I was not entitled to full NHS coverage until I lived here for a year
  2. once I was eligible for full health coverage, there was no guarantee that I would be able to get the best treatment available for my Crohn’s disease

Luckily, my gut held out pretty well for the first year I lived in the UK. After a visit to my surgery last spring, I was able to get the GP to prescribe the immuno-suppressant I had been taking since I first got my Crohn’s treated in California. Between that and the occasional short-course of steroids, things were looking pretty good. Then in October, I ended up in the A&E with severe abdominal pain reminiscent of that I had experienced during the two small bowel obstructions I had before moving here. I didn’t have another small bowel obstruction, but I was accused of being a drunk because the immuno-suppressant was causing some liver enzyme levels to look a bit crazy. Charming.

I was back to my GP right before Christmas because things were starting to get worse, and I figured by this time, I had finally fulfilled my 365 day residency requirement. Unfortunately, the GP was pretty useless at first. They were happy to finally refer me to a gastro consultant, but they were unwilling to prescribe me any steroids or other treatments to help me get through the pain. Luckily, my tummy settled down enough for me to enjoy Christmas with my finance and his family, but as soon as I was back to London, I was back to the surgery to get some help. The second time I saw a different doctor (my surgery does not seem to have any permanent staff), and he was nice enough to really chase up on the referral and actually prescribed me a dose of steroids to take until I had a chance to see the consultant. It still took a bit of chasing up and waiting to get the appointment with the consultant, but I managed until I had the appointment in February.

The consultant has been fabulous. While going through loads of tests isn’t necessarily the most fun in the world, we have the most complete and updated assessment of my disease. From this, he was able to determine that I actually am battling quite a severe case of Crohn’s and he petitioned the local primary care trust on my behalf to get me back on the the Humira injections that I had started before I left the US. Not only that, but he’s tech-savvy and is easily reachable by email, which is great when you just have a quick question or need some advice.

What I think I appreciate the most, however, is the fact that I don’t have to worry about paying a penny for the visits to clinic, the myriad tests I’ve had done and even for some of the specialised treatments I’ve been prescribed. Not only that, but I have a very understanding employer and was told to take the time I need to recover, which has been useful lately since I’ve been in hospital for the past six days.

I guess patience is the key here. Now to put that patience to work with my current treatment plan…

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Socialised Medicine

The healthcare reform issue was really heating up as a left the US last autumn. I agree that the US healthcare system desperately needed reform. However, I do not necessarily agree with some of the ideas that were on the table (i.e. a completely socialised system like the NHS), and I’m not too sure how I feel about the healthcare reform end state.

What I envisaged was a system that would make access much easier for the unemployed and poor people (a public option), and make it easier (i.e. cheaper) for the rest of us to “top-up” our insurance if we wanted better coverage than what our employer’s plans offered. Instead, the US is stuck with some strange system that will fine individuals $95, or up to 1 percent of income for those earning less than $9500, a year beginning 2014 if they do not secure health insurance coverage. How the hell does that make sense? And how the hell is the Government going to enforce this?

I certainly don’t like the idea of completely socialised medicine. So what’s my beef with the NHS?

I have Crohn’s disease. It’s a disease that causes scar tissue to build up on the insides of my intestines which causes pain, discomfort and some other unpleasant symptoms (I’ll let you look those up on the interwebs yourself). If severe enough, it necessitates hospital visits and potentially surgery.

Before moving to the UK, I had two nasty small bowel obstructions which caused me to stay in the hospital for nearly a week at a time. Despite these episodes, I decided I would still move to the UK as it’s a Western country with modern medicine and relatively easy access to healthcare. Turns out, a socialised system has at least as much, if not more, red tape than the screwed up system in the US.

I eventually managed to register for the NHS. The reason it took me nearly six months was due mostly to my own laziness. Once I registered, I scheduled an appointment with my GP. I was hoping the GP would be able to get me in touch with a gastroenterologist and help me get refills for some of the medicines I had been prescribed after my last stint in the hospital.

During my visit with the GP, I found out if you’re a foreigner like me, you have to wait a year before you are allowed to see a specialist. That meant I wouldn’t be allowed to see someone experienced in treating Crohn’s until I had lived in the UK for another six months unless there was some sort of emergency that required a visit to the hospital. So despite paying my share of taxes like UK citizens and other residents legally allowed to work in the country, I wasn’t entitled to the same level of treatment. How is that fair?

To top it off, the GP was frank: the UK doesn’t believe in proactive treatment. So instead of treating my Crohn’s to keep me from needing surgery in the immediate future, they would much prefer to keep it a ticking time bomb. This meant that one of the main medicines I was prescribed in the US wasn’t available to me here. Awesome.

The thing about socialised medicine is that there are mounds of red tape to fight through. Cutting-edge medicines will never be available to the average person living here. And private insurance here is pretty useless as it doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions. Because I was insured through my employer when I was in the US, I didn’t have to worry about my pre-existing condition. Not only was I happy to pay to ensure I had access to my employers best insurance plan, I was happy to pay whatever co-pay my insurer required for medicines. I knew the co-pays meant I had access to the best medicines that could treat my disease.That simply isn’t an option in the UK unless I am willing to pay full price, which I simply cannot afford.

So America, consider yourself lucky. Your system might be screwed up, but at least you have some level of choice.

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Things that aren’t American

I certainly am an American. But I’ve been living in London for nearly a year, and in this time, I’ve gained some awareness of some things that are very American about me (e.g. calling people douche bags), and things about British culture that almost the opposite of American culture (socialised medicine).

So how the hell did I end up here? Well, there are two reasons:

  1. I met a British bloke when I was in the US. We had been dating for a bit over a year when he found out he would have to move back to Europe for work (he’s a physicist), and I figured, why the hell not? Now we’re engaged and thinking about planning a wedding.*
  2. A job opportunity came up that would allow me to leave the US and work in Europe. An opportunity that would have been crazy to pass up.

Most of the inspiration for this blog will come from things I miss about America, but will also include some things I love about Europe. Hopefully you will find it interesting and, I can provide some interesting insight about American (and British) culture.

*I say thinking about planning a wedding only because planning is difficult. Our families are in two different countries, and friends spread over various parts of the world. Not only that, but we’re thinking about a California wedding, and neither of us are living there, making it difficult to sort things out. We’ll get around to it eventually, right?

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London Calling

I am officially moving to London in the coming months.

In April, it looked pretty imminent that my boyfriend would be moving to Europe for his job. The only question that remained open at that time was where would he be–Amsterdam or Geneva, Switzerland? Obviously feeling a little bummed about the prospect of my boyfriend moving half a world away, I asked my manager about the possibility of transferring abroad for my job. Because my manager is absolutely awesome, she was very open to the idea of helping my find a new opportunity abroad.

Less than a week later, I found out about a job rotation opportunity that was opening up because the person currently in the position will be on maternity leave for a year (those lucky Swedes!). This turned out to be the perfect opportunity for several reasons:

  1. I already know a lot about the position because I do some of the same things here in the US
  2. It’s a one-year engagement, which will give me an opportunity to gauge how I like living in Europe before making any commitments to living there permanently

After talking things through with my boyfriend, I thought it would be best to move to a city in Europe where English is the official language. I figured the best way to sour my opinion of Europe, and potentially keep myself from moving there permanently would be to move to a country where I couldn’t even keep up a basic conversation. Not only that, but I think I kind of feel in love with London after visiting there earlier this year.

So now begins a new adventure of frantically scurrying around trying to figure out how I’m going to transfer my life to a foreign country. The great thing is that I have my boyfriend to talk to and guide me through the experience. His move to Geneva will count as his third international move. And being from the UK, he will be able to give me lots of guidance regarding everyday things. I’ve already warned him that I’ll probably be calling him frantically wondering where I can buy one thing or another.

In other news, I was scheduled to go on a 3.5 week trip to Europe, but I had to cancel at the last minute. Instead of boarding a plane to Paris, I was in the hospital recovering from a small bowel obstruction that is probably somehow linked to the Crohn’s disease I’ve been living with for the last 21 years. While missing my trip was a huge bummer, I think it would have been much worse if I had gotten sick while I was in Paris. I can’t even imagine how I’d try to explain what was hurting.

As a result of my recent hospital stay, I’ve been reading up on something called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD). I checked out a book from the library called Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health through Diet by Elaine Gottschall B.A., M.Sc. on the subject of the SCD. Gottschall explains that certain types of carbohydrates cannot be properly digested by people with people with digestive disorders, and even goes so far to say that the inability to digest these carbohydrates may be what causes some of these disorders in the first place. The science behind the concept seems sound enough, and I personally don’t doubt that the way human eating habits have evolved over the past years has contributed to what ailments we deal with today. Diet is something that certainly can be linked to the alarming obesity epidemic, for example.

However, there are a few things that bother me about Gottschall’s book. First, the proposed diet is horribly restrictive. Like grains? Too bad. Potatoes? Oops, not allowed. Chocolate or sweets in general? Yeah, I don’t think so… The diet is so restrictive that you will not be able to eat you haven’t prepared yourself (i.e. no more eating out, and no dinner parties at your friend’s house (unless they’re on the SCD, too)). Even letting one tiny particle of a “forbidden” or “illegal” food will limit ability of the SCD to work.

Second, if you click the hyperlink above to the Amazon page for the book, you’ll read several reviews proclaiming how the SCD has cured people of their digestive disorders. OK, wait a minute. There’s a cure for Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative Colitis and other formerly incurable digestive disorders? Why hasn’t my GI doc been trying to cure me? Why am I still prescribed a bunch of drugs including immunosuppresants? While I believe it’s possible to control your disease to the point of essentially eliminating visible inflammation, I really don’t think it’s possible to cure any of these digestive disorders given the fact that the underlying cause is still in question. I find it incredibly worrisome that people think they are cured of their respective disease after following this diet. It seems to create a false sense of security, and could potentially set people up for even bigger problems down the road.

I think the SCD could be a good addition to the treatment plan for a digestive disorder. I guess the ultimate question is whether you would be willing to go on an ultra-restrictive diet. Despite being hospitalized a few weeks ago, I don’t think my Crohn’s is symptomatic enough at the moment to warrant treating it with a specialized diet. If I was to the point where surgery seemed imminent, or I was suffering from severe symptoms, I’d consider giving this diet a try. But until then, I will be aware of the amount of “bad” carbs I’m eating and mentally note their effects on me so I can avoid them in the future.

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