For nearly a year, I lived a fundamental lie. I am a professional breakfast journalist (yes, that's a real thing) at Extra Crispy, a website that only covers breakfast, so people inevitably ask me about my morning meal. I'd tap dance about a magnificent brunch buffet at a hotel on vacation, or wax rhapsodic about bodega egg-and-cheese sandwiches, but until this past April my actual daily a.m. routine was this: Eat nothing. Slam down coffee until I was too dizzy to function, and maybe at around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, grab a salad or sandwich, wolf it at my desk. The damage had already been done; I was useless for the rest of the workday, then exhausted, cranky, and making desperation-based food decisions at home.
I was also lying to myself. I was getting sicker and sicker and telling myself that everything was fine. That this just happens. That constant nausea, bloating, stabbing abdominal pain, and chest burn are just the consequence of getting older, or the toll I paid for pleasure and occasional excess in my life as a food writer. That this was my doing, somehow, and I deserved it.
None of this was true. I went to a nutritionist who strongly suggested that I get tested for SIBO, which is an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. The results were exceedingly positive—as in I turned out to have a rather severe case. These rotten little bugs were causing malabsorption of most of my nutrients, hoarding them all for themselves, and leaving me exhausted, ill, and constantly upset in both gut and soul. I was overjoyed to receive this information because I finally had a way forward. It started with breakfast.
I would not recommend getting a deeply uncomfortable and taxing medical condition in order to adopt a healthy breakfast habit, but it's extremely effective. In addition to a course of high-octane antibiotics and an aggressive herbal protocol, my nutritionist suggested a Paleo regimen that kicked off the day with a mighty meal, had me grazing on smaller snacks throughout the day, and finishing off with whatever quantity of dinner seemed reasonable. How utterly terrifying, and yet medically necessary. Just gonna eat myself well over here, wish me luck.
Six and a half months in—knock on my wooden cutting board—it actually seems to be working. I need to take a follow-up test to be sure, but I'm infinitely less bloated, barfy, gassy, and generally grossed out by having to navigate the planet in my body, and I attribute so much of that to the highly delicious, filling, and nutritious breakfast salad that I actually wake up craving. It varies just a little depending on what's in the fridge from the night before, but here's the basic formula.
It starts with a bed of arugula. I'm not quite sure why I'm so fixated on that particular green, but unless there's a leftover takeout salad I'm trying to kill, there's a fistful of nutty, peppery leaves at the bottom of the bowl. Next comes the meat—leftover if there is anything from dinner, but otherwise uncured bacon—cooked in its own fat or with a splash of olive, avocado, or sesame oil. (If I have smoked salmon on hand, I skip that step and layer it on at the end.) Any leftover vegetables, usually okra or kale, get heated at the same time, then tossed atop the arugula.
Next layer is leftover sweet potatoes (there are always leftover sweet potatoes because I make sure to roast extra) in chunks or spirals, seasoned usually with vadouvan, but possible turmeric and cumin, heated in whatever fat is still glistening in the pan. They go atop the meat, and then I crack two eggs in the pan, fry until the edges are lacy, and slide those atop the whole mess. A sprinkle of chunky salt, a grind of pepper, and maybe a few chopped grape tomatoes, and with my fork, I stir the jiggling yolks into the layers as dressing and eat it greedily as my two dogs stare at me. I keep an eye on them as I reach for sips of my black coffee. This is torture for them, but they've had their breakfast, these creatures of routine.
What was new and terrifying for me is now what gets me out of bed. I know that whatever other obstacles I will face in the day, this meal will not hurt me. It was awful for a while (and still sometimes is) to be afraid of food, but this breakfast salad of the past half year is the life raft I cling to for safety. It probably sounds silly on the face of it—the notion of a breakfast salad sustaining a body for more than an hour or two—but the effect on my life is real. I can focus, be present, not make dopey hunger-based decisions, or worry about finding something that I can choke down wherever I happen to be.
I'm healing my gut with food, crafting a habit that will lead to a healthier morning, day, and hopefully life. And that's my truth.
This story originally appeared on Cookinglight.com.