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Meet Cindy Tan of La Mesa

Today we’d like to introduce you to Cindy Tan.

Hi Cindy, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I grew up in a Cambodian-Chinese household, so good Southeast Asian food has always been a major part of my life. I had to change my eating habits and everything I knew about cooking entirely when I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) at the end of my college career.

Prior to that, I experienced mild digestive discomfort in high school that gradually worsened throughout the years until it became debilitating, when I couldn’t eat a regular meal without pain and extreme, bowling-ball-belly bloating. Although I tested many medications recommended by my GI doctor, the only thing that decreased my symptoms was when I discovered and started the Low FODMAP diet, which is a three-step dietary plan created to help those with IBS manage their symptoms.

As it was fairly new at the time, there wasn’t a lot of information or resources online when I started the diet back in 2013. The diet is extremely restrictive and particular. Seemingly random ingredients like garlic, onion, apple, asparagus, cashews, and high fructose corn syrup are off limits, so I had a really hard time learning what I could and couldn’t have, and an even harder time eating at restaurants. After many years of learning how to cook, travel, navigate social situations and work with kitchens to ensure I get a dish that won’t make me sick, I knew my knowledge could help others starting the diet, especially now that the diet is a common recommendation by doctors in the U.S. to help manage IBS. Thus, my passion project, The FODMAP Factor was born.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It’s been anything but smooth! While we eat to nourish our bodies, food also has a social and cultural significance. When I was learning about the Low FODMAP Diet and about all the things I could no longer eat, I spent such a long time simultaneously mourning for my past life, feeling sorry for myself and resenting my body for not allowing me to enjoy something that was always such an important part of my life.

I was repeatedly on and off the diet for the first 1.5 years, re-starting it with conviction only to give up at a social gathering and eat whatever I wanted, making myself sick. It took me a really long time to fully understand that these symptoms were my body’s cry for help – that something was not right. I finally realized that having poor health felt absolutely awful, and that if I didn’t give my body a chance to heal, it will likely lead to worse problems down the road.

When I finally had it all figured out after 5 years, I started experiencing extreme fatigue and brain fog in 2018. I was then diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Anyone with chronic illness can tell you: there are many conditions where conventional medical models and protocols utilized by standard doctors fail to provide answers and address root causes. IBS and Hashimoto’s are two of them. Tackling my Hashimoto’s holistically, there was a new list of foods I could no longer eat. I felt like I had to start over. Having gone through all of this before, I thankfully had a more positive mindset, and knew that prioritizing my health over everything would be worth it. I’m now the healthiest I’ve felt in many years.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
On The FODMAP Factor Instagram and blog, I share Low FODMAP recipes, resources and tips to help individuals on or starting the diet navigate this new world of food. While there are so many ingredients we can’t eat (especially the staples of garlic, onion and shallot), I want those on the diet to know it’s still entirely possible to make delicious, flavorful food that’s just as good as “regular” food. Because of this, I also adapt popular recipes and dishes to be FODMAP-friendly. While all my recipes are Low FODMAP, because of my other dietary requirements due to my autoimmunity, I also create recipes that overlap with other special diets, like Paleo, Whole30 and AIP.

Although I work full time in digital advertising, I’ve been spending time to develop my skills on the side. I’ve started pitching food photography and recipe development packages to food brands, where I create and photograph Low FODMAP dishes or desserts using their products. Because this diet is becoming more well-known in the U.S., and because food intolerances and dietary preferences are on the rise, brands are starting to take notice. If my knowledge and expertise can help food brands cater to more people with dietary restrictions, I truly do feel like I’m making a bigger difference for people like me, and I can truly scale my impact!

We love surprises, fun facts and unexpected stories. Is there something you can share that might surprise us?
YES! Good home cooking was the biggest part of my childhood, but fast food and junk food was a close second. If I didn’t have gastrointestinal problems, I’d probably still be eating Jack In The Box, Chick Fil A, Taco Bell and Hot Cheetos on a regular basis, so some can say it was all a blessing in disguise. 🙂 While I create a lot recipes with Asian flavors, I also constantly crave Tex-Mex, fried foods and all things junky. You can see a little bit of that in the recipes I post as well.

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Cindy Tan

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