I often say that I am vegetarian by choice and gluten free by design. If given the choice, I would have never elected to become gluten free. It’s not an easy diet to adhere to and I often face judgement and derision at my refusal to consume gluten containing foods. Not to mention, I would love to be able to eat freely without fear or endless planning.
So, I did I end up here? My story, like so many others, was a combination of guess work and frustration until I finally listened the message my body was sending.
It all started over six years ago. I was eating a reasonably healthy, vegetarian diet that contained fairly large amounts of whole grains. The diet seemed to work for me; I maintained a healthy weight and felt fine.
And then I didn’t. I came down with a 48 hour stomach bug, either viral or caused by food poisoning. For several days, I struggled to eat anything. Then, once I was feeling healthy again, I resumed my normal breakfast of Kashi Go Lean Crunch cereal, my morning meal of choice for a few years at that point.
My body immediately revolted. My stomach swelled, the distension making it appear as though I was several months pregnant. The swelling was accompanied by pain, gas and cramping, none of which I had ever experienced before in this manner. My breakfast seemed to be the primary trigger, as the symptoms would begin late morning and begin to fade somewhat overnight. (It is not unusual for celiac to first appear after a stress on the body.)
I decided to replace my Kashi habit with oatmeal (not gluten free because of contamination, but generally relatively low in gluten). It was better. The swelling and pain were reduced somewhat, but not gone entirely.
The symptoms began to become more prevalent. My usual bathroom habits became difficult to predict. I always as though I had to go yet rarely did. I was having trouble digesting foods (especially fats) and I noticed that I was becoming tired and easily fatigued.
Around this same time, I started a running program. I was limited to a park that had a bathroom in the center of its small looped trail; I had to make a stop every half mile or so. At work, I became anxious about being able to find someone to cover my class so that I could run to the bathroom.
I was miserable. Finally, after waking up sick after my birthday dinner of grilled cheese and beer, I decided to make a change. I was suspicious of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and I got online to research its recommended diet.
I had never heard of celiac or gluten. But apparently, it already knew me well.
It was too much of a coincidence to ignore. I decided to pare my diet down to the basics – fruits, vegetables and some dairy. Within three days, I felt like an entirely new person. My stomach was flat and my mind was clear. I could go for a run without always running to the bathroom. Bumps that I had developed on my hands disappeared and my energy increased.
I decided to add one new food back to my diet each day, all the meanwhile monitoring how I felt. I was fine with coffee. Beans. Egg.
And then one day, I felt that familiar bloat and pain. Bumps appeared along my fingers. The addition of the day? My multi-vitamin. I scanned the ingredients and saw gluten on the list (note: this is rare now in most vitamins- this was before common awareness of gluten sensitivity). I threw the bottle in the trash.
More weeks went by. My diet expanded, avoiding known gluten-containing foods all the while. I was starting to notice some surprising benefits. My sinuses, always prone to infection, were clearer. I was using my rescue inhaler less and my asthma felt more controlled.
I had two more incidences in the first couple months of accidental ingestion followed by illness. The first time was from a barley containing tea and the second was from soy sauce.
By that point, I was convinced that gluten and my body were not friends. I looked into being tested for celiac. It would have required me to consume gluten again for three months and my insurance would not pay for the testing (or the misery I would feel while eating the prescribed bread!). I decided that the testing was not worth it. I really don’t care if I have celiac or not. The solution is the same regardless – avoid the stuff that makes my body miserable.
My health has improved in dramatic ways since going gluten free. Now, since I am a real person and not a scientific study with carefully controlled variables, it is impossible to separate gluten from other possible factors. However, the correlation is interesting. I have gone from contracting pneumonia annually to only having it once in 6 years. I am no longer on any medications for asthma. My sinus infections have reduced tenfold. My iron levels have increased and the tingling I used to have in my hands has faded.
There are times I hate this way of eating. I get tired of being the limiting factor on restaurant decisions and always having to be so careful. I wish that I could indulge my sweet tooth with a cheap and convenient cupcake rather than making a special trip and paying a premium for one made from rice flour.
But, mostly I’m thankful. I’m glad I figured this out before too many months (or years) of misery and declining health. I’m grateful that I was gluten free before food suppliers caught on so that I was forced to adapt to naturally gluten free foods instead of the manufactured alternatives. However, I am also thankful that companies have caught on, making it easier for me to eat out and to enjoy pizza (or cupcakes!) again.
I’ve watched with interest as gluten has gone from an obscure protein to a scapegoat for modern illness and obesity. Like many others, I wonder about the link between an increase in gluten sensitivity and the rise in genetically modified crops. I shake my head when people go gluten free to become “healthy” yet live on packaged and processed gluten free foods.
I do see gluten as an enemy for all mankind. Rather, I see it as a food that some bodies handle better than others. I see no need to eradicate gluten from every plate (just please don’t put it on mine!). The lesson that gluten can teach us is that we need to be aware of what we put into our bodies and how our bodies respond. Don’t just feed your body. Listen to it as well.
- Is Gluten Free For Me? (actionpotentialwellness.wordpress.com)
- About That Going Gluten-Free Thing . . . 9 Observations From A Newly Diagnosed Gluten-Sensitive Eater (moveeatcreate.com)
- Things You Need To Know About Eating Gluten-Free Foods (factsabouthealth.wordpress.com)
- Sex and the Celiac (kingglutenfree.com)