Whenever someone hears that a celebrity is going off gluten to lose weight or to ‘feel healthy’ or to ‘do a cleanse’, they immediately scoff. I do it too. I used to be one of those people who thought that the only way anybody has a gluten problem is if they are clinically diagnosed with Celiac Disease, or some other gluten intolerance that dooms any sufferer with serious complications if they were to ingest it, such as a worn-out stomach lining, cancer, or even death.
A few of my friends have gone off gluten. Some have done it with the good will and faith of their doctors. Some have self-diagnosed, which I don’t agree with. It bugged me. I never really thought gluten was a bad thing, except for when people get diagnosed with Celiac.
(note: I don’t think wheat is bad. I miss it. I wish I could eat it every day. So unless you have legit symptoms, don’t go gluten free!)
About two years ago, I started getting really bad stomach problems. I also suffered from a foggy head, bad joints, ‘dead leg’ syndrome, failure to recover during workouts, chronic anxiety/panic attacks, and dizziness/fainting. It was like I was constantly in a state of ‘wine hangover’. I also suffered from a whole truckload of digestive issues, which I won’t go into here in detail but suffice to say they were really bad. I also lost a serious amount of weight. I actually work out more now than I did then, and I was emaciated. I look back at pictures and you can see my jawbone sticking out in some of them. You could count my ribs, yet my scale numbers actually went up because I was holding on to so much water and other things in my intestines. I was completely inflamed from the neck to my hips. I went to a doctor at the UConn health center who told me I had a “tipped pelvis”. I have no idea what that had to do with my other symptoms, but I submitted myself to the CT scan and other tests and they all came out clean.
In January of 2011, I realized I needed to get help or else I would be confined to my house for the foreseeable future. I was laying in bed, clutching my sharply protruding abdomen, weeping quietly to my mother and sister. At one point I said aloud, but very softly, “I hate myself.”
My mom took me to a gastroenterologist. She was kind, supportive, funny, and warm. She told me I was holding on to so much in my stomach because I had IBS by way of spastic colon. They tested me for celiac, and for Malt Lymphoma and I was negative to both, thank God. But then the doctor told me that just because I tested negative for celiac didn’t mean I wasn’t sensitive to gluten, or maybe even slightly intolerant. Now, I tested positively for lactose intolerance, which I knew before the blood test. But if I had to cut out gluten too? I’d be devastated.
We quickly came to the realization that while I was sensitive to gluten, it wouldn’t harm me physically if I ate a small amount every once and a while. The doctor advised me that once I was done with my colonoscopy (yes, I had to get that done. the actual procedure is no big deal, but the prep is awful) I should try cutting back on gluten for a few days, to see how i feel. Her advice mainly stemmed from this criteria:
1. Eat Greek yogurt every once and a while to stimulate proper probiotic development in the bowels, thereby erasing some of the problems associated with my body’s reaction to gluten;
2. Eat gluten only 2-3x a week (I have since dropped this to 1-2x), but if I am in a place where there is NO gluten-free options available, it’s okay for me to eat something with gluten in it;
3. Take a muscle relaxant for the other symptoms related to stressed colon, and a probiotic to develop more healthy bacteria in the gut. I take these every day, the relaxant 3x and the probiotic in the morning before I get up. I also take a multivitamin, a fatty acid pill, and a B-Complex/Biotin pill because I don’t eat a lot of red meat and it helps my hair/skin/nails. The gastro also mentioned that gluten insensitivity can result in malnourishment and weight loss, which I had read about in the cases of those diagnosed with celiac but I had no idea it would extend to me!
I had the colonoscopy, and did not change my diet prior to the procedure. Afterwards, I was diagnosed wtih acid reflux, gluten insensitivity, and IBD (Irritable Bowel Disorder). I was advised to start eating gluten free most of the time, so I started the next day.
The difference was remarkable. I lost 7 pounds of inflammation in a month (SERIOUSLY), but my muscles finally began to develop after a year of doing heavy lifting and hot yoga with no results. I felt my energy go through the roof. I felt FULL after I ate, not a feeling of dissatisfaction. My workouts got really fun. My stomach became regular. I was a well-oiled machine. For most of the summer, I was not only in the best shape of my life but I was also full of energy and vitality.
Then I started graduate school. I got stressed. I got lazy. I got annoyed with having to pack ‘special’ meals. I started dating someone and I didn’t want the burden of throwing all of my intolerances at someone right off the bat (although spoiler alert: he’s become my biggest supporter). That doesn’t make for a cute picture when you’re trying to convince someone you DON’T spend your days looking up medieval manuscripts and researching the intricacies of Calvin and Hobbes, and are actually a fully functioning member of society. Sort of.
The ‘little bit of gluten’ became a lot of gluten. Every day. Then I started getting really into beer, mostly because I was sick of getting made fun of at parties when everyone was drinking Miller and I was clutching a glass of wine, looking like THAT girl.
I realize that all of this could have been avoided if I didn’t give a flying fuck what other people think. But dammit, I’m not Superman. I didn’t notice the difference at first. But then I started realizing I didn’t feel like my normal, peppy, focused self. I actually felt like shit. Also, joint pain in the tune of incredible displacement pain in my knees, and a foggy feeling in my head. I was exhausted but I hadn’t changed my routine all that much. In fact, I was working out less than I had been when I was disordered, and eating MUCH more than I had been when I was anorexic, and I still felt excruciating pain in my joints. This kind of pain was never present during my over-exercising days, not even when I was running 20 miles a week. It freaked me out. A lot.
Like I said, I didn’t remove gluten ENTIRELY from my diet. If I accidentally eat something with gluten in it, I’ll live. I do have some survival skills for anyone who is attempting to cut down on gluten or eliminate it al-together.
1. There are SO MANY OPTIONS out there right now for us! My supermarket has an entire freezer devoted to exclusive sale of g-free products. I personally love Udi’s G-Free Whole Grain Bagels; I just ate 1/2 of one for lunch, with some egg whites, hummus, and sriracha, and some gluten-free veggie chips on the side. Plus, it forced me to get creative and to stop putting limits on my food options. I try foods/products I never would have dared to if I didn’t have this sensitivity, such as millet, amaranth, and tapioca bread (respectively: awesome, AWESOME, and blaaaah).
2. Don’t worry about not getting carbs. I’m a runner/yogini and I always get worried I’m not getting enough carbs in my diet. But rice, amaranth, quinoa, sweet potatoes/regular potatoes, millet, polenta…all of them are nice and carb-loaded AND gluten-free. I love brown rice wraps for lunch, gluten-free oats with yogurt for breakfast, and sweet potatoes for dinner. Maybe not on the same day, but I love them. And also, this is a good way to perhaps amp up your protein. I’m pretty sure that might have been the reason I put on so much muscle in the past year, but I think the lack of inflammation helped, too. There are so many blogs out there about going gluten-free, too. I love gluten-free goddess, gluten-free girl, and edibleperspective. Also…I love rice cakes. I really do. I know they get a bad rap for being a ‘diet’ food. But rice cakes smothered in almond butter, honey, and raisins? That’s been my breakfast for the past five days, and I have yet to get sick of it. I also eat a piece of fruit with it. It’s so damn good. (the apple cinnamon rice cakes are AMAZING)
3. Have an understanding support system. I am really lucky to have an awesome family and a SERIOUSLY supportive boyfriend. My parents are awesome about my g-free lifestyle. My dad sometimes makes fun of it, calling my meals ‘granola hummus’ and such, but my mom always keeps gluten-free bagels and breads stocked in their freezer as well as rice pastas and other such g-free products in the pantry, When she makes spaghetti, there’s always g-free noodles boiling in a smaller pot just for me. She also makes me cheese-free risotto…which doesn’t sound good in the slightest but I doctor it with nutritional yeast so it keeps the cheesy flavor. My boyfriend helps me out in all the ways he can, which I’m tremendously thankful for, but also will advise me not to do something if he thinks it’ll upset my stomach, like the time I decided I NEEDED a gigantic Bavarian pretzel at a restaurant. Speaking of bad decisions…
4. If you eat something with an allergen in it-provided it isn’t a lethal one, obviously-just be cognizant of what you will feel like afterwards. I do sometimes go “FUCK IT GIMME PRETZEL EXTRA MUSTARD AND SAUERKRAUT PLZ” when I know it’s probably going to make me feel icky in the morning. But like I said, I’m really lucky to only have a sensitivity and not a full-blown sick reaction to the stuff. The least that will happen is I’ll just be a little tired the next day, so if I know something (like the Bavarian pretzel) will most likely be the only gluten-y thing I eat that day, I’ll have it and it won’t bug me at all. If I go all out and use my ‘cheat meal’ of the week to just eat all of the gluten in the state of Connecticut-gluten at appetizer, meal, AND desserts-, I will spend the next day feeling like I’ve been hit by a car. And I’ve actually been hit by a car, so I know what I’m talking about. However, last week I went to NYC with friends and we hit up a pizza place for dinner. They had a vegan cheese option, but no gluten-free option. I ate it, because I’d rather have ONE allergen hitting me than both. Had I eaten a cheese/wheat combo…woof. And one time I went to a place that had gluten free buns, but their turkey burger did have some bread crumbs in the mixture. I ate both and was fine. Additionally, lactose is the thing I am the most allergic to, so while I can be a bit lax with the gluten thing, I avoid dairy like the plague unless it’s Greek yogurt or goat’s milk products, which can actually be beneficial to the gut. I CAN have a bit of ice cream cake every once and a while. Too much, and I am NOT someone you want around you the next day.
5. Toughen up, and make your voice heard. Because people won’t understand. I’m not a victim. I will never be one, and certainly not because of stuff I can’t eat. That being said, for the first few months of trying to be gluten-free I felt ashamed, and even almost guilty. I tried not to be a whiner about my allergies/sensitivities. I thought explaining my intolerances would make me a boor or a burden. I remember joking with a guy on a date about the people who ask in a high-pitched, Type-A shriek ‘DOES THIS HAVE GLUTEN IN IT?!’ at a restaurant, while on the inside terrified that the breadstick I was housing would make my stomach hurt and ruin the evening. Then as we continued dating, and I grew as a person dealing with these roadblocks both outside and inside the relationship, I realized….the people who didn’t understand my allergies are just dicks.
People automatically think you’re g-free because A) you want to lose weight or B) MILEY CYRUS DID IT AND OMG or C) you have an eating disorder. If I tell someone I’m lactose intolerant and gluten-sensitive, and they get weirded out, fuck that noise. And just for the record for those who equate gluten allergies with starvation – as I said before, those who are allergic to gluten not only get inflamed when they eat it, but they drop weight when gluten is in their system because their body starts to derail its intake. Since reducing gluten I’ve gotten in the best shape of my life and my grocery bill is larger than my entire family’s bill, combined. I run/ellipticize, kickbox, and do hot yoga, and in two weeks will start training for a half-marathon (more on that in another post). I eat like a truck driver. I eat tons of protein, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and yes, carbs. I’m also a classic foodie. I LOVE food, particularly ethnic food. I could eat Thai or Indian or Chinese food every single day if the sodium levels didn’t make me explode. I’ve told people “If you put it in front of me, I will eat it.” I’m also really lucky that I’m of the constitution that really genuinely loves salads, oatmeal, and healthy food. Now I eat those foods because I know it’ll help me operate at my peak, rather than sluggishly dragging my feet.
6. Know your shit. No pun intended. I did a LOT of research on my allergies; what the exact symptoms are when I eat an allergen, what helps me feel better if I’ve accidentally consumed an allergen, and how to get my body on the right track afterwards. Also, I’ve been vetted by 4 different doctors, all of whom diagnosed me with the exact same things, so I know for a fact this is how my body operates. I’m not doing it to lose weight, I’m not doing it to be en vogue. I’m doing it because it helps me feel healthy. Also, it really helps your cause if you can back up your allergies with a list of the procedures you’ve had done (people tend to believe me after I mention ‘colonsocopy’ or ‘prep cleanse’ or ‘muscle relaxants’, or side effects that come with consumption of said allergens. It makes people really sympathetic. Or grossed out.
My point is, do I have a reaction to gluten? Yes. Is it going to kill me if I eat some? No. But do I feel better when I don’t eat it? Yep. My body feels best when I don’t have it in my diet. So I try not to have it.
Now, if I could only give up Diet Coke.
PS. Keep your eyes on this space for news about the big race I’ll be running in September. I sadly had to drop out of the Warrior Dash because I got cast in a play, and I didn’t want to risk breaking something during a performance weekend. But I’ll be in training all summer! 😉