Journey to a Gluten-Free Me

I’ll begin by saying that I don’t know everything about food or nutrition. None of us do, to be completely honest. Nutrition research has only just begun, if you really think about it. By this point, though we know enough of what we shouldn’t eat, to give us a good idea of the things we should, in order to promote that long, healthy, lifestyle we seem to unanimously pursue.

My healthy eating journey began with an ex-boyfriend of mine who had his own extreme-sounding ideals about food that he did not hesitate in the slightest to push on me. He took eating to a whole new level. For the first time I came to terms with this simple concept:

Put good in, get good out.

“Good” in this case pertaining to food, also held new meaning:

As close to nature as possible.

After awhile of eating this organic diet, I found that I felt a lot better physically. The most profound changes were that I had more energy, and felt significantly less groggy in the mornings. Still, I suffered from an array of ailments that spanned from a heart murmur that restricted my physical activity, to relentless, 24/7, stomach and chest pains. For years I visited doctors’ offices, had my blood drawn a number of times for reasons I didn’t bother asking anymore, had x-rays, ultrasounds, and was sent to specialist after specialist. Doctors came out on the other end empty-handed and I continued to experience what felt like a new problem every few months on top of the pre-existing ones. The only solid diagnosis I had was Rheumatoid Arthritis. While it is the most common form of arthritis, it was certainly uncommon for a 13 year old to show up with. I had options and an array of specialists in the RA realm to go see, however I knew that treating each of my issues individually was not going to be the solution.

This was abundantly clear to my boyfriend at the time as well, reinforced by the fact that he would not let me lay a finger on any Western manufactured pharmaceutical drug anyway. From the beginning he suggested that, maybe, I have Celiacs Disease. He did all the research necessary to prove his point, claiming that everything I’ve been experiencing are possible side effects of my consuming wheat and having Celiacs Disease.

Now, I was never one of those people who thought that people went on gluten-free diets simply because they thought it was trendy, and I never doubted the reality of the condition. Me being human, though, I never thought about Celiacs Disease as being something that would apply to me. I was in denial. Not horribly deep denial- but denial nonetheless. For months I insisted that he must be incorrect, and took it upon myself to try a variety of different diets like vegetarian and paleo. I lasted way longer being vegetarian than I did paleo. You can hardly even call it a paleo diet if you’re still eating rice and toast, but I thought it counted as long as I stayed away from dairy and soy. Typical half-assed diet excuse. Maybe I would have figured something out if I stuck to the paleo diet in its entirety, cutting out the darn gluten. Instead, it took me 2 weeks in seclusion on a trip with my ex and his parents for me to actually stop eating gluten, considering they were on the diet. It wasn’t a choice of mine, but when someone is accommodating you on vacation you typically eat — or don't eat — whatever the hell they say to. I noticed no real difference in my body. I slept a bit better but that could probably be due to the fresh Oregon air.

Anyway, the night I returned home I was so delighted to see that my mother had made pasta shortly before my arrival. Before I could finish a bowl of the stuff, I became violently ill. A moment of vivid realization came to me, then, and the pasta met my trash can without hesitation. From there, I never turned back. All at once, suspicion became fact. My body and mind came to one, major, life-changing agreement: I have Celiacs Disease. My denial was not intense enough to allow me to continue the way I had been. I called my mother into the kitchen and told her that “I have finally figured it out”, and “I am going on a strict gluten-free diet, because I have Celiacs Disease and I do not want to be sick anymore”. There began a new road of discovery, experimenting, and hardship.

I had no idea what to eat. I starved for what felt like forever, eating the same few things over and over again that I knew was safe. My cravings for gluten were intense to the point of nausea. Impressively, I did not give in to them. The way I looked at it was that I had no choice, and I firmly believe that anyone should consider it the same way. Most of my diet consisted of snacks that never quite satisfied me. I was left daily with this lingering feeling of hunger that I decided would never dissolve. This was one of my initial discoveries.

When altering one’s diet, the appetite takes quite some time to follow suit.

Individuals who eat a gluten-free diet typically consume less calories than other people, due to many different factors. Mainly, wheat grain is higher in calories compared to alternatives such as corn and rice. It is also significantly more filling than other grains. Generally speaking, as an American (or Western) individual, our appetites are adjusted to high calorie and portion intake. We consider feeling “stuffed”, satisfying, marking the end of our meal. So when the very thing that made me feel stuffed and satisfied was taken away, I was at a loss. It’s incredibly frustrating!

Due to that fact, those who eat gluten-free also tend to eat more often.

This way, we can match the pre-diet calorie count, and feel more full. Eating wholesome foods in more quantity is a good thing. Every person has certain happy medium between eating too much, and eating just enough. If you’re going to go gluten-free, you have to find that sweet spot again, and it will probably involve simply eating more. It’s hard- really hard. It seemed easier to revert back to just eating whatever I wanted until I felt full, and repeating the process. The focus, though, is to remember why you’re doing it. I concentrated on differences I felt in my body and was rather excited to find what the outcome would be. Mixed nuts became my obsession. Mind you, I never liked them before. You couldn’t catch me eating peanuts, almonds, or cashews. I even hated peanut butter. Within a few days of my new resolution, I was eating all the above with ferocity.

The body craves new things to replace what has been taken away.

I was a tad freaked out but at the end of the day, your body knows what it needs. In my new perspective, the essence of food was no longer its taste, and was more-so about how it made me feel. Eating isn’t as much consuming as it is nourishing. Therefore, in the case of mindlessly consuming (like most of us do), the body is likely not being nourished. During this process, I stopped drinking juice and instead made a point to drink a lot of water. It’s conscious decisions like these that come together to create overall well-being.

After only 2 weeks of cutting out wheat, I was noticing improvement. I felt totally different. My energy was consistent as opposed to coming in waves, I slept rather well, and I had this strange, lightweight sensation. Even today, years later, it’s hard for me to explain that. Despite those improvements, I had a long way to go in terms of healing. My stomach and chest still ached, my esophagus still burned, my heart had fits of unhappiness for no clear reason, and I felt weak. One of the most essential things to understand about Celiacs Disease is that

It is not simply an allergy to wheat.

When you have Celiacs Disease of any degree (including what people call “wheat sensitivity” because they do not want to claim to be a Celiac) consuming wheat inflicts damage on the body. Unlike an allergy, which is a momentary reaction, wheat hinders your small intestine’s ability to function properly. If you didn’t know, the small intestine is where most all of digestion takes place. It is responsible for absorbing the nutrients from your food. When wheat is involved, a Celiac’s body can no longer do any of those vital things. So no- we cannot cheat sometimes and just “endure the belly ache” because it is much more than just a belly ache. After years without the diagnosis of Celiacs Disease, my organs were beaten down and barely held up their proper functions. That sort of thing takes a significant amount of time to heal.

You will continue to feel horrible for awhile.

But keep at it, the human body is fantastic at self-healing. It’s important to remain consistent even if you don’t recognize the positive results right away. Once I had my time to heal, it really showed me how much I had been missing the whole time, and how truly malnourished I was. Last year around this time, I celebrated my ability to finally run and do physical exercise. I am strong and the proper weight/BMI for my age and size. My hands and feet have functioned 100% efficiently without any arthritis flare-ups.

The experience of going gluten-free is much more than a trend or trying to be “skinny”. For me, it was a matter of returning to my most healthy state of body and mind. It required learning what food really is and treating myself like a beautiful working system as opposed to a stuffed Thanksgiving turkey. I am capable of so much more than I ever knew and my life has improved drastically because of my newfound strength.

For anyone who reads this, I hope it offered some insight. I also hope that you treat yourself well and live a long life.

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