10 Things I’ve Learned from 10 Years on a Gluten-Free Diet
10 years ago this month, my mom and I decided that it would be best for me to try a gluten-free diet for the first time. My dad had been diagnosed with celiac disease 5 years earlier, and after a vaguely ominous blood test and learning that celiac disease was genetic, it seemed the best idea to cure my “abdominal migraines” and undefined, uncurable ridiculous stomach pain I had experienced—putting me completely out of commission (by that, I mean lying in a dark room not moving or speaking) for up to 4 days per month—for the past 5 years or more.
As a wolfed down my last boxes of Peanut Butter Toast Crunch cereal (do they still make that flavor?) and housed entire boxes of Little Debbies cakes in anticipation of my diet start date (it had seemed best pick one start day & go cold turkey), I wondered why we’d decided the best time to make this transition was mere weeks, before another major transition—moving to Boston, MA, from Detroit, MI—to start college. I had gone vegetarian less than a year before, plus would be learning to feed myself in a dorm environment. It seemed like too many dietary changes to juggle. But the decision was made, the empty Little Debbies boxes were folded up (and hopefully recycled), and my journey began. Here’s what I’ve decided in the 10 years since:
- Nothing is a cure all. Since going gluten free, I can count the number of times I’ve had either a stomach ache or even mild stomach discomfort (like when you need a Tums) on two hands. Yes, math aficionados, that’s any stomach/digestive discomfort averaging about 1 incident PER YEAR. So I’m pretty freaking happy overall about being gluten free. However, a gluten-free diet did not cure my: weight gaining, hatred of exercise, acne, hair frizziness, lack of punctuality, inability to learn non-English languages, sleep/energy issues, migraine headaches, or capital R Relationship issues.
- It’s cool to do things before they’re cool. Not to brag, but in the time since my dad and I went gluten free, the market for gluten-free food went from “What the hell are you talking about?” to a $6 billion per year industry. We went from ordering bread from Canada shipped in dry ice, that defrosted to the texture of a nice hardy cardboard, to there are so many breads I don’t know what to do about it, and I can even get actual sandwiches at actual places sometimes now. Why is this cool? Because I get to complain about it and tell you about cardboard bread and how far we’ve come! You never know when things could totally swing in the direction you’d like them to go, so stick with what speaks to you and keep at it.
- Someone will always have it better than you, and someone will always have it worse. So STOP comparing yourself and doing this “if only _____, then I’d be happy” thinking! Yes, if I enjoy normal cookies and cake, I will be in severe pain and get cancer, but some people already have cancer, or are allergic to the things I make my substitute cookies and cakes with. So stop, just stop. We don’t pity you, and you don’t have to pity yourself either.
- You will always be able to find something to eat. As a gluten-free vegetarian, and now as a vegan…no one bothers to ask me questions anymore, but I can hear the echoes of that age-old adage, “So what do you EAT?” Well, good news. All fruits and vegetables are gluten free! So are all nuts and seeds! If you eat meat why are you even complaining?? (I’m kidding, we all love a good kvetch) So are the staples of many ethnicities’ cuisines other than our own country’s: beans & rice, salsa, rice & tofu, tempeh & rice, rice…OK if you’re allergic to rice that sucks but I have a friend you can talk to who is GF & can’t eat rice! At a restaurant, I’m sorry, you may need to order a salad, but eat that salad and live to fight another day, a day without crippling abdominal pain (or whatever your symptoms are).
- “Cheating” can be totally fine. There have been times in my diet where I could eat a normal cupcake or slice of pizza without feeling many or any ill effects (had I done this many times per week or per month I would have eventually gotten cancer, but I’m talking once in awhile). It doesn’t have to be a big deal if you want to try your coworker’s or significant other’s parent’s baked good, or have a piece of pizza because you’re starving and your workplace forgot to order your salad. Do what feels right for you and you’re still doing a good job and you don’t have to justify how “good” you are to anyone else.
- “Cheating” doesn’t have to be fine! On the other side of that, don’t feel like you HAVE to try your coworker’s or significant other’s parent’s baked good, or give in to a cheat because you did so a few months ago. It’s always OK to turn down any food for any reason. It’s your body, and the only one who’s going to have to deal with the consequences of what you ate (good or bad) is YOU, so never feel pressured to cheat. No food is worth suffering.
- There’s something to be said for paying attention to your food. When you can’t just extend some sort of feeding tube and literally inhale the free donuts, cookies, and pizza the world is constantly offering you, it enables you to take a moment to breathe and think about what you’re really eating and what you want to eat. Sometimes I wish I could sit alone and mainline a baker’s dozen of Krispy Kremes, but most of the time, I’m glad that these moments of pause I’ve been forced to take have allowed me to say, “Maybe I don’t want to consume 800 calories of nutritionless flour, air bubbles, and animal fat,” (I guess that’s a large buttery pastry?), “Maybe I’ll eat vegetables and consume a much larger amount of food, far fewer calories, and get some micronutrients and antioxidants or whatever.” OK, I admit, this took a lot of work and I’ve just been getting better at it in the last few years, but it’s good to pay attention.
- “Restrictive” diets often aren’t restrictive, because they open us to more food choices. Most American adults have never eaten more than 10 kinds of fruit. Most of us eat the same few foods over and over and over again, every day and every week. Do you think I would have ever eaten teff, kale, cauliflower, baba ghanoush, dosa (Indian crepes), jalapeños, or cashew creme if I didn’t NEED TO expand my horizons? Let alone make these random things as much a part of my daily diet as potato chips and yogurt used to be? Now, I eat something I’ve never eaten before probably every month (or at least that should be my new goal).
- Gluten-free grains are kind of awesome, everyone can try some! I don’t want to hate on wheat, because enough people are doing that, and it’s completely unnecessary, but similar to #8, I’ve tried so many things I never would have tried, and they are really good, and give your body something new to munch on. Many of these grains are “ancient grains,” which are not very processed and are packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals. They each soar in different cooking and baking situations: teff (dark baked goods, injera bread), quinoa (dinner OR breakfast like oatmeal), amaranth (yum!), buckwheat (some soba noodles are GF), millet (fun fact: main ingredient in birdseed! don’t tell people or they’ll make fun of you, eating like a bird), sorghum (can pop like popcorn). Then the other super foods: chia, chick peas, lucuma…I could go on and on. And WHY would I ever have learned about this foods and how easy and fun it is to cook them if it weren’t for my GF diet?
- You aren’t what you eat. I used to avoid telling people I was GF at all costs…we’d be at the counter of a bagel place and they’d be like, “Why aren’t you ordering anything?” I guess I thought no one would want to hang out with someone who was genetically misaligned to chocolate chip cookies.
I have a large network of family, friends, and coworkers, and I don’t think I’m known to them solely as “OH, YEAH, SOPHIE, THAT WEIRD GIRL WHO, LIKE, CAN’T EAT ANYTHING!” Just because what you eat doesn’t make you who you are, still listen to your body, treat yourself with care, and try to use food as a way to take care of yourself (not by numbing out, but with healthy healing), at least once in a blue moon.
Don’t be afraid to own your dietary choices/requirements and stick to them (within the best of your abilities and how you want to). People will respect you, still get to know you for you (not your diet), and may even go out of their way to take you to restaurants where you can really enjoy something!
I hope that was helpful to you in some way! Feel free to comment below or tweet me @rockyc5 with your thoughts!