It dawned on me this morning that today was a significant day. One year ago today, I decided to go gluten-free for a 2-month trial. But unlike a previous attempt at a gluten-free diet, this time, I would be overly cautious. This time, I would give my body time to decide whether gluten was a problem. And when I “challenged” in August (Meaning I consumed gluten. Consumed is such an understatement. I scarfed down a roll, some bulgur salad, and a piece of chocolate cake. Yikes!), I knew. All of those symptoms that had slowly abated came rushing back. I was sick – sick enough to know for sure that for my body, gluten was the enemy.
I would love to say that changing to a gluten-free diet was as simple as turning on a light switch. It wasn’t. I thought it would be relatively simple – after all, I have cooked for my Dad, brother, and sister many times, and they have all followed gluten-free diets for years. But cooking for someone once in a while and living the gluten-free life are two different things. There was indeed a learning curve – and I’m still learning. But I am still so thankful for making the decision to go gluten-free. While it’s definitely not a decision everyone should make, it has changed my life for the better. I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned during my journey this past year, in hopes that my lessons learned can help others that are just starting out.
Start with fresh, whole, naturally gluten-free foods. This is not only easier to learn (there’s no label-reading on a piece of fresh fruit), it’s easier on a sensitive, still-healing digestive system. While it’s normal to want a gluten-free version of your favorite old gluten-filled dishes, it’s best for your body – and your wallet – to keep the purchase and consumption of processed, packaged, or even homemade gluten-free “replacement” foods to a minimum. Allow yourself to heal and nurture your body with real food.
Listen to your body. Many times, those of us with gluten issues have overly sensitive digestive systems. Some of us will have intolerances to other foods in addition to gluten. Over the past year, I’ve learned that my body can’t handle being overtaxed, and it just doesn’t like a lot of things. I have recently removed dairy from my diet as a result, and I limit my consumption of sugars and processed foods. If I’m having a particularly rough day, I revert back to what my body seems to handle best – whole, natural foods with very little done to them. (see above)
Be patient. For some, removing gluten from their diet meant they saw immediate, drastic improvement, almost overnight. For me, and for a lot of others, this wasn’t the case. Some symptoms disappeared pretty quickly – I was no longer exhausted, I could think clearly, my feet and hands stopped swelling and tingling, and within a few months, my chronic heartburn went away. But some took longer. My digestive system is still sensitive, so I know I’m still healing. But I do see small improvements – things that used to bother me before are more tolerable now. But just because I’m not 100% better a year later doesn’t mean that the gluten-free diet isn’t working. I know it is. It just takes time. (If someone could tell that to my desires for things like cakes, pies, cookies, etc., that would be great.)
Speak up. I am not one to want to make a big deal out of things. I don’t like feeling as though I’m “high-maintenance”. When I visited a restaurant, or was invited to someone’s house, I didn’t like asking a bunch of questions about what was in the meal, how it was prepared, etc. I felt like I was drilling people. And at first, I paid the price for my lack of thoroughness. I learned the hard way that I must be an advocate for my health, and I couldn’t be shy about asking the required questions. Now, I have overcome this “shyness”. If I am going to eat someone else’s food, I ask a lot of questions. I have to. I remind myself to try to see it as an opportunity for education. If the restaurant is willing to listen carefully and accommodate me, and they come to understand my needs, it’s a win-win for both of us. I become a loyal, repeat customer for them, and I have a place where I can relax and enjoy my meal. When it comes to visiting friends, I feel it’s also an opportunity for education. I have some friends that are truly wonderful – they research and learn what is safe for me to eat, and have accommodated me. For that, I’m truly grateful. For those times when I’m unsure of the food, I make alternate plans for my meal, so I’m not taking chances on my health. Which brings me to my next point.
Plan ahead. If you will be away from the house for a while, make sure you pack safe snacks or a meal. If you are traveling, make plans to bring snacks and even possibly meal components (or scope out a good grocery store, if possible, where you will be staying). This way, you won’t be so hungry that you are tempted to risk questionable meals. If you find yourself in a situation where you have to attend a dinner where none of the food being served is “safe”, then you will have a snack handy to enjoy, and you can still participate in the social aspects of the meal. Some good, portable snacks include: Lara Bars, KIND bars, fresh fruit, nuts and dried fruits, gluten-free crackers (I love Mary’s Gone Crackers), carrot and celery sticks, or even hard-boiled eggs. If you travel often, Shirley at Gluten-Free Easily travels often while following a gluten-free diet, and she navigates quite well! You might consider checking out her blog for some tips.
Read labels carefully. Become intimately aware of where gluten lurks in processed foods. While eating processed foods all of the time isn’t good for anyone, for those with gluten intolerance, they can be particularly difficult. Gluten can turn up in a lot of things that you wouldn’t expect – vitamins, shampoo, lipstick, condiments, broths, sauces, marinades, spices, etc. There are a lot of ingredients listed on labels that may mean that the item contains gluten, but those ingredients are not always obvious. There is a helpful list here to help you determine whether an item is safe. If you are still unsure, don’t use the item. You can contact the manufacturer for more information, or you can also use resources to assist you in determining whether the item is safe. Triumph Dining is one such resource, but there are others. (There is even an iPhone app for that!) Make sure you read labels every time you purchase an item – even if it was safe before, the manufacturer may have changed the ingredients.
Allow yourself to be human. It’s okay, especially at the beginning, to grieve. It’s okay to be angry, frustrated, or sad about the change in your lifestyle. You might feel left out of certain things. You might feel like no one understands. Some days, it might just feel like it’s just too hard. That’s totally understandable. It’s during these times when a good, solid support system is essential. Your support system can always be your family and friends (I know I owe so much to my husband – he has had to learn so much throughout this process, and he’s been supportive, understanding, and flexible. Without him, I think there might have been times I would have gone crazy!), but there are also support groups out there. The Gluten Intolerance Group has a lot of branches in North America, for instance. There are also a huge number of gluten-free bloggers out there – my gluten-free blog friends have been a great source of support for me!
Fall in love with what you CAN eat. There is a bounty of delicious, gluten-free food out there. Once I mourned my “loss” of gluten-y foods, I began to shift my focus, not on what I can’t eat, but what I can eat. There is so much to enjoy. Right now, we are in the middle of the best time of year for fresh, delicious foods – I can’t get enough of summer’s juicy berries, fresh zucchini and squash, okra, tomatoes, peppers, onions, herbs, peaches…the list goes on and on. The possibilities for recipes with all of these foods are endless!
For those of you that also must adhere to diet restrictions, what lessons have you learned? What tips do you have to share?