Oh, gluten. What a troublesome thing you can be.
I’ve been living without gluten in my life for just over six weeks now and it has most definitely been a roller coaster of experiences and emotions.
I wanted to wait a while before talking about my experience because I thought it would be worthwhile to have a bit of actual perspective since getting my initial diagnosis, as well as some solid experience in my post-gluten life.
So, I think it’s time to check in now on how this has all gone down.
Finding out that I was gluten-intolerant and that gluten was likely the cause of many unpleasant, uncomfortable, and downright painful physical experiences I had been having was somewhat tragic for me. I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say that I was a total gluten-loving person. My days weren’t complete without pasta, whole wheat breads, tortillas, multigrain pancakes, spelt-filled breakfast pastries, and so on. I never imagined that gluten intolerance was an underlying cause of my issues and coming to terms with this has not been easy.
It has, though, been enlightening. I’m had a lot of ups and downs during the last six weeks. Here are the some of the highs and lows:
1. First and foremost, going gluten free is hard.
Emotionally, it sort of totally knocked me down for a week or two. I knew I wouldn’t like it, of course, but I wasn’t prepared for the incredible depression it would bring for a couple of weeks. I almost lost it in a market after spending hours trying to find foods that I could eat (besides fruits and vegetables – that part is easy).
For me, also having to eliminate other ingredients that tend to be key ingredients in many gluten free prepared foods (garbanzo flour, almonds/almond flour, and yeast, most specifically) was especially disheartening. I’d pick an item up, read the label, and promptly put it back. After doing this a few dozen times, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Watching others order, buy, and eat food freely is disheartening. Throwing out food you love from your kitchen is frustrating. Having physical and emotional cravings that, if fulfilled at all, will make you sick is sad.
Plus, there are withdrawal symptoms. The body aches I experienced were totally unexpected and caught me very much by surprise. Fortunately, they didn’t last too long.
I’ve gotten better at dealing with all of this, for sure, but in the beginning it is especially hard. No doubt about it.
2. Going gluten free is expensive.
People can offer all the money-saving tips they want. They’re useful, absolutely, but when you’re staring at an aisle full of regular and whole wheat pasta that costs $1.99 for 16 oz and a couple of gluten-free boxes of pasta that cost $3.99 for 8 or 12 oz, there’s no denying this. Beyond produce, specialty gluten free items are going to make a hefty dent in your budget.
3. Gluten free baking is a bit insane.
I don’t know how else to describe it. I will be totally honest that I have completely lost my baking mojo. Gluten free flours are tricky (an understatement) and for those who simply think that using a gluten free all purpose mix will do the job – that’s not always true. It is an entirely new world – one that I have been absolutely intimidated by.
But I miss baking. Quite a lot.
I’m gathering the courage to dive back into this soon.
4. Sometimes, other people may find you annoying – and you just have to learn to be okay with that.
I feel obnoxious when I’m in a restaurant or bakery and I’m asking a million questions about ingredients. When servers tiredly try to find the answers or those in line behind me get antsy waiting for their turn at the counter, I feel like a schmuck. And yet, I’m still not always asking all the questions that I should be. The reality is, though, that gluten free folks aren’t just driven by false paranoia. Gluten really does lurk nearly everywhere and even a small amount may make you sick.
I have learned this the hard way. The painful, miserable hard way.
5. Sometimes, I will find other people annoying. So annoying that I want to scream at them in a manner that is quite out of my usual civil and polite character.
The rise of gluten free living has resulted in quite a bit of backlash. I didn’t realize how much until I found myself as a gluten-free person (isn’t that always the case?). But, let me tell you, people hate gluten free folks. Not all people, of course, but a lot of them. I’ve noticed dismissive jokes on television and film. Articles claiming that no one needs to be gluten free because it’s all made up. Restaurants mocking the issue (“Our water is gluten-free!”). And I’ve overheard way too many snide remarks by others (this is more common than you may think).
It’s a bit infuriating, all of this, because underneath much of it lies an assumption that people are choosing to go gluten free solely to participate in some trend – that it is not an actual need or issue. Let me tell you, those of us who have to do this for health reasons would not likely choose to do this if it wasn’t necessary. We do it because it makes a significant difference in our health. Otherwise, we’d still be enjoying our bagels and pizza.
6. All of the above has been worth it because going gluten free has made a real difference for me.
Since cutting the gluten (and eliminating or reducing the other foods that were supplemental irritants to my system), I have experienced the following:
- All kinds of less stomach/intestinal discomfort (This encompasses so much.)
- Dramatically fewer migraines (I was having severe headaches and migraines about 5 days a week. In the last 6 weeks, I have had 2 major headaches and 3 minor ones that went away quickly.
- Less body/joint pain
- Significantly lower levels of anxiety/stress. Did you know that 85%-90% of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that is key in the management of such issues) is produced in your gut? And that if your gut is not healthy, anxiety and/or depression may result? I didn’t. But I do now and the evidence of this in my personal experience has been pretty profound.
- Higher energy levels, less chronic fatigue
- Fewer allergy and sinus issues
- Less chronic thirst and dehydration
- Clearer, visibly healthier skin
- Increased mental clarity & focus (i.e. less ‘brain fog’)
This list is no joke. I know that I am still early in the healing process and things are likely to continue to improve further. Already noticing these changes has made me very hopeful for where I might be even further down the road.
7. Celiacs and gluten-sensitive people are by and large amazing, welcoming people.
For each of the people who have been frustrating and hurtful to me (see #5 above), there is someone who is incredibly kind. These are people who ‘get it’; those that truly understand how difficult this is to deal with and who are ready to help with tips, consoling words, and bundles of patience for all the questions that come up. I am so appreciative of these folks.
8. I am really fortunate to live in Portland, OR.
I love my city for a vast variety of reasons and this is one of the newest. As limited as my dining out world has become, I know that I have significantly more options by virtue of living where I do. Portland is incredibly friendly for the gluten free crowd, as well as for those of us who are also vegetarian or vegan. We have a few dedicated gluten free bakeries and restaurants and many others that are pretty aware and helpful in creating gluten free options. I only hope this continues to spread to other areas so that my fellow gluten-free eaters in other parts of the country can be so lucky!
Thank you, Portland.
9. It does get easier.
While I do not deny the reality of observation #1 above, I can also say that it does get less difficult over time. As I learn and experiment, it does get a bit easier. As my body adapts and gets further away from the memories of almond butter spread onto a good, thick, toasted bagel it does hurt a little less. I’m adapting and adjusting and will continue to do so because that’s what people do.
(Though I do really miss that bagel.)