About That Going Gluten-Free Thing . . . 9 Observations From A Newly Diagnosed Gluten-Sensitive Eater

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).

Thank goodness for fruits and vegetables.

Thank goodness for fruits and vegetables.

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.

Gluten free baking. I will figure this out eventually.

Gluten free baking.
I will figure this out eventually.

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.

One of PDX's wonderful gluten free bakeries.

One of PDX’s wonderful gluten free bakeries.

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.)

Foodie Firsts: Trying To Catch a Curveball

wooden spoons-001Foodie Firsts is a Move Eat Create weekly feature focusing on my adventures in the world of food.  Over the course of a few short years, I have transformed from a picky, fearful eater to a curious and open-minded foodie.  In a commitment to continue to expand my culinary experiences, I have started Foodie Firsts.  Each week I will commit to trying something new and sharing that experience with you.  My endeavors may include experimenting with cooking techniques I’ve never tried before, testing a single new ingredient, or drawing upon my creativity to combine foods in ways I never imagined.  Whatever it is, I will eat (or maybe drink) it and share it all with you.  You can decide for yourself whether you, too, would like to try.  Let’s be bold and eat good food!

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I had a whole Foodie First column planned for today.  I also had a post about creativity and confidence planned for earlier this week.  Neither has happened as planned and I want to explain why.

Life threw me a curveball this week.  A super curvy-curveball that I’ve been fumbling around trying to manage (yes, I did just mix those sports metaphors).  For the past couple of years, I have experienced a variety of health problems that, while not dire or life-threatening, have been persistent, problematic, and caused quite a bit of pain and discomfort.  I’ve gone through a series of frustrating tests and medical consultations without any answers or much concern given by the professionals I’ve seen.  I sought out a new doctor recently (a doctor of Naturopathic medicine) and am starting to get some answers.  They just weren’t the ones I was expecting.

I thought I had a pretty good idea of what might be the culprit and she agreed it was very possible.  In this vain, we decided to do some more tests and she also offered up another possibility that no one else had suggested in my medical visits: a food reactivity test.  I agreed, thinking it would be interesting and potentially helpful, but I didn’t really think it would be quite the game changer that it was.

The results came back on Saturday and they were pretty startling.  In a nutshell, I have been eating foods that my particular body is unable to handle properly, likely resulting in significant inflammation and a wide variety of painful and uncomfortable symptoms.  There are basically two categories that popped up that I have classified as:  The Super Big Bads that I will likely have to remove from my diet pretty much forever, and the Maybe-Possibly Big Bads that are causing reactions for sure (so they are off the table for a month or so) but may be able to be eaten occasionally once I’ve had a chance to get the current inflammatory damage under control.

So I have started an elimination diet.  All the Super Big Bads are gone for good, and the Possibly Big Bads are gone for the time being.  What are these foods?  Why did they completely derail my week and send me into a bit of a tailspin?  Here you go:

Category 1: The Super Big Bads

  • Kamut
  • Rye
  • Spelt
  • Wheat, Gliadin
  • Wheat, Gluten
  • Wheat, Whole
  • Yeast, Baker’s
  • Yeast, Brewer’s

(I’m still waiting for further tests to determine whether my gluten issue is in the category of gluten-sensitivity or Celiac’s Disease.  Either way, no more gluten for me.)

Category 2:  The Maybe-Possibly Big Bads

  • Almonds
  • Bananas
  • Chickpeas
  • Coffee Beans
  • Cranberries
  • Eggs
  • Green Peas
  • Milk (Dairy Variety)
  • Pecans
  • Pineapple
  • Sesame Seed
  • Sugar Cane
  • Whey
  • Yogurt (Dairy Variety)

It’s a grim list.  It’s very, very grim.

An example of how grim?

Most mornings this is my breakfast:

  • Two slices Dave’s 21 Grain Killer Bread
  • 1 tablespoon or so almond butter
  • 1 cup organic Greek yogurt
  • Coffee
  • Followed later by a mid-morning snack of a banana.

The rest of my day follows suit.

Since getting this information, I’ve been a bit of a mess.  I’ve had lots of emotions and am basically going through the stages of grief.  To some, this may sound over the top, but to me, it’s not.  As I’ve talked about on this blog, my love of healthy eating, cooking, and baking was only discovered in the last couple of years.  I’ve fallen in love with whole, real foods and finding new ways to prepare them.  I’ve discovered things I had never eaten before and was looking forward to eating lots more of.  Things like spelt muffins and scones (my absolute favorite flour to bake with these days), whole wheat grainy breads and cookies, almonds in just about every way you can imagine (almond butter, almond/fruit snack bars in the afternoons, almond flour, almonds in desserts, almond milk, almond yogurt), hummingbird cake with pineapples, and bananas eaten raw, used as sweetener in baked goods, and combined with dark chocolate.

Now these things are off limits and I don’t really know what to do.  Yes, it’s an opportunity to try more new things and yes, it’s a chance to get even more creative with my cooking, but right now I just want a slice of healthy, grainy toast with almond butter and a good, strong cup of coffee.

I don’t really think that’s too much to ask.

So my last few days have been spent purging my pantry and kitchen, carefully reading ingredient labels, spending hours (and lots of money) at the markets, and just figuring out what is safe and what is not.  Hence, the lack of blogging this week.  Do you have any idea how many foods contain gluten, yeast, and/or almonds?  Forget about the fact that cane sugar is on the list – it’s in nearly everything.

I realize that was a long explanation for my absence and I could have just said ‘sorry’ for dropping the ball this week, but I wanted to share some information about what’s going in.  I’ll be back next week with regular posts and I’ve no doubt that this new part of my life will be included, as it will surely impact those topics that near and dear to me here on this blog: healthy living, running, cooking, and overall brain and body wellness.

Also, in my absence this week, I failed to post that Monday marked my one-year anniversary with this blog.  I was sorry to have missed honoring that day and saying thank you to everyone who has stopped by, tried a recipe, took a running tip, left their own advice and input, and generally joined me in my little space on the Internet.  You all are fantastic and I have loved putting Move Eat Create together over this past year.  I have a lot more planned for year two!