TAG | Health
A lot can change in the course of a year. In February of 2009, I was just beginning to enjoy the benefits of being a young professional in the city of Chicago. I spent nights and weekends discovering new restaurants and bars, random ethnic food, and generally getting fat off of all that my great city had to offer. I had no idea that my body was nearing a breaking point.
I knew that I hadn’t felt well for a long time, but I had chalked it up to family history. The other men in my family have always had abdominal pain and issues with digestion and I assumed it was just something I had to deal with. My breaking point came when my pain began to feel more like an illness and I couldn’t go to work. One particular Saturday night led to 4 days off of work. Several times before, my doctor had suggested that a gluten free diet might help my abdominal issues. This time, he gave me strict marching orders.
Nothing can prepare you for the diagnosis. This is the type of bittersweet message you never want to receive. I can feel better yes, but at what cost? No more discovering new foods, no more rare beers from all ends of the earth, no more enjoyment of any kind. I thought all was lost. My despair led me to a desperate search for all of the things I used to enjoy. I struggled for a long time to find some balance and understanding. These are the hard lessons I learned.
1. Be Vigilant, Be Aggressive
In most situations, I am not an aggressive person. I avoid confrontation whenever possible and am not as direct as I should be sometimes. This is one of those situations where I have needed to break a few of my own rules about common courtesy. If you go to a restaurant to eat, be absolutely clear about your condition with the help. Ask to see the chef. Demand that your food be prepared at a separate workstation in order to prevent cross-contamination. If they won’t comply, don’t stick around. If you go to a friend or family member’s house for dinner and there isn’t anything that you can eat, don’t eat something just to be polite (more on this in the next section). Most people do not understand what having a gluten intolerance means. They will try to get you to eat things that will make you sick. Be assertive, but be patient. The people who misunderstand your disease initially may be the same people who surprise you the most down the road.
2. Be Prepared
If you have recently been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, it is important to find a fallback food for emergency situations. For me, that food was Rice Chex. Did I feel like a toddler toting around some Tupperware or plastic bag full of cereal? Absolutely. Did I have something to eat at family parties and as a snack when I was out and about? You bet. Another element of being prepared applies to restaurants. More and more restaurants are catering to gluten intolerant folks and plenty of resources are appearing that list those restaurants. Call restaurants before you leave the house. If you are meeting friends for dinner, sometimes you need to eat before you leave. It will save you the trouble of starving through dinner just to spend some time with company. This leads me to my next point.
3. The Internet Is Your Best Friend
Use the resources at your disposal to improve your way of life dramatically. When I have free time, I search randomly on Google. I type in my city or neighborhood and the phrase “gluten free” and occasionally I find new restaurants and grocery stores that are accommodating our community. Most of the brands at the grocery store have allergen information on their websites. Forums and discussion boards are everywhere waiting to answer your questions. As a matter of fact, post questions in the comments area and I’ll be happy to help you out. The moral of the story is that resources abound on the internet. Use them.
4. Be Fearless
Nearly 3/4 of the food you are used to eating has just been taken out of your diet. What do you do? Accept this turn of events as time to experiment. Not everything you make is going to be a home run. Use the remaining foods you have at your disposal and combine ingredients like you never have before. A white corn tortilla rolled up with sliced ham and shredded cheese baked in the oven. Is that good? No? Build up from there. It takes some work and some terrible food before you start to become comfortable creating your own dishes. Don’t forget to use the internet to locate gluten free recipes. There are full communities dedicated to this single topic. Finding a local restaurant with some gluten free food is great. Having a go-to restaurant can be a life saver. But don’t forget to try new things. Since I went gluten free, I’ve discovered sushi. It never interested me before, but once you start eating healthier, you may find your tastes changing. Does spicy blue crab wrapped in rice and seaweed sound awful to you? Be fearless. Try the scary stuff. You might be shocked by how much flavor you are missing out on.
5. Be Consistent, Be Committed
This is the most important lesson I learned. Taking on a new diet is daunting. Don’t assume that you can come and go from this diet. Be committed to it. The more time I spend away from gluten, the more sensitive I get to the effects of it in my system. Get on a regular schedule of finding recipes and going to the grocery store. Buy fresh produce. Support local farm markets. I have already laid out the benefits of preparation. Take the time to research recipe ingredients individually to prevent any surprises down the line. Your diligence can be the difference between a new favorite recipe and several days of misery.
Your diet is what you make of it. For a long time, I struggled to find sweets that I could eat. I didn’t take the time to do the research and it was my own fault that I wasn’t happy with my food choices. Then I started looking up each of the sweets I used to enjoy. I found out that many of my fears were unsubstantiated. When I finally discovered a selection of beers that I could have that were accessible to me, I was thrilled. When I decided that I wanted a greater selection of beers, I began brewing my own. You have options. There is one undeniable truth to all of this. Whether you look at this diet as a curse or a blessing, you’re right.
The Huffington Post published an eye-opening article yesterday that discussed the dangers of gluten to anyone enjoying a traditional “American diet.” This quote, in particular, caught my eye:
“A recent large study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with diagnosed, undiagnosed, and “latent” celiac disease or gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death, mostly from heart disease and cancer.”
To me, that seems like the type of statement that should strike fear into anyone who feels that they may have celiac or any sort of gluten intolerance. And yet, I know several people who have the symptoms of a gluten intolerance who resist the urge to try out a gluten free diet or even visit the doctor to find out if it is something they may have. Is it fear that prevents people from trying to find out the truth? Will it cost them too much money? Is it sheer laziness? They say that this condition is hereditary, yet members of my own family, who have very similar symptoms to me, still refuse to accept celiac as a possibility for their ailments. When I dropped gluten from my diet, many of my chronic aches and pains went away, my immune system kept me healthier, I lost almost 20 pounds and I even stopped snoring. I’m guessing the snoring was an offshoot of the weight loss, but I digress.
I know several people who have been told that they needed to have their gall bladders removed. After receiving a second opinion and removing gluten from their diet, they never needed any kind of surgery and they feel great. This should be a huge red flag about the possible dangers of gluten.
This article is a must read. You can find it here. I want to thank Mark Hyman, MD for shedding a bright light on this topic. Please share it with anyone you feel may have Celiac disease or who just wants to eat healthier. Let’s continue to spread the word that the gluten free lifestyle is about more than feeling good, it’s about living a long, healthy life.