The signs of a gluten sensitivity or allergy vary from person to person, but high on the list are chronic fatigue, poor digestion, constipation or diarrhea, or both in alternation — which is the hallmark of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Other signs you may be allergic to gluten include:
- Weight gain and overweight in general
- Acne and other skin problems
- Slow or foggy thinking
- Autism and attention deficit disorder
You’ll probably experience a number of these symptoms if you’re gluten-intolerant. For instance, my sister was diagnosed with ADD in her thirties prior to discovering that she had celiac sprue. Apart from autism and ADD, I was plagued by everything listed above.
When I self-diagnosed, I gave up pasta, crackers, bread, bread…and bread! I lost weight, my skin cleared up, and suddenly I felt as if a veil had been lifted off my brain. I could think! I didn’t feel drained and bummed out all the time. And my energy came back. Life could actually be pleasurable, not just a grueling endurance test. It was an amazing transformation.
As a longtime sufferer of IBS, and someone who relied heavily on laxatives to keep digestion moving, coaxing my digestive tract back to life has been a longer ordeal. Removing wheat from the picture was definitely a crucial first step in the right direction.
What To Expect When You Go Gluten-Free
When you first contemplate removing wheat from your diet, you might feel as if there is nothing left for you to eat. At the time I decided to go wheat-free, it was pretty much all I was eating. This, too, was a sign of my illness—I was addicted to exactly the food that was damaging me.
As is often the case with addictions, we “love” that which is harming us. I LOVE bread, and look wistfully at beautiful loaves whenever I pass by a bakery. I will smell the bread at a restaurant just to have the olfactory pleasure.
Because the gluten in bread was reducing my ability to assimilate nutrition through my small intestine, I was constantly, ravenously hungry—in fact, I was probably actually suffering from malnutrition! And on top of that, I was overweight. I gorged myself on bread, pasta, and crackers. I was, essentially, a deranged junk-food vegetarian.
Then one day, in a flash of insight, I realized that the way I was eating was killing me. Literally. Overnight, I became a reformed carnivore. I started eating the Atkins way before it even came on the scene. I consumed meat, lots and lots of vegetables, cheese, bean soups, and ice cream, and drank red wine.
Over time I began to miss certain things—crackers (for my cheese!) and desserts—and began to search for replacements. My research yielded a number of recipes for gluten-free baking, sometimes calling for alternative flours such as rice, coconut, potato, teff, chickpea, and almond. At the time, there were no tasty gluten-free products on the market, so I was cooking things at home. Now, there are many good alternatives to choose from.
When you first go gluten-free, you may feel disconnected from other people, as eating out and socializing present new challenges. Although you might feel deprived at first, eating wheat- or gluten-free can be a blessing in disguise, opening you up to a brand new world of pleasure and enjoyment through eating whole foods.
Goodbye Gluten, Hello Whole Foods
The upscale grocery store took its name from the general idea of “whole foods,” or foods that have not been processed before you cook with them. “Whole wheat” bread is not a whole food because the grain has been ground before it gets to you. Manufacturers use this wording to make you think the bread is exponentially better for you, but it’s really not.
Eating whole foods means enjoying dishes that are prepared by you or another person from food items that emerged from little or no packaging. Don’t assume that restaurants are really in the business of cooking—many use prepackaged items and just reheat before bringing them to the table. It’s best to ask what the ingredients are and if the food is “homemade” if you’re unsure.
When you’re cooking at home, there are many grains you can try if you’re avoiding those that contain gluten. Amaranth, millet, and rice are great to use for breakfast porridges. In the rice family alone, there are many different varieties. It’s mind-blowing the diversity that Mother Nature has worked up, and that we have systematically streamlined into white rice or brown rice.
I’ve noticed that many of the foods made with wheat are the “quick-and-easy” convenience foods, like pizza, sandwiches, and pasta. These are foods that we can eat quickly, or that pack easily—and we do need these kinds of foods occasionally. But when they become the staple of our diets, or when pre-packaged food becomes the mainstay of what we eat, it is a sign that we are disconnected from ourselves and the planet.
Gluten-Free: A Way of Life
Part of what your gluten intolerance is telling you is: SLOW DOWN! Pay attention to your body, or it will find a serious illness to hit you with. Hard.
You might have to learn to cook, or cook better. You might have to learn a new way of approaching food. Consider it a fun new hobby—trying out new foods and then really paying attention to what your body feels like after you’ve consumed them.
A “way of life” is best transmitted from person-to-person. It is embodied knowledge, contained within another human. When we share our experiences with each other, it keeps us connected in the truth that we are, in fact, all connected.
The way we eat and what we eat these days create an illusion that we are not part of a collective whole. For instance, we can trace the cheap, mass-produced, individual bag of Doritos back to monoculture farming, which we know hurts the land, hurts the animals on it (honeybees in particular), and of course, also hurts us. Even the trash generated from throwing away a non-biodegradable bag hurts the planet.
If we make it so, eating can be a daily act that brings us into a mindful state of connection with people, with our world, and with the magic and mystery of being alive. If you’re struggling with a gluten allergy, instead let it show you all these wonderful things. It will be a good teacher and friend.
Check out part I of Erica’s story, “Gluten Sensitivity: Is It Genetics or GMOs?“
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