Monday, November 24, 2014

Becoming Gluten Free

I grew up in a home like many Americans. Middle class. Suburban. More well-acquainted with "dinner from a box" than "dinner from a garden." Most of the meals we sat down and ate as a family were cooked with extra love by my mom, but also contained extra fat, sugar and preservatives. By no means do I blame her (mom, please don't feel bad!). Feeding a family of 6 is basically a full time job, and since she already held one of those, the food we bought had to last in the pantry until we got around to preparing/eating it. Basically every meal was boxed or canned and included wheat flour. Dinner rolls, cinnamon toast crunch, pop tarts, bologna and cheese sandwiches on "healthy" whole wheat bread. They all contained copious amounts of (what I would come to know this past year) as gluten. Gluten is the binding agent in wheat flour. It's the wonderful reason why bread is so fluffy and soft. It is also, as scientists and the population at large are realizing, a huge problem for a lot of people.

My relationship with gluten, as I mentioned earlier, started a long time ago. As a kid, and well into my teenage/post teen years, I was always kinda chubby. None of my siblings (2 brothers and a sister) were overweight at all. They were fit, athletic and ate whatever they wanted. I was overweight, slower and could gain 10 lbs by looking at a chocolate cake. I also suffered from, what the doctor called, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). To them it was a catch-all for my "bad stomach". To me it meant that, like clockwork, I would be sitting on the toilet within 10 minutes of every meal, praying to God that if he let me live through this particular bowel movement I would never sin again. I struggled with inflammation around my belly, chronic stomach aches and embarrassingly frequent gas. As I got older I began to notice more concerning signs of bowel issues, for which I had to undergo some pretty crappy butt procedures (no pun intended). These still yielded no definitive prognosis, so I was left to assume that I was just one of the defective ones. That guy at the party who would ALWAYS ask to use your bathroom. I say these things in such honest terms to dissuade you from thinking my new gluten free lifestyle (and inevitably someone's you know) is part of some stupid and passing fad. I wrestled with these body issues for a long time, and until I stumbled into eating GF, I thought it would be my lifelong battle to fight alone. 

So how did I decide to stop eating gluten? Well, like all great men who make decisions, my wife told me I should do it. She had been voicing to me for a while how she thought I might have a gluten issue. As I said before, I grew up with a taste (more akin to an addiction) for wheat flour and all its tasty/sugary/fatty partners in crime. The thought of a life without Krispy Kreme donuts, chocolate croissants and even ham sandwiches was too much for me to handle. Every time I had one of my gut-busting episodes, I would get defensive and chalk it up to eating things in the wrong combinations. Soda and anything deep fried. Milk and breakfast pastries. Alcohol and wedding cake. I was rationalizing away the common thread that all these things share. Gluten. It wasn't until my wife was instructed by her wholistic doctor to cut out gluten from her diet that I even seriously considered eating GF. Her doctor recommended it as a possible solution to her thyroid problem, so out of marital solidarity I figured I'd try it for a week. 

I expected so little. Maybe I'd feel a little bit better (mostly about my ability to "sacrifice" something I loved), but surely not good enough to make it a lifestyle! Yet, within 7 days of not eating gluten I felt like a new person. My energy level was higher and lasted all dat without need for a nap. All of the aforementioned stomach issues were non existent. I was INCREDIBLY regular (and as a side note to those guys who think pooping 4 times a day is "regular"...it's not!) It was as if I could feel my body repairing itself after years of tearing it down donut by donut. Mentally and physically I knew that this was a breakthrough for me, yet still I was hesitant to admit that it was a "real" problem. The little devil on my shoulder would whisper, "it's all in your head." So after a week of purging my gut of gluten, I decided it was time for a reintroduction to test whether it was fact or fiction. 

Sitting down in front of a big juicy burger is something that usually sends the serotonin coursing through my veins straight to the part of my brain that feels happiness. Some of that is all of the memories associated with burgers: cookouts, 4th of July, the smell of charcoal fires. But the other part of that is a more scientific one. Gluten, as scientists have discovered, is the one substance most suited for carrying nutrients and toxins directly to the brain. In fact, they are trying to figure out how to use gluten as a transmitter to direct Alzheimer's medicine to the brain more quickly. So as I sat down in front of that burger, basically drooling with anticipation, one of two things would happen. Either I would eat it and feel the wonderful bliss of its nourishment, or I would feel only the pain of not being able to digest the gluten (in the form of both gut pain and brain fog). Sure enough, within minutes of eating the otherwise delicious burger, my body began to tell me that the prior week was not a fluke. My stomach cramped up and I could feel myself losing focus on anything except how bad I felt. I realized that my body really does prefer a diet free of gluten, and that its consequences are not a figment of my imagination (as plenty of people have told me since). 

I love food. My wife and I have traveled all over the place eating and drinking just about everything we could get our hands on. We enjoy good stuff and bad stuff, rich tastes and bland tastes, both popular and exotic. For me, the choice to cut gluten out of my diet was not something that I did flippantly or without plenty of pause. It was only when the overwhelming evidence was presented that I decided my long term health was more important than the short term satisfaction of eating that buttery flaky ticking time bomb. I could go into the long frustrating rant about American food integrity and processing, but nobody wants to hear that. It's too big of an issue to tackle in a dumb blog post. But I will say this. The 2014 baseball season was the best of my life so far. Was it solely because of my change in diet? No, of course not. But did it affect my performance on the field and on a daily basis? Absolutely. It improved my quality of life. It reinforced discipline. It made me more resourceful. Sure, I was called a hippie, a tree hugger and high maintenance. For anyone who doesn't struggle with the issues you do, it's impossible to expect them to exactly understand your struggle...and that's ok. I would just encourage any of you who do struggle with similar things, you only get one life. No one else gets to live your life and no one else reaps the consequences of how you live your life quite like you. If living the way you see fit is hard, embrace that! Know that you're not alone in it. Maybe we don't share the same struggles, but we all struggle. 

Is it easy now, on the other side of gluten? No, hardly. I still have to run past the bakery section at the grocery store and sometimes I have to leave the room when yellow cake with chocolate icing is served. I've had to educate clubhouse managers, hotel concierges and waiters about what I can eat and why. Like I said before, I love food. That won't change. But it gets a little easier each day, each season. The holidays are just around the corner, and I'm sure it will present its fair share of challenges. It always does, and perhaps it always will. But I'm not afraid of it anymore. My gluten allergy is real...and really beatable.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. It is very much like mine. I've been GF for almost 4 years. (Like your wife, I did it for my thyroid issue which unfortunately I caught too late. I had a thyroidectomy 18 mo ago.) I, too, was stunned that I could live a life without emergency runs to a toilet or just going 4-6 times a day. I'm glad it's easier to get GF foods now, but it is at the cost of enduring the eye rolls (figuratively speaking, mostly).

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  2. I have all of these issues. I've been to the doctor so many times and had procedures done to find out what the problem is but the results always come back and they tell me everything is perfect. This is definitely something that I would like to look into, but have no idea what eating gluten free would even look like. Is it significantly more expensive? Does the fod taste as good? At this point, I would sacrifice what I had to in order to feel better.

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  3. I can relate. I just discovered I have a dairy allergy. I changed the diet, lost weight and feel better. Great post. Merry Christmas and happy new year.

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