This isn’t meant to engender pity, just to provide a little education about Celiac Disease and gluten free living.
Halloween marked the one year anniversary of my being gluten-free, and I feel like celebrating. The past year has been a time of learning for me– learning what foods are safe for me and my girls to eat, learning new ways to prepare meals, learning what to order at fast food restaurants, and the hardest of all– learning to say no when a plate full of pumpkin cookies is sitting on my counter, brought by a thoughtful neighbor.
People ask me all the time “Isn’t it hard?”
Short answer: Yes, yes it is.
Long answer: It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
One year ago I was recovering from the birth of my fourth baby. I was sick to my stomach all the time, but blamed it on the easy processed food meals I had stocked up on, knowing I wouldn’t feel like cooking with a newborn. I had uncontrollable diarrhea, horrendous gas, and stomach cramps that made me lie down on the floor and cry. And yet, I was trying to live my normal life taking care of my family and church responsibilities.
I remember one night being over at the church setting up for a big activity and having to leave my fellow leaders for a few minutes while I went into the restroom and puked my guts out. Or another time when I stayed home from church with the baby and while he napped I curled up on my bed, sobbing because I was fairly sure I was dying. Maybe this is TMI, but I feel like you need to know how bad it was so you can understand where I’m coming from.
So, finally I went to the doctor and he ran some tests. A simple blood test, and then a nasty test where you catch your fecal matter in a cup and take it in to the hospital lab. He called me back within a few days for results and confirmed that I had Celiac Disease, which meant that I could no longer eat gluten. He referred me to a specialist, but by the time they could get me in I had already inundated myself with information from the internet.
Essentially Celiac is an auto-immune disorder. Your intestines are lined with villi that aid in the absorption of nutrients from food. But when a person with Celiac eats gluten, it damages those villi so they are not able to absorb the nutrients and the person becomes malnourished. They also become incredibly sick every time they eat anything that contains gluten.
This explained so much of what had been happening with my body over the past seven years. I was severely anemic, and no amount of iron supplements or IV therapy was raising my hemoglobin levels. I was moody, fatigued, and had no energy to play with my kids. My pre-pregnancy weight was the same as what I weighed when I started junior high. I had unexplained bruises and a mysterious rash.
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I will be honest with you, although it was nice to have an answer to my health problems, I was depressed about my future. No more donuts? Pizza? Pie at Thanksgiving or hamburgers on the 4th of July? I was afraid to eat anything and thus ate nothing more than rice and baked potatoes for about two weeks. I also felt like I was living in a fog, where the world around me just didn’t make a lot of sense and I had to think really hard about how to do basic things. I now think this was part gluten induced and part depression induced. It really felt like a part of me had died and I mourned for it.
But you can’t live like that forever.
So I went to some gluten-free cooking classes, got a couple new recipe books, scoured blogland, and became good friends with the health food store. And, slowly, I began to recover. I figured out that most Mexican food doesn’t have gluten, so we ate a lot of that at first. I learned how to make my own cream of chicken soup which helped me to convert a lot of our family’s favorite recipes. I even began making my own bread (gasp!)
The deal was sealed when my two oldest girls were also diagnosed with Celiac. As a mother and as a practical person, I realized that I could not cook separate meals for those in our family who could eat gluten…. and so we became a gluten free house. Now any time I make lasagna, muffins, pancakes, etc. I do it gluten free and everyone eats it. And we’re none the worse for it.
In fact, we’re healthier than ever.
Personally, I feel more energetic and can do things like do the dishes AND chase my kids around in the backyard in the same day. My body is stronger and I enjoy exercise because it doesn’t completely drain me like it did before. I don’t get stomachaches or nauseous. After I had been gluten free for a few months I went to a family party and one of my cousins summed it up best when she said, “You don’t look like you’re dead anymore!”
This is not to say that I would choose this lifestyle. It’s expensive and time consuming. For example, to purchase a loaf of gluten free bread costs $5.79, and of course making it myself costs less but takes several hours between mixing, rising, baking, and washing dishes. It’s also isolating. I am the one at the party who can only eat the no-bake cookies, or the one at the restaurant that is constantly ordering salad. And it’s frustrating, especially for my girls, who get invited to birthday parties where they can’t have any cake (unless I remember to make them a special cupcake to take with them, but then we’re getting back into the time-consuming argument), and who are languishing because there are only 3 choices of gluten free breakfast cereal.
I am grateful that society is more aware of Celiac and companies do a better job labeling their food as gluten free, but I still worry about what it will be like for my girls growing up. Will they be able to go to girls’ camp? What about when they go to college? Will food become their enemy and they’ll end up with some kind of eating disorder?
No one can say. What I know is that for now, we are healthier– and happier– living gluten free.