By Dr. Deanna Attai
About three and a half years ago, I was advise, as a part of my medical treatment, to go on a gluten-free diet. This was after approximately 8 months of a mystery illness and 6 separate medical consultations. I never had any of the typical intestinal symptoms seen in a patient with celiac disease, and I even underwent an intestinal biopsy which was normal. However, I was suffering from an inflammatory condition and new test results suggested a susceptibility to gluten.
Prior to this time, my diet had been fairly healthy, or so I thought. I didn’t cook but did not eat out regularly. Breakfast was whole-grain cereal with fruit, I had healthy snacks ( fruit and nuts), and dinner was vegetable patties or “chicken” patties (made from soy products) and frozen vegetables, or maybe just some vegetables and rice. Low fat, low sodium, moderate fiber intake – I thought I was doing pretty well. Oh, and the occasional slice of pizza or a brownie. But I was busy, didn’t have the time or inclination to cook for just myself, and this worked for me.
I attempted to eliminate gluten from my diet even before the official recommendation. During the prior 8 months, I had undergone a battery of food allergy testing and wheat had come up as a possible allergen. I researched and tried to stay away from pasta, bread, and my beloved whole-grain cereal, but never stuck to it for long.
I received my new test results, and everything changed. I had to eliminate all sources of wheat, barley, and rye from my diet, I came home that night (it was a Friday – I remember it very clearly!), put all my pasta, bread, cereal and instant oatmeal in a bag to bring to the office for co workers on Monday, and started really researching.
Over that weekend I read “Living Gluten-Free for Dummies”, “Gluten-Free Girl”, and several other books (I got a little obsessed!). I spent hours online reading everything I could about a gluten-free diet and the links between gluten and inflammatory conditions and autoimmune disease. I cleaned out my cabinets of soy sauce, salad dressings, canned soups and any other item whose ingredients were suspect.
I went grocery shopping armed with a list of additives that I was to avoid, and found that most prepared foods had gluten in some form. I did purchase some gluten-free prepared items, including frozen dinners, a bread, and some cookies, trying to find substitutes for my gluten-containing staples.
I also purchased a lot of fresh vegetables, a large bag of brown rice, and quinoa – something that I read about but had never tried. I bought gluten-free oats – the first time I had ever purchased non-instant oats – even though I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them. Cooking – of any sort – was still a foreign concept for me.
I found the prepared foods lacking in taste and not at all fulfilling, so in the trash they went. Instead of dwelling on the long list of foods that I couldn’t eat (bread, cookies, pizza, pasta, my beloved brownies…) I told myself it was only 3 ingredients that I had to avoid– wheat, barley and rye. I then focused on what I could eat – unlimited fruit, vegetables, rice, quinoa, gluten-free oats, fish, chicken, meat, eggs – in other words – a ton of stuff, and real food at that! I just had to figure out how to prepare it.
I purchased and browsed through some gluten-free cookbooks but I did not find them to be very helpful – they were full of recipes on how to make traditional meals appealing without gluten – but these were not meals that I would eat anyway (tuna casserole, anyone?). So I bought a few “seasonal” cookbooks – after all, living in Southern California, I am fortunate to have access to a wide variety of fresh produce year-round. I read Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food.” And, I started shopping at my local farmer’s market.
I learned how to cook a piece of fish and how to roast a chicken. I bought a bunch of single-serving freezer containers and started preparing meals on the weekends so I would not have to cook after a busy day at work.
After I started eating more seasonally and incorporating more real foods into my diet, my taste for the packaged foods diminished. It was not easy, and it didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. I do occasionally miss pizza, but have yet to come across a gluten-free variety that appeals to me. I also still remember just how sick I was, and not wanting to go back to that place is a great motivator for those times when pizza does call my name. I have also learned to make a killer molten chocolate cake which is better than anything that comes in a box (and even rivals many restaurant desserts!)
If I had been told five years ago that the changes I was starting to make would feed upon themselves until I became a gluten-free, organic, semi-vegetarian, whole food champion who cooks all her meals and is actually growing some of her own food, I would not have believed it. My family and friends still do not believe some of the changes. But it is true, and I am healthier and happier. I would not necessarily recommend a gluten-free diet for those just looking for quick weight loss, or for some other reason. But for those who have celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or just feel better when gluten is not part of their diet, I can tell you from personal experience that it is possible to convert to a gluten-free diet. Just be careful – you may find yourself growing your own kale and broccoli too!