“Well, it looks like the test came back positive”
These are words that no one wants to hear from a doctor. A positive test result is rarely anything but a positive thing in the medical world. And my hopes for health sank as my doctor informed that that I tested positive, officially diagnosed with celiac disease, meaning that I would have to adhere to a gluten-free diet for the rest of my life.
Taking in the totality of that statement was difficult to say the least.
To give some background to my problems, I had been experienceing gastro issues for better part of a year. Last summer, I began to have some noticeable pain in my gut off and on. It was not severe pain, but enough of a concern that I knew I had something wrong with me.
Like most people, I chose to ignore my problems. Not the smartest idea, but hey, ignorance is bliss sometimes! Plus, I don’t necessary love spending time with doctors, so I put off making an appointment. By the end of the summer though, things got significantly worse and began affecting my day-to-day life. It was time to see someone, and fast.
I initially had some blood work done that indicated that I may have a issue with gluten. I began a gluten-free diet and stayed on it for about six months, though never being too strict about it. At the beginning of this year, things took a turn for the worse again, so I sought more medical advice.
After many consultations and many unfortunate procedures (including one on my birthday!) I had a sit down with my doctor at the end of May. I managed to squeeze in the appointment just before our departure to Los Angeles to begin our Great American Road Trip. When he gave me the news that I was officially diagnosed with celiac, I paused and then said a series of things like “wow”, “okay” and “wasn’t expecting that” repeatedly for a few minutes before I was able speak a complete sentence.
We were leaving to begin a 3 week road trip in less than 12 hours, ready to eat our way across the country. Now, my diet was going to make many of those foods off limits.
After landing in Los Angeles and beginning our first driving segment up to our friend’s ranch north of Santa Barbara, we made our usual stop at In-N-Out, the finest fast food establishment on the planet, due both to its quality food and corporate ethics. I placed my normal order, the double-double Animal style with well done fries. It was my last gluten laden meal. It was delicious and I didn’t want it to end.
I managed to make it all the way across the country without too many problems. I had a couple of slip ups, like the first full day on the diet when I grabbed a beer from our friend Elizabeth’s fridge and popped it open without thinking. She walked in and saw me drinking the beer.
“Doesn’t beer have gluten?” Shit. My bad.
One of the (few) positive consequences of my limited diet is that abstaining from gluten eliminates a lot of processed junk, especially fast food. The handful of times we stopped at McDonalds or Burger King on our trip out of necessity, I was relegated to the salad section of the menu, as long as the salad did not come with croutons or have any dressing containing soy sauce. It was certainly the healthy option!
Now that we are back in London, cooking at home and staying gluten-free is simple. I am diligent with label reading and I know all the ingredients I am putting into my dinner. Eating out is a little more problematic, mostly due to my own personal issues with alerting servers of my allergy. I still find the process slightly embarrassing. But ultimately, I need to do it.
One disturbing observation from my diet is that when we do go out and notify a server about my gluten allergy but someone else delivers the food, almost 100% of the time the food runner drops my food in front of Julie. They assume that the gluten “allergy” is probably just a diet, so it must be the woman’s meal. I find that disconcerting.
Thankfully, the items available in the gluten-free section of grocery stores have grown in quantity and quality. I am still able to eat bread and pasta, just in their gluten-free versions, which are still tasty. Many restaurants have gluten-free menus or can alter dishes to comply with the allergy. Certain ethnic food are almost entirely gluten-free, like Mexican and Vietnamese, which are among my favorites.
I am a foodie in the truest sense of the word. I spend an insane amount of time reading recipes, cooking, researching new restaurants and following trends in the industry. I always choose the restaurant when we’re going out with friends because it’s a special gift I have. Food is a central part of my day-to-day life. Luckily, I have learned to adjust to the new diet and enjoy the things that I can still eat.
It brings up new personal projects too, like developing gluten-free bread recipes, mastering homemade gluten-free pasta and working with alternative flours like tapioca, coconut and quinoa. I can still eat barbecue (which I did a lot across the US), devour tasty steaks from our favorite local butcher and eat sushi (thanks to tamari, gluten-free soy sauce).
I am lucky in that things could have been worse. It could have been a more serious medical condition. At the end of the day, celiac disease was probably the best case scenario for me. Yes, it affects what foods I can eat, but it does not require surgery or medication. I can lead a normal life and have the benefit of eating less processed food and the minor weight loss that is common with cutting out gluten.
I do miss beer, but I can still relax on our coach and crack a bottle of cider. Life is still good.
Details About Celiac Disease
For those who are unaware, celiac disease essentially means that you have an allergy to gluten. It is not an intolerance or a preference, it means that you cannot have any gluten of any kind. That means no wheat, rye or barley, which seems simple enough, but the sheer number of items that contain those ingredients is staggering.
Beer, bread, crackers, pasta and soy sauce are the obvious products. But gluten gets placed in a lot of processed items that you would not think contain wheat, rye or barley.
Plain potato chips are normally fine, but many mass market flavored chips have wheat flour in the spice mix. Most stock cubes contain barley extract, as do some commercial barbecue sauces. Mustard, mayonnaise and commercially made sausages can contain wheat flour as a thickener. Same applies to low fat dairy products, like cream cheese and artificial cream. Even items like licorice and some vitamins have gluten.
The main health concern with celiac disease is that your body cannot absorb essential nourishment, like vitamin D, calcium and iron. That can lead to severe weight loss, tiredness, anaemia and repeated minor illnesses. Long term, you can have bone damage from the lack of calcium. The positive aspect is that by eating a strict gluten-free diet, you can avoid this symptoms and your body can receive all of the proper nourishment. If you think you may suffer from Celiac, please consult your doctor for further testing.
Do you, or someone you know, have celiac disease? Share you thoughts/comments below about a gluten-free lifestyle