Life After Gluten

by Liz Caskey on November 9, 2012

Three years ago I said adiós to gluten. At the beginning, it felt like a wake that lasted weeks and months. Good-bye pizza, pasta, sandwiches, pancakes. Don’t even talk about baguette or brioche. The evidence was all too clear. I felt bad, no, make that awful, every time I ate gluten. I was literally sick of having “digestive distress” all the time, to put it nicely, so I decided to do an elimination diet. In that month, my life changed forever. I felt like another (new) person. As soon as I added bread/wheat back into my diet, I got sick again. From there forward I had to make peace with the reality that wheat and my body were not meant to be.

First, to be clear, I am not a celiac. I have a wheat intolerance which includes rye and barley but I can eat oatmeal. Pulling gluten out of my diet in Chile was no small feat. This is a country where the per capita consumption of bread is 220 pounds per year (the second highest in the world after Germany). At that particular time, Chile was starting to have some awareness around food allergies, but it was still in its infancy (this is a country where you can be considered “vegetarian” and eat chicken). Today, gluten/wheat free is more readily found. In fact, my editor from Placeres Magazine asked me to focus my monthly column (this one!) on how gluten free has become a food trend. Gluten free as a food trend? It may be a tendency since in the past it was under-diagnosed, but I can hardly see anybody who doesn’t have to eat gluten free getting into it like the latest culinary craze of Korean tacos. The gluten free “boom” really has manifested because it’s driven by a real illness. I believe that before many people like me simply did not know what caused all their bothersome symptoms or just coexisted with them.

At the beginning, going to dinner parties or even traveling was complex. My dinner hosts didn’t know what to make of me or what to serve. I was rain on their menu. On the other hand, I was perfectly fine eating salad if that’s all that didn’t have wheat. There were times where I ate before going to a dinner or contributed bringing a “safe” dish to the event I knew I could fully enjoy. Wheat, for my body, wasn’t food, it was poison. It had nothing to do about hurting feelings at dinner parties or taste. Would you eat something that made you ill every time you ate it? No, that’s insanity.

With gluten free everywhere now, what really surprises me is that many intolerant people simply substitute wheat with gluten-free goods, but don’t make any concerted effort to improve their diet high in processed food, sugar, and fat. The fact that it’s gluten free does not mean it’s healthy. Processed food is processed food and it still has a bunch of junk in it. I embraced this opportunity to use my creativity as a cook and improve my health. I focused on eating foods as close to their natural state as possible. Abundant, copious amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables along with fish, organic meats, goat cheese. I took the time to read labels carefully. I began to eat lots of alternative grains like millet (great substitute for couscous), buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa. I became the vegetable queen making magic with them in my kitchen. I found a casera at La Vega who to this day fills my pantry with non-traditional flours like raw and toasted quinoa, amaranth, lentil, gram (chickpea), chia, millet, oatmeal, rice, potato, yucca. I began to read blogs like “Gluten Free Girl” to learn the chemistry behind these flours to recreate favorite “lost” recipes and desserts as gluten free.

During this time I felt much better. My gut began to heal. However, something wasn’t totally normally. I still was battling constantly with rosacea on my right cheek that flared up in stress. I had water retention that fluctuated considerably that I felt with my clothing despite my addiction to Bikram yoga, saunas, and working out. Sometimes food would go down okay, other times I would feel bloated, heavy, and literally like a brick was sitting in my stomach-including many recipes made with “gluten free” ingredients. I had insomnia, vivid nightmares with sleep walking, and excessive sweating at night. I had the impression that something I was eating was not doing me good. I did a special test to measure inflammation in the body. My doctor (a neurologist and homeopath), who believes food is medicine, flipped my diet and way of eating again from going beyond gluten free to pulling out specific foods that my system couldn’t digest. My diet became less acidic and more alkaline. That meant that my body could stop using all its energy to stop trying to constantly detoxify itself and start dedicating its resources to healing my skin, eliminating the excess water, sleeping better, and much more. Overnight, my diet became 80% fresh fruits and vegetables and 20% grains (no gluten) and fish twice per week. No cheese, sugar, chocolate, nuts, or red meat. If it sounds awful, I swear it really wasn’t. While it took some gumption the first week, the results have been beyond inspiring.

To date I have lost nearly four kilos of water from my body with no change in exercise and little effort beyond eating differently. My rosacea has disappeared. In fact, my skin glows and I don’t have dark circles under my eyes anymore. I sleep like a baby all night. Most importantly, I feel vital, look radiant, and my appearance is better than in my 20’s. Basically, I have slowed down aging. All because of my diet. A miracle? Not really. Beyond going wheat/gluten free, it was a process of understanding on a very profound area that we truly are what we eat.

Adapted from Spanish version published in November issue of Placeres Magazine.

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