There’s a Land That I See, that is All Gluten-Free

I never wanted to be gluten free. I like bread. I like variations of bread, like pasta. I like the, what do you call it, the toothiness of gluten. That chewiness.

I’ve had digestive problems for years. When I was little my stomach would always hurt in the morning. I have a blood sugar problem, where if I got hungry I would have to eat immediately or feel nauseous and faint; if I ate something sugary or a simple carb, I’d crash hard and fast.

A few weeks ago, I had pad thai, and my stomach bloated up enormously. I mean like three inches. I didn’t even have the whole serving. This had happened before, but this time it hurt like hell.

Actually, my stomach ALWAYS hurt after I ate. Sometimes it hurt a little, sometimes a lot. I attributed it to my acid reflux and blamed acidic food. But then it hurt even when I ate bland foods. Even when I ate small amounts of food.

I went to see my new doctor for a physical work-up and she was pressing all over my abdomen, and it hurt. She ordered an abdominal ultrasound and we talked. I told her about acid reflux and I told her about how my stomach hurt after eating that pasta. She told me I might have celiac disease or at least a wheat intolerance, and told me to stop eating gluten for two weeks to see if my symptoms improved. She gave me a stapled handout about which foods I can eat. She said the celiac blood test is often a false negative and the only way to really tell if you have true celiac is with an endoscopy.

I discovered that gluten is hidden in a lot of foods. It could be a thickener, as in wheat flour added to gravy. It’s in regular soy sauce (though I’m not sure if people who first made soy sauce included it!). Maltodextrin made in the US usually is made from corn; if it’s made in Europe it’s usually made of wheat.

Friends with celiac told me it’s important to get the endoscopy, to determine if you have celiac vs a wheat intolerance. Celiac’s more serious and you need to take a lot of precautions. If you have celiac disease, the lining of your small intestine is actually damaged when even a small piece of gluten comes into contact with it. Therefore you have to avoid all gluten, or you likely will get cancer of the small intestine, from the constant irritation. A friend with celiac even told me that you cannot use the same pots and pans if you’ve ever cooked a food containing gluten, so important is the concept of cross-contamination. You can be diagnosed with celiac when you’re young, or older. Some people are asymptomatic and some become extremely ill when they eat gluten.

If you’re gluten free, you can’t even wear make-up containing gluten. If you have a partner with this sensitivity, you cannot wear this type of make-up because gluten can pass through the skin. The Ellen Show had a segment making fun of a gluten-free dating website, but it makes sense—if you’re both gluten free, the girl will automatically wear the gluten free products. And it’ll make cooking easier.

I went to Trader Joe’s and bought some gluten-free bread (hard as a rock, found better brands since then) and snacks. I eliminated it from our dinners. We have corn pasta instead of regular and it’s not much more expensive, and it tastes pretty good. We have a meat, a veggie, and a grain or starch like brown rice. We have quinoa and lentils and beans more.

We’ve been out to eat a few times, but the places we chose have gluten-free options or options that could be made gluten-free(though there’s a risk of cross-contamination). For example, my son wanted pizza for his birthday, and a local place does personal-size gluten free pizzas. They are thin like tortillas but they are not bad. I bought a slice of flourless chocolate cake to have instead of his birthday cake. PF Chang’s has a big gluten-free menu and they ask if they need to be really strict with your food prep, meaning no cross contamination. You can also tell In N Out you have a wheat allergy and they will prepare your food separately and give you the lettuce wrap instead of the bun. However, this requires a certain amount of faith, which may sometimes be misplaced.

In the first few days after I stopped eating gluten, my body seemed to let go of a lot of water retention. It was right before my period, but I wasn’t bloated. In fact, I lost about two and a half inches from around my waist. My rings became looser. My face was less puffy. It was so dramatic and crazy.

I also stopped having acid reflux and stomach problems—I stopped taking the prescription I’d been given for it (which is good because it can apparently lead to bone loss if taken for a long time) and though I continued to drink coffee, I had no issues. I could also eat foods I’d been avoiding for a long time, like red bell peppers.

After two weeks, I felt a lot better. I used to wake up aching every morning and have had ulnar nerve problems for years, yet nerve testing only revealed minor blockage. Some fingers tingled and my hand would go numb after typing and when I woke up. I haven’t had those symptoms for two weeks now. Even my husband has noticed that I stopped bitching about my aches.

I didn’t hit the gym for three weeks after I began gluten-free—I was walking the dog for exercise—and when I lifted, I was afraid I’d gotten weaker. It was the opposite. I had to increase all my upper body weights. It was very strange and kind of cool.

When I accidentally had something with wheat in it, my stomach bloated up again and I felt sick, so I checked the ingredients and found the culprit. Damn chocolate covered marshmallow.
I also noticed that dairy wasn’t agreeing with me too much. Even Greek yogurt set me off. Not a big surprise—both my parents had/have lactose intolerance. I switched to a lactose-free milk and determined that I was eating too much dairy anyway, and if I have smaller amounts I can have a piece of cheese or yogurt.

The strangest thing about this whole experience is not my weight loss (like 8 pounds or so, without exercise modification), it is how little I crave wheat and sugar now. I tried not to eat a lot of sweets, a lot of bread and cookies, but I always WANTED to, the way a cigarette smoker wants a cigarette. And if I started eating something bad for me, it was really really hard to stop. I guess it’s easier when you look at a food and think, “That is poison, no thanks.” And I tried gluten free cookies and things like that—they pretty much suck compared to the real thing. Disappointing. Instead, I’ll have plain chocolate if I want chocolate. Or maybe my body had some blood sugar thing going on that contributed to it and now that I don’t have the culprit in my system, the cravings have stopped.

The only time I felt like I was missing out was when we went to Ikea. Cadillac got meatballs and I had to get veggie soup, which tasted like their pasta sauce with water added and all their leftover random veggies thrown in. I watched him eat the meatballs and I really really wanted one, but then I told myself how virtuous I was being by sticking to my soup, and I remembered the last time I ate the meatballs, my stomach hurt afterward anyway.

And then I understood why some people get so sanctimonious about their diets—I think they feel deprived and the only way they cannot feel deprived is to feel like they are above everyone else.
Another thing I noticed is the backlash against gluten free. Some people don’t believe it’s a real thing and think it’s another crazy diet fad. I guess some people wrongly use it to try to cure various diseases that won’t be cured, or to lose weight.

My guess is if you cut out bread, you may lose weight, just because most people eat too much bread. I still eat the same amount of bread, just the gluten-free brown rice flour kind: I eat toast at breakfast and I have a sandwich at lunch, and that is how much I ate before.

If gluten free makes people stick to clean eating, to basic proteins and leafy green veggies and fruits, it is probably a good thing. If gluten free makes people buy other processed gluten-free expensive foods (like chewy granola bars—the ones I had were hard as rocks) then yeah, it’s a marketing opportunity.

For the people I personally know who are gluten free, the illness is a real thing. It’s not particularly fun to have to restrict yourself so much and read every ingredient list. It’s not fun to grill your server on what’s on everything and how it’s cooked. It’s not fun to avoid most foods at a party. But, nor is it fun to feel sick to your stomach all the time and have diarrhea and damage your intestines.

If you can eliminate these troublesome stomach symptoms by going gluten free, why the hell would you start eating it again? Have some empathy.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

4 thoughts on “There’s a Land That I See, that is All Gluten-Free

  1. I stumbled across gluten free way of eating by trying (“trying”) to stay low carb. It is amazing how many times I found hidden wheat! I was all happy buying premade tuna salad at Von’s when I was in a hurry….. Looked at the ingredients and holy crap they put wheat in their tuna salad!!! And how did a chocolate covered marshmallow have gluten! Crazy! I have heard many stories of how the wheat these days is so far removed from the wheat of hundreds of years ago…. So many modifications! I look forward to hearing how tis goes for you! I am doing the typical thing now and am eating badly (and have stomach aches and my pants are too tight after eating a sandwhich for lunch) but will be strict as of January first! Cop out… I know!

Thoughts? Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: