It began with a pain in my left side. It felt as though something the size of a lemon was lodged in my intestine. The doctor thought it might have been diverticulitis and put me on antibiotics and told me to lay off fiber for a few days.
After doing some research, the diagnosis made little sense. It generally hits people who eat little fiber to begin with. I had spent the previous almost decade eating a high-fiber vegetarian diet. But still, I followed doctor’s orders – and I got worse.
One day, not long after my doctor’s visit, I ate a piece of toast. The pain almost immediately got worse. A light went off, but one piece of toast was not even a Jr. High scientific experiment. I laid off wheat for a few days and picked it back up again. Bingo, same pain. While I knew my self-experiment would never make a medical journal, I was satisfied. So was my doctor after I relayed my results over the phone. She never even suggested I come in for a formal diagnosis and for that I’m glad.
During the last few years, requests for gluten-free options have grown and so have the number of skeptics surrounding the new “diet craze.” I’ll admit that gluten-free has been touted as a health and weight loss miracle and if one of those dieters would ask me, I would tell them that there are much easier ways to lose weight.
Gluten-free as a trend has proven to be a double-edged sword. If I discovered my gluten intolerance years ago, before there were so many gluten-free options on the shelves, I might still be 40 lbs. thinner. Something strange happened to my brain when I quit eating gluten. If I saw gluten-free on a label, I saw it as health food. Pre-gluten-free, I might have eaten a cupcake, but only if it was offset by eating lightly and exercising. Post-gluten-free, I would eat two or more.
It turns out I’m not alone. Real scientists have conducted peer reviewed experiments which revealed that people who see “healthy” on a label eat more.
While there are a lot of healthy options on grocery store shelves, there aren’t so many in restaurants. In fact, eating out can be a bit tricky for someone eating gluten-free, especially if they don’t eat meat.
For some, people who eat gluten-free have become a laughing stock. This Saturday Night Live sketch illustrates that well.
Unfortunately, some in restaurants share the opinions of Saturday Night Live’s writers. The needs of gluten-free people are really not treated with all that much respect. For many, less than a crumb can send a person to the hospital. I’m lucky. I can apparently tolerate minute amounts of contamination, but a few crumbs will still cause me discomfort that lasts for days.
Most restaurant employees are well-intentioned but ill-informed. Most think it’s okay to simply remove a piece of toast once it’s been errantly placed on a diner’s plate. Many have no idea that using the same cutting board or grill for both gluten-filled and gluten-free foods is dangerous.
The problem – along with the fact that it’s now trendy – is that gluten reactions tend to be less obvious than most allergic reactions. While a person who is allergic to peanuts or strawberries might go into immediate anyphylactic shock, a gluten reaction might be less immediate and will probably affect unseen parts of the body. As a result, it’s difficult to get people to take you seriously. Gluten-intolerance is considered just another form of hypochondria.
It’s estimated that less than 1% of people have celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease that causes intestinal damage. That statistic is often cited by skeptics. The conclusion, I suppose, is that because so few people are affected, why bother taking it seriously? Close to the same percentage of Americans are in wheelchairs. I wonder if they would be so blatantly dismissive of them.
However, it is estimated that a much larger percentage of Americans have gluten sensitivities. Some put those statistics upward at about 7% of the population. I’ve seen as much as 10%. To put it in restaurant perspective – out of every three tables of four, there will likely be one person who is gluten intolerant.
Fortunately, science does seem to be ahead of many in the general public. Gluten intolerances are real and they are on the rise. Some blame the fact that our environment is too clean and our immune systems are essentially bored. Some blame the fact that wheat is not the same crop as it was 100 years ago. It has a higher gluten content now. It is generally genetically modified.
Many ask why I haven’t tested for gluten sensitivities. The fact is, that unless I have celiac disease, there really is no reliable medical test – and even with celiac, the test isn’t that reliable. Besides, I have to eat gluten for a few weeks before they can test me. I simply don’t want to go through that.
And what would I do if the test came back negative? Eat gluten – knowing that it makes me feel like dog doo doo?
I’ve learned some hard lessons in the last three years. I began my journey with a breakdown in the middle of a local supermarket, when I realized that after a long day’s work, I couldn’t find something as simple as a can of soup or a frozen dinner that would accommodate my dietary needs. I cook a lot more than I used to. I tend to frequent the same restaurants. I’ve also learned that I need to avoid processed foods like the plague (a recommendation I would give pretty much anyone).
My weight gain is beginning to come off, but not without a lot of diligence on my part. I need to be prepared for every single outing and social gathering. I still haven’t discounted the idea that I have celiac. It’s genetic and my brother seems to be having some of the same issues I was, although he still eats gluten. Maybe one day, if testing improves, I’ll get tested.
|Wendy Gittleson grew up in a political family. Her passion is for social justice and fairness. She lives in a union household. In her rare downtime, you’ll find her hiking or exploring the shoreline with her dogs. Follow her on her Facebook page, on her Facebook blog page or on Twitter, @wendygittleson|