Towards the end of 2015, I started to notice that something was wrong with my body. I always felt like I was “coming down with something,” but after six months of feeling this way, it was time to do something about it.
I went to my doctor, who ordered a slew of tests. All of them came back negative, including the gluten allergy test. But I still was convinced it was something that I was eating. I knew something was wrong with my gut, and it was frequently snowballing into a lot of digestive problems. I also had feelings of extreme fatigue and mental fogginess, but I wasn’t sure if this was related.
I tried paying attention to the days that my symptoms were worse. Anytime I ate gluten, it didn’t seem to make my symptoms any worse, and on the days I didn’t eat gluten my symptoms didn’t get any better. Same with dairy.
My science experiment
In the midst of this, one of my favorite podcasts featured the founders of the Whole30 program. They talked about the importance of detoxing for 30 days and then slowly reintroducing each food category to see if your body reacts.
For those of you not familiar with the Whole30 program, here it is in a nutshell:
Protein, tons of veggies (fruit okay too!), and healthy fats.
That’s pretty much it.
No sugar, gluten, grains, legumes, rice, corn, soy, dairy, or alcohol. No re-creating off-limits food with approved food (i.e.: no “cookies” made with bananas and coconut flour).
After 30 days, you re-introduce each group (except for sugar!) for one day, then allow your body to “reset” for another two days before another re-introduction. So it’s actually about a six-week commitment.
My first thought was, “There is NO way I can cut out dairy and wine for 30 days.”
But I was desperate. I decided to try it.
I figured if I viewed this as a science experiment—I’m trying to learn what foods my body doesn’t like—then it shouldn’t be too hard. I was already avoiding sugar and most simple carbohydrates. The focus wasn’t on losing weight. And to be honest, I always have known that if I wanted to drop 5 pounds I just needed to give up wine.
What I learned
As I progressed through the Whole30 program, I felt better and better.
In fact, I felt really good…until the day I tried reintroducing gluten. My symptoms came back within an hour and by the end of the day, I wished I hadn’t eaten any gluten. My digestive system hated me again. I was miserable for the next two days.
Peanut butter was also a no-go. My previous standard breakfast of sprouted grain bread and peanut butter was the worst possible thing I could have been eating to start my day.
So how did my allergy tests come back negative, when my body had such a strong reaction to gluten?
I now realize that there is a difference between a food allergy and food sensitivity. My digestive system doesn’t do well with gluten. But the good news is that it does REALLY well with protein, veggies and healthy fats. And (bonus!) it’s the easiest weight maintenance I’ve ever done.
The most ironic outcome of this journey is that I still eat mostly Whole30. I couldn’t wait to eat the “off limit” foods, but as soon as I had the choice, I decided that the only thing I missed was wine, a bit of dark chocolate, and a few cups of coffee a week with cream in it.
My digestive system is working better than it ever has.
I have established a new, healthy “normal” for myself.
That flu-like aches and the mental fog were gone. No more gassiness, stomach cramps in the evening, or constipation. Menstrual cramps that used to require tons of Advil now only need maybe one or two Advil over several days.
My advice if you are considering a similar experiment
First, make sure that you visit your doctor (like I did) to eliminate other possibilities. You could have a gastrointestinal disorder that has similar symptoms, so self-diagnosing can be dangerous.
After speaking with your doctor, you may want to try an elimination diet for a specified period. I found the rigidity of the Whole30 program a bit overwhelming at times. Food fatigue (or, as I coined, “frittata fatigue”) can be a real problem. As a rookie, it’s hard to find creative ways to prepare meat and veggies. And I wanted my treats!
Here are a few tips to help you survive if you are going to try an elimination diet:
- Pinterest is your best friend: get inspired by recipes that other people have pinned! I promise you will avoid food boredom when you see what other people are doing with Whole30 (or check out Paleo) recipes
- You will get tired of eggs for breakfast. Try a breakfast casserole or a grain-free breakfast cereal
- Frozen raspberries and coconut milk, heated up a tiny bit in the microwave, is an awesome substitute for dessert. Also, use loose leaf, unsweetened chai tea mixes with coconut milk and hot water for the most delicious evening drink.
- Bring food with you everywhere you go. When I visited my sister, I would pack my own lunch. I brought apple slices and nuts in a Ziploc bag to a family birthday party, so I could have something to eat while everyone else had cake (don’t be that person who sits there forlornly, staring at everyone else eating dessert). Bring a Larabar with you in case you’re not home in time for dinner.
Adopting the Gluten-free lifestyle
It’s important to distinguish that having a gluten sensitivity is not the same as being a celiac or allergic to wheat. Most restaurants offer “gluten smart” dishes, but can’t guarantee that it hasn’t come in contact with gluten. That’s likely fine for you.
Also, if there’s a tiny bit of gluten in a condiment…you’re probably okay.
I’ve figured out a few things this year that has made my new diet a lot easier:
- Always plan ahead: if you’re visiting a friend, bring at least a snack with you. People get stressed out if they don’t have anything “gluten free” to offer you. If you are meeting up with friends at a restaurant, check out the menu ahead of time to decide what substitutions you may want to make. That way you don’t have to worry about it when you are visiting with your buddies.
- At the start of the week, stock up on meat and veggies. Pay attention to the expiry date on the meat and stick it in the freezer if you’re not going to consume it before the expiry date. Consider a grocery delivery service such as SPUD.ca and make use of local farmers’ markets
- Don’t introduce “gluten-free” bread, pasta, pizza, etc. as a regular part of your diet. These foods make it way harder to maintain your weight. Wouldn’t you rather occasionally indulge in a gluten-free cookie? The beauty of avoiding gluten is that you are getting rid of a ton of empty calories in your life.
- Distinguish when you want to splurge at a restaurant. My major indulgence when we go out is to grab a gluten-free flatbread pizza at a local Neapolitan pizza place. Or, you can order that hamburger, but have it without the bun and with extra salad—and go for those fries! French fries are so much more exciting than a hamburger bun, right?
- Pinterest is still your best friend: I regularly add to my recipe boards so that I can add variety to my meal plans. I adapt Paleo recipes all the time. I even discovered a brownie made with zucchini and almond butter that is to die for (and my husband loves it!)
- Keep bread (or other gluten items) in the freezer for your spouse. They can still have a piece of bread with dinner, even if you can’t…but at least it’s out of sight in the freezer.
- When you leave the house, bring a gluten-free energy bar with you. There are not a lot of healthy gluten-free options if you get hungry when you are on the go.
If you think that something you are eating might be upsetting your body, it’s worth investigating. When you body is functioning at it’s best, it’s amazing the impact this can have on your overall sense of wellbeing.
The most surprising thing for me was that I didn’t realize that what I thought was “normal” for my body wasn’t actually normal. I was capable of feeling so much better than how I was feeling.
My mindset is now “I don’t want that food,” versus, “I can’t have it.”
I don’t want that food because it’s going to make me feel horrible and I’ve gotten used to feeling pretty darn good. I’ve only had gluten twice since my experiment, and I got a really bad stomach ache both times. Wasn’t worth it.
I would have never realized how unhappy my body was if it wasn’t for the process of isolating several variables.
You won’t know for sure until you try, and I hope that if you have been considering going gluten-free to see how your body responds…it now feels a little less scary.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Please make sure that you speak with your doctor before you start any food experiments.