The Ups & Downs of Going Gluten-Free
Three years ago I was a 20 something-year-old eating whatever she wanted. Now I’m eating healthier than I have in my entire life.
If you would’ve told my parents 20 years ago that I’d grow up eating healthier than them, they would have never believed you. Throughout my childhood, I was a sweet eater through and through. I loved anything chocolate, had dessert every single night, and avoided fruits and vegetables at all costs.
If it wasn’t for competitive cheerleading I probably would’ve ended up obese. I seriously consumed so much sugar, and I know most kids do, but I think I took that to the next level. I’ll never forget the time I went to the dentist and had eight or nine cavities. Those were a joy to get filled. If I remember correctly they split the fillings up over two appointments because they couldn’t do them all at once. It seems brushing your teeth day and night only does so much.
After that, I never had a peanut butter and fluff sandwich ever again! My dad swore marshmallow fluff was the reason for all those cavities. But the lack of fluff just led 10-year-old me to experiment with some other sweet components to add to my plain peanut butter sandwiches (I don’t like jelly). And so the peanut butter and rainbow sprinkles sandwich was born. Sprinkles? On a sandwich? Don’t knock until you try it, it’s delicious!
One of the famous stories that still gets told during every family gathering or holiday is about what a piece of work I was. Once a month I used to stay over at my aunt and uncle’s house. Now that I’m grown, I know it was just a way for my parents to get me out of their hair for a night. To me, it was such a treat!
My aunt and uncle would pick me up at 11 am on a Saturday and take me to an arcade about 20 minutes away. After playing all afternoon we’d go back to their house and start cooking dinner. My uncle is 100% Italian and grew up helping his mother make homemade pasta.
Once I was old enough, he started to teach me, so every time I slept over we’d make homemade linguine and put together a shrimp scampi with it. To this day, it’s the best scampi I’ve ever had! Unfortunately, I can no longer eat the homemade pasta since it’s definitely not gluten-free.
My aunt and uncle’s house was a few minutes from a Dunkin Donuts and boy did I love donuts. Sunday morning, that would be my treat. I was never a late sleeper, so 5 AM would roll around and I’d be wide awake, ready for a donut. I’d get up, tiptoe into the master bedroom and tap my uncle on the shoulder until he woke up.
“Uncle Louie, I want a donut” “Okay, Kate. It’s still early, they’re not open yet. Go back to sleep for a little bit.” “But Uncle Louie, I want a donut now.”
By then, my aunt would be awake and she’d be trying to convince me to go back to sleep too. Those were wasted attempts. When it came to sweets, there was no making me wait. My uncle would get up and get dressed, with strict orders from my aunt: Only get her one donut, my sister will kill me if I bring her home on a sugar high.
We’d walk up to the counter and Uncle Louie would look at me and say, “Go ahead and order your donut.” So naturally, I’d order two.
“I want a chocolate frosted donut with sprinkles and a coffee roll.” “No Kate, Aunt Kathy said you can only get one donut.” “But I want two.” “You’re going to get me in trouble.” “I don’t care!”
Real sweet kid wasn’t I? I always ended up getting my way though. I’d end up perched at the breakfast bar, my head barely reaching the counter, taking one bite of the coffee roll, then one bite of the chocolate donut.
Another time at a 40th birthday bash, I snuck into the kitchen, saw the big cake, and asked one of the workers for a piece. Needless to say, my mother was absolutely mortified when she saw her eight-year-old sitting at a table eating cake when dinner hadn’t even been served yet. Luckily, it become the highlight of the party and everyone got a good laugh out of cute little Katlyn!
Hopefully, now you have a pretty good idea of the type of child I was. I definitely loved desserts and wouldn’t go a day without them.
Fast forward 15 years, I was in my early 20’s and struggling with cystic acne. I had just landed my first full-time job in the real world and things were going great. Except for the fact that my skin was a mess. I never had terrible acne growing up, just the usual teenage, hormonal acne here and there. But these painful cysts were new to me.
On top of the discomfort that comes with cystic acne, I also dealt with self-esteem issues as a result. I couldn’t leave the house without putting on makeup to cover up all the red, swollen bumps on my cheeks. At work, I was already the youngest one in the office trying to prove myself and now I had to worry about looking like a 16-year-old with pimples all over her face. I was so self-conscious that I started bringing my makeup to work so I could touch it up throughout the day.
This was one of the hardest points in my life due to the fact that I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin. I had no idea what to do. My typical face wash and spot treatments weren’t working and I was struggling to understand what happened. I tried face masks that boasted calm and purifying ingredients. I tried exfoliating. I tried new, expensive cleansers that people were raving about online. Nothing worked.
And then one day I opened up to a close friend who suggested I go gluten-free, something I had never even considered. It turns out gluten contributes to a lot of health issues, and some people are even intolerant to it, similar to lactose intolerance. Many naturopathic doctors actually suggest gluten-free diets to remedy other conditions like psoriasis, arthritis, hypothyroidism, and many more due to the fact that it helps with reducing inflammation.
Fun fact that many people don’t know: Gluten is a natural inflammatory, meaning it causes inflammation in the body, in turn worsening joint pain, or contributing to issues like a slow functioning thyroid.
What is Gluten Sensitivity?
Gluten sensitivity is an intolerance to the protein, gluten, that’s found in barley, wheat, and rye. Put simply, anything with flour or wheat contains gluten. Some of the common symptoms of intolerance to gluten are bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, and fatigue. And in some cases it results in acne.
In sensitive individuals, gluten acts in two ways. First, it alters the integrity of the gut, creating cracks in the gut lining that allow toxins to recirculate back into the system. Second, because gluten-sensitive people cannot properly digest gluten, these large molecules enter the bloodstream, and the immune system recognizes them as invaders, activating an immune response that increases inflammation, which in turn can result in acne. This kind of immune response also triggers the release of insulin, which results in raised hormone levels, another cause of acne.
How can you be intolerant? You’ve eaten gluten your whole life.
When I told family and friends I was going gluten-free to see if it would help clear my skin, they thought I was crazy. Mainly because they knew me as the girl who loves cake, cookies, bread, and pasta. All foods that are full of gluten. But they also didn’t get it. I got the typical “how can you be intolerant all of a sudden?” line.
One of the common misconceptions is that you can’t all of sudden become intolerant to something you’ve been consuming your entire life. The reality is, our bodies are constantly changing, and we’re constantly changing what we’re putting into them. Many of us fail to realize how external factors, changes in medication or supplements, and changes in diet can affect our bodies.
I have a personal theory that a prescription I was put on contributed to my gluten intolerance. It gave me a tumor that I had to get surgically removed, so what else is that medication capable of?
One of the things I’ve realized on my journey is how many people don’t believe in naturopathic medicine. I don’t know about other countries, but much of the United States has become reliant on prescription drugs to manage symptoms, rather than try to treat the root cause.
That’s what naturopathic medicine is all about; finding and treating the root cause rather than managing symptoms of an existing condition. And honestly, it’s really hard to change people’s mindsets. Many of us have grown up managing pain, like taking Tylenol or Advil for a headache rather than staying hydrated to avoid the headache.
To this day, I’m constantly being asked, “How do you do it? I’d never survive without bread or pasta.”
Well, when you see the results I saw, you find a way to make it work.
So, how did I get where I am?
Hard work and failure. That’s how.
That close friend who suggested going gluten-free is the same friend that watched me struggle to do so. It’s not easy changing the way you’ve eaten your entire life. Especially for me, who isn’t a very exotic eater. I struggled to figure out how to eat when I couldn’t have cereal or toast for breakfast, wraps and sandwiches for lunch, and chicken cutlets or pasta and meatballs for dinner. He watched me try and fail, and try and fail again.
Each time I failed, I heard him saying, “It takes two weeks for gluten to leave your system”, which meant I had to make it at least three or four weeks to test out the theory that going gluten-free would help clear my skin.
I kept failing. For some reason or another, I’d be in a situation where there was food in front of me that I wanted, so I ate it. I’d be out to eat with friends and they’d order fried calamari or onion rings and I wouldn’t be able to resist.
Dinner would wrap up and the waiter or waitress would ask if we wanted to see a dessert menu. Of course, I would always say yes, vowing to only get something if it was gluten-free. One time I ordered a cheesecake with the plan to just not eat the crust. That worked out well.
Looking back, I really don’t remember how long I struggled to be gluten-free. I want to say it took me close to a year, and that year was an important part of my journey. That year was spent figuring out how to change the way I ate and I learned a lot during that process.
I figured out which gluten-free bread I liked and didn’t like, the pasta I liked and didn’t like, and learned how to make a ton of foods I loved in a gluten-free friendly way. Even now, I continue to find products I’ve never seen before. The other day I was in Wal-Mart and stumbled upon Krusteaz Gluten-Free Pancake Mix. I was ecstatic! Krusteaz was my favorite brand of pancake mix growing up and I’ve struggled to find gluten-free pancake mix that doesn’t taste grainy and bland.
The part that stinks? Gluten-free recipes will never be as good as the real thing. It’s a harsh reality I’ve had to deal with, and I think that’s why many people don’t last. They simply can’t fathom giving up tasty, gluten-full meals. But if clear skin means giving up heavy breads and desserts, I’ll take it. I’ve learned to accept and enjoy the gluten-free versions because it’s better than nothing, right?
I won’t lie to you. Going gluten-free is challenging and it will test you in ways you’ve never been tested before. Arguably, gluten is one of the hardest things to give up. No bread, no macaroni, no baked goods, no beer, and the list goes on. Even things you think would never contain gluten, do, like soy sauce, gravy, and certain types of soup, liquor, and condiments.
My advice to anyone looking to go gluten-free is to do your research ahead of time. This is the step I missed. I tried to go gluten-free without fully understanding what that meant. I also tried to do it cold turkey, which I don’t think was the right approach.
As I mentioned, it’s quite the experience figuring out how to be gluten-free: experimenting with various products and recipes, ending up with some pretty weird results sometimes, and hopefully finding a good recipe or product in the end.
If I could go back, I would tackle going gluten-free a bit differently. Instead of taking the cold turkey approach, I would initially do one gluten-free meal a day, whether that be breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and then ease into the remaining two meals. A phased approach is much more manageable, gives you time to learn how to be gluten-free, and helps you ease into the new lifestyle.
Thinking back, that method probably would’ve been a much easier process, and maybe I would’ve been a bit more successful from the get-go.
A Testament of My Strength
I learned a lot about myself on my journey to a gluten-free lifestyle. For one, I showed myself strength I didn’t know I had.
I sit here now reflecting on my journey and know I have a lot more patience than many people. Today’s culture is filled with that concept of instant gratification which, in my opinion, has made our population very impatient. We want results now, we don’t want to have to wait two weeks or a month.
I’ll let you in on a little secret my friend told me: When you’re really ready, you’ll go all in. And that’s what happened to me. I struggled and struggled, saw no improvements, and one day something in me snapped. I had had enough and I was tired of letting myself down.
It’s amazing to me how much I’ve progressed over the last three years, and honestly, for anyone looking to go gluten-free, now couldn’t be a better time. More and more gluten-free products are coming out, and many restaurants are now offering gluten-free options.
I look back and laugh because I probably would’ve had a much easier time if half the products that exist now were around three years ago.
So, take the leap and try it. If I can do it, a girl who grew up on Drake’s coffee cakes and devil dogs and ate Oreos and Chips Ahoy every night, you can do it too. Believe in yourself and have faith in the process. I promise you you’ll see the results you want to see, whatever it is you’re looking for.