At age 13, I made the connection that chicken nuggets were made from actual chickens and became a vegetarian on the spot. I was also insanely picky, so pasta, bagels, and pizza were my main staples. Sadly, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains hardly made it onto my plate, especially when I went off to college. Going vegan wasn't a big jump, since meat was already out of the picture, and I found giving up dairy eased my ongoing digestive issues. I still wasn't 100 percent though, until the day I gave up gluten.
No lie, the first day I passed on gluten, I felt instantly better. Without all those crackers, cereal, and bowls of pasta weighing down my digestive tract, my belly felt more at ease. Since I was new to the whole gluten-free scene, I ate foods I knew were gluten-free like fruits and veggies. So for the first few weeks, I had no bloating, no gas, no constipation. I felt like a new me, which almost made it easy to give up on all my favorite foods.
But after the first two weeks, I was so, so sad — I didn't realize I was obsessed with gluten until I had to give it up. I found myself daydreaming about stealing muffins from the bakery and swimming in bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios. I became completely focused and utterly upset over all the foods I couldn't have. I mourned for all the times I was hanging with friends and couldn't sling back a beer, grab a slice of pizza, or enjoy someone's adorable birthday cupcakes. It seems silly to get depressed over missing out on Gramma's baked ziti, but it was very real for me.
Before spiraling into a deep, dark, gluten-free hole, I took my first trip to the health food store and discovered all the gluten-free alternatives to my fave foods. I bought it all and ate it all. I even bought foods I never ate like gluten-free waffles and mini pecan pies, just because I could eat them. These foods uplifted my spirit tremendously, but big shocker here — my stomach once again waged war. And to make matters worse, after two months of eating this way, I found my need for elastic waistbands increasing. Isn't going gluten-free supposed to help with weight loss? Uh, not if you eat gluten-free junk food full of empty calories.
I realized I needed to cut back on all the gluten-free crap if I ever wanted to fit into my jeans again — a woman cannot live on French fries and gluten-free cookies alone! It forced me to really take a look at my diet, and I slowly started eating fewer gluten-free alternatives and more actual food. I began branching out, enjoying such a huge variety of healthy foods that I started feeling as good as I did those first couple of gluten-free weeks. And it wasn't because I wasn't eating gluten — it was because I was eating real food and less processed junk.
After 10 years of living without gluten and eating a superhealthy diet, I felt amazing. My new boyfriend at the time (my now-husband) suggested I try eating gluten, just to see if my body had changed. The thought had never crossed my mind, but love makes you do crazy things. On an apple-picking trip in the Fall of 2005, a freshly baked cider donut was calling my name. That's me in the photo above, taking my first magical bite, and I couldn't believe it, but I felt totally fine. No tummy issues whatsoever. Even after going back to whole-grain bread, crackers, and pasta — gluten didn't bother me anymore. It took me 10 years to realize this, but gluten wasn't my enemy. This might be TMI, but constipation caused by a crappy diet was. Giving up gluten forced me to get out of the habit of eating bread 24/7, to start branching out to eating more nutritious foods, and to get more fiber into my diet. Now I'm able to enjoy gluten without going overboard, and because my vegetarian and dairy-free diet is so much healthier than it was 10 years ago, I'm also able to maintain a healthy weight. Hooray for gluten! And hooray for whole foods!