My Food Revolution: How I Learned to Love a Gluten-Free Diet | Digestive disorders
IIt starts with a strange tingling on my tongue as I ride the tube in central London. About five minutes later, I start to wonder if I might be feeling a little faint (or is it just really, really hot in here?). After 15 years, I know: I’m going to vomit all the contents of my stomach into a bag full of orchard fruits from my friend’s father’s garden. “Have some apples and pears from Normandy,” she had said, charmingly, just an hour or two earlier, as we sat down for afternoon tea on my 40th birthday. She didn’t know the horror that was going to be unleashed on this harmless little tote.
A few minutes later, as I stand by the side of the road in North East London, throwing up into a bin in broad daylight, it occurs to me that people must think I’m drunk . But alcohol has nothing to do with my current situation. You can blame the scones entirely. Or maybe the sandwiches. I certainly have my suspicions about the delicate little pie whose dough was so good, so buttery, so, well, not gluten-free, that I checked with the waitress. But that’s the thing about being celiac: you’re often not sure what the culprit was. You just know there’s been a crime – and your poor, long-suffering gut is the victim.
It was towards the end of a pasta-filled two-year stint in Italy as the Guardian’s correspondent in Rome that I realized something was seriously wrong with what my mother would call my ‘innards’. I remember calling her after a trip to Venice (I think it was to cover the highlight event of a George Clooney wedding – now that’s a nice contrast for you), convinced that the guttural cramps The agonizing pains and debilitating fatigue I felt were due to Giardia, a small parasite that spreads diarrheal disease. “But it says on the internet that you usually only get Giardia from traveling to remote places where there’s no clean water,” my mom, or something, said softly and dubiously. “I’ve been to Venice!” I wept, insisting that the acrid waters of the Grand Canal had bedridden me. I wasn’t fooling any of us.
Several months later – after weeks of mysterious and relentlessly unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms – I finally went to the GP in Britain. I had visited a doctor during a grim vacation in the United States when I was barely able to leave the apartment, but I was prescribed antibiotics, which did nothing and left me had cost several hundred dollars, so I was not optimistic. But I was desperate: my illness had come to dominate my life. I had lost a lot of weight. I was so weak that I ended up leaving Italy without telling many people because I just didn’t have the energy – physical or mental – to call them, let alone meet them. (If you’re one of them, sorry.)
But this doctor was brilliant, and it was only in hindsight that I realized how unusual she was. Hearing my symptoms, she immediately referred me for a blood test, and a few days later called me at work to tell me the news: my blood had shown that I was severely anemic – and I had celiac disease. What, I remember saying, that thing with gluten? Certainly not! When I was really sick, the only thing I could eat was these little salty wheat crackers; I would eat packets and packets… Oh. The cogs in my brain began, slowly, to turn.
I got lucky with my doctor. Many people, I have since learned, struggle for years with all the symptoms of celiac disease – bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, heartburn, brain fog: a veritable assortment of delights – without ever being diagnosed. In fact, I was told to keep eating gluten until I could have the biopsy that would confirm my diagnosis showing damage to my small intestine. And then? What was the treatment, I wanted to know? When can I go back to crackers?
The answer was short and direct: never. The only way for someone with celiac disease — an autoimmune disease that, if left undiagnosed, can lead to slow organ damage and bowel cancer — is to give up gluten for good. Now, given that it’s a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and, due to high levels of cross-contamination, oats, that might seem like a daunting challenge. . This obviously means no (regular) scones, no cakes, no sandwiches. It also means no beer, no Colman’s mustard, no soy sauce. Don’t taste this street food, don’t skip this new chippy, don’t linger next to the festive buffet.
It is the end of one era of your life and the beginning of another. Of course, there is a sense of loss. But at this point, many people are so happy to finally have their problems answered that they’re happy to start over. I certainly was. It was quite worrying to hear about my anemia, which was so bad that my GP had told me I would have been hospitalized in previous years. (These days, industrial-strength iron tablets did the trick.) On top of that, a bone scan showed I had osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis. I was in my early thirties. The consultant said I had probably had celiac disease for about a decade without knowing it.
I was desperate, therefore, to feel healthy and energetic again – although I wondered if it had perhaps been so long since I had forgotten how it felt. I threw myself into deciphering this new and unknown world: that of scanning each label of each food to see if I could eat it or not (disconcerting, at first, but now I do it without even thinking about it, my brain like a barcode reader). Shopping took much longer. Eating out was a minefield. (I’m lucky my partner is a fantastic cook – I’m hopeless.)
Going to friends was excruciating. It’s incredibly hard, especially if you like chronic people like me, to tell someone who’s done their best to cook something gluten-free that you still can’t have it because they put a forbidden ingredient or used the same pan for normal and gluten-free pasta or sprinkled with soy sauce at the last moment or, well, the list of unfortunate potential mistakes is, unfortunately, endless. It’s better – for everyone – if I bring my own. I do the same when I travel abroad for work, which on the one hand is soul destroying in countries like Lebanon, with some of the most delicious cuisines known to man, but frankly, reporting is easier if you don’t also try to throw up in your purse and I’d rather not risk it. That said, the best gluten free bread I’ve ever had, bar none, was in Bethlehem.
If you’re reading this because you were recently diagnosed, don’t worry. You will feel healthy again! You will enjoy yourself again! It will be a little different, but after a few years you won’t even notice it. It becomes normal. There’s a huge variety of gluten-free foods in stores, the kind celiacs couldn’t have dreamed of 30 years ago. The M&S Made Without Wheat range is a personal favourite, if not cheap, and I recently discovered Leigh’s gluten-free bakery, which makes deliciously good focaccia and delivers celiac donuts to my door: the dream ! Oh, and I know I said no soy sauce – but actually tamari is just as good.
Although you may not initially feel like it, you can still eat a wide range of foods on a gluten-free diet: fruits, vegetables, legumes, potatoes, rice and, depending on your diet, dairy products, meat and fish. On the contrary, my diagnosis made us cook more from scratch and healthier as a family. Our children are educated in the details of the gastrointestinal tract: the five-year-old is known to do a very dramatic full-body imitation of the collapse of the villi of my small intestine, overcome by the mortal enemy: the wheat. I found the best gluten-free bakery in Paris and mastered the art of a GF sticky caramel pudding.
One day, maybe, I can even brave an afternoon tea again. But not anytime soon; I still have flashbacks to that tote bag.