Although only 1% of Canadians are diagnosed with celiac disease, an estimate of 2 million people have trouble digesting gluten-containing food and 7 million people opts for a gluten free diet (according to National Post). It’s hard not to notice all the gluten-free options popping up in grocery stores and the gluten-free menus serving up at restaurants. The gluten-free trend seems to be still going strong, but is there a reason behind the gluten-free craze? I hope by sharing my personal story and research, I can provide you with some helpful facts when it comes to your decision about choosing what’s best for you.
As you might know from my previous personal story, I have problem digesting gluten. Although I dislike simply slather a diagnosis on my health without getting to know the root cause, for clarification purpose I have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). Clients, families and friends often asked why I stopped eating gluten and how it has affected my health. I want to share why I went gluten-free with you in this blog post.
How I Discovered My Gluten Sensitivity
Wheat had always been a staple part of my diet growing up. Noodles, bread or any type of pastry is considered a must-have item every meal because they are considered to contain the ‘highest nutritional value’, according to my grandmother, who would be 87 years old if she was still here with us. I remember I always felt bloated and foggy after meals. Even back when I was 7 years old, my joints were sore during the winter months. You might know about the uncomfortable swollen stomach situation where the pants fit perfectly in the morning but they starts to cut off the circulation sometime after lunch (given that I always wore loose pants as a kid, why? Read my weight loss story here).
I didn’t really pay attention to my digestive issues even though I had trouble staying focused at school, experiencing mild stomach aches here and there, and having bouts of constipation and diarrhea. Since I love food, the adults in my life always told me I ate too much and I was too young for joint problems.
It wasn’t until when I was 13 I started to realize I have a ‘sensitive stomach’. After a full-on gluten breakfast one day, I was heading off with my best friend for a fun day. I expected my bloating and some mild pain in my stomach, but somehow the pain hit me extra hard that day. The mild cramp escalated to a stabbing pain, which shot way beyond my threshold. I collapsed. I didn’t want to scare my parents or call the ambulance so I asked my friend to bring me-well, anything. She found some aspirin for me and I took one, the pain was dulled but I was still bend-over in agony, so I took another one. About half an hour later, I barely felt the pain was ever there so I just kept the extra aspirins and forgot it ever happened…
Since this incident until my early twenties, the stabbing pain returned more and more frequently, but I kept ignoring them and self-medicating with an increasingly higher dosage of painkiller every time it happened. Thinking back on how I handled my health, I was being very unfair to my body, but I believe it would be extremely hard for anyone to make sense of these seemingly disjointed symptoms with a particular food that you eat so frequently and is universally loved staple.
Progressively my stomach becomes more sensitive and body is giving off alerts in form of the following symptoms:
Aches & Bloating After Food
painkiller eventually became something I had to carry around with me. I became reliant on them to numb the abdominal pain caused by eating. The bloating had became more embarrassing: one slice of toast could make me look pregnant. I remember a couple times some very nice people gave up their seats for me on the skytrain. (Was it really that bad? :p) Even with my best efforts on portion control and eating healthfully, I still experienced heartburns frequently and I remember having a burning sensation along my esophagus.
Foggy Brain & Low Energy
Another thing I noticed from my experience was the lack of energy and mental clarity that I really needed to push through the day. I felt tired and head-achy all the time and I even accepted the fact that maybe I was just born with less energy than other people my age. I survived my days with multiple cups of coffee and I couldn’t start my day without the first cup in the morning.
A Very Sensitive Stomach
Besides the uncomfortable digestive symptoms, I became very reactive to foods. I felt nauseated after some meals and I was a frequent food poisoning victim, even when everyone else was fine.
Watch out when that PMS hits!
My hormones were out of whack and my periods were often irregular, but when they came, they sure made a bold statement: swollen and sore joints, headaches, sensitive breasts, extreme mood swings and nausea. Sometimes I had to take a sick day just becomes it’s ‘that time of the month’.
Brittle Hair & Nails
Despite eating healthy, I see signs that my body was not absorbing the nutrients it needs. My hair was thin and lacked luster and my nails split easily.
Challenges I Face
Ah, the obstacles. When first transitioning to gluten-free, clients often feel concerned about the impact of their dietary choices on their social/family life (bye-bye beer!). I hope by sharing my experience, you feel supported through making an empowered choice for your health.
Feel Apologetic of Being ‘Special’
I remember I was near tears when confessing to my naturopath about how difficult it is for me to be open and honest about my food reactions to my family and friends, and I felt like a bad person for ‘worrying them and inconveniencing the people I love’.
Remember, people who love you want the best for your health, true friends will support you in taking care of your health. It will take time and patience for your family to get use to your new preference, a good way to help them along this process is to share gluten-free treats with them and share the benefit of reducing gluten intake. I’ve shared some of my research in the next section below.
You will get well-intended questions.
‘How did you find out? What tests have you done?’
‘Are you sure you didn’t make it up in your head?’
‘Did you get a second opinion from another doctor/specialist?’
In my case, to be qualified for an endoscopy (a screening procedure for celiac), I would have to eat gluten every day for 2 weeks. I was already feeling better on a gluten-free diet: my energy picked up, I had a lot less bloating and joint pains, my PMS disappeared. Do I have to put myself through all the discomforts again just to get a lab report proving that I’m sensitive to gluten? Once a person stop eating gluten, the antibodies will eventually clear out of the system, and it’s likely that I won’t be diagnosed because I was off gluten for over 6 months at that point.
Be prepared for this reaction when discussing food sensitivity with your parents:
‘You eat everything when you were a baby! There’s no bad genes in the family!’
Contrary to the belief that gluten sensitivity is something you are born with or you don’t have it. Gluten sensitivity can develop overtime. This means that one might start experiencing sporadic digestive discomforts or other symptoms, such as sore joints, rashes, fatigue, PMS etc. The symptoms can progress over time because the antibodies can build up in your system. One also might experience phases when they feel better or worse with gluten-containing food.
Feeling Guilty of Being High-maintenance
Gluten free products on the market can be more expensive than conventional options. The cost different is recognized by CRA, and gluten-free products can be claimed as a medical expense. I use to feel so guilty of splurging on gluten free items. But is it more expensive to eat gluten-free? The fact it, not really. It might appear that way especially when tax credit is available for the gluten-free expenses. But think a creamy chia pudding, or a some colourful roasted veggies with salmon. According to USDA data, the cost for simple meals like this works out to be about $5 per meal even considering the cost of buying better quality ingredients. Even a Egg Muffin + a medium coffee costs $5.28 at McDonalds.
What’s happening in the body when you are sensitive to gluten?
Gluten is a protein molecule found in wheat products. I want to clarify that there’s no ‘healthy gluten’ vs. ‘naughty gluten’, all gluten-containing food (whether that’s a whole wheat bagel or a piece of chocolate cake) has the same protein molecule that requires to be processed in the same way in our digestive system. A more recent research (which is not funded by industry) are beginning to recognize the effect of gluten on healthy individuals.
In the Gut
In our small intestine, hairy finger-like cells are lined up tightly against each other to absorb nutrients and block undigested food particles and pathogenic bacteria from entering our blood stream. These hairy finger-like cells are also responsible for soaking up nutrients and using enzymes to convert nutrients into absorbable forms. According to this experiment, when a gluten-containing meals reaches the small intestine, a part of the gluten molecule (gliadin) activates zonulin, a protein that prop open the tight junction between the hairy intestinal cells, increasing the chances of undigested food molecules, bacteria and antibodies to enter your blood stream. When your small intestinal lining becomes leaky, it can manifest as digestive discomforts such as bloating, nausea, heart-burn, trouble digesting fat and malabsorption of nutrients.
In the Brain
According to Dr. William Davis in his publication ‘Wheat Belly’, gluten can increase your appetite by 30%. This is because gliadin (a part of the gluten molecule) in the blood stream can cross the blood/brain barrier and bind to the opiate receptors of the brain. Meanwhile, gluten derived molecules blocks satiety inducing hormones and affects blood sugar balance.
Get your ‘gluten-smart’ on!
I hope this blog post is informative when it comes to your decision to choose what feels good to you.
Be aware of what’s in your food and what your body is trying to tell you. Please remember the choice is yours. What I learned from my own battle with gluten sensitivity is that choosing the food that empowers you. Even that means the occasional weekend donuts!
Clients often report having improved mental clarify, better skin, and more energy after becoming mindful about their gluten intake for 2-3 weeks. Some even feel the difference within a few days. Choosing to be conscious about your gluten intake does not have to be a forced decision based on a diagnosis, but it’s about choosing the food that make you feel the best version of you!
The bottom line is not to follow any fad diet just because it’s believed to be ‘healthy’, but to educate yourself on getting what your body needs and making sure you are putting all the nutrients into your body and make sure they are absorbed properly so your body can use its amazing ability to build and repair.
A qualified nutritionist can provide you with the support you need to transition towards a gluten-free diet. Contact me to learn more about how I can help.