Starting a gluten free diet (or restarting a gluten free diet) is no easy challenge. There is much to learn, mental hurdles to be cleared, and new tasks to do. Nevertheless, the benefits of a gluten free diet make this challenge worth the time and effort. If your body reacts poorly to a diet that contains gluten, then a gluten free diet could be the end to years of pain, poor digestion, migraines, arthritis, itchy skin, and so much more. A gluten free diet could be the trigger that enables your child to start talking, potty-train, or have a better chance at controlling himself (or herself).
January is the traditional time of the year to get our lives back on track. This blog will be completely focused on ways that you can make it easier to start a gluten free diet and stay on a gluten free diet.
I want to start off the month by putting a carrot in front of you. Here are 8 benefits that we’ve seen in our family from consistently eating a gluten free diet.
8 Health Benefits
- A gluten free diet reduced my chronic back pain – I was diagnosed with degenerative disk disease when I was 16. The orthopedist offered nothing but pain meds, so I spent many, many hours with many different chiropractors over the following decade. At the worst times, I needed adjustments three times a week in order to keep working. I spent many nights sleeping on the floor. There were a couple of times when I could not walk. While the chiropractic adjustments kept me going in the worst times, and let me live a relatively pain-free life in the good times, they were no more a “cure” than the pain medicines would have been. Fast forward to the present, and I am pain-free 95% of the time and that’s without having had a chiropractic adjustment in over a year. What’s the difference? A gluten free diet. Eating a gluten free diet seems to reduce the chronic inflammation in my back to the point that I do not feel any back pain on a regular basis during the day. If I’m only doing a gluten free diet, then I’m still a bit stiff in the mornings, but that goes away as I start moving around. However, a few additional modifications of my diet takes away all of the morning stiffness and let’s me do strenuous exercise (which often includes carrying a 40 lb child or running to keep up with my kids on bikes) without any pain the following day. I never expected to be able to carry my children, much less run with them, once I was diagnosed with chronic back pain. A gluten free diet makes that possible.
- A gluten free diet cured my migraines – I started having severe migraines in college and I’m sure my story starts out the the same as many of yours. The doctor gave me a list of foods that trigger migraines, pain meeds and anti-depressants. Avoiding the foods on the “migraine diet” didn’t help a bit. Soon the medicines stopped working too, and I moved on to Imitrex shots and then IV drips. My doctor suggested that I get a less stressful job; that didn’t cure the migraines either. Ultimately my migraines were cured by accident. I started a gluten free diet for unrelated reasons in 2006, five years after I started suffering from migraines. Since I started a gluten free diet, I have had only one migraine in 6.5 years. One! That one migraine was very clearly triggered by an allergic reaction to pollen. Other than that, no migraines at all. Looking back it seems apparent that my migraines were caused by allergies. I have a very strong wheat allergy, and once wheat was removed from my diet I stopped having migraines. The only migraine that I’ve had was triggered by my first exposure to a new tree pollen, but once I started antihistamines, I did not have any more migraines from the pollen either. A gluten free diet cured my chronic migraines!
- A gluten free diet eliminated bloating – One of the reasons that I first did a gluten free trial was because I suffered daily from painful bloating. The sort of bloating where your pants fit very nicely in the morning, but by the end of the day you look several months pregnant and any pressure on your tummy makes you want to scream. I thought I just needed more fiber, but all of the Kashi in the world wasn’t helping. After a few days on a gluten free diet, the bloating was gone for good.
- A gluten free diet and speech delay - One of our children was verbally delayed. By his third birthday he only used a few words on a regular basis and communicated mainly through gestures. He was making progress but it was very slow, and his younger sibling was beginning to catch-up to him. When that child turned 3 I resolved to do a 2 week gluten free, casein free trial on all of my kids. A few days after we started my non-talker started talking! It truly seemed as if the gluten in his diet was using up some of his mental and physical capacity, and once the gluten was gone he could use that capacity for exploring words. He started picking up several new words each day. He was also wanted to slowly repeat words after us to work on the proper enunciation, something that he’d been completely uninterested in before. After nine months of a gluten free diet, his verbal skills are immensely improved.
- A gluten free diet helped potty-training – It’s incredibly hard to potty train a child whose stools are loose. It’s even harder if the stools come with such urgency that the child has no time to get to the potty. This was an issue with one of our children. Once that child was on a gluten free diet, the stools firmed up with days and we were able to begin potty-training. Two weeks later, the same child was completely potty-trained. The only accidents after that happened the day after the child accidentally ingested gluten. Even if you aren’t trying to potty-train this may be useful to know. An urgent need to run to the restroom is often a problem for adults with gluten intolerance or celiac too. Others may have the opposite problem. Regardless, if gluten is problematic for you, you should expect to see a move toward normal movements on a gluten free diet.
- A gluten free diet can ratchet emotions down – Another one of our children was having a really tough time with anger issues before we started the gluten free trial. It’s one thing for a kid to be angry, but there’s a whole other level where they have a gleam in their eye that indicates that the anger is beyond something that they can control. We were seeing that gleam much too often. After that child started a gluten free diet, the gleam went away. We still had to work on the tantrums for several months, but I truly feel that being on a gluten free diet ratcheted the emotions down to a level where progress could be made.
- Gluten free diet cures all sorts of tummy troubles – John and I both initially started gluten free diets due to digestive issues. John’s official diagnosis was celiac disease. I have wheat and pollen allergies and a intolerance for most dairy products. I won’t go into all of the not-so-lovely details, but we both had most of the digestive symptoms that are associated with celiac. Both of us have complete remission of those symptoms on a gluten free diet. My gastroenterologist originally diagnosed me with IBS. Being on a gluten free diet completely cured IBS for me.
- A gluten free diet can help with depression - Every now and then we accidentally eat gluten. John often feels the effects of it much more intensely than I do, probably because we have different reasons for needing to eat gluten free. One of the most troublesome side effects for John is a feeling that he describes as an “emotional heaviness”. He also described it as an emotional low. I can only write about it as an observer, but from my point of view this emotional heaviness is distinctly noticeable. One of the benefits of eating a gluten free diet, is that John doesn’t have to deal with this emotional heaviness on a daily basis.
10 Things To Expect From A Gluten Free Diet
When you’re at the beginning of a major life change, knowing what to expect down the road is very helpful. When we were about to start traveling full-time (we’re touring the U.S. in an RV as I write this) we read a book that told us to expect a major emotional crisis after a month or so on the road.
Hearing that at the beginning was a joy-killer, but when we all started getting cranky and snapping at each other after living in a super-small space for a few weeks, it was nice to know that the bad moods were a normal phase and that we’d soon get past that point.
So, today’s lesson will not be all pink ribbons and lollipops. You’re about to embark on a big life change and you need to know what bumps are ahead of you on the road. This is a tough love email, so let’s get through it and get done!
- Expect to make mistakes. First off, you’re going to be learning a lot of new things about cooking, baking, and grocery shopping in the next weeks and months. Don’t expect to get it all right the first time. If you keep learning, day after day, then you’ll be phenomenal at being gluten free in a relatively short time.
- Don’t expect immediate miracles. Some of you may see immediate improvements in the symptoms that led you to try a gluten free diet. For others, it may take months for your body to heal. Expect healing to take a while and monitor your body carefully. Being gluten free can not harm you, so give your body time to heal before making a judgment as to whether this is going to work.
- Make room in your life to go gluten free. Feeding your body well – so that it can be healthy – takes time. Especially at first, your cooking, baking, and grocery shopping are going to take longer than usual. What can you temporarily set aside to make room for this? If you can carve out time to learn to do this well, you’ll find that the transition is less stressful.
- Expect resistance. Most people don’t like change at all – in themselves, in their environment, or in others. Expect to get some negative reactions…from somebody, even if it’s only your inner child. Expect it and then persevere through it. The gluten free diet is not a fad diet. It can truly heal your body. Isn’t that amazing?! So stick with it and give it time to work.
- Set yourself up for success. I have very little self-control when it comes to food. I’m not happy about it, but I’m not embarrassed to admit it. If there is wheat in my house, then I will probably eat it. So….I don’t keep wheat in my house. If temptations and cravings are an issue, get the gluten completely out of the house.
- Learn to skip a meal. At some point you will find yourself in a situation where the only available food has gluten. Your choice at that point it to eat gluten or skip a meal. I’ll be quite honest – for many years I chose to eat the gluten. Skipping a meal scared me! Luckily, skipping a meal is a skill that you can learn, and you need to learn to do it quickly. Get over the fear that skipping a meal will be painful (drastically reducing the sugar and grains in your diet will help with this) so that you can handle this situation without giving in and harming your body.
- Be ready to learn. Even if you’re already good at baking, there are a lot of things about gluten free cooking and baking that are just plain different. Don’t get discouraged. Approach it as a Grand Experiment and see what you can learn. I honestly think that the gluten free community can figure out how to bake anything!
- Take responsibility for your enjoyment of food. Ultimately you are responsible for making sure that you enjoy the food that you eat on a Gluten Free or Gluten Free Plus diet. My job is to tell you that it’s possible, but you’re responsible for the follow-up. This may mean drawing attention to yourself when you’d rather not (e.g. asking about food at restaurants), possibly appearing selfish (e.g. by insisting that everyone go to a restaurant where you can safely eat), doing some cooking research on your own, or adjusting your household budget so that there’s more room for gluten-free groceries. I know that these things can be difficult. I really do. But please take care of yourself, so that you can take care of the ones that you love.
- You’re going to want to cheat. Seriously, at some point you will want to eat something that has gluten in it. It will look like food from heaven and you’ll want it so badly. DO NOT EAT IT! Vividly imagine all of the harm that gluten does to your body and then remove yourself from the tempting situation. If that doesn’t work, then imagine that something horribly disgusting was done to the food before you saw it. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself from eating gluten.
- Expect to have an emotional crisis at some point. Someday, somewhere, sometime, you’re just going to hate this diet. It may be when you drop $15 of flour all over the kitchen floor. It may be when your child refuses to eat the gluten-free bread that cost $5 a loaf. It may be when you’re puking your guts up because wheat somehow got into your food at a restaurant. I don’t know what it will be that will send you over the edge. I just know that it will happen. Expect it. Deal with it. And then stay gluten free.
But, to be perfectly honest, despite the depressing tone of this post, you are going to feel so much better on a gluten free diet that those painful moments are going to be totally worth it. And those moments are few and far between.
I double-pinkie swear that gluten free food can be the most delicious food you’ve ever eaten. Double-pinkie swear!! (And my next email will cover some of the delicious food that we do get to eat!)