Background: my family started the gluten-free (GF) journey on October 29, 2012. That’s the day Jackson had allergy testing that showed a wheat (gluten) sensitivity. (Click HERE to read more about that.) Three months later, at the end of January 2013, he was diagnosed with ADHD. At the beginning of March 2013, our family went to a seminar about treating ADHD naturally and without medication. The doctor discussed how our diet affects our body, especially diseases like ADHD and – aha! – lupus. And since I have two autoimmune diseases (lupus and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis), I decided to make an appointment with this doctor to see if he could help me too. Dan and I agreed I would be more likely to stick with the doctor’s orders than Jackson would be, and I’d also be better at noticing slight changes. If the doctor helped me, then we could implement these changes in our entire family.
I saw Dr. Jason, who is an Applied Kinesiologist Chiropractor. We had a long discussion about my health and lifestyle, and he did some muscle testing to show me what gluten does to my body. Since Jackson was already GF at this point, I realized it wouldn’t be very difficult for me to eat GF as well. And an added benefit was that Jackson wouldn’t feel singled out in our family. The very next day (I had a party to attend that night, y’all! I needed to have one last hurrah!), I went GF.
That first week of GF was incredibly hard. I had intense cravings and SO BADLY wanted a biscuit. Oh, please? Just one! When I saw Dr. Jason a week later, we discussed how to curb those cravings by keeping my sugar from spiking, and eating meals with protein and a healthy fat. The second week was much better. The third week, he asked me to go corn- and dairy-free (CF and DF). I told him I would try one, but not BOTH – and he would have to pick which one. He replied that he wouldn’t pick because they were both so hard on my system, and told me to select which one I wanted to start with. I left his office and decided to give up both. I did some research and watched a “How It’s Made” documentary on corn, and a few other documentaries. You’d think with all that knowledge, it would have been simple to give up these foods. Uh, no! Definitely not, because my body easily overrides my brain when it comes to food.
But it got easier the longer I stuck with it. I’ve found options, and been incredibly blessed with some friends who have invested time and love into me and my family. These friends have walked me through grocery stores, bought food for me, delivered “safe” treats to my house, sent me recipes, and bought me books to educate and encourage me. Do you have any idea how loved I feel when a friend (who eats “regular” food, by the way) goes out of her way to offer me options that will accommodate my restrictions? It’s a lavish kind of love, because it’s undeserved and unnecessary, which makes it that much sweeter.
Katie and Dan weren’t on board with the family’s dietary changes. I didn’t force Katie for a while, because I wanted to give her as much normalcy as I could for as long as possible. We had summer camps to go to and trips to take and, frankly, I wasn’t up for dealing with the resistance I knew she’d give me. I didn’t have enough energy stored up for that battle! Near the end of the summer, I broke the news to her: when school starts on August 8th, you’re going GF. She was mad and sulked. But when I talked about how it might get her off daily “medicine” (Miralax to help with impacted bowels), she was a little more receptive. It’s been almost three weeks now, and she doesn’t scowl at me nearly as much as she used to. There’s still some pouting when she is confronted with an “unsafe” food (like treats at church or at a neighbor’s), but I expect that so I’m not really bothered by it. Dan, on the other hand, hasn’t quite made the switch. I respect that, and I’m not forcing him to eat what the rest of the family eats. He is an adult and can feed himself whatever he wants for breakfast and lunch, although we all eat the same thing for dinner.
The hardest part about making a radical dietary change is the first few weeks. The first questions are “What CAN’T I eat?” and then “What CAN I eat?” Here’s how I looked at it.
- What CAN’T I eat: I used a list our allergist provided of gluten ingredients. Food labels don’t always obviously state GLUTEN or WHEAT. There are countless names for gluten. (Did you know these can all be gluten? Caramel color, modified food starch, spelt, vegetable gum…) I saved this list in my phone, and referred to it each time I ate something with a label or went grocery shopping. When I went CF and DF, I did the same thing.
- What CAN I eat: Once I eliminated the foods with allergens, I started working within the parameters of what was left. Smart allergy-veteran friends suggested starting with foods my family already liked and making modifications to fit the new parameters. I have to admit our menu prior to allergy testing was pretty limited to begin with (chicken nuggets WAY too often!), but at least it was a starting point.
Here’s what a typical day looks like for us.
- Breakfast: The kids have always loved cereal, so that’s a staple for them. Chex makes a line of GF cereals: Chocolate Chex, Apple Cinnamon, Vanilla, Cinnamon, Honey Nut, and plain Chex. Fruity Pebbles, Kix, and GF Rice Krispies have also been in the rotation. The kids eat their cereal with regular milk, and I use coconut milk on my cereal (vanilla flavored coconut milk is da bomb!). If it isn’t cereal, the other option is GF toasted bread (The kids like Udi’s brand best, but it has corn in it and I can’t eat it. I found a local bakery that has an option for me, though.) with Nutella (if it’s a weekend day – I had to start limiting the treats I originally allowed to make up for all their dietary restrictions) or Skippy Natural peanut butter. Jackson’s new favorite breakfast is peanut butter toast topped with sliced bananas and blueberries. In addition to the grain (i.e. cereal/toast) option, the kids also have scrambled eggs for breakfast. Katie makes these in our microwave. I like to sprinkle shredded goat cheese in mine too. Some mornings, I make smoothies for me and Jackson. (Katie refuses to drink them after I ruined her on them a few years ago by trying to hide too much flax in one.) The smoothies have random things in them: fruit, kale, coconut milk, protein powder, etc.
- Kids’ Lunch: The school year has brought a blessed routine back into our lives. On Sundays, the kids help pack ten lunches for the week. We use those cool Ziploc divided containers and usually pack fruit, cheese, crackers, deli meat (Hormel Natural), almonds, and carrots. Sometimes we throw in a GF bar, or change the “entrée” from deli meat to a sandwich. This week, Katie made peanut butter and honey sandwiches for some of their lunches. (The blog 100 Days of Real Food also has some great ideas.)
- My Lunch: I am less picky than the kids and I usually have access to a microwave, so my lunches might be leftovers from dinner the night before or my favorite standby: GF crackers (Van’s are my favorite) and tuna salad made with Veganaise and Puckered Pickle’s dill relish (it’s too hard to find sweet relish that isn’t made with high fructose corn syrup). I often have other sides like fruit, almonds, or salad.
- Dinner: I have found 5-7 meals that satisfy everyone, so we rotate through them. Once in a while we throw in something new and then might add it into rotation. For example, last week I made White Chicken Chili (from the book Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist, which is a REALLY fantastic book, by the way) and the kids actually ate it. It didn’t hurt that I bribed them with an Enjoy Life! mini chocolate chip for every bite they took, but it was a step in the right direction. Hopefully I won’t need bribery next time! Our meals have been: BLTs, tacos, penne pasta, pizza, hamburgers, steak fajitas, nachos, bacon & eggs, white chicken chili, pork chops, and fried chicken. Like I wrote earlier, start with what you already like and find substitutions to fit your restrictions. For example, hamburgers are easy. The kids eat theirs on Udi’s GF buns, and I eat mine without a bun (and with ketchup that is made with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup). Nachos means our ground beef is seasoned with a homemade Mexican spice mix (the Old El Paso packets we used to use aren’t an option anymore), and the kids eat regular shredded cheese and toppings on regular tortilla chips. My tortilla chips are Beanitos with ground beef and sprinkled with toppings like shredded goat cheese, tomatoes, baby spinach leaves, and avocado. Pizza night for us means the kids eat Udi’s pizza crusts (which have corn, so mine is a GF crust by Rustic Crust), topped with regular pizza sauce and shredded cheese (goat for me) and maybe some browned ground beef I saved from our prior taco night before it was seasoned. Fried chicken is – hands down – my family’s favorite meal. That requires a whole separate post, which I will try to work on soon. So… see what I mean? Start with what you already like, then adapt!
- Treats: My favorite two treats are way more simple than they ever were before. They are So Delicious coconut milk ice cream and Chocolove’s dark chocolate bar with almonds and sea salt. The kids have lots more options for treats available to them: there are gluten free chocolate cream sandwich cookies (Oreo substitutes), candy bars that are gluten free (Hershey’s, Reeses Cups, etc.), and certain ice creams too.
- Indulgences: I’m not sure what else to call it, and “indulgences” sounds best. This is the less-than-regular category of things like alcohol. I’ll be honest with you: GF beer isn’t quite the same as regular, wheaty, scrumptious beer (can you tell I miss it?). But there are alternatives, if you are open to them. Omission is my current favorite beer, and Red Bridge isn’t too bad either. There are also lots of GF options in ciders, wine, and liquors. I’m not sure about grain alcohol because, you know, there’s grain in it, but I have read some articles saying distilled alcohol is safe. Hmmm… Like any other food, do your research to make sure the ingredients are okay for you. I’ve found that alcohols don’t often have ingredients listed on them, so you’ll need to do online research and not rely on the label.
Another question that arises from that food list above: Where do we buy groceries? The good news is special dietary limits like ours are becoming more mainstream. There are options like Whole Foods (which some of my friends lovingly call “Whole Paychecks” because it is so expensive), and Trader Joe’s has a good selection too. We’ve found GF waffle mix at Costco (also my favorite place for coconut oil – which could be another post as well!). Our local grocery stores have lots of options too – the best is Dierbergs, but Schnucks is getting the hang of it, and even our Walmart has a decent selection. It really is possible to shop in a “regular” store and find some options, as long as you slash your expectations and know foods like Little Debbie snack cakes are NOT on the list anymore. Change your mindset and take that off the table – literally and figuratively – right from the start. It will make things much more manageable if you lower your expectations.
After the WHAT do I eat questions, the next question people usually ask me is: how do you feel? Has this new diet made a difference? The answer I give is yes, but the answer comes with some caveats. Let’s go through those first, then I’ll end with the benefits.
- Cost: Our grocery bill has increased. Cheap food is usually not very good for you, so it is expensive to eat better. There is no getting around it. Do you wonder why high fructose corn syrup is an ingredient in so many foods? Because it is cheaper than real sugar. Cheap is what drives the food industry (of course), and the public demands greater taste for less money.
- Less convenience: There is no more fast food for our family, except for Chick-fil-A (thank you, God!). Their grilled chicken is GF, so that’s an option for us. But there really isn’t anything fast or convenient about eating better, unless you are…
- …Planning ahead: We can’t simply leave the house and expect to find something allergen-free wherever we go. We plan ahead, even more than we did before. Being a mom of little ones means I do that naturally (that’s what the diaper bag was for, right?), but now it’s imperative. At breakfast, I already know what we’re having for dinner. At school, I also know when another kid in the class is going to bring in a birthday treat. I’ve prepared by sending in an alternative PLUS having an emergency stash in the classroom if the birthday celebration was a surprise for the teacher.
- Packing: There is a lot more food portability going on these days. Whether it’s stashed snacks in the trunk of the car (crackers, and applesauce) or lunches for work or school, the planning ahead [see above] means our lunch boxes aren’t just for decoration anymore.
- Dining out: When we DO eat out as a family, there are limited choices where we can go. If it’s just me and Dan, that isn’t so hard because I’m okay with a plain grilled chicken breast or a salad. The kids aren’t, so we have to work around what they will eat. And I’ve been known to carry in a packed meal for the kids to eat [see “Packing” above], or to stop and buy a few items to go along with whatever they might be able to eat at the restaurant. When we explain to the waiters why we brought food with us, they have been okay with it.
- Social burden: I know our friends love us and wouldn’t hold our food issues against us, but it does get frustrating because when we eat out with friends – or are invited to their houses – we can’t simply eat like everyone else. We have to bring food with us [see “Packing”] or find a restaurant where everyone can find an option they like. It isn’t much different than working around food preferences on a regular basis (like one couple might not like Chinese and the other doesn’t like Mexican, so you go for Italian), but it seems more burdensome when it involves a food allergy. Sometimes it seems a food preference is more acceptable than an allergy, which is frustrating because – trust me! – I’d much rather be eating a juicy plate of chicken wings with buttery hot sauce and celery dipped in blue cheese. But that just ain’t gonna happen anymore. We try to be flexible or pack as best as we can.
Whew! That’s a lot to process, and I think maybe I’m forgetting something in those lists. But at least it’s a start to the food discussion. I encourage you – no, implore you! – to do your own research on this. There are countless blogs and websites available to help navigate the food elimination world. And I feel like I have to put a disclaimer here: the “results aren’t typical” sort of thing to remind you we are each unique machines with bodies designed by a magnificent Creator. Yours works a little different than mine (aren’t you lucky?!) and your results won’t necessarily be the same as mine. But you won’t know if you don’t try it, and I hope this information gives you a little encouragement on the journey. If you’re brand new at it or an old pro, there’s one last piece of advice I have: remember it will get easier. You are much more resilient than you realize. Amen!
- Food controls me less: I have always loved food, which I have always known about myself. But when I started on this journey, I realized that food was controlling me. I was planning meals based on the joy I would get from them, which is different than the “Planning Ahead” sort of planning I mentioned in the bulleted list above. In the midst of all these changes, I realized food had a big hold over me. It had become an idol, and a source of misplaced pleasure. Now, don’t get me wrong: I think about food probably just as much – if not more – than I did prior to the dietary changes. But I’m no longer thinking about food solely for pleasure. Now I’m thinking about food and planning ahead so I don’t get caught without sustenance. Food has become that: sustenance that can be joyful, not merely a direct line to joy. I’ve learned that every meal doesn’t have to be an amusement park of frivolity. Some meals are simply nutrition and food, and that’s okay!
- Regularity: Yes, I know sometimes I can be a little too honest. I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say things are more regular – and less forced – than they were before.
- Cycles: My gynecologist tells me I am – gasp! – premenopausal, so I’m all over the place anyway. Again, I won’t go into detail, but I will say there has been a little more regularity in this area. Not a ton, but a little.
- Senses: My senses have changed, especially my sense of smell and taste. Scents don’t need to be quite so overpowering for me to notice and smell them, and my tastes have changed and become less dull.
- Weight loss: This is the most visually obvious benefit, and the one that gets people started asking me about the changes I’ve made. So far, I’ve lost about 20 pounds and I haven’t counted a single calorie or fat gram. I eat until I’m full, which is a technique I never understood when I was filling up on gluten, corn and dairy. Fullness comes quicker when food has less fillers. Doesn’t make sense, does it? But it does, at least for me.
- Less victimized, more control: I have more confidence now because I am the one choosing my foods and not being a victim to what I previously perceived as no choice. Now I know that I am not forced to put something in my mouth, and I won’t die from starvation if I choose not to eat something that isn’t a great option for me. I can pass on a piece of “normal” birthday cake because I know the taste isn’t worth all the work I’ve put into cleaning out my system.
- Skin: My middle-age acne has cleared up tremendously.
- Heartburn: And so has my heartburn!
- Less medication: I was taking eight pills a day for my thyroid, heartburn, acne, lupus, and Raynaud’s Syndrome. I’m down to only two now, and I’m hoping to get off one of them when I see my rheumatologist and tell her the nifedipine just doesn’t help me with my Raynaud’s. And less medication also means less money spent on drugs. Even though I mentioned a higher grocery bill in the “Downside” list above, less medication cost helps with some of that cost.
- Conscious and aware: My kids and I are more conscious of the foods we eat. They read labels now, which I think is good. It’s not in an obsessive way, but in a food-conscious way. They are aware of the food that goes into their bodies, and are equipped to make better choices.