1. Try a gradual purge. Some time ago I consulted my good friend and weight loss guru Josh Hillis for advice on how to improve my diet. He suggested that rather than trying to overhaul my entire diet at once, I work to tidy up one meal (breakfast) for four days or a week before working on lunch. After that I could focus on improving my dinners, my snacks, my post-workouts, etc… The idea was to improve my eating habits in a manageable and sustainable way. I urge anyone who isn’t celiac (if you’re celiac, don’t play! Gluten is like crystal meth for your gut!) to try the same technique with gluten. In my experience it is especially helpful to figure out a variety of gluten-free breakfasts before attempting anything else, as it will set the tone for your day and help you feel empowered instead of overwhelmed.
2. Gluten withdrawal. So hot right now. Recently there has been a lot of research into the addictive properties of food. And not surprisingly, it’s starting to show that gluten and many of the sugary foods that contain it are obnoxiously addicting. Depriving your body of its gluten “fix” may leave you cranky, fatigued, and anxious, and if you sharply cut carbs (‘sup, paleo pals?) you may also experience the dreaded “low carb flu.” These unique discomforts are yet another reason why the gradual weaning approach is nice, or if you are celiac, why you might find it easiest to initially rely on gluten-free substitutes (g-f breads and cookies!) before transitioning to a cleaner and less expensive way of eating. Regardless of how quickly you transition, definitely be sure to hydrate like crazy, eat a bit of salt, nourish yourself with vitamin- and mineral-rich foods, take probiotics, and pamper yourself with some appropriate treats. (Also, if you’re an athlete read up on ‘safe starches’ and experiment with the right amount of carbs for you.)
3. Feed the flora. Please acquire probiotics ASAP. You cannot radically alter the composition of your diet without affecting your intestinal flora, so pick up a bulk bottle of probiotics and show your gut some love. Also, probiotic foods are legit – think fermented things like kombucha, kefir, pickles, sauerkraut, and plain Greek yogurt. Just don’t be that well-meaning buffoon who fills their cart with ridiculously processed, sugar-filled Activia. 🙂
4. Deal with the feelings. Although I’m a rather low-key person who has always prioritized health, I was shocked how many powerful emotions hit me when I first went gluten free. For days, weeks, and even months later I’d experience sudden moments of grief and frustration, such as when I encountered a nostalgic tasty (funnel cake at the fair! Okonomiyaki at Zencha!) or ran up against an uncooperative barista (“Eh, I’d just assume everything has gluten.”) To be honest, I still have damnit moments of self-pity and irritation today, and that’s fine with me. Don’t give yourself a hard time for being human and culturally conditioned to assign enormous value to various foods. If you need to mope or cry or complain, do it, especially in the beginning of your journey, but please don’t let yourself start to think like a victim. Promise me you won’t internally reframe yourself as a sickly, deprived, high maintenance, alienating, or otherwise negatively special snowflake – because you aren’t. You’ve got an autoimmune condition that means you can’t eat certain kinds of foods, and it sucks, but it really doesn’t affect your awesomeness to any degree. Relax. Have hope. I will help you deal with the hard emotional stuff in an upcoming post. 🙂
5. Finally: be patient. As you probably gathered from the tips above, gluten is a tricksy substance that will not go down without a fight. It will continue to affect your system for quite a while after you’ve stopped actively ingesting it. Some people will notice an immediate improvement in their health after cutting gluten for a day, but most will not see improvements for at least a week. Celiacs and those with strong sensitivities/intolerances may need three months to a year to get back to maximum health. This sounds discouraging, but actually it’s kind of awesome: every day for a year you get to wake up excited to see what unexpected health improvement you feel. As your gut heals and the chronic inflammation in your system continues to fade, you may discover that your lactose intolerance has faded, that your joints no longer ache, that your skin is surprisingly clear, etc. Expect to start feeling a bit better quickly but not a ton better until months later – at which point you will be so deliriously happy that the “struggle” of going gluten-free will have transformed into a pleasure instead. Isn’t it cool how a simple thing like a dietary tweak can dramatically improve your health?! Yeah, I thought so.