5 Tips for Surviving the Transition to a Gluten Free Life

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.)

You’re not. It just feels that way. 😉

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. 🙂

Stay strong.

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.

Celiac, food sensitivities, etc.: because regular life was too easy for you.

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Don’t vs. Can’t: How to Own Your Choices

I once came across a psychological study mentioned briefly in a health magazine.  The study focused on the subtle influence of language on diet.  It found that participants who spoke about their diets in terms of don’t (“I don’t drink soda”) lost significantly more weight than those who explained their diets in terms of can’t (“I can’t drink soda”), even when other factors were controlled for.

This is powerful. Think about it for a minute.

The researchers theorized that usage of can’t unconsciously indicated powerlessness.  It implied that the can’t dieters had some sort of inability, some restraint preventing them from making a conscious choice. The don’t dieters, meanwhile, were expressing empowerment, indicating clearly how they do and do not behave based on personal decisions. They may have wanted to drink soda, but saying “I don’t” expressed their will and neatly precluded further discussion.

Why does this matter? For starters, follow-up discussion is an underrated danger. In the diet arena we all too often behave well on our own but give into friendly social pressure, and this is especially true when sabotage comes in the form of flattery (“Girl, you NEED dessert with your lunch! Just look how skinny you are!”) or encouraged self-indulgence (“Come on. You earned at least three beers tonight, man”). We all want to seem fun and easygoing, and women especially hope to avoid the shame and stigma associated with dieting.

That’s why it’s time to take don’t for a ride…

Imagine I’m at a restaurant with my friends and suddenly announce that I can’t drink soda.  At least half of my uppity friends would immediately call shenanigans on this claim, and some of the more devious ones might even start to think challenge accepted.  The hard truth is that badass people will not accept lame-ass excuses, and a feeble “I can’t drink soda” is the equivalent of a “kick me” sign.

Now imagine I said “I don’t drink soda” and promptly ordered a water. Most people would not blink an eye at this. Of course if someone did happen to ask me “why not?” I would respond to them simply (“It’s too sugary for me”; “I don’t like it”; “health reasons”; etc.), but the key here is that I would not have to apologize, defend, or explain. Don’t is a choice word. It expresses who you are.  People find it easy to question imaginary disabilities, but questioning life choices is a whole different game.

So now take this trick and apply it to anything. You’ll be amazed at how your confidence and efficacy soar. If there’s something you don’t like, say so kindly, firmly, and with minimal fanfare, and don’t forget that the opposite is also powerful (stating what you do and are.) I think you’ll be pleased to discover that your choices require much less justification than you think they do, and that you can safeguard your routines and other priorities without coming across as rigid or obsessed.  Seriously. This week I challenge you to decline an invitation with “I run on Tuesday nights. Maybe Wednesday?” instead of a lame and rambling excuse like “Well I wish I could go to happy hour tonight, but I don’t think I’ll have time because I usually try to run, and running is important to me for my health because blah blah blah.” Etc. Ain’t nobody got time for dat.

I want to end this article with a reminder to my fellow gluten-free and paleo folks, all of whom can relate to the experience of being challenged and questioned for going gluten/grain/etc.-free. People will insinuate that you’re just being trendy; they’ll say that you’re paranoid or really extreme; and horribly, they’ll imply that your health problems are imaginary if you don’t have celiac sprue.

So how do you respond? You don’t, folks. Haters gonna hate. All too often I hear gluten-free folks frantically justifying their gluten-free lifestyle, as though anyone anywhere has a right to give you shit about what you put in your mouth.  

So the next time you need to tell someone you don’t eat gluten, I challenge you to just say, “I don’t eat gluten.” The same goes for sugar or dairy or other foods.  If people ask you why, you can explain your decision, but make sure you’re explaining to educate or bond, not because you’re trying to prove that you are not trendy/arbitrary/insane.

Because really, so what if you were? What if you adopted the difficult gluten-free style for absolutely no reason at all? 

That’s your prerogative.

Own your choices.

You don’t apologize for who you are.