For years, I dealt with stomach issues on a daily basis. I simply accepted the heartburn, bloating, and abdominal cramping as a normal part of life. But in February 2020, the pain and discomfort became so intense that I finally went to a GI doc to figure out what was wrong.
Not long after, I had an endoscopy—a procedure in which a doctor inserts a long, flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end down your throat to examine and diagnose conditions of the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine—and I got my answer.
I had celiac disease, an autoimmune condition in which eating gluten—the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—damages the small intestine. This damage makes it hard for the body to properly absorb nutrients, which is why many people with the disease are deficient in key nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin B12, and iron.
Left untreated, celiac disease can also lead to infertility and miscarriage, osteoporosis, and the development of other autoimmune disorders like type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
The good news: The damage caused by celiac disease can heal over time if you adopt a gluten-free diet. In fact, until doctors develop a cure for celiac, a gluten-free diet is truly the only treatment.
The Ups and Downs of Going Gluten-Free
After my endoscopy, my doctor told me to stop eating gluten ASAP. She also recommended I start taking a handful of daily supplements, since blood tests revealed I was close to being vitamin D-deficient and slightly low in other nutrients. Adding a multivitamin with iron, vitamin D, and B12 supplements to my day was simple enough.
As someone who considers herself a foodie, I won’t pretend that this news—or the process of changing my diet—was easy. For the first few weeks, I definitely mourned the fact that I’d never be able to eat some of my favorite foods again. It was nice knowing you, soup dumplings and croissants.
At the suggestion of my doctor, though, I scheduled an appointment with a dietitian, who helped me map out a gluten-free eating plan. I was happy to learn that meat, veggies, fruits, and dairy are naturally gluten-free. (And, thankfully, so is wine.)
Luckily, most of the meals I cooked for myself already consisted of lots of naturally gluten-free foods, such as salmon, chicken, sweet potatoes, spinach, and rice. But the world of treats proved to be tricky. Finding good gluten-free bread, pasta, and baked goods was challenging! Many of the packaged breads and cakes I tried as I started exploring were dense, dry, and seriously lacking in flavor. Even worse, one of the gluten-free pastas I made turned into inedible mush when I mistakenly boiled it for a minute too long. Oops.
Refusing to settle for less-than-satisfying carbs, I started scouring blogs and cookbooks for recipes and product recommendations—and that’s where I struck gold.
In the year and a half since I was diagnosed, I’ve made gluten-free everything bagels from scratch, served gluten-free rigatoni with homemade vodka sauce, and baked all the gluten-free brownie mixes I could get my hands on. (King Arthur’s is the best, BTW.)
Over time, my cravings for the glutinous versions of these foods has all but subsided, especially since I now know that they were the source of my stomach pain. Plus, in some cases, I actually prefer the gluten-free versions of my favorite eats. For example, I think cauliflower pretzels taste so much better than the regular ones—and this gluten-free birthday cake sandwich cookie recipe has made me forget Oreos even exist.
Although I used to opt for takeout two or three times a week, I now look forward to cooking dinner at home more often because it’s been so fun to experiment with new ingredients and recipes. I also found baking particularly stress-relieving during the height of the pandemic—and think it’s a passion that’ll stick for the long run.
Navigating Celiac Disease at Restaurants
While I’ve got my new gluten-free lifestyle down to a science at home, navigating celiac disease in the outside world is honestly something I’m still figuring out as I go.
Take eating out at restaurants, for example—one of the trickiest parts about having celiac disease. You see, even if a food is inherently gluten-free, it could easily be cross-contaminated—and therefore lead to a stomachache and intestinal damage—if the restaurant prepares it on the same surface as something with gluten in it.
This means that I have to grill chefs and waiters about how they prep food before I order anything when I go out. I hate being seen as a nuisance, so I’m still slightly uncomfortable with this new routine, even though I know it’s necessary to advocate for myself so that I don’t get sick. I will say, though, that it’s getting easier the more I get in the habit of doing it!
Eating Gluten-Free While Traveling
Another stressor: traveling. Having celiac means it’s almost impossible to be spontaneous on vacation. No longer can I just pop into a random hole-in-the-wall restaurant that I come across while sightseeing and order whatever calls out to me.
Before leaving for a recent road trip, for example, I did hours of research to find safe dining options and book reservations well in advance. The Find Me Gluten-Free app—which is like Yelp for gluten-free food—was a lifesaver.
I packed a cooler of gluten-free protein bars and other snacks to ensure I’d have something to munch on in case we couldn’t find any safe dining spots on the road. I also stashed anti-nausea and diarrhea meds in my bag, too, just in case I accidentally ate gluten.
My intense planning paid off, though. I didn’t get sick, and also got to enjoy some yummy meals at places that take celiac disease and food allergies seriously.
My Health—and Life—Forever Changed (for the Better!)
Learning to cope with celiac disease certainly hasn’t been without its struggles. To be honest, I still get sad every now and then when I think about all the foods I can no longer eat. And it can be tiring to always have to thoroughly research restaurants before I go out.
Despite that, I’m glad I was diagnosed. I’m so relieved to know what had been causing my tummy troubles—and to have a concrete plan to follow so I can feel better. In fact, my acid reflux, bloating, and abdominal pain all disappeared within just a few weeks (!!!) of changing my diet.
I’ve noticed other improvements in my health since going gluten-free and starting a vitamin regimen, too. I have more energy (fatigue is a common symptom of celiac disease) and my hair grows faster and feels stronger (it used to break off easily pre-diagnosis). I’ve even lost a few pounds because I’m no longer bloated from all the gluten. Feeling better physically has also definitely improved my mental health.
In general, my eating habits have also gotten all-around healthier since my diagnosis. Now, I pay more attention to what I eat and stick to a diet of mainly whole, unprocessed foods. (Don’t get me wrong, though, I do enjoy my fair share of gluten-free pizza and cookies from time to time!)
Ultimately, my celiac diagnosis has taught me to prioritize my health, rather than sweep my issues under the rug as I did for so many years. And that’s something I wouldn’t trade for all the pizza and bagels in the world.