For years “gluten free” has been a favourite for all health nuts, so much so that it has become somewhat of a controversial joke. Some people say going gluten free is good for you others warn wholeheartedly against it with claims that it can actually damage your health – so who do you believe?
Let me start off by pointing out that I am not a medical professional – in any capacity – nor am I a scientist who has spent years researching this in a lab and I’m not about to get into the debate but what I am is someone who is sensitive to gluten. Now before you tut and brush me off for saying that let me give you a little background into my experience with gluten.
From the moment I could hold me breath underwater I was a swimmer, I competed in every gala, I trained twice a day for at least two hours at a time and I lived and breathed (though not always intentionally) water. As a result I ate a pretty carb heavy diet to keep me going and my go to was pasta – be in spaghetti bolognese, lasagne or a simple bowl of pasta with butter and grated cheese; it was easy and I could cook it myself.
When I was about 9 or 10 (maybe even younger) I started getting tonsillitis a lot – and I’m not exaggerating, I was laid up in bed every few weeks with swollen tonsils, a fever and dizzy spells. Yet every time I went to the doctor and he poked and prodded my throat he would tell me they weren’t inflamed enough to warrant removing them but no one could figure out why I kept getting sick.
Trip after trip we would sit in the waiting room – me with my little cone of water from the drinking fountain, waiting to be taken and weighed and measured, (I was in so often nothing ever changed much) then I’d go back to the waiting room and annoy my mum until my name was called. Trundle, trundle into the doctors office, climb onto his table shaped like an elephant and sit there expectantly waiting for the same routine: check the lungs, the heart, “open your mouth and say ah!”, nasty tasting wooden stick, poke poke, check the ears, “okay get down”. Every time it was the same thing (except that once when it was strep throat instead – what an exciting day that was) and I would talk all the drugs, get all the rest and still a few weeks later I’d be doing a very good impression of a bullfrog once again.
Eventually my mum got fed up, there was only so many times she could listen to the same thing, fight with me to take the same medicine and call the school with the same excuse for my absence. She started looking for someone else to help, to figure out why my illness kept coming back, which is when she met Judy Cole, a kinesiologist, nutritionist and author of the book Body Talks.
I remember the appointment with Judy; sitting on her exam table with my gangly legs hanging over the edge, nervous and not sure what to expect… “what on earth is kinesiology” I remember thinking. She came in and explained that she was going to talk to my body and find out what was wrong – “yeah okay crazy lady”, I didn’t believe a word of it.
She took my arm and told me to hold it out in front of me, just relaxed. Then she asked me a question and lightly pushed on my arm, it dropped a bit. Then she asked another and pushed on my arm, it didn’t move…I looked at her confused and she explained that when my arm dropped it meant yes and when it stayed strong it meant no (or vice versa I can’t remember it was over 10 years ago!). She asked my body about various foods, tomatoes – no, peanut butter – no, bread…my arm dropped into my lap like it had just given up. Same thing with pasta, cake, anything with gluten.
There lies the problem.
I sat on the table looking panicked as Judy explained to my mum that I’d have to cut out this, that and the other, oh, and more importantly than anything else, no more gluten, I was intolerant to it and I had to do it for at least 6 months. I couldn’t believe it, what was I going to eat?!
In the early 2000s gluten free was not “a thing” in Dubai, it was barely “a thing” in the rest of the world and there was just one place that had gluten free(ish) bread and that was Park ‘n’ Shop. The bakery there had started making spelt bread and while spelt flour still has gluten in it, it is a lot more friendly on the stomach for those with gluten sensitivity (well some of us anyway). So I started cutting out gluten and I quickly ran into two problems:
- EVERYTHING has gluten in it. Everything. Do you know how boring my school lunch box became?!
- The spelt bread…yeah, it tasted like cardboard. The bakery had yet to perfect the recipe and while you wouldn’t tell the difference now, back then a box was more appetising.
So I powered through, I hated everyone for a long while because I was the only person I knew who couldn’t eat this weird gluten stuff and it was really hard.
Cut to six months later and we were in Thailand; I was counting the days until I could eat pasta again, and the day came, I had some noodles and I was okay. More importantly than my plate of pad thai though was the fact that in those six months I had not been sick, my tonsils stayed their normal size and I went to school like a normal child because I had starved the virus that was living in my body, feeding off the gluten, and to this day (touch wood) I have never had tonsillitis again.
Now, after my six months of strict gluten freeness I threw in the towel. Nothing was going to stand between me and my mums mac and cheese. My intolerance was gone and I was free to eat what I liked…YOLO and all that.
Cut to years later, enter an auto immune disease and a whole lot of pain…oh yeah, and the resurfacing of that pesky gluten sensitivity. I’d over done it and my body was pissed, every time I ate a bread rolls it made me feel ill, every bowl of pasta made me bloat – but did it stop me…hell no.
Yes, I’m an idiot, I know.
It took a few years for me to find out I had psoriasis and then a little while more before I found out that gluten is one of the biggest aggravators. So I tried cutting out the gluten again, and I tried going paleo and I tried incorporating ayurvedic principals and I got overwhelmed with all the restrictions and the knowledge – I suddenly knew too much about the food I should or should not be eating and I freaked. I didn’t want to cook, I lost my appetite, I just could not be bothered – but through all of this my head was better, less itchy, less flakey, less general pain…but was it all a placebo effect? Did I just think it was better because I had been told that by cutting out gluten things would get better…
About a month ago now I decided to just stop trying to keep up with all the rules and restrictions in an effort to find my passion for food again, I missed being in the kitchen but at the same time I had no desire to try cooking anything. I decided to go back to the simple things, the food I ate as a kid, easy dinners that were nutritious but not complicated.
In those three weeks I cooked my first complete roast dinner on my own, I made spaghetti bolognese, tarragon chicken, I packed myself lunch boxes of grapes, cheese cubes, carrot stick, hummus and sandwiches and for breakfast I had cereal, yoghurt and porridge…old school.
I ate what I wanted when I wanted and I quickly got my appetite back, I found that I was less hungry and had less of a desire to snack between meals because I wasn’t fixated on what I couldn’t eat.
Sounds good right? Wrong.
For the last two or so years my psoriasis has been bearable because of my on off attempts to eat properly and other things that I’ve been doing but since I started eating what I wanted I have had the most unbearable flare which started a few days into it. My scalp has been on fire, so much so that it hurts to brush it, my eyes had been sore and dry and I’ve been struggling more than normal to see properly, my brain fog has been absolutely ridiculous and my joint pain is back to being crippling at times.
It has made me realise that there is merit in going gluten free if it is what works for you – just like anything else – and I’ll be going back to limiting my gluten consumption because being in this much pain is not worth being able to eat what ever I want.