After a decade of suffering with stomach-related problems labeled as IBS and brushed off by several doctors, my symptoms became serious enough last year to dramatically affect my quality of life and require surgical intervention. While I’ve always been interested in healthy living and eating, it felt misguided to believe dietary changes could dramatically improve my health when I had felt unwell for so long. I also struggled with the confusing and often-contradictory information I read, and though I longed to be on a path towards feeling well, I didn’t know where to start.
I finally found a wonderful specialist who recommended I try a gluten-free diet even though I had tested negative for celiac disease. I initially struggled to accept the idea of an elimination diet when it was proven I did not have a severe allergy. I hated two associations I had with the diet: being forced to give up so many of my favorite foods AND not being able to easily dine at restaurants. After all, I had shared several meals with a gluten-free friend and secretly winced when the game of twenty questions began with the waiter. Granted, more often than not, the staff attempted to be helpful, but the long exchange often involving multiple employees or trips to the kitchen took a little of the fun and a lot of the ease out of the meal for her (and selfishly, me).
However, after a decade of suffering, I decided to overlook these relatively minor concerns to see if eliminating gluten would help. Surprisingly, it improved my health in a dramatic way and even prompted me to make some other small dietary changes that have offered noticeable results!
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- Eliminating Wheat: Admittedly, eating gluten-free is the new fad and, for some, is a trendy choice rather than a health-related one. However, in the three months since I’ve eliminated gluten from my diet, I have significantly less abdominal pain and bloating along with more energy and less sluggishness. I spent a good part of the last five years feeling as though I was sleepwalking through entire days, but in an effort to be healthy, I loaded up on wheat—items like bread, pasta, oatmeal, and cereal. I can remember days where my diet consisted of bran cereal for breakfast, a sandwich on a wheat sub for lunch, and whole wheat pasta for dinner. While I’m not by any means advocating a gluten-free diet for everyone—it is after all, restrictive, expensive, and unnecessary for many—try reducing your consumption for a few weeks to see if there’s a noticeable difference. Eliminating gluten made a significant change in my health, as I now feel alive and vibrant most days as opposed to previously just making it through the day.
- Reducing Dairy: In my case, dairy affects me in much the same way as wheat. Without fail, eating dairy worsens my existing symptoms, as dairy is proven to increase existing inflammation. I drank lactose-free milk for years but ate other dairy products with abandon, whether due to laziness or ignorance, I’m not sure. While I’ve struggled to make the leap to completely eliminating dairy in addition to gluten, I’ve noticed how much better I feel when I have dairy-free days. I’ve also discovered Greek yogurt contains less lactose than regular does, and Kefir actually contains very little, giving me “cheat” options on days when I crave dairy.
- Increasing Fruits and Veggies: Sure, we’ve all heard about the benefits of fruits and vegetables for years (and even some cautions, such as the high amount of sugar in many fruits). However, when I removed wheat from my diet, salads (with oil and vinegar) and vegetable sides suddenly became an easy restaurant meal option. While it’s much easier to be gluten-free in my own kitchen, I’ve started making sure I’m eating at least one fruit or vegetable with each meal. If I’m having Saturday morning pancakes (gluten-free, which aren’t half bad!), I top them with strawberries or bananas to easily add more nutrients and fiber. And while I’m guilty of buying $7 juices and smoothies from time to time, I’ve started making the same at home, saving quite a bit of money. If you’re like me and great about buying produce when shopping but are often looking for a quick snack while rushing out the door, set aside some time (maybe 30 minutes) to slice and cut at least some of your produce when you first bring it home. You’ll be much more likely to eat those mango slices if they’re sitting in your fridge ready to go than if the whole mango stares back at you from the counter!
- Switching from Coffee to Tea: Along with the other changes, I’ve recently switched to hot (and iced—after all, I do live in the South!) tea instead of coffee. While I never was a huge coffee drinker, I drank it at irregular times when I needed a quick pick-me-up for an evening work event or to write a paper. Because my body never got used to the caffeine jolt, I’d feel anxious and jittery after just one cup. I switched to hot tea as well as chai and green tea lattes (both have a little less than two-thirds the caffeine of the same size latte or espresso beverage) after I noticed the lesser amount of caffeine affected me differently. It helped perk me up without leaving me shaky or unable to concentrate. The health benefits of coffee (in moderation) have been well-documented, so I’m not at all encouraging a change for everyone. However, finding the right level of caffeine was another small and easy change that offered me a big result.