How Going "Gluten Free" Wasn't Really What I Expected:
When you feel uncomfortable, you grasp on to any sense of stability and/or identity available.
During the summer of 2018, the discomfort and unhappiness I was mired in magnetized my desperate need for control, and the need to identify myself with the label and control of a diet. Yes, I had been dealing with digestive issues since 2017, and yes, the advice to follow a gluten free diet to help me minimize chronic gut inflammation was a result of less than promising lab results (if you wanna hear more about this story, click here).
However, there is more to a diet than just the black and white of a label. There is a lot of gray area in the discussion of “gluten”, but today I don't want to talk about the science.
I want to share how I abused the diet and as a result - myself.
Here is my experience with going gluten-free and the physical and psychological rollercoaster of following a strict diet:
Desperate for control
My doctor jokingly told me over the phone to “grab some tissues” because of the news he was about to share. My digestive aches and discomfort were a result of my body’s auto-immune response to gluten, frankly, I needed to completely change my diet. Yet, when I heard this news, I couldn’t help but feel the excitement of a new challenge. I was completely immersed in the “fad” of a gluten free diet from Instagram bloggers and my overall interest in the wellness world. However, I crossed the line from digestive support to an intense focus on controlling my identity, losing weight, and finally achieving my dream body through this diet.
By September 2018, I became obsessed with eating as little as possible. The pressure to feel "lean" developed into extreme anxiety. Simply eating in a dining hall became an insurmountable challenge, as I grappled with the need for control of my diet. Rather than seeking help, I began to restrict myself to a small bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, a small salad for lunch, and yet another small salad for dinner. Through these extremes I felt in control and even safe.
Rather than helping, in no time this new diet was wreaking havoc. My disgraceful bloat that made me feel “fat” had gotten worse. I felt exhausted all the time and I was still having major digestive pain. Yet when people asked me if this new diet was actually helpful, I answered with a resounding yes. A little voice may have been screaming at me to tell the truth, but I wanted this diet to be my identity. Why? Because I was in love with the control it gave me.
Science vs. Reality?
Evidently, my nerdy, scientific side could visibly see and comprehend how gluten was inflaming my digestive system and negatively affecting my body. When I got retested in January 2019 to supposedly see the inflammation go down after eliminating gluten from my diet for six months, my doctor was dumbfounded to see that everything on my tests had actually gotten worse.
What I didn’t want to disclose was that part of my digestive issues wasn’t stemming from just physical complications. There was an unhealthy mindset I had chosen, involving “safe” raw, hard to digest salads, (never with dressing), unbearable anxiety, and internal turmoil. I was beating myself to the ground, and obsessed with maintaining this curated “healthy” lifestyle.
(And this my friends, is how the power of the relationship between the mind and body play a crucial role).
What they don’t tell you when you start a new diet is the anxiousness, irritability, and isolation that comes with it.
I refused (for a while) to believe that this “glorified” diet was wreaking havoc with my health, and aiding in my eating disorder and psychological struggle. I didn’t understand the difference between a healthy mindset and listening to science. I thought “gluten free”, meant eat as little as possible, not a suggestion to eliminate foods that irritated my body.
But then I hit rock bottom. I was miserable. I was pushing away relationships. I was ignoring my body telling me that life could be gone at any second.
It was not cookie cutter easy, but slowly (if you want to learn more about my process with recovery, click here), with the encouragement of nutritional therapy, honest conversations, and education behind what the lab tests were showing me, both physically AND mentally, I finally was able to understand the choices I was making.
And from this learning curve, now, let me share some tough lessons I learned:
How you think about yourself truly can affect your physical well-being
Your body is expending thousands of calories to keep you alive. Self kindness goes a long way. However, I can’t emphasize enough that there is no deadline to re-heal that mind-body relationship. It took many months of tears and stubbornness for me to finally wake up and realize I needed to make serious changes for my health and wellbeing. It doesn’t mean that even to this day, I still sometimes struggle with not falling back into restriction when I am aching for control. However, I made a choice. To choose myself, and my health. And so should you.
A diet is not your identity. Nor an excuse
I used my new “diet” as a way to justify my behaviors. I made it my identity:
Sorry, I can’t eat that”. “Sorry, I shouldn’t go out tonight; I can’t eat at that restaurant”. “Sorry but, Sorry but, Sorry but…”
Even with suggested dietary changes, you are still allowed to socialize and enjoy being around food. I abused my diet to isolate myself from others because “they wouldn’t understand”. I avoided eating in public places as much as possible because I was embarrassed with my dietary actions. If this resonates with you, educate yourself. Be honest with your needs. I promise you, people are not as scary as they seem to be.
Just because someone may make a “pity” comment about how you can’t eat something, DOES NOT MEAN YOU DON’T EAT ANYTHING.
Their lack of education is not your problem. It is not a reflection of what you “aren’t allowed” to eat. There is a lot of food out there to choose from. You are allowed to eat what feels good to YOU. This is a great opportunity to open a discussion about your choices and how you feel about the situation.
At the end of everything, I learned that you have to understand your body, and respect yourself.
When I was able to do both of those things, I was able to make a step towards recovering from my eating disorder. Life has taught me that the only control we truly have is in our attitude, how we react to everything. To make progress, let’s start with the choice to heal. I may not be there yet, but I am on this journey - my journey - and you have the choice to be on your journey too.