I would like to share with you a little bit about my gluten-free journey. This story, which I will share in three parts, is both personal and scientific, so it’s going to get a little uncomfortable in here if you don’t want to hear about reproductive health issues. (No gory details, don’t worry.) I share this in hopes that someone in the same place might benefit from a story like this, because I haven’t read about anything quite like my story before.
This first part is less the scientific part, and more the reflective/theological part.
The second part will be about the scientific reasons that I went off gluten, and the results of the experiment.
The third part will be about my next experiments with grains.
About six months ago, I held an extreme prejudice against what you might call the “voluntary gluten-free diet.” Everyone has noticed by now: gluten-free is trending. The over-consumption of wheat (or any grains) and massive latent gluten intolerance are supposedly behind all kinds of health problems, from weight gain to intestinal issues to general tiredness.
I kept having friends who, without having celiac, would say things like “I tried it, and I felt better,” or “I lost all this weight,” and so they were sticking with a gluten-avoiding “diet” for the unforeseen future. This bugged the heck out of me. First, because for people who actually have celiac, this is not a “diet”; it is survival. They can’t “cheat” or they’ll be sick in bed the next day. Second, because food properly engaged is such an important part of community. Fellowship over food is how friendships are built, hospitality offered, and care shown during times of need. I am more than happy to show extra love to someone with a dietary need, but tell me that special diet is voluntary and I get grumpy. Third, I have a personal inclination to do things more naturally, traditionally, and closer to the source, and going GF seemed to tie one down to packaged foods, and shut out a very ancient tradition of grain subsistence. Fourth, gluten-freedom is expensive. Frankly, the whole thing sounded like a problem invented by people who need a real problem.
Then I had the brilliant idea of asking one of these friends – who I otherwise respected a lot and so found her voluntary GF diet somewhat incongruous – why she was doing it. Her answer was that new research was suggesting that “mild” celiac (without uncomfortable digestive symptoms) had been implicated in repeated miscarriage.
That brought me up short. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve had three miscarriages. I’d had all the tests done, all coming up inconclusive, and succeeded in keeping my last pregnancy by taking (what seemed like massive) daily doses of synthetic progesterone. I hated putting so much hormone in my body, as I’d had more than one older lady friend get cancer attributed to hormonal medication. But I would do anything, within the bounds of truth and goodness, for my babies. I would take hormones again. But frankly, I would rather go gluten free, if that was the choice before me.
I started doing my own research, and the dots started connecting. I will share more about those dots in the next post. Suffice it to say that, considering that the possibility on the line was that of keeping a future pregnancy without hormonal intervention, I was willing to try. I put my GF start date as January 1st – easy to remember, and then I could still have my Christmas cookies. (I will fight you for my lemon bars.) My plan was simple: go off all gluten for four months, with some objective, scientific measures to see if it was helping.
Of course, this also meant that I had to become That Person. The one on a voluntary gluten free diet. The one that if you wanted them to come to a party, you had to keep them in mind when you shopped. I really struggled with this for weeks. I kept telling myself, “you’re doing this for the babies, it’s okay,” but I felt very guilty and embarrassed at first. Basically, I was feeling the graceless judgment I had heaped on others. I suppose I learned a lesson about putting myself in others’ shoes, and not to be so quick to judge people who are making life decisions I don’t understand.
What shocked me was how others responded to my timid announcement that I was going to “try gluten free.” I made it clear when I went anywhere that they didn’t have to make anything super-special… I could bring my own bread… But everywhere I went, my friends and new friends went above and beyond. They bought GF pasta, GF bread, GF desserts, GF crackers (things I rarely even buy myself). One couple had us over the day before my birthday and surprised me with a gluten-free birthday cake! I apologized, I was touched, I thanked, and I ate. I ate three pieces of the birthday cake.
The whole thing was made much easier by the fact that there is now always a GF option at my school’s lunch, and there are several people at our small church plant who are necessarily GF, so there are usually GF considerations made at church meal functions. Also, I do not bother staying away from anything on “shared equipment.”
I still have reasons to be suspicious about many dietary trends (gluten free, nourishing traditions, vegan, and paleo among them). There seems to be a genuine pursuit of goodness and beauty implicit in the search for whole and healthy eating, fed by a restlessness with the status quo. This restlessness is appropriate, as the status quo is rather sick. At the same time, our culture’s preoccupation with health explicitly feeds our consumeristic self-obsession, and tends to blind us to the harm we are doing to others in our ways of eating. I struggle to reconcile these things in myself, as thinking about food appeals so completely to my love of planning and sensory experience. There is no easy answer.
So it’s now May 5th, and I’m sure you are wondering – what happened?! Come back for answers tomorrow!