Is a Celiac Disease Diagnosis a Curse or a Blessing?
When you’re first diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you’re faced with a couple of choices. One of those choices is pretending that you don’t have a problem with gluten. While this coping mechanism often occurs in those who have tried to self-diagnose themselves but aren’t quite ready to accept it, most people learning to cope with celiac disease or gluten issues do not experience typical symptoms.
The traditional perception of celiac disease is that it strikes children who quickly become malnourished, underweight and experience diarrhea. That perception no longer fits the majority of celiac disease patients today. In fact, most patients are adults who are normal weight, overweight or obese. Only one-third of those with gluten problems actually experience traditional gastrointestinal symptoms. One-half or more are completely symptom free. The rest have problems that fall outside the norm.
This denial tendency in both the diagnosed and undiagnosed makes it much harder to learn how to deal with celiac disease. However, having gastrointestinal problems doesn’t necessarily result in acceptance either. You might still struggle to understand the seriousness of sticking to a gluten-free diet, and the time it takes to read every label at the grocery store or learn which brands won’t hide gluten can make coping with celiac disease next to impossible.
Instead of learning to cope, you might be tempted to consider gluten restriction a curse, rather than a blessing, but that’s actually looking at the situation backwards.
Are pain, inflammation and diarrhea worth eating a ham and cheese sandwich on soft, fluffy white bread? Would you rather eat a chewy, overcooked, fast-food burger when you’re too tired to cook a nutritious dinner or alleviate your joint pain, heartburn and eczema? Are those Oreo cookies in your ice cream more important than your hives, cramping and hot flashes? Just how wonderful is your current gluten-saturated lifestyle?
Grieving is Part of the Process of Acceptance
Recognizing that a gluten-free diet is your new reality doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a few days to wallow in a little bit of self-pity. Losing gluten in our current age and society is a big thing. Don’t allow anyone to tell you it isn’t. Even though I’ve been gluten free for about three years now, I still miss the thick wheat crust on my homemade pizza, the soft, whole-wheat cinnamon rolls, the blueberry bagels with cream cheese, and the English muffins dripping with butter and homemade strawberry jam. I miss everything I haven’t been able to duplicate gluten free.
Learning the Blessings of a Gluten-Free Diet
The blessings of going gluten free can’t compare to everything I have lost. I learned that lesson recently when I discovered I was corn intolerant. After allowing that realization to settle a bit, I began wondering why I had started down the road I’m currently on because my food sensitivities have only gotten worse. What started out as just gluten free has now snowballed into requiring me to give up cow’s dairy and genetically modified sources of corn.
To make matters worse, I began wondering if I was even celiac at all. Many medical professionals and GMO-free supporters believe corn can damage the villi of your intestines the same as wheat, so it wasn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. I did allow that tidbit of information – along with the fact that enriched flours and most dairy products are contaminated with corn – to raise the hope that maybe I wasn’t sensitive to gluten after all. Maybe it’s just GMOs.
Putting that idea to the test was easy. I simply purchased some wheat pasta online that was imported from Italy. Although it didn’t taste any better than some of the gluten-free pastas available today, it was a cheaper option than purchasing a 25-pound bag of corn-free flour, and it was the flour I was actually after. I wanted to be able to make homemade wheat bread again. I wanted to be able to enjoy thick-crust pizza and fluffy cinnamon rolls.
That was my desire, but after eating the pasta a couple of times that week, my gastrointestinal problems were back. In fact, I suffered with so much inflammation, cramping and other issues that I couldn’t leave the house for several days. I had to spend most of my time in the shower. That was my newfound reality! I could no longer pretend that I didn’t have celiac disease. I was hurting, and I was ill. There was no way to deny it.
It was a sad period in my life because the test had destroyed a dream I’d tried to create, but it also reminded me of why I had embraced this road so heartily in the beginning of my journey. With gluten in my life, I didn’t have much of a life at all. I had pain, inflammation, heart irregularities, fat malabsorption, neuropathy, and another neurological problem called ataxia.
In a very real sense, I came to understand that those who haven’t been diagnosed are actually the unlucky ones because their health will continue to deteriorate on their gluten-saturated, standard American diet. Although it might not feel that way right now, being diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you.
Learning to Cope with a Gluten-Free Diet
When we lose something we hold dear, we are always faced with the necessity of accepting that our life has changed. While grieving takes up a portion of that path, there comes a time when we have to close the door on the way life used to be and embrace how life is today. That’s how it was for me.
Learning how to cope with celiac disease has not been easy. It’s time consuming to find out everything you need to know and follow. It’s difficult when family and friends don’t understand the seriousness of the situation. If you’re extra-sensitive to gluten as I am, you can even find yourself preferring to stay home most of the time rather than take the chance on being glutened. All of that translates into a drastic change in lifestyle.
Once celiac disease activates, there’s currently no way to undo the body’s response to gluten. The only treatment available is a gluten-free diet. Realistically however, telling someone to eliminate their favorite foods for the rest of their life in order to avoid undesirable complications will activate more emotions than just grief. Not only do celiacs have to cope with a gluten-free diet, but they also have to face their insecurities, anger and resistance to what they can no longer control in their life. That can make you feel alone, betrayed and fearful.
For those who don’t suffer drastic gastrointestinal symptoms or other serious health issues associated with gluten, it can be more difficult to see the benefit of switching to a gluten-free diet. Even so, compliance with a program that demands you eliminate wheat, barley and rye has the potential to bring you to a more wholesome table. If going gluten free merely results in switching from Frosted Flakes to Cocoa Pebbles, maybe not, but for a large number of celiacs, learning to cook and bake gluten free has opened a door of opportunity they didn’t see before.
Healthy meals have always been available, but cooking with whole foods and using alternative grains such as sorghum, millet and quinoa are foreign ideas to the average person. Life’s demands in our fast-paced society are generally accommodated by going out for a super-sized burger and fries or ordering in a pizza and popping a can of beer.
Once diagnosed with celiac disease, everything suddenly changes. Now, the hamburger bun is off limits, the fries are contaminated by chicken nuggets or onion rings fried in the same oil, the pizza crust is made from wheat flour and the beer contains wheat or barley malt.
Unless you live close to a health-food store or a very large supermarket that stocks gluten-free products, frozen meals and typical grab-and-go choices aren’t much better. You can no longer simply open up a box of macaroni and cheese and pop a package of hot dogs into a pot. Now, you have to actually cook and bake. However, cooking and baking gluten free doesn’t have to take a lot of time. All it takes is a slight shift in perspective.
If it was one of your children who had been diagnosed with celiac disease, instead of you, what would you be doing different? How would you be cooking? How would you be eating?
Turning the Curse of Celiac Disease into a Blessing
Peter H. R. Green is a well-known physician who specializes in treating those with celiac disease. In his book entitled, Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic, he states that many parents take better care of their children with celiac disease than his adult celiac patients take care of themselves. Children have a way of expressing truth in the most honest, straightforward manner. If they feel left out because everyone is eating something they can’t have, they’re likely to say so.
Most parents go out of their way to fulfill their children’s desires. Why should it be any different for you? Success doesn’t just happen on its own. Coping with celiac disease requires you to go out and make it happen. If you don’t like to cook or bake, that may mean trying a variety of different brands and products until you find the perfect cake or bread mix. It may mean investing in an indoor grill and food steamer that will allow you to enjoy a nicely marinated chicken breast and some steamed vegetables in less than 20 minutes.
If you do like to cook or bake, learning to cope means hunting down new recipes, food ideas and knowledgeable gluten-free cooks who can help you make the transition from a typical gluten-filled diet to something more wholesome and enjoyable. Yes, I said enjoyable. At first, removing gluten from your diet appears to be a tasteless chore, but once you get the hang of it, you can invest in a gluten-free cookbook, learn about gluten-free flours and discover the principles behind how to bake with them.
Gluten-free cooking and baking isn’t horrid. You can make delicious healthy meals and snacks. It’s just different. Instead of grabbing a package of Oreos, you’ll simply have to make your own gluten-free cookies, cakes, breads and muffins. You’ll have to learn how to convert some of your current recipes and favorite meals to be gluten free.
While some things such as bagels are not easily converted, using almond flour instead of graham cracker crumbs for your special holiday cheesecake recipe won’t make enough of a difference for your guests to even notice.
Letting go of the past will enable you learn how to cope with your celiac disease today. Yes, you will miss what life was like then, but that life doesn’t exist anymore. Instead of wasting your time wishing for what might have been, you’ll be much better off spending those hours learning to turn the curse of celiac disease into a blessing.