I was eating spaghetti with garlic bread at my parents’ house in Michigan when the phone in the kitchen rang. It was the call I had been dreading. The results were conclusive: I had celiac disease. I hung up the phone, left my half-eaten plate of spaghetti and half-finished slice of bread on the table, went to my room, crawled in bed and just cried.
For me, it was devastating. Food was my way of life. I was always the type of person who lived to eat, not ate to live.
My younger sister is diabetic, and growing up seeing the food sacrifices she had to make, I once actually told myself that if something like that ever happened to me, I would kill myself; I could never give up the foods I loved. Dinners growing up were always homemade, but my lunches consisted of things such as Hot Pockets, pizza rolls, macaroni, peanut butter sandwiches, Chef Boyardee, mozzarella cheese sticks and usually a cookie or brownie for dessert. Food in my family was a reward — a treat — and it almost always contained gluten.
Being diagnosed with celiac disease didn’t just change the food on my plate; it changed my way of life. The day after my last plate of spaghetti, I had packed my bags and hit the road on a 1,500-mile drive to Salt Lake City. I was starting a new job, living in a new place but also against my will, eating a new diet.
That first week was rough. As I traveled along Interstates 90 and 80 through small-town Iowa, South Dakota and Wyoming, I found myself sustaining on French fries and ice cream. By the time I made it to my job in Salt Lake City, I ended up being weak and sick the whole first week. I was fortunate that SLC has a vibrant food culture with choices including Thai, Balkan, Ethiopian, Mexican, vegetarian, raw, and yes — gluten free. I met a friend who was vegan and very knowledgeable with scouring ingredient labels and menu offerings for food he could eat. At one point, he had me making gluten-free “cheez” biscuits using dairy-free (i.e. fake) cheese and butter, and that’s when I think I officially mastered the art of cooking for a special diet.
Celiac disease is one of the best things that’s happened to me. Following a gluten-free diet forced me to live a healthier life. I could no longer count on fast food and most processed “convenience” foods to fulfill my hunger. I had to learn how to cook. I had to actually plan my meals and really think about the foods I ate.
I had to read ingredient labels — that was a wake-up call. I found out about what I like to call “secret wheat” in foods. Did you know that most soy sauce contains wheat? It dilutes the strong soy taste and makes it cheaper to sell. Did you know that sometimes corn chips also have wheat flour in them? Even the grilled chicken at McDonald’s is cooked in a broth containing wheat, and the only thing gluten free at most Taco Bell locations is refried beans, vegetables, cheese and drinks.
Not only did reading labels open my eyes to gluten sources in foods, I also learned about fats, sodium, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and strange sounding chemicals in many processed foods. I started thinking consciously about the nutrients in my diet and the things I put in my stomach.
These days I cook most of my meals from scratch. I like to research recipes online. I like going to Asian and Mexican markets where I can find different rice and corn products and strange spices to pep up my meals. I find myself searching the perimeters of the grocery store where products such as fresh fruit and vegetables can be found and avoiding many of the middle aisles filled with crackers and frozen meals when I shop.
I always will remember a trip to Brookshire’s during my first weeks in Tyler where a cashier looked at my cart and asked me if I was a chef because I had no processed foods, only single ingredient items such as milk, rice and onions. On a grocery trip a few months later, another cashier asked me if I was foreign because I had hummus, chickpeas, lentils and quinoa in my cart. I often joke that I’ll eat anything except American food because so much of our traditional meals involve actual bread or some kind of breading.
Switching to a gluten-free diet can be a daunting task at first but can become quite easy if you are willing to put in the time, research and effort to plan your meals. For most people eating a typical American diet, the diagnosis of celiac disease will require change. It will require trying new foods and expanding your palate.
I thought I would die if I had to give up my Hot Pockets, but I did, and I survived.