Back to the Future: My Gluten-Free Journey
by Sophie Elkus
Once upon a time, I couldn’t imagine the taste of bread. I lived in a house where tofu and soymilk were common staples. A decade ago, a vegan or gluten-free diet was not nearly as common or trendy as it is today. Many people thought nothing of their heavy meals laden with wheat, and the breadbasket was a common preliminary step before a waiter brought out the main course. My family’s unique take on healthy eating stemmed from my brothers’ severe food allergies and differed from the norms of everyone I knew, but I thought nothing of it. While I didn’t understand the health benefits of eating gluten-free at a young age, it was simply the way we did things in the Elkus family.
I have memories of childhood play dates with my confused toddler friends who were used to being fed pizza during lunchtime, unsure of what to do with the rice pasta and sautéed tempeh on their plates. I remember family dinners in foreign countries during summer vacations that took hours to complete due to our complicated orders and special requests, not to mention the added language barrier. My brothers’ intolerance to dairy, wheat and eggs provided for a challenge at every meal, and my devoted mother toted around a plethora of emergency Epi-Pen shots and Benadryl bottles with her on vacations that rivaled the medication aisle of a fully-stocked CVS store. Accidents were inevitable, and my heart jumped in nervousness at the first sound of their voices uttering “I feel sick” and the worried expression on my parents’ faces. Was it some bread crust that had slipped into their French fries? Could their corn tortilla have been carelessly switched with a wheat one? Did someone put flour in the soup? Little did I realize that with each experience, whether it ended in a safe and satisfactory meal or a panicked finale of frustration and tears, I was digesting the basic medical training of a dietary specialist.
The assurance of my brothers’ health came at no easy price for my parents. I have so much respect and admiration for the hard work they dedicated to raising children on such a specific and limited diet, and the time that they spent self-educating with late-night Internet research and dozens of highlighted and underlined newspaper articles ripped out and tacked to our kitchen bulletin board. The differences of our kitchen to most were stark, but I grew to accept them and even enjoy the acquired tastes of “Tofu Pup” soy dogs and quinoa-based pastas. Gluten-free was simply my way of life.
It was only while progressing through elementary school and spending more time away from home that I began to side-track from the gluten-free foods. The school cafeterias presented a vast array of lunchtime options that made my ten-year old head spin. “Real” pasta, dripping in warm butter and crisp parmesan flakes! Freshly baked brownies, glazed with vanilla icing and individually saran wrapped! My eyes grew wide at the selection of kid-friendly options and lack of parental supervision, and I indulged without hesitation. Away from home, I felt free to enjoy whatever foods I wanted, especially without the guilt of eating them in front of my brothers, who had never experienced a real cupcake or a slice of Domino’s pizza. The ongoing question of how I was so lucky to be an allergy-free middle child born between two once-sick children no longer mattered. Sitting next to my friends at our table, I was like everybody else, and my newfound culinary anonymity was a foreign comfort in the confusion and mayhem of adolescence.
My experiments with these strange wheat-based foods quickly progressed into a full-fledged love affair. There was no question – I was obsessed with gluten. I started to crave the satisfactory full feeling in my stomach after eating a sandwich or plate of pasta that just couldn’t quite compare with the aftermath of a soy hot dog or slice of rice bread. If there is such a thing as gluten addiction, I had it.
It wasn’t until the end of high school that I began to reevaluate my love of wheat-based foods. School days were long, and I was used to the hour-long post-lunchtime slump that occurred in the early afternoon, a sluggish period of food coma that prevented me from thinking clearly during my one o’clock math class. I was unknowingly experiencing what is commonly known to the community of gluten-free eaters as “wheat fog.” I had become accustomed to the heavy feeling in my gut after a gluten-based meal, and I forgot what it was like to experience the light and airy aftermath of a wheat-free meal. It took discipline to change, and hundreds of afternoons spent without incentive to exercise or be productive. I began to slowly eliminate gluten from my diet.
The results were incredible. I noticed a difference right away in how I felt both immediately after a meal, but also as my day progressed. My mind was clearer, and I felt increasingly able to study for longer periods of time without the sleepy fog that usually crept through my mind after lunch. I could sustain exercise for more time with longer bursts of energy, and I slept more soundly. It was clear that a gluten-free diet was the right decision for me, and since then, I haven’t looked back. While I may not share my older brother’s Celiac Disease or my younger brother’s wheat allergy, I realized that I was one of the ten percent of Americans who suffered from a gluten sensitivity, and I was lucky enough to already have the skills and knowledge to maintain a new diet.
I know that many healthy people do allow gluten to occupy a place in their diet, and that there are even more who don’t think twice about it and feel fine. I also know that my return to a gluten-free existence has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I would advocate it to anyone who is ready to take a chance on a conscious, long-lasting and beneficial change. The world of gluten-free food no longer requires an arduous trek up and down restaurant-lined streets searching for a kitchen willing to make substitutions on their menu. Grocery stores now offer entire aisles of gluten-free options and many trendy eateries are adopting the wave of current medical research and celebrity-endorsed wheat-free eating. I urge everyone to take a chance on improving their health. Start by slowing substituting gluten in just one meal a week to test the waters. In honor of the traumas and tribulations of my brothers, the two bravest boys I know, I can’t thank them enough for helping me to realize that sometimes the best option is the one you had all along.