In March 2022, I will celebrate my 15-year anniversary of being gluten-free. Yes, I said celebrate because it was one of the best things that happened to me in my life. But, if you had told me ten years ago I would say such a thing one day, I would have scoffed at you and peed myself because I laughed so hard.
For the first five years or so, gluten-free was hard, frustrating, infuriating, confusing, bothersome, unfair, a pain-in-the-ass, and, well, you get the picture. Although I felt so much better than when I was eating gluten, the timing of my going gluten-free could have been better. In 2007, there were very few gluten-free items in stores, only a handful of restaurants that had anything gluten-free, and even then, I almost always got sick when I went out to eat. Now, the choices are plentiful and many restaurants take gluten-free seriously. Well, still not serious enough for me, but there are a few restaurants I will eat at and never have a reaction.
Although people going gluten-free today have more choices, I still see a similar process unfolding as they navigate this lifestyle. In my years of living gluten-free and being part of the community, I have put together a bit of a roadmap to what I have experienced and observed as the people begin their gluten-free journey, the Three Stages of Gluten-Free Eating.
- Stage One: The “Replacement” Stage—What? I cannot eat gluten anymore? But what about bread, and cupcakes, and OMG pizza?!
- Stage Two: The “There’s Got To Be More” Stage—Okay, I think I have this gluten-free eating thing down, sort of. But is there another way to eat?
- Stage Three: The “I Am Breaking Up With Processed Food” Stage—I am living the life, and it’s become “my life,” but I want more from my food! How can I make this a life-long, sustainable way to live, and be happy, too?
Let’s talk about stage one, the hardest part of the journey.
When I went gluten-free, I had been a vegetarian for sixteen years. I ate no meat, fish, and went so far as to not eat anything that contained meat broth, gelatin, or any other ingredient derived from the meat or bones of the animal. I did eat, however, eggs and dairy. My diet consisted mostly of meat substitutes, dairy, bread, pasta, and veggies. I was horrified to learn that each and every of the meat substitutes I was eating was made from wheat. I did not let that deter me from continuing to be gluten-free since I was feeling so horrible physically and desperately wanted to feel normal again.
Well, that sentiment lasted about three days, as I realized that as a vegetarian, I did not have a ton of choices if I could no longer eat gluten. I really was not sure what to eat at that point. After about three weeks of me living off of cheese and veggies, my mom told me in her “this is the most serious thing I will ever tell you” voice: “Victoria, you’re going to die if you don’t start eating meat!” At first, I thought she was overreacting but as I thought about her strong words, I realized, she was right.
I started, slowly, to add meat back into my diet. First was canned tuna, then shrimp, and then roasted chicken thighs. I started to feel better with the combination of eating only gluten-free and eating a wider variety of foods.
I ate meat, cheese, veggies, and as many gluten-free products as I could find. I bought and tried every new gluten-bread, meal, cookie, pasta, cake, pie, and donuts I saw at the store. I wasn’t a sweets person before going gluten-free but I missed bread so much I just ate anything I could to feel less deprived.
I thought I was a fairly good cook before gluten-free happened to me, but I soon found out I was not. And, I hadn’t cooked any meat for sixteen years so the learning curve was high. Because of both those facts, convenience food was my go-to and that lasted for many years. And, in my quest to feel more normal, I tried every new restaurant’s gluten-free options and ended up more sick than satisfied. For some reason, I kept going and making myself sick. I was lost and mourned bread, pizza, pasta, and more for many, many years.
The extra wrinkle in my story is the lack of support from my then-husband. After I started eating meat, he was adamant that I couldn’t cook it in the house because the smell of cooking meat disgusted him. At that point, he was firm that he did not want to go back to eating meat. So, for quite some time, my Mom made my meat and I took it home and put it in the fridge for later eating. I also made my family a vegetarian dinner and then heated up my own food.
My ex finally relented and after a year or so, I was able to cook the meat in my own home. I still was making two dishes for every dinner meal though, one vegetarian and full of gluten, and one gluten-free for me. Then, after a few years, he decided to jump back on the meat-eating bandwagon and also agreed to have a nearly gluten-free home. That’s when I learned that I had so much to learn about cooking.
I tried to cook meals that actually tasted good but seemed to fall short. I still tried and fed my family but I was not happy with what I made, ever. And, I had no desire to bake anything since I did not bake when I wasn’t gluten-free. It scared me and seemed way more complicated than what my cooking skills could possibly support. So, I continued to buy gluten-free replacement foods and cooked what I could.
Stage One can last a few months, or a few years, or never end. This is my story, and there is no judgment of myself, or of you. We are all on our own unique gluten-free journey and it is for no one to judge. I firmly believe both from my experience, and that of others, how long you stay in the replacement phase is determined by the level of cook you were when you had to go gluten-free. I did not cook much and was not as good at it as I would have liked, so I stayed in that phase longer than I expected. If you cooked and were good at it, you may only stay in Stage One for a short time. We are all different.
I entered into Stage Two after I discovered I could no longer tolerate dairy. With gluten, and now dairy off the table, my cooking and eating life went into a tailspin. In next week’s blog I’ll share my journey through Stage Two.
discover. cook. enjoy.