Food for ThoughtFeb/Mar 2009 Issue

Celiac Disease: Life Through a Different Lens

The call came from my doctor while I was at work. “Great news! Test results show you have celiac disease,” he said. “No more gluten for you.”

Long pause.

“How is that great news?” I demanded. “Seventy-five percent of my diet just went out the window!”

He assured me that once I stopped eating gluten I was going to feel better. To say that I was skeptical is an understatement.  

I had gone to my first appointment with this doctor a week before. Nothing urgent, just a check up. Being a new patient, I completed the medical history form, mostly torn ligaments from an active outdoor life. I'm an amateur photographer and I do a lot of mountain biking, backcountry skiing, rock-climbing and trail running while I’m out shooting. But at 41, I could feel age starting to catch up—a few extra pounds each year that I couldn’t seem to lose, a slow but perceptible deterioration in my energy level and zest. Almost as an afterthought, I listed “occasional lethargy” and “mild GI distress” on the form.

My doctor immediately zeroed in on these.

“GI distress? Bloating after meals?” he asked. Well, yes.

“Gas?” Yeah, but aren’t all guys my age gassy?

“And your energy level?” Usually okay but sometimes low. Lethargic after meals. I notice it more each year.

“Any allergies?” Yep. Dust, sulfites, cats, seasonal pollen.

“Food allergies?” None.  

To my surprise, he set me up for a few tests. He had a hunch, he said.
I’d almost forgotten until I got his call. Celiac disease! My initial reaction was shock. What will I eat? I consumed pasta three times a week. Pizza, too. And I loved bread. I couldn’t imagine life without it.  

That night, I made chicken for dinner and replaced the pasta side with rice. Not bad. The next morning, I made eggs for breakfast and a homemade fruit smoothie. It wasn’t so terrible.   

And so it went, one meal at a time. After a while, I had a small epiphany. Maybe eating gluten free wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as I thought. I wasn’t starving and I was enjoying my meals almost as much as before. But more interestingly, I actually felt great. Physically and mentally. The post-meal bloating was gone. I had a lot more energy. More, in fact, than I could remember having in a long time. I was waking up in the morning feeling well rested instead of groggy.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t craving my old foods. I missed the convenience—pizza most of all—but it was more nostalgia. I loved walking into the pizza parlor, smelling the fresh-baked dough and ordering a couple slices. Like many smokers trying to quit, it was the routine I missed the most.

The difference in my overall health was dramatic. In about two months, I shed those accumulated 20 pounds that I could never seem to lose. I put my new-found energy to good use, riding my bike longer distances and working out with vigor at the gym. I began to feel like my 21-year-old self rather than my 41-year-old self. My friends remarked on it.

I was certainly happier. Much happier. It was as if a fog had lifted and I could see, in bright sunshine, that I had been moody, perhaps even depressed, for a long time. I can't prove how much was directly related to my gluten issue but I realized that I hadn’t felt right for a long time. And somehow, feeling terrible had slowly, inexorably, become normal and familiar. Looking back, I would have gladly given up wheat, rye, barley—anything, in fact—if I had known what a dramatic difference it would make.

Photo by Lara Claire Veber

So when my doctor called me that day, his diagnosis did a lot more than change my diet. It taught me that bad news can become “great news.” It changed my perspective.  It changed my life.

Diagnosed with celiac disease in 2007, amateur photographer Brendan Richardson lives and eats gluten free in Charlottesville, Virginia. LW

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