After all the gluttonous eating that happened in November and December, I was so ready to get back to a more normal, sensible, and healthy level of food and alcohol consumption. As usual, I had gone "balls out" with cakes, cookies, candy, mulled wine, and festive cocktails, and I was left with alternating feelings of pride and misery. Joining the throngs of resolution-making people everywhere, I vowed to eat healthier, drink less, exercise, more and stop caring about the Kardashians. So, I kicked off 2016 with lots of kale, cardio, and a Kim-Kourtney-Khloe-Kendall-and-Kylie-less Instagram. WOO! I was so excited to feel good and healthy again. But somehow a month into it, even with all the healthy eating and exercise, I was still feeling sluggish, hazy, achy, and exhausted. And I knew immediately what I needed/wanted to do to feel better. Go gluten-free entirely.
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. I have not been diagnosed with celiac disease, which is a serious autoimmune disorder that results in damage of the small intestine when gluten is eaten, but I have previously had other health issues in the past that led my doctor to suspect a gluten sensitivity. As a result, he encouraged me to try a gluten-free diet. And I have tried. But my love of pizza and all things gluten-y runs deep, so my sorry efforts never made it past two days. But feeling as unwell as I had been recently, I was ready to turn over a new gluten-free leaf. I told myself I'd try life without gluten for at least a week and see what happened.
Gluten-free living has become way more common in the past few years due to increased awareness of celiac disease, increased diagnoses, and also because it's simply become a popular food fad. Gluten-free products are popping up everywhere, and most major brands are producing gluten-free versions of their most popular products. I could potentially cut gluten and still eat some of the foods I can't seem to live without. So I told myself, NOW IS THE TIME! I was going to go a full week without a trace of gluten in my diet and see what went down in no-pizza town.
Day 1 Meal Plan Guide
Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, sliced tomatoes, and feta cheese
Lunch: Pork carnitas over black beans and rice
Dinner: Beet and arugula salad with goat cheese and candied pecans
Dessert: Dark chocolate with sea salt
We moved to Hong Kong from LA a year ago. And as I started my prep for the week, I quickly discovered that gluten-free products were not nearly as easy to find in Hong Kong as there were in LA, where raw food restaurants, gluten-free bakeries, and pressed juiceries were as common as Reubens in a deli. In Hong Kong, you must go to specialty health-food stores to find gluten-free options. I looked up places that carried gluten-free products and made special trips there to find gluten-free bread, because I, like every other person on this planet with a mouth and a heart, LOVE bread. I was able to pick up some gluten-free pasta, but sadly, every store was sold out of gluten-free bread! I'd have to do without for the first few days until I could locate another retailer.
I started day one with a manic, "hell yeah let's do this!" amount of enthusiasm. I woke up early and made scrambled eggs and bacon for the whole family. I was so committed to staying gluten-free strong that I even made my husband and kids toast, leaving it off my plate with a proud smile showing everyone including myself that I was serious, even braggy about carrying out this experiment. Because I was feeling extra aggressive about getting healthy, I left off the bacon for myself and sliced up some tomatoes to have instead. But I did give myself a heap of feta cheese, because I am nothing without cheese.
Lunch came from a Mexican spot down the street that does a rice bowl version of all their burritos. And I made my all-time favorite beet and goat cheese salad for dinner. Nice to see you again, cheese.
Day 2 Meal Plan Guide
Breakfast: Sunnyside up eggs, baked beans, mushrooms
Lunch: Niçoise salad
Snack: Microwave popcorn
Maybe it was all in my head, but I really did feel as early as the second day that I woke up feeling less groggy than usual. For the past several months I've been waking up feeling hazy with swollen, achy joints. I still had swollen, achy joints on day two, but I felt notably more clear-headed and ready to rumble immediately instead of feeling like I needed a coffee IV drip to ease me into the morning.
I started off with a rather British breakfast of eggs, beans, and mushrooms, which was incredibly easy to prepare (flip eggs, open can of beans, and sauté mushrooms), and not influenced by my British husband at all (wink). For lunch, same easy prep of mostly assembling ingredients, tuna, boiled eggs, green beans, onions, potatoes, olives, and greens, resulted in a delicious Niçoise salad.
For dinner, I made an easy, but very tasty, and filling chili for the whole family. Because it was only day two, I was still feeling all gung ho about the diet, and I didn't once crave a side car of bread, but I did dress it up with a dollop of sour cream. That was a treat to myself, to reward myself for the 24 hours of steering clear of baguettes and cinnamon rolls.
Day 3 Meal Plan Guide
Breakfast: Gluten free granola with Greek yogurt and strawberries
Lunch: Bun-less burger and fries
Dinner: Thai green curry with chicken, green beans, and rice
Dessert: Vanilla ice cream
On day three, my daughter woke up wanting pancakes. Oh help me, lord. I love pancakes. I looked at the big Costco-size bag of gluten-free flour I'd received as a gift from my sister from the States and contemplated making my first-ever batch of gluten-free hot cakes. Would they taste the same? Would they satisfy my love of pancakes? I looked up a recipe. After seeing that the first two recipes on my Google search required the use of xanthan gum, which I did not have lying around the house, and after imagining the meltdown my 3 year old might have over "not the regular" pancakes, I couldn't be bothered to delve into gluten-free pancakes on this a school morning. I quickly whipped up a batch of wheat flour pancakes and watched my kids devour them while I ate my granola topped with Greek yogurt and strawberries. I didn't mind sitting this one out. I really liked this Greek yogurt and granola. I felt healthier and didn't have the appetite for something heavy like pancakes so early in the morning. And then there was that coffee, which was all I ever needed anyway, TBH.
I met a friend for lunch at a spot called "Beef and Liberty." I was definitely going in for a burger. Still somewhat fresh from LA, I just assumed that they would offer gluten-free buns as an option with their burgers. They did not. They didn't even wrap their burgers in lettuce. It was either bun or no bun. I mean, I get it, they were keeping it simple, and I didn't mind eating the burger without a bun all that much, but I quickly realized that eating gluten free isn't always easy or all that filling because I was still hungry just eating a beef patty without all that bread filler.
Being around all those burgers made me want bread. It shouldn't be that hard to live without bread, but it is. I was only at day three, and here I was, already missing gluten. Missing it so much. Missing its touch, the way it smelled, the way we used to finish each other's sentences. But I had to remind myself, gluten and I weren't so good together, and it made me feel like sh*t most of the time. I had to stay strong.
Day 4 Meal Plan Guide
Breakfast: Cottage cheese and tomatoes
Lunch: Kelp noodle salad
Snack: Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies
Dinner: Beet and arugula salad with goat cheese and candied pecans
On day four I woke up and noticed that I looked slimmer than I did a few days ago. I didn't have that puffy-faced look that I often have. I was pretty sure it wasn't from actual weight loss, but from just not being bloated. I felt more energetic. And as I was walking around the city that day, I marveled at how good I felt. I didn't have even the slightest headache or feeling of nausea that I have struggled with so frequently for these past several months. I actually called my husband to report on the fact that I was feeling just so ... good!
I had a kelp noodle salad for lunch at a vegetarian spot that serves a variety of gluten-free dishes. Normally, I don't think I'd be eagerly choosing a kelp noodle salad, but that day I was feeling good, healthy, and in the mood for anything and everything that sounded good for me.
That evening, I was on such a gluten-free high that I busted out that gluten-free flour and, with the help of my 3 year old, made some gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. Sure, they weren't the ooey, gooey, chewy original version that my family knew and loved, but I thought they were tasty and tried to convince my kids as such by saying things like, "MMMM!" and "Wow, I like these even better than the original version!" while I gobbled two down in front of them. The kids picked out and ate the chocolate chips and left the rest of the cookie sitting on their plates looking so forlorn and unappealing. My 3 year old even took the time to come back and say, "I don't like your cookies, mom." Thanks, babe.
Day 5 Meal Plan Guide
Breakfast: Scrambled eggs on gluten-free toast
Lunch: Spinach salad with soft boiled egg and bacon
Dinner: Gluten-free pasta and a green salad
Dessert: Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies
I was finally able to find some gluten-free bread at a high-end market the day before. I actually hugged the sales clerk who led me to the goods. Who cares that it was in the freezer section, heavier than bricks and looking the complete opposite of its fluffy, fragrant gluten-filled counterpart at the bakery at the end of the aisle? Well I did, a little. It was hard to accept this — literal — cold, hard substitute for the fresh baguette and ciabatta paradise that was happening behind me.
In any case, and fresh, lovely baked bread aside, I was able to have toast for breakfast on day five! And it was pretty good — especially when topped with eggs. Having bread in my life again, even this new version, made me feel like I could go on with this gluten-free diet for many weeks more. I'd just have to stay away from bakeries and cake shops. Far, far away.
That night I made some gluten-free pasta that I'd picked up at the market. Gluten-free pasta is much easier to find, at least here in Hong Kong, than GF bread. I'd actually eaten a lot of gluten-free pasta before this experiment simply because it was so readily available, and actually tastes quite good. And the kids can never tell the difference.
Day 6 Meal Plan Guide
Breakfast: Gluten-free toast with almond butter and honey
Lunch: Leftover pasta
Dinner: Cauliflower crust pizza
Dessert: Chocolate covered popcorn
I'm not gonna lie. On day six, I wanted pizza, damn it! Do you ever play that game with your kids or your friends where you ask each other, "If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?" I always say sushi because I love it, and it won't give me heart disease. I want to live a long life, man. But, if you added "and it wouldn't negatively affect your health" to the question, I would say pizza. Always pizza. And on this day, whether it was because I really truly craved it, or because I knew I couldn't have it, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
"Screw it!" I said. "We're having pizza tonight." I said it in a badass way as if I was going to throw the last five days of this experiment away just like that, because not being able to have pizza is where I draw the line. But, as much as I wanted to do that, I knew that I was feeling good being off gluten. And I also knew that as much as I loved tearing into a sausage and mushroom pizza, I spent the next half a day feeling wiped out and paying for it in the bathroom (TMI alert).
I really wanted to try my best to adopt a gluten-free way of life, especially knowing it made me feel better, so I decided to get on with it, put on my game face and make a gluten-free version of my favorite food. I made a cauliflower crust pizza that evening for dinner (alongside a regular flour crust pizza for my kids, of course). I loved it, partially because it was good, and also because it gave me hope that I could carry on this lifestyle for a time beyond a week. Until I could find a really great gluten-free pizza crust recipe, this would be my jam. My kids and husband were like, "Yep, you have fun with that," as they scarfed down their delicious looking regular crusted pizza. But you know what? I did.
Day 7 Meal Plan Guide
Breakfast: Greek yogurt over granola
Lunch: Leftover pizza
Dinner: Beef, spinach, and mushroom stir fry with tamari soy sauce
Dessert: Gummy bears
On the last day of the experiment, my husband did something incredibly sweet. After searching gluten-free recipes at work, he came home with groceries and made me a delicious gluten-free stir fry for dinner. He, of course, knows how much I love food and how much I also hate being restricted when choosing what to eat. But he told me he wanted to support me in this new food endeavor, especially to see if it helped me feel better. So he cooked up a beef, spinach, and mushroom stir fry, even using tamari, the gluten-free soy sauce. It was incredibly tasty, and a thoughtful gesture that helped me forget all about losing him to rugby games the entire weekend before this.
My 13 year old asked me excitedly, "Isn't this the last day of your experiment, mom?" He wasn't a big fan of the gluten-free pizza, cookies, or bread, which he didn't eat but I at least made him at least try. I could tell he couldn't wait for things to get back to normal (seeing his mom eat all the foods she loved!). He was cool about it though when I told him that I was planning on carrying on this way for at least a month, the suggested time period to really test whether or not you have a gluten intolerance.
We finished the seventh day eating gummy bears and watching funny animal videos on YouTube as a sort of weird celebration of the end of the initial experiment.
Is Gluten free The Life For Me?
Even though they say that you need a month to really feel the effects of going off gluten, it was pretty clear that my body responded well to cutting the gluten after a week. My skin wasn't dull-looking as it had been, and the rash that had shown up near my nose last month completely went away. I felt more energetic, clear-headed, and less achy. My joints didn't hurt in the morning, and I didn't get stomach aches like I had been getting. I was almost hoping that cutting gluten from my diet wouldn't make a difference and that I could go on happily eating bread and pizza crust and all the cakes, but at the same time I felt excited and thankful that watching what I ate and cutting out certain products meant my health had improved.
So, I've decided to stay gluten free for the next three weeks. Why not? I feel good. In fact, I feel better than I have in the last six months. Perhaps this now-extended experiment along with a blood test will help me determine whether or not I have a true gluten sensitivity. And with all the gluten-free products on the market, the lifestyle isn't quite as daunting to me as it used to be. I will say though, that it wasn't until this experiment that I realized just how many things I regularly eat that include gluten. Namely, salad dressings and other sauces. Half the time I didn't want to look at the labels because I didn't want to have to give up another delicious sauce. I have a few friends who are celiacs, and they've always impressed and inspired me with their ability to work around the restrictions and find alternative ways to enjoy food and live life just like anyone else. If they can do it for a whole lifetime, I can do it for a month, can't I?
But, I will definitely mourn the loss of that late night, New York-style gluten-crusted pizza. Perhaps there's a support group for that?