I’m one of those people who never had to diet and could pretty much eat anything without gaining weight. I always contributed this to one of three things: my fast metabolism, leading a very active lifestyle since my childhood, or naturally being a bit of a nervous person. I do everything fast, I don’t have patience for many things, and I stress over everything more than I should because I’m a perfectionist, so nothing ever seems good enough. It took me 26 years to realize that maybe my nerves weren’t the reason I spent so much time on the toilet every day and that actually it was the food I was eating that was affecting my nerves.
I always felt somewhat uncomfortable in my body. I suffer from a pretty bad atopic skin condition since I was a kid and I got used to my body constantly aching. Feeling tired, being bloated with gas, and having stomach pains often just felt just like an annoyance that I continued to contribute to my sensitivity and nerves. It was around the time we were launching our second product, Leaf Urban, when I started to feel worse than usual.
I was already a nervous wreck as it was. I wasn’t sleeping much, I was stressing out and every smallest thing felt like a fight for survival. So when my stomach pains became so bad that I had trouble falling asleep when I finally found the time to go to bed, and when I couldn’t keep my meals down anymore to the point where I started to lose weight...I still didn’t suspect anything was really wrong. Again, I just thought the stress was taking its toll and that it will pass once we’re out of the deep waters. But I also got pretty bad acne and that, well that really bothered me.
Funnily enough -- I could go through pain and discomfort with little concern, but a couple of red spots on my face were what really pushed me over the edge. I still facepalm when I think about that. But I was young, and my priorities were different. Besides, when you’ve been told for so many years that all your digestion problems are because you’re just too nervous...you just kind of accept that and think them away.
However, it took just one look to let my dermatologist determine that I might have celiac disease or am gluten intolerant. I didn’t even have to explain all the other symptoms -- she just took a look at my skin, which was a total mess. When the blood results came in, her suspicion was confirmed. I was 26 years old when I finally realized what’s been wrong all this time.
Celiac Disease & Gluten Intolerance
While celiac disease is a known and recognised autoimmune condition, gluten intolerance has only recently been recognized as a stand-alone condition by the medical community, and there's still plenty of controversy surrounding it. Not all physicians agree it exists, and little research has been done on its causes, symptoms, and effects. Even though both conditions occur as a response to gluten, they are, in fact, different.
Celiac disease occurs when gluten spurs your immune system to attack the lining of your small intestine. The resulting intestinal damage, called villous atrophy, can cause malnutrition and conditions such as osteoporosis; it can potentially even lead to cancer. However, a person with gluten sensitivity experiences a direct reaction to gluten. As such, your body views the protein as an invader and fights it with inflammation both inside and outside of your digestive tract.
Getting a celiac disease diagnosis is a long process, and in most cases it starts with the celiac blood tests. If your blood tests are positive, it means you might have celiac disease, although you will still (in most cases) need to undergo a medical procedure known as an endoscopy to confirm the diagnosis. However, you might have gluten sensitivity or intolerance even if your tests come back negative. If you and your doctor still suspect gluten sensitivity then you would participate in a gluten challenge, first eliminating gluten from your diet to see if your symptoms cleared up, and then "challenging" it, or reinstating it in your diet, to see if symptoms return.
Since my blood tests came back positive, I should’ve done endoscopy to confirm the diagnosis and to check the damage that years of gluten intake have caused. Three years later, it’s still on my to-do list... (I’d rather not if I don’t reeaaaally have to). But what I did do immediately after getting the results, is starting a gluten-free diet.
I quickly realized that, living in a country where diet is heavily based on bread and pasta, this was going to be a challenge. I’ve learned that gluten is practically in everything, because wheat flour is used as a thickener. Even if there’s no wheat flour in a product, gluten-free products like corn and buckwheat derivatives can be contaminated with wheat because they are processed in the same facilities.
It took me about a year to explore my options, refine my diet and develop a meal prep routine to avoid having to order take-outs or eat out. But all the effort continues to be so worth it! Hands down, I could say that my life has completely changed since I changed my diet. I felt the difference almost immediately. My acne didn’t disappear instantly but I wasn’t bloated anymore and stomach pains faded within a month. After the first 3 months I started to notice mood changes. I used to suffer from bad mood swings and went through periods of depression. It took more than just food to improve my mental health, but nutrition did play a big part. I started to have more energy, I was less moody and slowly started to feel more comfortable in my own body.
A New Body
Looking back, it feels so strange that I just used to accept so many problems and pass them as normal. I just thought this was how things are, how other people feel too. Bloated, constantly in pain… I feel like I live in a completely different body now. One that feels comfortable and that rewards me for how I treat it. I realize that not everyone can completely change their life by cutting gluten out of their food, but I always emphasize that a lot of people go their whole life living with an undiagnosed autoimmune condition.
There are many different types of autoimmune diseases, and many share similar symptoms. While an accurate diagnosis is crucial for an effective treatment, autoimmune diseases are, unfortunately, are often hard to diagnose. On average, it takes about four years for one to receive a sure diagnosis.
Nutrition is so important; even if you don’t suffer from an autoimmune condition. Being someone who was forced to educate themselves about nutrition and diet, I can’t stress enough how important it is to listen to your body. You can change your whole life for the better with small adjustments to your diet and daily routine. If you take enough time to learn to understand your body well, you will be able to not just feel better, but also achieve your fitness results faster and with less effort. Nutrition is so much more than just counting calories and eating what other people say is healthy. It’s about thoroughly knowing your body and its’ needs, and then meeting them with the right nutrients.
Tips For A Gluten-Free Diet
I’ve never been a bread lover, but my biggest challenge was to substitute the huge amount of pasta I used to consume. I would eat pasta 4 days in a week. I was so unhappy when I couldn’t find gluten free pasta, that would do the real thing justice. After a while, I just gave up on the mushy textureless corn pasta and switched to rice. I now eat rice instead of pasta with any sauce I used to eat pasta with. Even bolognese! Sounds weird, but it’s delicious.
You can also use corn meal or whole buckwheat to substitute pasta foods. Quinoa is also a really good and healthy option.
1. Arugula, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, corn, mozzarella & quinoa salad with olive oil and apple vinegar + roasted chicken legs.
2. Bolognese with rice + arugula & cherry tomatoes with olive oil.
Salads & bowls
Salads and bowls are my best friend. Quick to fix and easy to carry to work. A salad can be a really filling and rewarding meal that won’t leave you tired after eating it for lunch. I usually add quinoa or rice and an egg or tuna to green salad, cherry tomatoes, and cucumber mix. It’s filling, healthy, practical, and so delicious!
1. Scrambled eggs with rice (instead of bread) + arugula with olive oil.
2. Steak + buckwheat with wild mushrooms + sauer turnip + chicory salad with pumpkin seed oil & apple vinegar.
Like pasta, gluten free bread is mostly so... sad. I don’t like how most gluten-free breads you can buy in a store are pre-packed and full of preservatives to make them last longer. If you don’t live near a good gluten-free bakery, you just might have to bake your own bread.
However, gluten-free bread is really hard to make. Usually, it comes out dry and hard if you try making it the way you would make wheat bread. It takes a couple of tries, but in general, the best gluten-free bread my mom makes is done by mixing the usual gluten free bread flour mixture with a little bit of buckwheat and corn flour; then adding both, baking soda and yeast.
Sweets & Pastry
Starting a gluten-free diet is a great opportunity to cut back on all the stuff that’s not that good for you anyway. It is a bit annoying not being able to just grab a croissant for breakfast on the way to work, but a delicious alternative could be a fruit smoothie!
Co-founder @ Bellabeat