I had stomach aches when I was little. I threw up in my grade-school lunchroom, and I refused to eat lunch at school for the rest of the year. My mother picked me up and took me home every day at noon. I can’t believe she did that for me. Doctors didn’t find any particular reason for my upset tummy. A psychologist told my mother I was stubborn (he was right). He also told her I didn’t follow my peers. I did my own thing. My mom took that as a compliment, but he didn’t mean it that way.
My belly aches continued on and off for years. They weren’t always a big deal, but sometimes they were. In college, doctors diagnosed me with IBS. They told me I had too much stress — two majors and a job editing the student paper. For a while I stopped eating dairy, but that didn’t help much.
Life went on. I didn’t think too much about my gut because it wasn’t a life-threatening issue. I never thought anything was majorly wrong. Not until grad school when I traveled to Vietnam for the first time, and I felt so much better. I felt great! I didn’t feel achy, cranky, bloated, sluggish. I didn’t feel the way I had felt my entire life, thinking that was simply the way human beings felt.
When I returned to the US, I tried to mimic my diet in Vietnam. Lots of fish, lots of herbs and vegetables, not much meat. But it was never the same. I made my food spicier. I tried cutting out cheese. Nope– not the same. My husband and I could lay awake at night, listening to my gurgling gut. But every time I returned to Asia, my belly settled. It was happy and I couldn’t figure out exactly why.
Then one cold winter evening in early 2003, an American friend came to dinner. She told me her doctor suggested she eliminate wheat from her diet. She had similar symptoms. Her doctor told her about celiac disease.
Wow! What an idea. It would make sense for me — many foods in Southeast Asia, based on rice, are naturally gluten-free. Every time I left for Asia, I essentially left my gluten habits behind. So I tried the new diet for a week. No wheat. No bread, no cereal, no pretzels, no pasta. (No pasta? Pasta was key to my upbringing. I mean, I ran track in high school and gorged on those pre-race spaghetti dinners!)
I started feeling better. I read about celiac, about gluten, about all the foods in America that contain gluten in hidden forms. You wouldn’t believe how much stuff contains gluten! I never knew. I began dissecting labels, eliminating canned soups, packaged snacks, processed sauces, salad dressings — absolutely everything that had a trace of gluten.
And my gut said thank you. My husband said thank you — he could sleep in silence, in the absence of my belly noise.
Millions of people have stories like mine, though no two are precisely alike. Gluten intolerance affects people in very different ways, and only recently has the issue been brought to mainstream attention. Undoubtedly far more people suffer gluten’s ill effects than realize it.
In truth, I have never been diagnosed; I have never had a doctor tell me my body can’t tolerate gluten. Some might say I should get an official opinion on the matter. But I know how I feel without gluten, and I willingly choose to avoid it. (Yes, I do cheat occasionally, when I think the immediate benefits of a fantastic meal outweigh the side effects I know I will suffer two days later. But that’s me. That’s not everyone. Many people with celiac can never touch gluten again.)
I don’t feel deprived. Rather, I feel enriched. In recent years, I’ve discovered the amazing depth and breadth of grains and flours without gluten — corn, soy, chickpea, mung bean, quinoa, taro, sweet potato, amaranth, cassava, red bean, rice. The world is full of fantastic gluten-free food. Had I not figured out my stomach problems, I might have missed some of this .
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I want to draw your attention to an important new book by the original Gluten-Free Girl, Shauna James Ahern. Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back…And How You Can Too hit the shelves yesterday. It’s Shauna’s story, a story of turning her life upside down and all around, and coming out the other end a much happier, healthier person.
It’s available here and here and here. Shauna and her new husband, The Chef, have embarked on an American book tour, on their own dime. When Shauna asked me to take part in her virtual book tour, I was delighted. Even if you do not have celiac, if you love bread and it loves you back, and you have no intention of abandoning your lifelong gluten friend â€” Shauna still has something to say to you. She is one of the most positive people I have ever encountered. She’s a woman with “Yes” tattooed on her wrist. Her message is always about the bounty of life.
Live well, eat well, enjoy the moment. These are sentiments I second, anywhere in the world.