Food Rx (It’s Good for What Ails Ya!)

Before I was diagnosed with celiac, I suffered quite a bit, which I had disclosed in prior blog entries. I assumed stomach pain was just par for the course after every meal and was simply used to it.  But it wasn’t just the digestive issues that plagued me:  I used to have horrible eczema, and as a child was teased quite often for being “contagious with a skin disease”. I also suffered often from terrible headaches and chronic sciatic nerve pain. On top of taking lots of ibuprofen, I was seeing a chiropractor THREE times a week but to no avail, nothing seemed to ease the horrible throbbing pain that seemed to plague me 24/7. I assumed that the rest of my life I would just have to endure pain no matter what I tried, and that was a bleak thought indeed.

Post celiac-diagnosis, it was like a whole new chapter in my life was opening for me, and I could actually move forward pain-free, happy and healthy. While it eased the usual pain-after-every-meal issue, I also noticed that my eczema that had plagued me my entire life gradually disappeared, even from my elbows (my biggest trouble spot as an adult), and the only time it ever cropped up was from being accidentally glutened. But despite the positive changes, I still had plenty of sciatic nerve pain and headaches quite often. My digestive issues still were causing me some strife: I still suffered from bloating, terrible irregularity (I know, TMI right?) and lower GI pain quite often, even when eating a strict GF diet. My GI specialist ran tests, ultrasounds and X-rays, and found nothing to cause any red flags. It was frustrating to say the least.

While I was eating a strict gluten-free diet, I won’t lie, it was still riddled with processed and high sugar foods. I ate somewhat healthy, but had PLENTY of days where I loaded my menu with high fat and high sugar treats, high fructose corn syrup, and other heavily processed foods with ingredients I couldn’t even pronounce. When checking labels it never went beyond cross-contamination issues with manufacturing and gluten-free ingredients. I figured hey, as long as it was gluten-free, it worked for my needs. Everything else was fair game!

When Chris and I decided to go on a refined sugar detox back in March, I noticed that slowly my sciatic nerve pain and headaches ceased substantially. I had read that sugar causes inflammation in the body, and assumed that eliminating refined sugar and HFCS obviously was doing me far more good than harm. Granted, the initial stages of detox were tough, but we overcame them within a week and never looked back.

Weeks after we started the sugar detox, I ran the Shamrock Marathon, and decided to eat an ovo-vegetarian diet for that week before the race in order to avoid any issues with irregularity and other digestive issues on race weekend. I still ate eggs, and after the race was over I had Greek yogurt in a couple of my meals, and still I noticed that I had some GI issues that cropped up, especially after I put dairy back into my diet. It was especially noticeable when I had made a vegetarian dinner for Chris and I the Monday after the race, and added a side of sour cream to the meal. I was up all night with horrible GI pain and bloating.

That incident sort of sealed the deal for me, I had to research vegan diets a little and see if I could actually do this diet as a celiac and thrive. I know when most people read the word vegan there is usually an immediate eye roll, but to be honest, I have always found that to be very annoying when people are vocal about someone else’s diet. After all, how does what I eat affect ANYONE? As long as I provide for my own needs I would never be militant, aggressive or pushy. What works for one won’t always work for another, so I would never push a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle on anyone, but I know for me it makes me feel good in many ways: I have always loved animals and felt a lot of inner conflict as a carnivore (even as a child I had my misgivings and anxiety about eating animals, and once even refused to eat lamb…I was like Lisa Simpson!); I have always had ethical concerns regarding factory farming, plus I know vegetarianism is good for the environment, as well as one’s health!  For me, it makes sense, for another, it may be one of those “Give me meat or give me death” scenarios.

Adopting a vegan diet was actually far easier than I thought with some homework, and I noticed that almost, like magic, that a clean vegan diet was really benefiting me better than any diet ever had. My irregularity and gas pains (I know, I know, TMI) disappeared and my body was running like clockwork for the FIRST TIME IN YEARS. It was almost frightening! My skin had cleared. My headaches, even on high barometric pressure days, were gone. My sciatica…it’s so minimal that I don’t even notice it most days, when in the past I was taking Advil ALL DAY LONG to cut down on the throbbing pain. Even my afternoon fatigue and the naps that I seemed to ALWAYS need (or I couldn’t function), were no longer a necessity. My body was thriving in many ways I didn’t ever notice before.

Chris was certainly accepting of whatever I needed to do as long as I felt better, but requested we still have meat once in a while for his meals, and I absolutely had no issue with this! After all, I was a vegetarian for 10 years prior to my diagnosis and was used to making him separate meals once in a while, but he is so used to eating vegetarian for most meals he doesn’t even miss it at all. Sure, he loves a good steak once in a while, but he doesn’t need it in his daily meals.

As for the usual question of “How do you get your protein and nutrients?”, well, I can definitely approach it in another entry, but I do take several supplements that my doctor insisted I take after checking my bloodwork (PRE-vegan diet by the way) and noticing I was very low in iron, B12 and D. So I do take them in order to make sure those essential nutrients are met. I know it sort of goes against the whole “don’t feed your needs with pharmaceuticals” thing, but certain nutrients are harder to obtain naturally on a vegan diet (especially B12) and this option is far more appealing to me than the consequences I ran into before adopting the lifestyle.

This entry is not about being a vegan by any means. In fact, I can’t even call myself one since I still use honey and have plenty of leather and wool goods in my closet.  The main point of this entry is this: when you suffer ailments that can’t be explained by medical testing, no matter how big or small, examine your diet. There are methods I have heard about like elimination diets that can help you pinpoint what might be causing your issues, whether it’s nightshade vegetables, corn, coconut, etc. But even before that, seriously examine your food sources: is your food made of five or less ingredients? Is it made of ingredients with names that you can’t pronounce and loaded with preservatives and chemical additives? In my experience, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, nuts, healthy fats, and grains are the best sources for a healthy diet. I’ve even found ways to make it more economical by simply rolling up my sleeves and working a little harder by making my own homemade granola, hummus, bread, pesto and vegan burgers. Sure it takes a little work, but it truly is a fraction of the cost of store-bought by FAR. Plus you know exactly what you are getting because your hard work went into it! I find it to be truly rewarding AND delicious.

Don’t get me wrong, of course issues like environment, genetics and other variables can override diet and lifestyle no matter how hard you try. Chris’ cancer is a perfect example of this. He has to continue taking meds for the rest of his life and no matter how clean his lifestyle. But he also feels that he can help combat future cancer growth by living a clean lifestyle, and once he is in remission we are hoping he will permanently STAY in remission.
But, sometimes all it takes is a little self-examination of your habits. You may surprise yourself when you see that all you need is a dietary overhaul. I can certainly attest to this and it has been working for me.

Have you noticed any positive changes in your own health once you’ve changed your diet?

P.S. Just as a note, Chris underwent his surgical procedure on April 2, had some cancerous nodes removed, and recovered well from the surgery. Next step will be meeting with an oncologist to discuss treatment, and hopefully once he goes through that, he will be in permanent remission.


No Gluten? No Sugar? No Meat? What DO You Eat? Believe It or Not, PLENTY.

Since late April of 2011 I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I had to quickly adjust my diet to conform to a gluten-free lifestyle, and thankfully I was still able to have plenty of my old favorites: chocolate chip M&M cookies, cupcakes piled high with icing, ice cream, peanut butter cups…there was PLENTY I could eat and enjoy and I had no shortage of treats as long as I could find them gluten-free. Training for marathons was a breeze as long as I had plenty of carbs, and gluten-free carbs are plentiful if you know how to find them. Life doesn’t stop at bread and pasta, there’s lots of various options for gluten-free carb-loading!

Fast forward almost two years later. Chris is diagnosed with cancer for a second time, which was a devastating blow. We have no idea what could have caused the recurrence, but started seriously analyzing our dietary lifestyle. What could have caused the growth? What could have fueled the cancer? Are we to blame, or was it simply “bad luck“? Was I lazy in how I focused on our diets? We still ate things like French fries, processed foods, and plenty of sugary treats in the evenings for dessert. Chris still loaded his morning coffee with sugar, and had the occasional donut or non-GF treat outside of the home. While there is no definitive answer as to what caused the cancer to return, we decided that we needed to find ways to be proactive and combat it.

We learned that there could be a direct connection with refined sugar consumption and cancer growth. We also did a lot of research on what is going on with our food supply in general. To be honest, a lot of BAD stuff lingers in the average American diet. Trans-fats, refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, pink slime, chemicals and hormones in our meat, and food additives with names we can‘t even pronounce derived from things we DON’T even want to know about. In short, lots of garbage, and cancer absolutely LOVES garbage. It’s like a sewer rat that can plague our bodies and thrive easily if we continue to feed it. It‘s no wonder that obesity is at all all-time high, and that cancer is still running rampant like a kid in a candy store.

Weeks ago we decided it was time to change our diet, change our lifestyle, and fight this cancer a little harder. Some people thought eating gluten-free was hard enough, but try throwing no refined sugar, no high fructose corn syrup, and as little meat as possible into the mix. The very prospect had me stressed out and overwhelmed. It seemed like it would be harder than ever!

Surprisingly, it wasn’t!

Sure you go through sugar withdrawal: crankiness, insomnia, brain fog, exhaustion and cravings. But that only lasted maybe a week.  We cleared our cabinets of all the processed garbage and loaded them with more natural forms of sugar like honey, coconut palm sugar and agave syrup. We did a little more label reading when grocery shopping, if sugar is one of the ingredients, it gets put back on the shelf. This usually meant buying more cereals from the organic section and making more of our own staples at home. I have a simple coconut granola recipe that I make once a week, and we absolutely love it. We eat a lot more fresh produce and much less refined and pre-packaged foods, and are really starting to reap the benefits. We’ve both tightened the notches on our belts a little bit without even trying, and I have noticed my sciatic nerve pain has been slim to none, and this may be due to the fact that sugar increases inflammation (according to numerous studies).

So how can this be done? There are definitely tricks to making sure you have ample amount of variety in a diet of this caliper:

1) Access to a good produce market and farmer‘s market. Boy, do we not have any problems with that! I can spend $20.00 and bring home pounds and pounds of fresh vegetables and fruit. Most of our recipes involve lots of fresh vegetables, and I can buy things like a huge 40-ounce baby of baby spinach for around $4.00.  In springtime most towns have farmer’s markets that last until late fall, take advantage of them and see what they have to offer! If you think you can’t get through the produce fast enough, many vegetables can easily be frozen for later use, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach. Fruits can also be frozen to make into smoothies. Never a need to have things go to waste!

2) Brainstorm and make a list of meal ideas. I had no idea how we would eat less meat since it seemed to be such a presence in our diet, and started working on vegetarian meal ideas, and ultimately it really seemed like the sky was the limit! We had tons of options, and even could include condiments into the mix for flavor and ethnic flair. Places like Wegman’s have lots of different sauces for meals like curry, Italian, Asian stir fries, etc. and many of them are very low or free of refined sugar as well as gluten-free.

3) The less ingredients, the better the meal! One of Chris’ absolute favorite meals: a handful of gluten-free pasta, with lots of sautéed spinach, tomatoes, broccoli and asparagus, throw in a little olive oil, Italian seasoning, and a side of homemade gluten-free bread and olive oil, as well as maybe an extra veggie side, and you have a vegetarian feast made for a king. Another favorite is simply beans and rice with salsa verde and fresh avocado sliced on top, and a side of roasted veggies to make an awesome vegan dinner with loads of healthy fats.

4) Desserts are still something we enjoy, but instead of things like ice cream or candy, we’ll have homemade gluten-free granola with almond milk, or one of my favorites is just a rice cake with honey and almond butter (might as well throw on a few banana slices while you‘re at it).  It’s absolutely delicious! Even a good mandarin orange is a perfect dessert with the right amount of natural sweetness. Some nights we forgo dessert entirely, but when we do have it, we are very satisfied with the more natural choices. The cravings for hot fudge sundaes and chocolate candy are long gone, and I am sure we are doing our bodies and waistlines a favor.

5) Don’t shy away from healthy fat! Back in the 90’s, the way to stay healthy and lose weight was the constant promotion of low-fat living. The less fat the better, and you could make lots of different recipes with little to no fat, but plenty of sugar. Now researchers are realizing more and more that fat is NOT the problem, but sugar! Our main sources of fat are fresh avocado (try slicing one of top of a veggie egg-white omelet, it gives a flavor that’s incredible) and olive oil, and in the past while I used to be very nervous about generously using olive oil and other fats, I now realize that fat is NOT the enemy! The best fats to use are vegetable-based fats, so we usually stick to extra virgin olive oil, avocados, extra virgin coconut oil (gives some incredible flavor to baking recipes) and nut butters. I no longer pour the oil off the top of a jar natural peanut or almond butter, but stir it up and embrace the fat that I once shunned.

6) Be prepared to eat out a LOT less, and cook a lot more. Roll up your sleeves, because this lifestyle usually means a lot more cooking and food prep. I pack all of our breakfasts and lunches every morning before work, and dinners are also enjoyed at home 99% of the time. Unfortunately this is due more to the celiac disease, as cross-contamination is a concept that most restaurants with gluten-free options still aren’t quite grasping.  But cooking more at home means you have complete control as to what goes into the recipes, and that is a satisfying feeling.

Cutting sugar from our diets has truly been a positive change for both of us. We no longer have cravings for unhealthy desserts and sugar laden coffee drinks and cereals. Natural food tastes BETTER than ever, and this is coming from someone who has lost some of the use of his salivary glands from prior cancer treatment. A fresh mandarin orange is like eating a handful of sunshine. Fresh avocado has an incredible taste that we can’t even describe, but I think we are both officially becoming avocado junkies!

In the past when I met people who first learned I had celiac, they would ask “What can you EAT then?” and I’d respond with a grin “Nothing.” or “Not much.” In terms of the typical American diet of fast food and pre-packaged quick fixes, yes, this is true.

Then cut out sugar. It cuts your convenient choices down even more.  You definitely have to spend a lot more time in the kitchen with food prep and planning. You have to take more trips to the produce market and spend a little more time label reading.

But in the end, look at the benefits you reap. You eat clean, whole foods. Food tastes better. You feel more energetic once your body detoxes itself of what it’s depended on for so long: junk.

Treat your body right, and it will treat you right. It’s something you have to work on together as a team.  Give it a try sometime, you might just like it.

If you have any further suggestions, comments or recipes, feel free to comment!

Happy eating!