Why Gluten Free?

I practice Health at Every Size.  Which means that I’m concerned with actual measures of my health like fitness level, blood work, lifestyle choices (no tobacco use, limited alcohol consumption, no illegal drugs, prescription drugs only as directed, etc), and eating a balanced but varied diet.  I’ve committed to not using restrictive eating habits or excessive exercise routines as a means of controlling my weight.  There’s quite a bit of research to back up the idea that this is the best approach and zero evidence that dieting for weight loss actually works in the long term.  (I don’t really care to go through all of it for you, so if you’re curious about the science, feel free to read Health at Every Size or check out some of the many fabulous posts from Dances with Fat who goes through the research as well as addressing some of the common questions that come up with Health at Every Size or HAES.)

With all of that in mind, you might be wondering why I’m following a gluten/wheat free diet.  Why, if I genuinely believe in not using restrictive eating habits to modify my weight, I would severely restrict my eating habits in such a way.  To answer that, I have to start by reminding you that my weight isn’t a consideration when I make decisions about my health.  I chose to remove wheat and gluten from my diet at the suggestion of my doctor after considering many factors, primarily my allergies.  We actually discussed removing all grains from my diet, but compromised on starting with wheat due to the difficulties involved in making such a drastic change in my diet and my lifestyle.

Several years ago my severe hay-fever morphed into something more serious.  I actually started going into anaphylaxis and had to be taken to the emergency room.  What happened?  I was sitting in a lawn chair at the park in closed shoes, long pants, and a fairly conservative blouse, late at night, watching the fireworks on the fourth of July.  My nose was flowing, my eyes were watering and swelling to the point that I could barely get a blury idea of where I was going and I was starting to wheeze and have swelling in my mouth and lips.  I hadn’t eaten anything for hours.  Pollen levels should have been at their lowest for the day.  I hadn’t used any new skin care products or put on any new clothing.  Yet the ambient levels of pollen combined with the proximity of grass was enough to trigger a medical emergency.  Luckily I was with friends who immediately loaded me in the car and found the nearest open store (a mini-mart almost 10 miles away), and got a bottle of liquid Benadryl for me to sip while we made the 20 mile drive to the nearest hospital.  When I went through the whole allergy panel several weeks later, they used the more diluted version of the grass allergen for the test and it made half my arm swell up, plus reactions to half a dozen other environmental allergens.

But that’s not the end of the story.  Most people with a grass allergy react only to the pollen.  I react badly to the plant as well, dormant or not.  And the variety of grass doesn’t matter.  Living in an area where grass, wheat, oats and similar crops are grown, I have tested my reaction to various relatives of the common fescue.  I react just as badly to wheat grass as I do to a common lawn.  And when you stop to think about it, all of the grains are cousins really.  They all started from selectively breeding grasses for particular traits.  Why then is it so strange for people to talk about food allergies in the context of a grass allergy… many varieties of grasses are used as food sources!  Why would the skin on the inside of my body (my digestive tract) be any less sensitive to these allergens than the skin on the outside of my body is?

My body is so sensitive to some of these allergens that I also have a problem called “oral allergy syndrome” which is where your body confuses certain compounds in food for very similar compounds in allergens and reacts as if it were an allergen.  Several foods are associated with grass allergies in particular; celery, melons, oranges, peaches and tomatoes are all potential problems if eaten raw.  Cooking seems to offset the effects for most people.  But I happen to react strongly to melons which are almost never cooked.  People with Birch pollen allergies may react to apple, almond, carrot, celery, cherry, hazelnut, kiwi, peach, pear, plum.  And those with ragweed allergies may react to banana, cucumber, melons, sunflower seeds, zucchini.  Unfortunately, because it only occurs in about 1/3 of the very worst allergy cases, many allergists never discuss the possibility with their patients.  I had a random stranger suggest I look it up after overhearing me mention that watermelon makes my lips itch.  She asked if I was allergic to grass as well, then suggested looking up Oral Allergy Syndrome.  My doctor had never heard of it.

When I started questioning my doctor about possible food allergy connections, as well as my thinking on the grass allergy-grain foods connection, he dismissed my concerns and my research out of hand.  His attitude was ‘people with a wheat food allergy aren’t fat, it’s not possible.’  Of course, because I was poor he also dismissed any research I did out of hand, I clearly couldn’t tell a valid source from a crackpot since I didn’t make very much money.  Ugh.  I had no other healthcare options at the time so I just shut my mouth, kept thinking critically, and muddled along as best I could.

Things have gotten better.  I found a doctor who treats me as a thinking human and listens when I say I feel like something isn’t right.  She doesn’t assume that she’s a better witness to my own experience than I am.  And she validated much of what I had been discovering by trial and error.  And then she suggests things that I never would have thought of because that’s what she’s there for.  I feel much, much better when I at least avoid wheat.  I’m certainly not perfect.  Life is messy, I get exhausted, and I order a pizza for delivery because I can’t even consider standing in the kitchen to fix something.  But that’s ok.  I know what happens when I make that choice.

At the end of the day, I shouldn’t need to justify what I choose to eat.  I eat food that makes me feel good, gives me energy, and supports my health.  Whether that’s a bacon wrapped corn dog or a big salad with all of the trimmings, none of those choices are any more good or bad than another.

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