“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,
for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Gluten-free. To some, it sounds like a death sentence. Life without pizza, doughnuts, manicotti, cinnamon rolls… “everything.” Then take dairy out of the equation, too. What’s left to eat?
Well, a lot of stuff. If “gluten-free” is a death sentence, then life beyond the grave is pretty amazing.
It’s been almost eight years since I committed to a gluten-free food-life (not “diet”!), and I couldn’t be more grateful for God’s grace to make the switch. Because once I stopped looking at what I left behind, I discovered a whole new world I had never before imagined.
That new world is what I want to share – I have learned much from this experience, so I don’t want anyone who knows me to apologize for enjoying gluten without me or to regret that I have given it up.
The Facts of Food Sensitivity
Toward the end of high school, I was experiencing major health issues. I will never forget sitting in literature class wearing thick wool socks, two pairs of pants, a long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, coat, hood, and gloves and still feeling chilled. Something was seriously wrong.
It didn’t take much trial and error to find out that dairy was a problem, but eliminating that didn’t fix things completely. After my freshman year of college, antibody testing showed that I had a definite food sensitivity to gluten.
True food allergies are caused by an immunoglobulin E (IgE) reaction to a food. These are immediate and severe reactions – think of peanut allergies and EpiPens. Celiac Disease, an autoimmune response to gluten that causes damage to the small intestine, is a “true” food allergy.
Food sensitivities on the other hand are caused by immunoglobulin A or G (IgA or IgG) reactions. These reactions tend to be delayed onset and longer-lasting. Celiacs (also called “gluten-intolerant”) often cannot touch or even breathe gluten, while gluten-sensitive individuals might not have a problem with that. However, when it comes to eating food, the bottom line for both Celiac and gluten-sensitive individuals is that eating gluten is bad news. For that reason, “I’m allergic to gluten” is a common, simplified way to express “I can’t eat that. Please don’t poison me!”
Life After Gluten
Test results in hand, I was still skeptical. I had previously tried eliminating gluten and did not think it had helped. How could I give up pasta, spelt bread, and Stollen at Christmastime? Why should I, if I didn’t really have to?
I went back to college for a new semester and ignored the test results. At home over Christmas break, though, my doctor looked me straight in the eye and told me the gluten needed to go. At that moment, it was like a light switch flipped. God gave me the grace to change: I didn’t need it anymore; I didn’t want it anymore.
After the next semester (entirely gluten-free), I came back home feeling alive again. The change had been gradual for me, but it was dramatic to people who hadn’t seen me in four months. I lost count of the number of times I heard, “You look amazing; what did you do?” Nothing had changed except that the gluten was gone.
Reflecting on the transition after about a year, four things struck me:
I feel fantastic. The lethargy I previously experienced is now gone, and I live with an energy I had forgotten was possible. Having lost and regained that energy makes me so much more grateful to have it! Though I make no claims to athletic prowess, I can say with Eric Liddell that when I run, I feel God’s pleasure – because without His healing touch, I would not be running at all right now.
“Gluten-free” has forced me to new frontiers of culinary creativity. During the first summer of my gluten-free life, I kept a photographic diary of the many experimental foods I prepared – all beautiful and delicious in their own ways. Alfredo Primavera with Oregano Smashed Potatoes, anyone?
Going gluten-free has given me increased awareness of issues faced by people with allergies, which helps me empathize with them, watch out for cross-contamination issues, and make creative substitutions when necessary.
Above all, this challenge is a constant reminder to anticipate Heaven – my true home, where there will no longer be sickness, pain, or death. It’s oh-so-easy to get comfortable with the many privileges I enjoy here on earth – to settle for the less-than-optimal simply because the highest-and-best is shrouded in mystery.
That’s not to say this journey is always easy; it certainly has its challenges. Eating gluten when you shouldn’t can cause malnutrition issues, and that takes time to heal. Explaining to coworkers that there’s nothing on the menu that’s safe for you at the restaurant they picked can be awkward. Traveling often requires more planning to identify “safe” places to eat. Yet life is full of challenges, and challenges spur growth, and growth makes us stronger people. I would pick this challenge over so many others any day.
Some Practical (and Philosophical) Advice
For those who are confronting a gluten-free leap of their own, or who are supporting loved ones in that position, there are two things I would offer – some practical advice, and some philosophical advice.
Speaking practically: The first rule of gluten-free creativity is that things that don’t have gluten won’t behave like things that do. Wheat will be wheat, and rice will be rice – so it’s not fair to expect rice to act like wheat! The best entry place for a gluten-free life may be to explore cooking with the multitudinous wonderful things that are naturally gluten-free.
In terms of baking, most things that were full of gluten can be made gluten-free, but there will not necessarily be one gluten-free flour substitution that works equally well in place of wheat in all recipes. It is a lot of fun to get to know the personalities of rice, buckwheat, quinoa, cassava, coconut, tigernut, teff, and many other gluten-free flours. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, just like wheat, rye, barley, spelt, or other gluten-full flours do.
Speaking philosophically: God often brings unexpected twists and turns in our lives. The older I get, the more I realize that those surprises, welcome or unwelcome, ultimately lead me into a more beautiful path than any I could have ever dreamed of.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)