“To Pastry or Not to Pastry”: My Gluten-Free Diet Experience
Vacation In Europe (Fall 2011)
I get a lot of people asking me why I’ve chosen to go on a gluten-free (GF) diet despite not suffering from celiac or any other noticeable allergic effects from eating gluten products. So here’s my experience. I’m not a nutritionist or anything; my knowledge is base solely from my own personal experiences.
Why No Gluten?
I started a GF diet at the end of 2007 after the results from some simple tests taken by a Naturopath suggested I could be slightly intolerant to gluten (along with some other foods).
At this time I was returning from an major injury suffered at the Pan Am Games earlier that summer. I ruptured my plantar fascia (band at the bottom of your foot that makes your foot arch). A big part of my willingness to change my diet was in the hope that it would help my body in the recovery process. I already followed a pretty healthy diet, but you learn quickly as an athlete that sometimes even small changes can lead to big differences over time. Small food intolerances can affect the immune system, making the body more susceptible to inflammation. My hope was that “tweaking” my diet would give my body the best chance to put it’s energy into healing. With the Olympics less than a year a way, there was no time to lose.
I was very apprehensive about totally eliminating gluten from my life (the naturopath suggested to completely eliminate it, or don’t bother). It sounded like a lot of additional work over something I didn’t feel was interfering with my overall health. I decided to give it a try just to see if anything significant would come of it besides making my life more difficult.
After a couple of months off gluten I thought there was enough of difference in how I was feeling to stick with it. What I noticed the most was feeling less “swollen” or inflamed, although I had never thought I was swollen to begin with. My energy levels also improved, but it’s hard to say if this was a direct effect of going off gluten or from other changes I had made during the same timeframe.
I knew that committing to a GF diet would be a bit of a lifestyle change, not so much in needing to purge fast foods and processed foods from my diet, but mainly because I would have to be more organized – which wasn’t a strength of mine to begin with.
I found the easiest way to eat GF is to eat food at home, or to bring prepared food from home. Once you’re out in the real world, empty-handed, it is substantially more difficult. Having food available on the go, so I’m not left roaming around the city looking for a quick bite to eat, was the most difficult part. Sometimes I just wanted to grab a bite to eat at the local cafe with a friend, but didn’t want the hassle of explaining that I can’t eat anything on the menu at most locations.
Traveling was another story altogether. Going to the States is a breeze – they have lots options – but Austria and France, home of the bakery and mmm baguettes… not so much. I would have to pack a lot of my own foods and hope for the best.
My Take: Cost-Benefit
I promised myself I would stick with the GF diet so long as it remained somewhat manageable and didn’t become a major everyday stress in my life. It would defeat the purpose of going on a GF diet if, in doing so, I mess up my regular eating schedule. Calorie intake is a big priority when you train everyday, and while bars can make do in a pinch, the priority is wholesome meals.
This was even more important when I was at competitions. If I got to a competition and I wasn’t getting the proper calorie intake due to limited GF food options, then it was better for me to eat gluten, rather than to avoid glutenous foods. I didn’t want it to interfere with my regular competition preparations and focus.
Simply put, avoiding gluten couldn’t come at the expense of stressing myself sick over it, so in some situations I had to be adaptable.
Change of Priorities:
We were living in Barcelona when I found out I was pregnant- a month after the Beijing Olympics. Since I was at my leanest leading into the pregnancy, I decided that I didn’t want to continue restricting my diet. Besides, with a pretty intense first-trimester of “morning” (or really, “any-time-of-day”) sickness, I needed to allow myself to eat whatever didn’t make me immediately nauseous.
Returning to training post-baby, with the additional responsibilities of being a mother, I did not fully committed to a GF diet. Out of habit, we still didn’t bring gluten products into the house, but I would be more lenient when I was out and about or travelling.
It’s a tough balancing act in a way. I know that being off gluten might make me feel generally better or perhaps give me more energy, but I’m not the same athlete, or person, I was in 2007. I’m learning to prioritize what additional stress is worth putting on my plate – literally, while considering the real payoffs.
Even with that being said, it is an Olympic year, and if there’s a time to buck-up, it’s now. I’ve just started working with a Naturopath again (a new one), and we agree it should still be a priority to avoid at least wheat altogether (and work around the other grains for now). I must admit, this time around it’ll be very helpful in my eating out situations since a local eat in/take out restaurant “The Main Dish” has taken me on board, and who offers a variety of labeled GF dishes.
Seeing that there is less than 6 months before the Big show, I know at this point I have the stamina to dig deep and follow through diligently with my recommended diet without it becoming a negative stress-factor. Though subconsciously, I think I had to wait until after my last Christmas cookie indulgence before I could mentally buy-in. Now I’m ready :)