Flour Power

It's now been more than half a year since I found out that I have celiac disease, and it's been a far from simple transition. Especially if you knew who I was before I realized this.

If you ever ate breakfast with me before the end of August 2012, you would notice that I subsisted on cereal--especially Kashi GoLean--and that cereal was never restricted to breakfast (Seriously, I would have bought stock in Kashi if I could still eat any of their products). If you asked me what my favorite food was, I would tell you ravioli without a second of hesitation. And if you were in the International Food Co-op with me in college (or a guest of mine), you would know that my specialty dishes were those handed down to me from the talented alumni of the class of 2010, especially JCG and his "Legendary Tiramisu."

For those who are reading this who knew me in college, you probably knew that even though I consistently got 8 to 9 hours of sleep (I pulled only one all-nighter in college) I was constantly fatigued and would have to nap for 2-3 hours in the middle of the day. Even with all that sleep, I struggled to make it to 10PM or 11PM at night, which made the 10:30PM-12:30AM a cappella rehearsal slot pretty much unbearable. it also compromised my having a conventional college social life--the idea of heading out to an eating club for a party at 11PM on a Thursday or Saturday was near unfathomable, and not just because I had Chinese tests on Friday mornings or lots of reading to do on Sunday. I think the only reason I was able to stay up so late for consecutive days at Reunions 2012--despite imbibing a good bit of the OTC depressant known as alcohol--was the adrenaline and anxiety about graduation.

So the discovery of celiac was a game-changer. Gluten-containing grains and products hide everywhere. Your breads, pastas, and cookies become forbidden, of course, but so do your favorite soups, gravies, and sauces become off-limits, since so many of them are thickened with flour. Anything with breadcrumbs, from croutons to tempura to meatballs, becomes taboo, too. And frankly, the gluten-free substitutions are always expensive and don't always taste good. Worse, the substitutions tend to be nutritionally meager (if you compare the nutrient content of whole wheat and GF breads and pastas, it's upsetting). Worst, you even run the risk of getting sick from products that share the same production conveyor belts with wheat products, even from things that in no way contain gluten, like frozen vegetables.

Celiac disease is the result of gluten crippling your immune system, specifically affecting your small intestine's ability to absorb nutrients, and until your intestine has repaired the gluten-wrought damage, digesting other foods becomes problematic. I can't have more than an ounce or two of chocolate, milk, or cheese without feeling off. I almost certainly have a soy intolerance, given how sick I got in December after having a smoothie that consisted exclusively of berries and soy milk. I've also discovered that I might have a peanut sensitivity and a nightshade sensitivity (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers) in addition to the gluten problem, so that puts further restrictions on my diet. Since I couldn't have milk products and gluten-containing products, I figured I may as well cut out the other animal products and see how that made me feel. So far, the less meat and fish I've had, the better I've felt. If someone makes me or if I'm going out for a special meal and there's no way around it, I'll eat the steak or have an omelet. But for the most part, my diet is largely unprocessed and very plant-strong.

And even though I was feeling a less tired and much better overall on this new diet, it made socializing difficult in new, different ways. I was able to stay up until 12 without trouble, but going out with friends meant no beer, no standard late-night fare of pizza, burgers, ice cream, or wheat- and milk-containing pubby, snack-y foods . Fun happens around food and drink, and in Boston, especially around beer. Even a casual meeting for a latte becomes problematic--I can't go to Starbucks or even many of the great, local coffee shops because they don't have any alternatives to dairy milk aside from soy milk, which will have me sick in bed for half a day. Ultimately, all of this is no doubt better for my health, but some people, no matter how much they love me, likely find it inconvenient to hang out with me because of such restrictions. Luckily, wine is allergen-free.

So my cooking specialties have totally changed. I mastered the art of making French Macarons for Christmas and truffles for Valentine's Day for coworker gifts. My standard dinner is a sauteed green with a legume or some non-glutinous grain. Given the abundance of root vegetables I receive in the winter from the twice-monthly produce delivery service I signed up for in December, I've added roasted parsnips and kohlrabi, mashed sweet potatoes, and winter squash soup to my culinary repertoire. My blender is my best friend at breakfast, and I'll usually do some gluten-free hot cereal with fruit and nuts or an almond milk fruit smoothie with a protein powder (not eating meat regularly and not being able to consume vegetarian protein standards such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan reduces my available protein sources. So I'll use a non-whey, soy-free, and gluten-free protein powder as a smoothie supplement. I still having trouble trying to get complete protein, all 9 amino acids, on a daily basis.)

It's been a journey with its fair share of bumps along the way, and I still don't feel as good as I think I can feel. But I think every day I'm getting a little bit closer to that esoteric concept of "wellness" that all the crazy hippies preach and that I'm starting, strangely enough, to believe.