Monday, November 30, 2009

A gluten-free Thanksgiving

I had my very first gluten-free Thanksgiving this year.

Why? Well, I was diagnosed with celiac disease in September. Here’s the gist: When I, or anyone with Celiac, eats foods containing gluten, meaning wheat, rye, and barley, the small intestines are damaged, and food does not absorb properly into the body. This can cause a whole host of problems, and left untreated can lead to malnutrition and even intestinal cancer.

Celiac is treated through diet. By eating a gluten-free diet, the body of a person with celiac can amazingly heal itself over time, typically taking around 6 months to de-toxify, and many of the symptoms begin to subside or reverse themselves – sometimes almost immediately.

Needless to say, this diagnosis was life-changing, and I am still going through the process of adjusting to this new lifestyle.

I began to realize that I was physically ‘falling apart’ a few years ago. A few months after turning 34, I woke up one morning and noticed that I had lost almost all the range of motion I had in my left hip. I, of course, went to the doctor, and then another doctor, and then another, but not one knew what was wrong with me. It took a few short months for the hip injury to become progressively painful, and I continually lost more and more range of motion. After years of tests and a variety of doctors’ visits, I had relinquished myself to ongoing chiropractic care and yoga as treatment for my undiagnosed hip injury. It did help, but it didn’t go away. I continued to persist though, and I finally received a diagnosis of osteo-arthritis in 2008.

But I just couldn’t believe that I had arthritis at such a young age. The diagnosis just didn’t work for me. The whole thing sounded strange, and I knew intuitively that my hip was locked up for some undiscovered reason. I just didn’t know what.

Around the same time, I became incredibly anxious every time I rode in a car. I used to love car drives, and suddenly, almost overnight, car rides became torturous. I saw the walls of parking garages caving in all around me, and in my mind’s eyes, I saw other passenger cars driving across lanes on major highways into our own almost causing major collisions. The parking garage walls were not caving in though, and neither were the cars on the highway. I logically knew this, but anxiety had taken over. And, I found myself staying at home more and more, not going out and living the life I had once lived so vivaciously.

I would get so tired, so drained of energy. I also found that the psoriasis I had since I was 18 (an auto-immune skin disorder which I now believe was the first sign) suddenly began to spread uncontrollably. My arms were covered with itchy and very uncomfortable red bumps.

I was seriously falling apart, and I didn’t know why. Meditation, exercise, healthy eating just weren’t cutting it. It was bad.

In all honesty when I first received the news that I may have celiac, all I could think was: What? No more croissants? And then, thinking of my diabetes, I said: Why must I always feel deprived? As a child with diabetes, I was not able to eat sugary treats or candy. I wasn’t able to eat the same foods that other kids my age were eating. I felt left out, not like everyone else, and yes, lacking. So now celiac too?

I actually didn’t know that I was being tested for Celiac. My endocrinologist (diabetes doctor) threw the test into my routine lab work. I was sitting in the doctor’s office looking at the test results when I saw in red writing: “Celiac – 12”. Normal is below 5. The endocrinologist sent me to a gastroenterologist.

The gastroenterologist asked me a series of questions, like: Have you ever been diagnosed with arthritis? Do you have any skin ailments? Do you suffer from anxiety? It took a few seconds until it hit: Celiac is serious; it’s not just about eating gluten-free and giving up wheat. This could be the answer to my why-am-I-falling-apart questions. The gastroenterologist performed an upper endoscopy (seriously not a big deal) and I learned 10 days later that I have celiac. The treatment: Go see a dietician and eat a gluten-free diet.

Gluten-free living started in early September, a few short months ago. Lior and I scouted out all of the stores, learned about all of the brands, and found out what to look for when reading the nutrition facts. Gluten can be found hidden in unsuspected places, like soy sauce and rice mixes. As everyone saw how distressed I was about giving up gluten, they reassuringly told me: “Awareness of gluten-free diets has grown so much over the last few years. There’s a whole world of gluten-free cuisine out there.”

It’s actually true, but when I was first diagnosed, I felt so deprived of things I love like pastries, cookies, pasta, and breads, and going out to nice restaurants that it wasn’t consoling. Some of the most trying situations though were figuring out how to handle awkward social situations like invitations for dinner and lunch meetings.

My husband Lior, the amazing man and ‘chef’ that he is, could see how distraught I was. For those of you who know us, you are well aware that we’re total foodies. And so, he started digging up recipes for dishes and cuisines from around the world that are gluten-free. Our family and friends jumped on board as well – sending articles and recipes and buying whatever gluten-free product they could find.

Lior began to create great food that just so happens to be gluten-free and more oftentimes than not, diabetes friendly. Talk about a challenge! Sometimes, he uses a gluten-free product, such as pasta or a baking mix, and there are times that he tries to figure out gluten-free solutions so that we can eat nice meals – like binding agents. Turns out gluten acts as a natural binding agent in baking. Who knew? So he figured out some techniques to help along in the binding process, like soaking apples in cream to bind them together into a gluten-free apple pie.

We’ve become accustomed to eating more at home, asking lots of questions at restaurants, and bringing a dish with us to friends’ houses. Slowly, I have began to realize that this really isn’t that bad; it’s even fun when Lior creates some fabulous new dish I had never eaten before - like homemade Bolognese with creamy polenta or a low-sugar chocolate Ganache cake with chestnuts. Yum!

Before you know it, Thanksgiving was around the corner, and I began to fret about not having my favorite stuffing with gravy and cranberry sauce. No fear though! Lior was in the process of planning with my mom – who has also taken on gluten-free living as a project – a Thanksgiving holiday like no other!

I went to the chiropractor before the holiday began for my regular adjustment. After my chiropractor’s routine range of motion hip check, he casually, yet happily, informed me: “Ophir, your range of motion in your left hip is the same as in your right.”

I, of course, didn’t believe him and made him check again. But it’s true; my left hip is pretty much back to normal!!!! Can you believe it? Suddenly tapioca starch and rice flour don’t seem so bad! Up until this point, I was crying about how I might forget what regular bread tastes like. Now it’s more like: My hip is back!!! This is totally worth it!!!

During Thanksgiving weekend, Lior pointed out to me that I am much less anxious. We rode down to my parents in the car, and I hardly cringed at all. My skin has gotten much better. I am less drained, mellower, and the color has come back to my face.

I can feel how my health has improved, but is all this no gluten stuff worth feeling deprived though? That’s when I realized that I have a choice – feel deprived, or learn how to feel abundant. It’s up to me, and only me.

As I sat at our Thanksgiving table eating the most delicious gluten-free meal you could ever imagine, feeling incredibly full and having eaten way too much, I did in fact notice how grateful I am – and yes, abundant. Not for the food, although I was grateful for that too, but for the amount of love and care that my family put into making a meal that I could enjoy along with everyone else. And feel totally normal. Actually, I felt better than normal.

And I thought: Why do I consider the ability to eat a pastry as abundant? You may say that my feelings of deprivation, or seeking abundance through food, are related to living with diabetes since the age of 3. It’s true. I was not able to eat the same foods as everyone else, and sometimes I didn’t even necessarily want to eat them. I just wanted to feel normal.

But it’s much, much more than that. I think that our society lends to it. Most people feel abundant when they have lots of money, lots of things, and yes, lots of food. Have you seen the portion sizes at American restaurant chains? Let me tell you: That is not normal! We are overwhelmed by ads telling us to buy, eat, buy, eat, and then take a pill to drown out all the unhealthiness we ingest.

When in actuality, eating a large meal or having lots of stuff never really brings us true abundance. No matter how much food or money we have, it’s never enough. We are always left wanting more. So I will quote a bit of advice from Oprah: "When you feel the need for more arise, ask yourself, what are you really hungry for?" Most of the time, it's really not a Big Mac or another pair of shoes.

We are seeking true abundance.

And what's really funny is that we already have it! Abundance is all around us. You just need to know where to look. The deepest, most profound feelings of abundance come when we are aware of the love, gratitude, and compassion we have for ourselves and others. Moments of gratitude can be found in the simplest things. Love starts with love of self. Compassion requires listening to the people in our lives, and really hearing what they have to say.

And I would like to thank you for listening.

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