Sarah Goddard is a writer and a quality assurance engineer. She’s been managing celiac disease and a gluten-free diet for 10 years. She lives in Atlanta with her husband.
I remember, very vividly, the exact moment when I realized something was definitely amiss with my digestive system. It was December 2003, and I’d moved to Atlanta four months prior. Out for a night on the town with some friends, I was headed to dinner and a show. I loaded up on spaghetti Bolognese and house-made focaccia bread at dinner, and then my friends and I were on our way to the Fox Theatre.
As we cruised down Peachtree Street, I felt like someone was taking a serrated knife to my abdomen, moving it in and out of my stomach over and over again. The pain was becoming unbearable, and my stomach was so swollen and bloated it looked like I had a basketball underneath my shirt.
I couldn’t take the pain any longer, so I asked the driver of the car to stop at the nearest drugstore. I ran inside, grabbed several rolled packs of antacids, tore them open and devoured the chalky, chewable tablets like candy.
As any good celiac patient knows, after eating gluten, relief is not immediate. Writhing in pain and figuring that I probably couldn’t make it through a two-hour theater performance, I took a cab home, and my friends went on to the show.
This episode prompted me to visit my doctor to figure out what was going on with my body, especially since I’d never experienced anything like this before. After seeing my general physician, several specialists, including a few gastroenterologists, and multiple trips to the emergency room, I was diagnosed with celiac sprue. That’s what it was called back in the day when little was known about the disease. Its name has since been changed to celiac disease.
Not being familiar with celiac disease, I learned it’s a condition that damages the small intestine lining and prevents it from absorbing essential nutrients from the food you eat. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. (There is still much debate around whether or not oats do, in fact, contain gluten.)
All in all, my prognosis was good, but it was predicated on one tiny condition: I’d have to give up gluten. For life. What? No bagels, thick-crust pizza, cookies, cakes or fried chicken? I was so confused. I’d eaten plenty of gluten growing up and never had an issue. And now, at 20 years old, I was expected to give up all of my favorite foods cold turkey? Were these quacks serious? The answer was yes.
Avoiding gluten altogether was—and still is—the only known remedy for celiac disease. So I began shopping at natural foods stores and reading labels diligently. Because, you see, it wasn’t enough to steer clear of all of the obvious food choices like pasta and bread. I also had to be cognizant of all of the places where gluten might hide. Like in my toothpaste, for instance, or in my daily multivitamins.
In the beginning, I was that annoying restaurant customer who asked 1,000 questions about what was in the salad dressing, protein seasoning and what was used to thicken the soup. And to this day, I still eat before I head to a friend’s house for a barbeque or holiday get together, because I assume most of the food there will contain gluten. Fortunately, many restaurants now offer a gluten-free menu or are happy to make any substitutions necessary to make a dish gluten-free.
It’s been almost a decade since my initial diagnosis, and I’ve become a bit of a self-proclaimed expert when it comes to identifying items that contain gluten, as well as edible and tasty substitutions.
For me, the key was not thinking about the things I was giving up, and instead focusing on making the right decisions for my overall health. It has most definitely been a lifestyle change, but the difference in how I feel since I stopped eating gluten has been like night and day. And there haven’t been any more trips to the emergency room.