Gluten intolerance, part two.

Turned out that having no job and no health insurance was a blessing in disguise. It motivated me to go back to school, first to finish my BA (how many people do you know who took SEVENTEEN years to finish college?!), then grad school. And while I remained uninsured, I had access to the student health center.

In early 2003, nearly breaking the scales at 5’2″ and 172 pounds, I made an appointment. Expecting the usual “IBS” runaround and the offer of meds that only made things worse, I wasn’t very hopeful. But I was desperate and knew that all I had to lose was my time. I told my tale of woe to the student health center doctor, who actually seemed to be listening to me. She told me to keep a food diary for a week and come back to see her. I did, reluctantly, because I expected the usual “Your diet is perfect! It’s low fat! You eat lots of fruit! Keep on doing what you’re doing!” response that had come from every doctor and nutritionist I had seen to date.

I was in for a surprise. “Where’s the protein?” she asked me. I told her I was vegetarian – I ate cheese on occasion and fish once in a while. I avoided eggs because conventional wisdom told us that they are cholesterol bombs. How the heck was I supposed to get protein in my diet?? She cross-examined me further. “And why do you eat so much sugar?” Huh? I ate things like fruit. Granola bars. Stuff that said “healthy whole grains” on the box. I was doing it right, wasn’t I?

Apparently not. “I think you have fructose intolerance,” she told me. Further, she went on to explain that the celiac testing I had had several years before was not done correctly – for the biopsy results to be valid, one had to be eating gluten consistently fro 6 weeks before testing. I had stopped eating it, completely, at least 4 weeks prior to the test.

I broke down in tears – it seemed like everything I had known to be RIGHT was now WRONG. Eating fruit was bad? Eating grains was bad? Eating animals was GOOD? What was I supposed to do?

The doctor told me to focus on protein and fat intake, and eliminate most carbohydrates. I was absolutely CLUELESS – I had no idea what a carbohydrate even was. She told me to read Atkins. I did, and at first I was horrified – I couldn’t do that! Eat bacon, are you kidding me… and not limit quantities? Right, that’ll happen.

But slowly, I was able to figure out some changes that would work for me. I stopped eating gluten again, immediately, and took it a step further to include ALL grains, even rice. No more processed “healthy” granola bars, no more bagels. I started eating eggs, which I had never eaten regularly before, and found they were cheap and easy to cook. I cooked salmon for the first time and LOVED it, once I got over the initial squeamishness of handling it. I limited my fruit intake to blueberries. My stomach suddenly felt MUCH better, so I found this a great motivator to stick with it.

I had a 30-day follow-up at the student health center, where I learned that in 30 days, I had dropped THIRTY pounds, and cut my cholesterol in HALF. I figured this doctor was on to something. Her diagnosis, based on dietary response and medical history, was “gluten intolerance” and “fructose intolerance.” While I would not “officially” be diagnosed as celiac, because I was unwilling to eat gluten again for 6 weeks and repeat the biopsy, avoiding it was simple enough. Avoiding fructose was trickier – it was in EVERYTHING, as all sugar is 50% fructose – but this time around, since I was avoiding all grains, by default I was avoiding all the processed gluten-free crap that I had loaded up on in the past. I thought I was cured, more or less, as long as I maintained a high-protein, sugar-free, grain-free diet. Easy-peasy, right?

But. There was only one problem: salmon is expensive! I was an unemployed grad student. I began, slowly, reluctantly, to try to wrap my head around exploring other protein options. In other words: eating animals.