My gluten-free journey began almost ten years before I retired after a half-hearted internet search resulted in a life-changing “eureka” moment. For years I had been plagued by a shockingly itchy, blistering rash that popped up on my back every few months.
It was very small and went away after a few days, but it scabbed over and kept returning. I showed my doctor when it first appeared, but he dismissed it as another one of my annoying but harmless skin sensitivities. I am prone to rashes.
Periodically, I would poke around the internet to see if anyone else experienced this odd skin anomaly. Eventually, my research efforts were rewarded. Not only did others experience the rash, but it was also linked to several other issues I battled, including gastrointestinal problems, brain fog, and chronic sinus infections. Aha!
A couple of months, one biopsy, and several lab tests later, I was officially diagnosed with dermatitis herpetiformis, otherwise known as Celiac rash.
The Challenge Begins
The doctor said if I stopped eating gluten, the rash would disappear, and a host of other symptoms were likely to resolve. I had never heard of Celiac Disease and my knowledge of gluten and the foods that contained it was limited. I started reading all about it, and I was overwhelmed but hopeful.
The first few weeks of going gluten-free were a bit rough. Cooking became a chore that involved intense scrutiny of food labels and some creative substitutions. Trying new recipes became a game of hit and miss, and I missed the easy convenience of fast-food drive-thrus and accepting dinner invitations without a long explanation about my new dietary restrictions.
However, I began to feel amazing. After a few weeks of gluten-free eating, my brain was sharper, I had energy, my chronic headaches were gone, and symptoms from what I thought were seasonal allergies just seemed to fade away. I did not even realize how bad I had been feeling until I started feeling good.
Six months later, I was even 40 pounds thinner. I don’t know if that was a result of my less sluggish digestive system or the fact that I was no longer grabbing frequent fast-food meals, but I have maintained the loss for almost a decade.
Lessons Learned from “Cheating”
That doesn’t mean I haven’t had any missteps. The transition can be difficult (far more difficult than the transition into retirement), and I’ve had a few instances where I’ve thought I would “test” my gluten sensitivity. Food looks so harmless, and after long periods of good health, I tend to forget how bad I used to feel and decide to try a little bit of something I’ve missed. Or I find myself in a situation where I’m ravenous, and there are no safe foods around. These experiences never go well.
I don’t have immediate gastrointestinal distress like some retirees I have met with Celiac Disease. My reactions tend to be delayed and more subtle at the onset. When I cheat, and nothing happens right away, I trick myself into thinking I might not have an issue with gluten after all. But there is always a reckoning.
The worst part is that after I’ve already “glutened” myself, I figure I might as well indulge the rest of my cravings. So I continue to eat the forbidden foods until the rash pops back up, and I realize I have once again offended my digestive system, and it is no longer cooperating. I get sluggish, congested, and suffer from horrible headaches.
Luckily, I have developed some strategies to get back on track. Preparation is the biggest key to remaining gluten-free. If you’re just starting with a gluten-free lifestyle, I recommend a complete pantry purge. If you don’t have gluten-containing foods around, then you can’t eat them, and you’re less likely to grab a forbidden food because you’re starving and impulsive.
Always keep snacks on hand. Make sure you have quick and easy choices that you actually like. There are plenty of delicious gluten-free options. I keep gluten-free protein bars in my purse, and I always have cut-up fruit in my refrigerator and individual servings of peanut butter in my car. Going gluten-free as a retiree doesn’t have to be difficult if you plan. I have found many gluten-free versions of my favorite foods that I like even better.