…Being a Wheat-free Vegetarian isn’t easy.
So I’ve been sharing vegetarian and wheat free recipes and food experiences with the online world but I haven’t yet explained my dietary choices. I now feel ready to share this with the internet, in fact I feel it necessary if only for my own gratification to express this in a written form.
So I am warning any readers that this is a very personal post, one that you may not be interested in reading but one that I feel relief for writing and hope that this may find at least one person who can relate and will benefit from reading. I also appreciate that there are various sensitive topics touched on in this post and I apologise in advance for any offence or upset caused. This post is only intended as an honest expression of my beliefs, emotions and thoughts regarding my dietary choices. I also want to apologise for how ridiculously long this post is.
So the easy part: becoming vegetarian. Actually this isn’t easy for me to explain at all however it does appear to be easy for others to understand, many restaurants catering for vegetarians and buffets offering vegetarian choices by default. Choices about diet appear to be entirely acceptable and understandable if they are made on the basis of ethical beliefs.
But I didn’t make the choice to become vegetarian due to ethical beliefs, not truthfully. The person who is writing this is the same person who only last December told someone they could never give up meat because they enjoy bacon/ gammon/ salmon too much (I was never a beef or chicken fan), the same person who thought the idea of a Christmas dinner without Turkey or Pigs in Blankets was horrifying and extremely unappealing.
Don’t get me wrong, I could understand the perspective of vegetarians and I had a great deal of respect for them. But I was also very cold hearted- the animals are already dead so I might as well eat them now. I would like to say I can pinpoint the exact moment when I decided to become vegetarian, the exact cause of my decision but I can’t. I only know that I never regretted my decision once and almost immediately realised it was a decision I should have made long ago.
Eating meat was hypocritical of me. Every time I saw a vehicle on the road transporting animals to a slaughterhouse it broke my heart, cutting raw meat was a traumatic experience and the idea of raising animals for food disgusted me. I wasEating meat was hypocritical of me. Every time I saw a vehicle on the road transporting animals to a slaughterhouse it broke my heart okay with buying meat from the supermarket, the animal already killed and prepared for me but if I hadn’t lived in such a convenient time where this was possible I would never be able to bring myself to eat meat. This was not okay at all.
So I think mentally I was ready to become vegetarian, I already had the beliefs to motivate me. The problem was that I was seriously lacking in knowledge about nutrition and health. I believed that cutting meat from my diet was unnatural and so I would be lacking in the nutrition I needed as a human being.
So I think it must have been the realisation and understanding that we can get everything we need from other sources: vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds etc… from observation of vegetarian friends and of research a result of my interest in healthy eating. Once I fully realised that eating meat is completely unnecessary it was very easy to make the decision to cut it out of my diet.
Now comes the more difficult part. First a second confession I wasn’t entirely honest about my initial reasons for becoming a vegetarian I did have a reason, it’s just not one that I can justify.
A bit of background knowledge: a few years ago I was very ill with a severe case of diarrhoea and since then my body and digestive system have not been the same. I can’t say they functioned as they normally should before this time but definitely after I was either in pain or discomfort almost every day. I’m not exaggerating by saying that my body caused me hell. I’m talking being bloated all day long, feeling tired and heavy, having trapped wind, missing lectures and cancelling on friends. That’s just a summarised version. It was ruining my confidence since I felt disgusting and unattractive all the time. I couldn’t enjoy food because I knew that it would make me feel ill, eating out was a particularly unpleasant experience as it was certain that I would be suffering even more than normal for the next few days. Now I know everyone has their off days and when I’ve tried to explain because I was unwilling to go into details (digestive problems are usually off limits in conversation) people just assume that that was all it was with me. Everyone gets bloated, everyone gets diarrhoea, everyone gets constipated.
I have two responses to that thought, first: I am 99% sure the people who think that never suffered the way I did, to have problems due to the food you are eating, for your body to not be able to tolerate the consumption of food all day and everyday is NOT normal. I probably had one or two days a week maximum where my body felt ‘normal’ and this didn’t usually include the morning as my body has never seemed to co-operate with waking up from sleep.
Second: if you are genuinely having problems with your body and feeling like crap majority of the time there is probably an underlying cause, as I found out.
For a long time I just assumed the problem was me and my body, that there was something wrong with my body. About eight months ago I realised that I don’t have to accept this, I’d already overcome another similar assumption a year before (realising that it wasn’t my breasts that were the reason for my suffering but badly fitted bras and restrictive sizing from lingerie companies) maybe I was wrong about my body, maybe I was the one guilty of feeding it foods that were causing it to suffer.
So I made the decision to make changes to my diet, to experiment and try and find the cause of my suffering. And for some reason, maybe because being vegetarian was the ‘restrictive’ dietary choice I was most familiar with, the first food I decided to experiment with eliminating was meat. And I really did feel better not only mentally, as I have already touched upon, but also physically. But not better enough, I was still suffering from severe abdominal pain and digestive problems of some kind almost every day.
And so, I went back to the drawing board and did my research into intolerances, I reduced my intake of unnatural sugars and also cheese and milk. The only thing that seemed to have a positive effect was reducing my carb intake. I thought this must be it I just must not be able to tolerate a large amount of carbs and calories.
But what I should have asked is what is the main source of carbs?
And there’s the answer: Wheat.
It took me a little longer to find this though. I found out the hard way, I had wondered why I had always been rather ill when I went back home to visit the parents whilst at uni and had assumed it just had been my travel sickness kicking in. But then one weekend I visited my parents and we had pasta and garlic bread for dinner and for three days straight after I was pretty much in agony.
I went back to the research, I searched wheat intolerance and couldn’t believe I hadn’t matched up the symptoms earlier since they fitted exactly. But the reason I’d dismissed it was because I hadn’t realised just how many different types of food contain wheat. I’d dismissed it because as I’d been keeping track, using a food diary, it seemed like almost every type of food and drink (particularly alcohol) caused the effect. But wheat is in fact in a lot of foods. It shouldn’t be, but due to western food culture and obsession with processed and convenient food, I’m afraid it is and that is why it seemed to be the case that all foods made me ill.
So yes I am guilty of using google as my doctor and a sensible person would have taken this information with them to a real life GP. But I am not a sensible person, I have a slight fear of the doctors and a bigger worry about wasting people’s time unnecessarily. I was sure I had settled the problem myself and they would just tell me the same information I already knew, right?
So I made the decision by myself to eliminate wheat from my diet, or as best as I could. I had read that you only need to eliminate it temporarily and then slowly reintroduce it. But as most foods contain wheat it was hard to eliminate it entirely and so I was never reaching the point where I’d eliminated for long enough to be able to reintroduce and when I was forced to try wheat containing foods I felt just the same problems as before, in fact they seemed to be even worse.
On the positive, for the most part my body really was feeling much better. It felt more ‘normal’ than I ever remember it being, I felt my energy increasing, I could leave the house in the morning easily and felt healthy. This was in combination with my attending the gym regularly which I was thoroughly enjoying.
A few weeks down the line of feeling better and only consuming wheat in small amounts such as the occasional falafel or in the form of soy sauce I could honestly say I was feeling great. I felt so stupid for not being able to solve such an easily solved problem sooner I finally felt happy and connected with my body.
Vegetarianism had brought about my creativity and enjoyment in cooking and so it wasn’t so difficult. I’m not going to lie though; cutting out meat was easy, in fact, instead of restricting myself I felt like that decision had completely opened up my option to a whole new world of food possibilities. Cutting out wheat was hard because it meant cutting out food I ate and enjoyed on a regular basis: fig rolls, tortilla wraps, noodles, pancakes, cous cous, Weetabix and cereal.. the list goes on. No more sandwiches meant packed lunch was mostly salads, no more wheat meant breakfast in a hurry was only porridge.
But I conquered the difficulty, I changed my ideas about the food I ate. In fact, I like to think of it as I retrained my taste buds, the food I couldn’t have I no longer enjoyed or wanted and I started to gain great enjoyment from food I had previously been disinterested in. I was happy with my own diet but only when I was alone. The problem became when I was eating with other people; being wheat free and vegetarian is a pain when going out for meals and for people who are one or neither they find it difficult to comprehend even what kind of foods you can eat because it’s not a meal without a side of bread, because it’s not a snack if it’s not a biscuit or a cake etc…
Now, the real problem comes here: the decision to go vegetarian and wheat free was combined with a previously made decision to eat more healthily: cut out processed food, cut out snacks, reduce carb intake etc…
Now my diet was so dramatically different to what I had spent my entire life eating I was unable to judge what was the correct amount to be eating. I had scared myself of over eating and I was still judging my meals by eye what looked like the right portion size, and unfortunately I was way off in my estimation.
Considering my diet was pretty much all fruit and vegetables (and fruit being limited to two portions a day) my portions should have been upped to about triple what they had been previously but I was still sticking to the same size of food as though I was still eating the foods with a large amount of calories. I was completely clueless and I was completely unaware of the weight that was falling off me whilst everyone else was expressing their concerns.
They were frustrating me. I just thought they only think there’s something wrong with my diet because they are eating too much, they are eating the wrong foods, meanwhile I was eating all the right foods. I was finally treating my body right. I was healthy.
And I felt healthy, I felt full of energy which is probably because my mind was well fuelled I was gaining all I needed, nutritionally, in terms of vitamins and minerals but not in terms of calorie and fat intake.
It took me a while to notice the weight loss. I knew I had lost weight but I thought that it couldn’t be that much since my body didn’t seem to be that different so I couldn’t understand when all my trousers were falling down and my tops were hanging off me. But then as I started listening to the people around me it seemed I really had lost a lot of weight (two stone and counting).
I was (and still am) clinically underweight considering my height. For a period of time this did knock back my confidence, particularly with my parents commenting on me looking ill and having all your clothes bury you (including your bras) and owning nothing that flatters you. But then I saw my flat stomach in the mirror (that I had never before have) and realised I could now wear all the clothes I’d always wanted to wear but had never suited my body type. Whilst I’m sure everyone around me was disappointed in me going from the ‘dream’ hourglass figure to a ‘plain’ thin one I had come to love my new figure because it felt like the body I’d always meant to have. I now looked in the mirror and no longer felt disconnected with my reflection. This body suits me.
And so I admit that I did have anxiety about putting on weight and tried to maintain the diet I had. I didn’t want to lose any weight but I didn’t want to go back to the body I had before, I wasn’t counting calories but I also wasn’t eating anywhere near enough.
My parents accused me of having an eating disorder, something which has greatly upset me. They don’t believe that my wheat intolerance is genuine, they believe that I use it as an excuse to eat less.
After concern from others, the full realisation of just how much weight I’d lost I decided to try and make an effort to put on weight. I started counting my calories as a measure that I was eating the right amount. And this is when I realised that I must have been eating half of what I should have been, at most. Even just increasing my calorie intake by 400 calories wouldn’t allow me to put on weight so there was no justification for the anxiety.
So I increased my carb intake, reintroduced ‘unhealthy’ treats such as chocolate and ice cream. I also have increased my fat intake regularly consuming nuts, cheese, avocado and peanut butter (the latter being consumed in very large amounts) I have the mind set of unlimited vegetables and fruit (5 portions a day seems like such a miniscule amount) and now know to eat whenever I am hungry and however much I want rather than when and how much I think I’m supposed to or should eat by someone else’s standards.
A couple of weeks ago I made the very difficult decision of switching to a pescatarian diet from a vegetarian one. This choice was made a) to get my parents off my back b) for convenience reasons whilst living with meat eaters c) to expand my choices while eating out so it isn’t such an unenjoyable and frustrating experience d) increase the fats and nutrients I am receiving from my diet.
I feel completely fine with eating seafood but fish is something I still feel uncomfortable with. I don’t want to be in the situation where I’m forced to make the decision I’m not morally satisfied with but I’m happy to make that free choice if I just so happen to feel like eating fish that day.
I fully intend to return to a vegetarian diet when I have my diet and body completely stable and/or when I am living alone again. I still haven’t gained any weight and considering how quickly/ easily I lost it this leads me to think that I am not going to return to the weight and figure that I was (without eating a considerable amount of processed/ wheat based foods which of course I am not going to do). So long as I feel happy, healthy and full of energy I figure this is the body I am supposed to have and I should stop worrying about my BMI or what other people think because I am certain I am now eating enough.
I would just like to end this by saying that I don’t feel I have an unhealthy obsession with food, currently, but a very healthy one. Everyone has their own interests and passions and I’ve found mine in cooking. I find great enjoyment in searching for new recipes to try out, experimenting with new food, discovering exotic vegetables and fruits, going food shopping, finding new food at food markets and sharing my food experiments with the world through this blog and Instagram. Cooking allows me to relieve stress and feel pride in my successes, I also enjoy being able to cook for other people though, an even more satisfying experience I am still yet to find this relaxing.
If anyone has managed to read this to the end thank you for reading. I just want to pass on the final message that your health is of upmost importance, but this is both physically and mentally. Find the right balance for you and if you feel the two are in conflict then help is always there.
Before making any dietary changes always do sufficient research and ensure you are getting all the nutrients and energy you need to sustain your body goals, whatever they may be. And it’s always best to see a doctor or a diet or health specialist (Yes I should practice what I preach).
My future posts will be shorter and far less personal now I have this off my chest, I promise!