While road-tripping across the Western United States a little over a year ago, my friends and I passed the hours in the car (whose name was Dumbledore) by asking each other questions. We covered a range of topics, but always came back to food because the four of us really love to eat. When asked what three foods I would eat for the rest of my life if I had to choose (regardless of nutrition), I said, without a doubt in my mind: bread, cheese, and raspberries. I surprised myself by not picking chocolate, but the images that popped into my head all had a theme: baked brie with a tart, pink compote; flaky croissants with a gooey cream cheese, fruit swirled filling; bruschetta with whipped chevre and chutney.
Even though both bread and a dairy product made it on my imaginary list of unsacrificeable foods, I made it through 30 days of no sugar, wheat, or dairy. The beginning wasn’t actually that difficult. I had to give up my eggos, but I barely buy sliced bread to begin with. I already drink nut milk and only indulge in cheese on occasion because it’s expensive. Sugar, on the other hand, was certainly present in my pantry and I was sad to finish off the last of my ‘Despicable Me’ minion-shaped graham crackers and thin mints.
Sure, I drooled a little bit when Kate brought cupcakes to lunch and my stomach sobbed every time someone would make toast in the morning and the perfect smell of warmed bread wafted in from the office kitchen. But I was fine. No ‘detox’ symptoms. No headaches or any of the other things I read about that people typically experience when they eliminate these things from their diet. I also felt a strange sense of personal satisfaction from being able to exercise such will power.
Things took a turn for the worst the second weekend in April when my mom came to visit. I had already broken the 30 day vow by the time she got here on Friday because I made cupcakes for my co-worker Wyatt’s birthday and there was no way I was going to make something and not try it (both because I need to make sure what I make is edible and because I made it so…I earned some). But then we went to dinner at Old Ebbitt Grill (the oldest restaurant in D.C.) and had warm, crispy baguette with butter. Chocolate chip bread pudding. Key lime pie. Creme brulee. We went to Kafe Leopold (my favorite breakfast spot) and had lemon souffle pancakes, goat cheese crepes, and a pastry basket. Her last night we had three different kinds of cheesecake.
It was heavenly and I don’t regret a single mouthwatering bite…but the next day I resumed my sugar-wheat-dairy free diet and began my week long crash/detox. I felt lightheaded, ravenous, and bloated. My stomach was one big cramp and nothing digested the way it was supposed to. My head pounded and half the time all I could do was lie down to keep from feeling nauseous. The symptoms tapered off a bit and then disappeared after a week.
So that was pretty miserable. Overall, though, I liked having a challenge. It forced me to plan (sometimes not enough) and be mindful. A key, however, was that I rejected the all-or-nothing mindset. I understand that the essence of these challenges is to stick with something for 30 days because 30 days is–in the long run–not that long. But if the intention behind your challenge is that you are trying something you’d like to incorporate into your life permanently, I don’t think this is the right approach. Personally, I feel I succeeded only because I knew going in that there would be exceptions and that there would be slip-ups that should not be considered irreparable set-backs.
I didn’t ‘fail’ at my challenge because I ate a hot-dog (let’s be honest, I ate four hot-dogs and cracker jacks and some spiked soda…not my best, but I got free tickets to a baseball game and it was dollar dog night). Before I started, I knew that all bets were off when my mother was in town and that the weekend of birthday parties and baby showers in the valley was likely going to result in some rule breaking (which happened to be in the form of wine). But I didn’t drink at other parties I went to. I had a salad instead of pasta at dinner the first night my mom was here. I ate my burger sans bun at the farm when we bbq-ed. For 24 of the 30 days of April I kept to my challenge and even during those 6 days, I did my best to eat and drink mindfully. And I did not feel the least bit guilty when I joined a lovely family for an Easter brunch of freshly made waffles or spread heaping knife-fulls of apricot jelly on an almond croissant at brunch with my mom.
So what did I get out of all of this? Did 30 days actually change anything?
- I no longer cringe at black coffee. In fact, I like the taste. I may always be a creamy coffee girl at heart, but the thought of a cup of sugary flavored joe does not hold the same appeal it once it did and is certainly no longer a necessity.
- I have no processed foods in my home. And I’d like to keep it that way.
- I managed to resist the cookies, bagels, and doughnuts that regularly make the rounds through the office. 30 days of resisting these things certainly hasn’t changed my physical appearance or my overall energy levels, but many months of turning them down might.
My one piece of advice for anyone considering changing the way they eat so drastically: Be prepared. Plan ahead. If the purpose behind eating differently is to find balance in your diet, then eating handfuls of nuts (an ‘approved’ food) because your newly adjusted carb deprived body won’t get full is not the answer. To truly achieve balance and effectively combat the hunger that you will inevitably feel, it’ll take more time and effort than I was willing to put in (hence the handfuls of pistachios…I bought un-shelled ones too, so there was nothing slowing me down). But if the objective is being thoughtful about what you are putting into your body, then that’s what you have to do. Do your research about what kinds of food are fiber rich, prep your meals ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling to pack lunch in the morning, and make sure you have an abundance of wholesome snacks ready to go. And when all else fails, make sure you know what pizza places make gluten free pies.
The bottom line for me, however, is that I have no food allergies. I have no medical reason to eliminate anything completely from my diet. And the truth is, while I may be able to live without cheese and sugar…I am a bread person. I recently finished the book Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist (more delectable quotes and recipes soon) and she puts it best:
I’m a bread person–crusty, golden baguette; hearty, grainy, seeded bread; thin, crispy pizza crust–all of it. Flaky, buttery croissants; chewy pita; tortillas, warm and fragrant, blistered by the heat. Whenever my jeans are too tight, I’m reminded that I know better to love bread the way I do, but love is blind, and certainly beyond reason.
She also summarized my feelings about this whole experiment perfectly when she described her own experience cutting out gluten, dairy, caffeine (crazy talk), alcohol, and sugar.
I felt like I wasn’t living in the same world as everyone else was living in. It was like choosing to live with the volume turned all the way down, or going to the beach but not being to put my feet in the ocean. My senses were starving. Eating such a restricted diet on an ongoing basis wasn’t going to work for me. It worked through the fall, but began to fall apart in advance of Christmas, predictably, and unraveled completely on vacation — conch fritters, rum punch. To not eat and drink those things that were so connected to that place I’d come to love over the years felt counter to the way I wanted to live. There has to be a way to live with health and maturity and intention while still honoring the part of me that loves to eat, that sees food as a way to nurture and nourish both my body an my spirit.
I do believe in the saying ‘eat to live, don’t live to eat’, but food is a fundamental, incredibly enjoyable part of life and integral to so many experiences. I love smells, I love tastes, and I love gathering among friends and loved ones to share food. Living without certain things when you know you have the physical capability to enjoy them healthily is like living behind a glass wall of temptation and disappointment. I guess in the end, if I am seeking balance, I should just make sure that I’m making thoughtful choices. Thankfully, her book–along with touching and honestly real stories about faith, food, and community–was full of wholesome, gluten-free recipes I couldn’t wait to try. Several are on the top of my to-make list, but the one I did attempt turned out to be quite the success.
*Adapted every so slightly to replace walnuts with pistachios and to add cardamom because I put that in everything.
I think I will try to maintain this style of eating for the most part. Namely, continuing to employ a little more will power when it comes to sweet things and keeping my grocery shopping whole and wholesome. But, I am itching to sink my teeth into some nutty, multi-grain bread with butter and jam. Maybe I’ll get my hands on some of that soon.
Today, however, not only marks the ending of my culinary experiment….it begins a new month. I’m feeling motivated and in the spirit of taking this 30 day challenge thing in a different direction–one aimed at filling myself instead of cleansing myself–I am going to try to read every single day for at least 20 minutes. Not the news, not my thrilling GRE study books. Novels. The books that have been sitting on my shelf and next to my bed. At 20 minutes a day, I will likely only get through one or two, but it’s an accomplishment. May is already bringing so many wonderful changes and I am excited for this to be a part of it.
In case you’re interested, here are some more professional thoughts/tips on gluten free living: