Monday, April 11, 2011

My Purpose

One day, when I was 16 years old I ate a sandwich, just like any other day. There was nothing wrong with this sandwich - the meat and cheese were brand new and smelled delicious, the bread had no mold or appearance of age, and the mayonnaise had been bought only the week before. Yet about half an hour after I ate that sandwich, my stomach began to burn. It was not terribly painful but only a slight annoyance. I remember thinking it felt similar to hunger pains and thought briefly that I had not ate enough. So I had some crackers to try to fill myself up, and my stomach burned on, like a rug burn or the Indian burn done by an overzealous friend trying to turn your arm red.

From that day forward, the burning never went away for very long. It would leave for periods of time- at first I would go days without the burning. But as the years passed by the periods of time between the burning shortened gradually from days to hours.

With the strange stomach burning came other strange symptoms: extreme fatigue is the one I remember most vividly. When I had got to college the waves of fatigue became so intense that at times it was difficult for me to speak and I needed to take a break and lay down before I had the energy to try again. Thankfully, the fatigue did not occur as often as the burning stomach. However, such extreme fatigue placed an unfriendly visit at least twice a week for hours at a time.

I remember my freshman year of college at the University of Iowa, my shins and tops of my feet began to hurt. It was only a slight pain at first, but as the days went by it became almost impossible to walk. I made a trip to the University of Iowa Hospital to see an Orthopedic surgeon. He took X-rays of my legs and feet and told me I had multiple hairline fractures on both legs and feet which was the cause of my pain. He was baffled as to why this happened as I was not a runner or athlete and was of normal weight. In the end, his only advice was to eat more calcium- even though I told him that I eat a ton of cheese and take a multivitamin. I was sent away in a cast which I had to wear on and off throughout college as the fractures would come and go on their own.

From 2001-2007 I suffered from stomach pains, headaches, extreme fatigue, brittle bones, depression, anxiety, slow teeth ascension, consistently loose stools, anemia, increased appetite and food cravings. I went to see doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist. I was diagnosed with GERD, ulcers, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, calcium deficiency, anemia, costochondritis, and my favorite diagnoses of all: "It's all in your head." (That diagnosis sent me into a rage and forever left me with a healthy skepticism of doctors' opinions.)

As I slowly got sicker and sicker, and lost more and more faith in doctors, I became obsessed with figuring out what was wrong with me. I had quite a few very dark days where I sat in pain and misery wishing I was anyone but myself trapped in this body. But as dark as the days became, I was never left in total blackness because I never, ever lost hope. I always had a feeling, deep down in the deepest part of myself, that the day would come when I wouldn't feel the way I did anymore. I knew that at some point both the physical pain and the mental torment- which often times fed upon each other - would disappear.

I placed all of my anger and hatred for my condition into figuring out the mystery that no doctor was able to solve. I had one advantage over any doctor with a medical degree: I was the one who was sick and I understood my body more than any doctor ever could. And the one thing I was 100% sure of was that all of my ailments somehow tied back to food. So this is where I started: FOOD.

I literally spent years and thousands of hours researching on the Internet, books and health magazines about food, diets, calories, fats, vitamins, nutrients, exercise etc.. I also researched far and wide for different types of diseases with symptoms similar to mine - and in the meantime learned a lot. I tried countless different kinds of elimination diets, eliminating everything from dairy to fruit and bread to nuts. Nothing seemed to work. I became a vegetarian for 3 years and ate only fresh vegetables, fruits, rice and whole wheat bread. This made me feel better than I felt in 5 long years, easing my depression, anxiety, food cravings and bone fractures- however the stomach pains, loose stools and fatigue remained.

One day, about 6 years after that sandwich that started it all, I was having dinner with my grandmother. She asked me how I was doing and instead of responded the usual way- "oh I'm doing fine," (LIE- actually my stomach hurts like hell all the time) I decided to tell her the TRUTH- my stomach hurts like hell all the time. She told me to call my Uncle John out in California whose stomach used to hurt like hell all the time until he discovered he had Celiac Disease. Then his stomach didn't hurt anymore.

I knew about Celiac Disease as I had discovered it in my research. I had even tried the recommended elimination diet and had take all bread and pasta out of my diet for 3 weeks. I didn't feel any better. But in a state of desperation, I decided to give Uncle John a call anyway.

We talked for at least an hour and by the end I had conceded to him that I would try the elimination diet again. I was not optimistic, however, I did learn two very important things from our conversation: 1. his symptoms were extremely similar to mine before he stopped eating gluten, and 2. soy sauce contains gluten. This second point was very important because while doing my original elimination diet I had soy sauce on my rice every single day. Read: unbeknownst to me I never actually did an elimination diet to eliminate gluten.

I heavily researched the Gluten-Free Diet, making sure this time that I knew all the different foods that contained gluten (including soy sauce). After one week of being gluten-free I had already felt a positive difference. My stomach wasn't nearly as knotted and painful throughout the day and my energy levels were slightly up. After a month on the diet I felt like a different person. My stomach almost never burned and my energy levels were higher than they had been in a very long time.

Fast forward 1 year and 1 Celiac Disease diagnosis later and I had literally been cured. My stomach never burned the way it had for 6 long years, I had all the energy I could ask for, my legs and feet had completely healed and my moods and anxiety were much more under control.

Being on a gluten-free diet has improved the quality of my life more than I can ever describe in words. However, it has also been a challenge in today's world of processed foods. I've spent a whole lot of my life looking at nutrition labels for ingredients to determine if a food contained gluten. This has opened my eyes up to the plethora of ingredients put into the foods we eat today. I've seen things I never thought possible before I started reading labels: wheat flour and sugar in soups, salad dressings and all types of sauces, food coloring and preservatives I can't even pronounce among other things.

Eating with other people has been a very interesting experience. I usually stick to simple things like rice, unprocessed meat, vegetables and fruits. However, I'm constantly being told that I eat "weird food" and always asked why I am not participating in the pizza/hamburger/hotdog/cookie eating frenzies at parties and in the company cafeteria. I look around me and see so many overweight people and hear so many stories of diabetes, heart disease and fatigue from the same people who ask me why I'm not participating in eating the processed foods they are eating. My answer is always the same: I can't eat gluten and gluten is in almost everything processed. However, I often wonder if they realize that just as gluten makes me sick, the very same food I avoid and they eat is making THEM sick. Sick not from gluten but from all the health hazards that come along with eating processed foods. Once I get to know someone enough to be sure they won't take offense, I start listing off all the ingredients that are actually in the "non-weird" foods they are eating and what effects those foods can have on their health. The majority of the time people are surprised and appalled by the things I tell them about the foods they are eating every day.

However, what gives me hope is that every single person who I've sat down and talked with about food has really been interested in what I've said and has made changes for the better in what they eat based on the information they have gained.

And it is for this purpose I've started the "FOOD FOR LIFE" blog and the reason I'm currently writing a book. It is my goal to bring the issues of food and nutrition to the forefront of America's consciousness. There is so much information out there in the information ether regarding what you should and shouldn't eat, how much or how little, what causes cancer and what doesn't etc. Although most of this information is vastly confusing, I still believe strongly that there are some very simple principles that must be conveyed regarding food and nutrition in 20th century America. It is my goal to convey that information in a way that is relevant to your life and to the lives of your family.

Food is meant to be eaten to sustain life. However, in the present day, the very food that we eat to live is actually slowly killing us. It is my sincere hope that one day we can all have access to information that will enable us to make decisions to eat FOOD FOR LIFE, not food for sickness or disease.


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