This post follows on from an Instagram caption that I posted back in June talking about my decision to after 3 years, reintroduce gluten in to my diet. I recieved so much positive feedback on that post that ever since I have wanted to expand on the point in a blog post to explain why I’m no longer gluten free and the negative impacts that the pressures of the free from industry can have on mental health.
I want to start by saying that if you follow a gluten free diet or market yourself as free from then I am by no means bashing you. It’s amazing that so many people are sharing their own journeys to health and using diet and food as a means to heal themselves. I’m completely aware that Coeliac disease is a serious medical condition and I know that the removal of gluten has proven beneficial for so many people’s health conditions, but I simply want to share my experience of how the pressures from the free from industry and social media can negatively impact people’s mental health and why it is in fact ok, to have a diet not free from anything at all.
Going gluten free
If you read my initial Instagram post, then you’ll know that back in the summer I made the decision to reintroduce gluten in to my diet, after avoiding it for almost 3 years. My mentally towards food has changed a lot since I started recovery 3 years ago and I came to the realisation that I still have a lot of work to do when it comes to healing my relationship with food. I want to switch my mindset and focus on cramming in goodness, instead of what I’m cutting out. I’ve spent so long putting emphasis on the foods that I can’t eat, spent extra money on gluten free products,
avoided foods that I’ve wanted to eat, specifically ordered gluten free options or asked for a separate menu – all of which was completely unnecessary. I thought that it would make me ‘healthier’ but just because something is labelled as gluten free, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
I don’t remember the exact point at which I decided that I was going to go gluten-free but I think that there were two main reasons behind it. Firstly, I was definitely influenced by the pressures of social media, diet culture and the health industry in general – I saw countless people claiming that going gluten free had cured their health problems or healed their digestive troubles and it was promoted as part of a healthy lifestyle – something that I was striving towards. Secondly, it was also around a time at which I was struggling with IBS and bloating quite badly and I was so frustrated with my body. After looking online for advice one of the only possible answers, along with the FODMAP diet, was to go gluten free. In hindsight, removing gluten didn’t actually help with my digestion at all – it’s something that has slowly gotten so much better with time as I started eating regularly, gained weight and my mental health improved. It’s not uncommon to experience digestive issues during recovery but I wish it’s something that I had known at the time.
Not only did I think that avoiding gluten would be a quick fix for my digestive problems but I genuinely thought that it would make me healthier too. For my eating disorder it definitely became another form of restriction and another excuse to avoid foods like bread and pasta, which I had become so fearful of.
It’s hard to say whether or not I felt restricted when I was following a gluten free diet. It wasn’t exactly hard to do as it’s growing in popularity but it came at a cost to both my bank account, my time and my mental health. Finding gluten free alternatives was really easy – however they were often more expensive and there were definitely times when I wanted to eat things but would force myself to check the ingredients and upon seeing that they contain gluten, put them back on the shelf.
It was quite easy to blend in to social situations and make it look like I was eating normally – everyone was aware that I was gluten free and if we went out for pizza I could easily order a gluten free base. Although at times it was frustrating when people would make comments and I was constantly being reminded by people around me of all the foods that I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to eat. Slowly it became more and more frustrating and as I’d restricted those foods for so long I found myself craving them again, and something in my head realised that it’s ok to eat them.
Reintroducing Gluten and Changing my mindset
It’s almost embarrassing for me to admit that the only gluten intolerance that I ever had was in my head. Surprisingly when I reintroduced gluten in to my diet I suffered no physical implications, which definitely links in to the nocebo effect. The power of our minds is often underestimated but it actually does make sense – if you read something then it’s bound to impact your thought process and as a result, incurs a measurable physical change. Letting go of that and realising that actually, gluten doesn’t make me bloated and overcoming my fear, meant that I was able to go from completely avoiding it to enjoying bread all over again.
I started by slowly introducing products which contained wheat or weren’t labelled gluten free – things like biscoff spread, falafels and veggie sausages. With time, I switched my homemade breads to wholewheat or sourdough and ditched the gluten free menu when I was eating out too. Listening to podcasts is something that helped me to make the switch and realise that I was yet another victim who’d been sucked in to the clean eating trap and it had completely wharped my mindset.
I’m grateful that my mental health has improved to a point where I can acknowledge that my decision to avoid gluten was unjustified. For those who haven’t struggled with disordered eating then it might sound a little absurd but whilst people are so quick to raise points on the obesity crisis they forget that there’s a completely other side to the story too – trying to recover from a disordered relationship with food in a world so fixated on diet and weight loss is incredibly challenging and at a time when you’re most vulnerable, the messages sent out by the free-from industry can have a negative impact.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love alternatives like brown rice pasta, quinoa and homemade breads and I won’t stop eating them – in fact the way that I eat means that most of my meals don’t contain gluten anyway but it’s no longer a ‘requirement’ or rule anymore. There are circumstances where I genuinely prefer the texture and taste of foods like quinoa, but now I have realised that eating gluten isn’t going to damage my health I have the freedom to choose. To be honest removing gluten from my diet has probably done more damage to my digestive system than eating it ever would have – wrongly removing it from your diet can not only lead to nutritional deficiencies if done incorrectly, but can actually cause there to be problems when you reintroduce it in to your diet too.
Gluten Free doesn’t = healthy
There is so much emphasis on free from diets, coupled with a lot of scare mongering nowadays and people almost make you feel guilty if you’re not excluding something from your diet. Everyone has become fixated on free from diets and if these changes are made with reason and under the guidance of a health professional, then I really don’t think that there’s an issue, but self diagnosing or reading information online, which often comes from uneducated sources can be so damaging. There are so many claims online that avoiding gluten will drastically improve your health and help you to lose weight but if you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet and it doesn’t make you cripple over in pain, then I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t enjoy a sandwich for lunch or pizza at the weekend.
In my head, following a gluten free diet made me healthy. But being gluten free doesn’t equate to health – you can avoid it completely but still be incredibly unhealthy if you’re choosing processed alternatives or not keeping an eye on your vitamin and mineral status. Not to mention the fact that it could be negatively impacting your mental health too. Whilst on one hand it’s great that more people are able to recognise their intolerance’s, there is so much emphasis on what your diet is free from, rather than all of the goodness you’re packing in. Cool you’re gluten free but are you getting enough calcium? Iron? Are you eating your 5 a day? Staying hydrated? I think that sometimes we need to bring it back to basics and focus on these things first, before we start cutting things out.
As someone who’s been following a plant based diet for nearly 3 years I love seeing the growth of products that address the growing demand for vegan alternatives. It’s amazing that the free from industry is growing for those who truly need it and that there’s now a wider range of products that are more accessible for everyone. In the past 3 years I’ve seen the range go from lone supermarket shelves, to whole aisles and it is genuinely so amazing to see. Eating out gluten-free is easier than ever before and for those who need, it it’s more than step in the right direction. However the wealth of misinformation and vulnerability of certain individuals, has meant that people are unnecessarily choosing these options too. If opting for these products and avoiding gluten improves your health or you genuinely enjoy them then go for it, but otherwise I really don’t see why you should waste your time, money or mental energy, just because social media tells you to.
Cramming in, Not Cutting Out
This post is the perfect opportunity to reinforce what Nourishing Yas is about – no fad diets, no calorie counting or macro tracking but putting the focus back on cramming in, not cutting out. I want to focus on bowls, sweet treats and breakfasts packed full of nourishing wholefoods with the inclusion of colour, variety and flavour. I believe that the enjoyment of food should remain at the core, but it’s so important to listen to your body and eating the foods that make you feel good both physically and mentally. For me that involves a plant based diet but if you want to eat meat, dairy, fish or then that’s completely your call and I respect that. Listening to your own body and making decision which will best optimise your own health are the most important things.
My recipes will remain however remain tagged as ‘gluten free’ – which you may think sounds like a huge contradiction, but I think that it’s useful for those suffering from intolerance’s and makes it a whole lot easier for people who require free from recipes, whether that be gluten or dairy, to navigate their way around my site. But don’t worry – there are some delicious gluten inclusive recipes (biscoff granola and oreo brownies – you heard it here first) coming soon too.
Before I end this post I want to reiterate the fact that this isn’t about bashing on ‘free from’ diets or disregarding the positive affects that removing gluten can have for some people. What I am addressing is the damaging affects of social media and the clean eating trends that promote it as a way of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Having studied bio medicine and nutrition myself, I recognise that Coeliac disease is a serious condition and I don’t doubt that removing gluten is beneficial for some people’s health. I think that the healing power of food is amazing but removing gluten unnecessarily can be damaging too, especially when it comes to mental health. I want to be open about what it’s like to suffer from an eating disorder and how can easily influenced you can be by the wealth of wrongly promoted information when you’re at such a vulnerable point. At the end of the day it’s so important to listen to your body – if gluten makes you cripple over in pain then please don’t eat it but otherwise, don’t let anyone shame you in to not eating something that you enjoy. Concentrate on yourself and most importantly, listen to your body.
Making the change to eating gluten again has had such a positive impact on my mental health – I don’t have to check ingredient lists for gluten and I can eat out without ordering the gluten free option or asking for a separate menu. For me it’s been something that extends beyond gluten to other areas, from shop bought products to eating out, alcohol and exercise – all of which could become a whole other post in itself. I’ve definitely developed a more relaxed attitude towards food and with it, found more balance. There’s no denying that I still have a long way to go but re-introducing gluten in to my diet has been nothing but beneficial for my mental health.
What are your thoughts on the free from industry? Have you had a similar experience? I would love to hear your thoughts so please let me know in the comments below or let me know over on Instagram @nourishingyas x
This post is not in any way designed to replace the advice of a medical professional. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or digestive problems them please seek the advice of a GP, therapist or medical professional.