In the moment, it may seem tempting to have a few gluten-free cheat days and just have a bite of a donut or accept a meal someone else made to be polite. However, when you have celiac disease, cheating on the gluten-free diet can have serious consequences that are not worth the risk.
A gluten-free diet wasn’t trendy when I was diagnosed in 1997. Gluten wasn’t a buzzword, grocery stores had few, if any, options, and what they did have was unaffordable and inedible. Not many knew what gluten was, including dietitians, so I was left to fend for myself.
I was alone, depressed and pissed off, cheating whenever the depression took hold. I punished my body for not allowing me to eat what I wanted. Maybe I wanted to prove that my diagnosis was wrong. Maybe I couldn’t let go of all the memories evoked from now-“prohibited” foods. I only know I couldn’t control the intense cravings for my favorite comfort foods and simply gave in. I rationalized that a little gluten wouldn’t hurt and would binge for a week until my body couldn’t take it anymore.
Why did I put myself through the pain? Because I couldn’t come to terms with my disease. The pain seemed a small price to pay for the pleasure of eating whatever I wanted. I desperately needed to take back the control celiac disease robbed me of by eating powdered sugar donuts, cookie dough ice cream, Wheat Thins, bagels, anything fried, etc.
I didn’t take my disease seriously until I found a support group and realized there were so many people in the same boat. And suddenly a lightbulb went off. I had to reinvent myself and accept the limitations imposed on me through genetics and accept that this was my life from now on and looking back would only cause pain. And I haven’t looked back.
Seven years of cheating took a toll on my body, to put it mildly. I work every day to take care of myself now and feel my plight is a cautionary tale that may sound all too familiar. So, I put together my top five deterrents for cheating on a gluten-free diet.
You won’t feel well
The cramping, bloating, multiple trips to the bathroom, sleeping on the cold bathroom floor to combat the flop sweats, migraines, mood swings, back pain and dehydration are no pleasure cruise. Keeping your immune system in a constant state of battle takes its toll on digestion and your emotional wellbeing.
You set off inflammation throughout the body
Inflammation just doesn’t affect the gut; it affects the whole body. The eyes, joints and brain will feel the pain. My eyesight is genetically predisposed to not functioning correctly, so contributing to the problem seems foolish. And prolonged inflammation can lead to a condition called leaky gut that allows ingested things that should come out the other end to enter your bloodstream.
You prolong gut recovery
Beyond Celiac says that eating any amount of gluten, no matter how tiny it is, can cause damage to the villi of the small intestine and prevent patients from absorbing nutrients into the bloodstream. These damaged villi can heal only when you aren’t bombarding them with gluten. Since 70 percent of the immune system lies in your digestive tract, gut health needs to be a priority, not an afterthought.
You will lose support
Friends and family are less likely to support you if they see you cheating. Why should they bother preparing gluten-free food or frequent restaurants with gluten-free menus if, in the end, you are going to eat whatever you want? A support system is vital to your success, so don’t let them watch you fail.
You could develop cancer
According to a 2013 study conducted at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, noncompliant celiac sufferers (cheaters) with unhealed small intestines have a higher risk of developing lymphoma (a type of blood cancer). “Celiac patients with persistent villous atrophy—as seen on follow-up biopsy—have an increased risk of lymphoma, while those with healed intestines have a risk that is significantly lower, approaching that of the general population,” said Dr. Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, MS.
The bottom line is, it’s up to you. You are the only one who can take the necessary steps to prioritize your health by adhering to a strict gluten-free diet. There is no cure for celiac disease, so it will be with you for life. Isn’t your life worth more than a jelly donut?