by Emily Ho
A year ago, if you had asked what my favorite foods were, I would have replied, bread, butter, bread, almonds, bread ... and did I mention bread? I pitied my gluten-intolerant friends and rolled my eyes at the trendiness of "everything-free" diets. So of course it happened: I found myself struggling with health problems, followed by the discovery that I, too, was one of those people who couldn't tolerate gluten, dairy, nuts, or refined sugar. As someone who loves and works in food, this seemed like a tragedy. Little did I know it would reinvigorate my cooking, not to mention my health and happiness.
Here's how I cut out my favorite foods and what I learned along the way.
Last fall I finally got sick of being sick. Without veering into TMI territory, I'll just say I had been suffering for months, and even years, from digestive troubles, skin conditions, migraines, fatigue, mild depression, you name it. My health practitioner suspected I might be eating something I was allergic or sensitive to and suggested an elimination diet. That's where you stop eating certain foods for a period of time and note any symptoms as you add them back in, one by one.
Desperate to get to the bottom of my health problems, I agreed to go a month without eating common trigger foods like gluten, corn, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy and refined sugar.
And then I started feeling better -- so much better that I almost didn't mind when I discovered that I couldn't tolerate gluten, dairy, nuts and refined sugar. (The only foods I was able to add back in were eggs, corn and soy.) My worst nightmare had come true, yet I felt great. The funny thing is that friends and family seemed more sad about my new diet it than I did!
That's not to say there weren't challenges as I navigated different ways of cooking and eating. Being a vegetarian with a bunch of other food allergies (bananas, chocolate, mushrooms...) has made it particularly difficult. Yet I am so much more appreciative of what I can eat, and of food overall. I still have a lot to learn, which is part of the fun, but here are a few significant things I've discovered in the past year.
Note: This column is not meant to suggest any specific way of eating or to provide health advice but simply to share some things I've learned about eating and cooking with joy and passion, even when you have to make difficult changes.
The 8 things I've learned about cooking without gluten, dairy, nuts and sugar:
1. Listen to your body.
Even though I might feel great on my particular restrictive diet, I've come to believe that each person's body is different with individual dietary needs. Bodies change, too! I'm discovering that what worked for me last year might not work now, and what I need today could change tomorrow. For example, I've recently been able to reintroduce small amounts of nuts, including some that had triggered symptoms since childhood. Without being obsessive, I continually reassess how I am feeling and eating.
2. Nourishment goes beyond taste.
We're accustomed to thinking about the flavor of food in our mouths, or how full it makes our bellies, but how about its effects on energy and mood? After years of feeling sluggish after eating, it was a revelation when I changed my diet and started feeling energized after a meal. I am much more mindful about how food makes me feel in my whole body, both physically and emotionally. I consider how other people I'm cooking for are affected, too.
3. Focus on learning, not missing.
As someone who loves food and works in food, I initially felt unmoored when I could no longer cook like I used to. But as I transitioned to new ways of eating, it reinvigorated my cooking, and I've had so much fun experimenting and learning about different ingredients and techniques, from the science of gluten-free baking to making homemade seed flours and raw desserts. Staying curious has saved me from feeling sad about what I'm missing.
4. It's OK to fail.
I say this after making plenty of cakes that fell, pizza crusts that squeaked when you bit into them, and breads that resembled door stoppers. Yes, it's frustrating when you've invested time, money, and hope into a dish that doesn't work, but with every mishap you learn how to be a better and more resilient cook. It helps to have a sense of humor, too.
5. Gluten-free and/or vegan doesn't necessarily mean healthy.
This is especially true for processed foods, which may be filled with refined flours, sugars, artificial ingredients and fillers. While pre-packaged foods may be fine from time to time, I don't make them staples of my diet. Instead, I focus on homemade, simple, seasonal cooking. (I also suspect that I'm sensitive to xanthan gum, a common ingredient in gluten-free baked goods and other processed foods, so that limits the amount I eat.)
6. Asian markets are amazing.
I regularly shop at Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Indian grocery stores where I find great deals on gluten-free Asian noodles made from ingredients like rice, mung bean and sweet potato; gluten-free flours like acorn, chickpea and sorghum; and coconut products like oil and milk that are all the rage in vegan recipes. (Note: These products usually aren't certified gluten-free so they might not be the best option for everyone.)
7. Plan ahead.
When you can't eat common ingredients, it becomes much harder to grab lunch on the go or to eat dinner at a relative's house. I always carry snacks in my purse and usually eat a little something at home (even a quick protein shake) before going out to dinner with friends or family. My boyfriend laughs at my overpacking food for road trips, but I've never regretted it! When traveling, it's also very helpful to stay someplace with a kitchen.
8. Find what inspires you.
For me, it's fresh produce, wild foods and spices. Whereas a trip to a bakery or even a regular grocery store can be demoralizing, at the farmers' market, spice shop or even in the woods, I'm surrounded by an abundance of foods that I can eat! I love seeking out fruits, vegetables, herbs and spice blends I haven't tried. These make a meal interesting and exciting.