The term ‘vegetarian’ brings to mind someone who is just glowing with health; it hints at a healthy diet of fresh produce and nourishing foods. But does being a vegetarian really mean that you’re eating right? Elise B (not her real name) shares her experience with us and her lessons learnt - balance is key no matter what diet you are on, and pay attention to what your body is telling you.
Back in July 2012, I had just moved to another country, another city, another life, another job. I felt ecstatic! Berlin had so much to offer; an international hub with cool clubs, artsy streets breathing recent history and new friends to get to know. It was an exciting but also stressful time, because I basically moved within a month - I had worked until the last day, my moving company came and I flew to Berlin the day after. Plus I knew only one person in the city. However all this adrenaline probably kept me going for most of the summer until my first health problems began in the fall.
It started with some stomach problems. I'd never had them before and after two weeks of uncomfortable toilet situations I decided I really had to go in and check with my doctor. They took a stool sample (gross!) twice but found no infection or virus.
I tried to shake it off and indulged over Christmas only to be back at my doctor’s early February because I felt intensely fatigued and knew it was just physical since I was feeling mentally okay. My doctor tried to wave it off again, said it was probably work-stress related, but my blood results came back and showed severe anemia. Being a vegetarian, this has happened to me once before, but I was eating lots of veggies and eggs and nuts and dairy products! Why was it still happening? The doctor gave me some B12, iron and folic acid supplements to help with the anemia.
It kept getting worse
Two months later I was back without improvement and received a new recipe for the same pills. After three more months I was close to tears and my stomach was not getting any better. I decided to switch doctors, and my new doctor took an x-ray and told me to get to the hospital for some more stomach and intestine tests.
Even with all my discomfort, I somehow kept postponing that appointment, but after losing five kilograms in six weeks and hitting an emotional low point, I knew I had to get those tests done. I signed up for the endoscopy and the results came back very clear: celiac disease.
Finally what I was going through had a name. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the smaller intestine preventing the body from absorbing nutrients. Nobody in my family has celiac disease - I was raised on pasta and bread. The reason why this auto-immune disease had struck me so badly back then, I will never know for sure. It was probably related to stress and a change of diet. They have great pizza in Berlin and now I wasn't not allowed to eat it anymore. The horror! I also felt relieved: there was an answer to my problems.
I changed my diet the very next day and immediately noticed a difference. I stopped eating my beloved pizza, bread and other things containing gluten, while increasing my intake of vegetables and fruits. The stomach pain went away first, the bloated feeling next and slowly my energy came back too and some newly added kilograms of body weight.
The mistake I made in the beginning of my diet was eating lots and lots of rice and corn crackers. Even though these are definitely gluten-free, they don't fill you up much while you’re adding a lot of carbs and sodium - especially if you eat a pack a day. So I had to learn to find ways to eat more naturally gluten-free instead of trying to replace all my pizza, pasta and bread intake with a gluten-free option.
The efforts paid off
In the beginning my B12 level was still quite low. I learned to eat more fruits and vegetables, because being a vegetarian didn't necessarily mean I was eating enough of them. Apps like 'MyFitnessPal' have helped me get more insights into my diet. I learned that I needed more proteins and to eat more calories, focusing however on the right ones and staying away from saturated and trans fats.
So for a gluten-free diet it is important not to replace bread with rice, corn and potatoes (or in my case: Mexican rice & beans and lots of masala dosas). That will just make you feel bloated. The most important thing about any diet is to have some variety and I like quinoa, sweet potato, beans, lentils, millet and polenta a lot. I've even learned to make bread and pizza dough out of cauliflower and make sure I eat at least half an avocado or an egg for breakfast to keep my engine fuelled long enough till lunch - and I eat some fruits or banana bread (gluten-free) as a snack in between.
I thought I was healthy
It's funny how I always thought I knew a lot about food and felt I was quite healthy being vegetarian but then I learned so much more about food after being diagnosed with celiac disease. Even though it's a lot harder to go out for dinner with friends and I do occasionally feel lonely, it's good that I've ended up in Berlin. Living in my part of the city is like living in vegan heaven and many of these places also deal with other allergies. The Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Mexican restaurants around my apartment all serve gluten-free meals too (there's just a risk of contamination though so home-cooked is always better), the cupcake store has a gluten-free option and there's even a French vegan/gluten-free patisserie within walking distance!
There’s always more to do
I know I can still improve on my diet and am trying new things every day. Pinterest and Instagram have become my primary sources to tap into easy knowledge though I still lose myself in chocolate or Dutch cheese occasionally. I blame it on the lack of pizza in my life.
Now, more than one year after being diagnosed with celiac disease, I went back to the doctor for a blood test. When I called the office the next week I received some great news: no more antibodies in my blood! And my bowel and stomach are back to my old levels, so no more pains or bathroom problems which is awesome.
So have all my health problems disappeared now? Nearly all of them have. I am still struggling a little with my B12 intake and need to lose another 2 kilograms of excess weight - gained in the 'finally I can eat again'-phase right after being diagnosed - but that's nothing my gluten-free diet with some exercise can't tackle.
At least I feel happy and healthy again.