Health Coach Stories is a series on the blog where coaches candidly share their personal experiences and struggles with leading a healthy lifestyle. This month, Keri Z. talks to us about having to completely change her eating habits after being diagnosed with celiac disease. In the process, she not only learned to manage her health issues but also recognize that living well is an active choice. It’s just up to us as individuals to take it.
I was born into a Hamburger Helper family and married a meat and potatoes man. I never thought much about my food choices and often turned to fast food and prepackaged meals out of ease and familiarity. Because I worked in a very stressful profession and had a young child at home to parent, self-care took a back seat as I focused all my attention on my clients and my family. Although I have always been active, my eating habits led to weight gain that continued to creep up through the years. I was also worn out all the time, struggling to muster enough energy to get through the day. I felt sick a lot of the time, but just kept going. I was surviving, but far from thriving.
Then, I had what I thought was a crushing blow. I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I learned that I had an autoimmune disease that made my body attack itself every time I ate gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley). I discovered that wheat especially, is used as a preservative in almost all boxed meals, canned food, and is very prevalent in fast food. In other words, the things I ate most often all had to be out of the picture now. Pasta gone. Birthday cake gone. Beer gone. French fries gone. Chinese food gone. I suddenly had to change the way I ate almost entirely, and it wasn’t by choice.
To say I felt very alone and overwhelmed was an understatement. Eating out was nearly impossible. Holidays were extremely difficult and social events seemed doomed. As for travel? It was hopeless! To make matters worse, well-meaning friends and family would question my food choices and minimize the changes I was trying to make (“Come on, one doughnut won’t kill you, will it?”), and I couldn’t make one meal that my entire family liked. I started to feel like a short order cook and grieved the fact that I could no longer grab something quick through the drive-thru after a long day at work or even warm up a can of soup. It all just seemed too much to handle!
At some point though, I decided I didn’t want to be a victim to my condition and the way it affected my body anymore. I decided to take control and joined communities online to start learning more about celiac disease. I found a support network of newly diagnosed people who were trying to figure it all out, just like me. I also saw a nutritionist and read a ton of cookbooks, spending hours in the grocery store just reading labels and experimenting with new ingredients that I had never even heard of. It was a lot of hard work that I often had to do alone, which was scary and even made me angry at times. But slowly, these things started becoming more manageable and even, dare I say, exciting as I became better at it.
For the past five years now, I have been gluten-free. Thanks to my diagnosis, I have learned to appreciate the benefits of eating fresh, whole foods. I am a budding gluten-free home chef and continue to enjoy trying out new ingredients and recipes. I’ve lost weight and maintained it but more importantly, I am more energetic than I was in my 20’s. However, I won’t lie and say that it’s not still hard. Some days I just want to go buy all the gluten-free junk food available (and there is plenty of it!) and drown a hard day in cookies or pizza. Some days the hassle of having to cook at home proves to be a major inconvenience. And then there are the people who still dismiss my efforts to eat healthy. It can be really demoralizing because healthy eating didn’t come naturally to me and I still have to actively work on it. However, the benefits of my lifestyle far outweigh the challenges and I’ve even come to feel thankful for my disease.
One of the biggest unexpected benefits was how it affected my young son. By watching my journey towards better health, he has become very aware of healthy eating. We started growing our own veggies in a backyard garden and cooking together with fresh ingredients. He reads nutrition labels and even uses the healthy plate model! He chose to do a science project in first grade about healthy lunchbox foods, and his 2016 resolution was to eat a new veggie every month this year. What 7-year-old does that?? I know my struggle has made him a healthier person for a lifetime and that alone has been worth all the hardship.
Although it has been a difficult journey, creating healthy habits has made managing celiac disease much easier. Grocery shopping these days doesn’t take much longer than the average person because I eat mostly whole foods now, which don’t require me to be a detective about the ingredients list. If I do need to read package labels, I am knowledgeable about the things I need to look out for and also know which gluten-free brands I can trust. I’ve learned to plan for success by preparing the week’s meals ahead of time and having easy, family-approved recipes on hand to avoid scrambling at the last minute after a long day. I also bring my own food, whether that’s healthy snacks for when I’m on the go (sunflower seeds, string cheese, and protein bars work well for me!), or a hearty dish for holiday and family events that I know is safe for me in case there is nothing else I can eat.
I no longer have to think about every food decision like I once did and by communicating my needs to my extended family and friends, I have people around me who support my healthy habits and cheer me on. I also continue to connect with other folks with celiac disease through various social networks. It’s a great way to pick up ideas, discover new recipes, get support, and even vent if I need to.
Taking control of my medical issues opened up this wonderful world for me. It has empowered me to choose the life I want. I choose to be a healthy weight and have lots of energy to keep up with my son. I choose to make my health a priority and take pride in that. I choose to take control of my disease in a positive way. I choose all of this everyday, even when it’s hard. In turn, I am so much better at taking care of the other responsibilities in my life. I am a better mother. I am a better employee. But most importantly, I am a better version of myself because I choose to thrive.