Diet and Identity

i am not my diet

If you’ve ever followed a popular diet or way of eating, you’re likely to be aware of the “community” aspect of it. This includes many dietary lifestyles such as vegetarian, vegan, paleo, primal, Weston A. Price, gluten-free, dairy-free, or even “clean” eating. Even Weight Watchers, MyFitnessPal.com, and countless others have a community you can join. Most of the time, this can be good. We, as human beings, need support to get through times of change. It’s natural. It’s normal.

Support can be positive. Through my years as a gluten-free blogger, I’ve hoped to offer support for those who live a gluten-free lifestyle out of necessity due to a celiac disease diagnosis or other health-related issues that require a gluten-free diet. Being told you have to drastically change your eating habits is a shock to so many people. You can no longer just “grab something” to eat on your way to somewhere else. You can’t nibble on anything offered to you. Eating “just one bite” of Grandma’s Thanksgiving pie is no longer an option. It’s a truly difficult situation, and many times, those going through it feel utterly alone. They feel lost. Overwhelmed. They grieve. I have hoped that through my blog that I could help alleviate some of that pain by offering assistance and a ton of gluten-free recipes, showing that gluten-free eating doesn’t have to feel restrictive.

This kind of support is great. And in the gluten-free world, that kind of support is growing. There’s a community. I love that it’s there. After all, I have a family member that was diagnosed with celiac disease about 20 years ago, and none of this was available at the time. Life would have been so much easier having this resource and support around him.

In addition to contributing to the gluten-free community, I became part of it. I’ve built relationships with other gluten-free bloggers. I’ve built a relationship with readers. It expands even beyond just gluten-free; I have built relationships with all sorts of healthy eating and living bloggers, including vegan and paleo. I’ve also built a brand. My blog touts whole food recipes. It’s part of me in many ways.

And then there’s my personal life. Gluten-free isn’t all of my identity, but it’s inevitably part of it. I’ve eaten gluten-free for over four years. It comes up whenever there’s a get-together and food is involved. My family knows I cook and eat gluten-free (in fact, I cater to everyone else’s food allergies and intolerances!). My friends know. My coworkers eyeball everything I eat (mostly out of curiosity – I eat differently than the average person). I’ve built this environment, after all, through not only explaining why I eat this way, but even by bringing goodies from home to the office, to soccer games, and to any other function I can think of. Many people know that I eat gluten-free, and that I eat a healthy diet. Those closest to me know it goes even deeper than that – that I also try to eat mostly organic, local, free-range, sustainable foods. I generally have refrained from judging others and their food choices, but my own choices have been rather rigid in the past.

That’s been changing. As part of my diet recovery process, I’ve been letting go of the rigidity. I’ve also found that by eating more and becoming less strict about my diet, my digestive system is healing. I’m listening to my body, and giving it what it wants (Which isn’t always a kale salad, or two tons of vegetables, which was what I would force myself to eat in the past. Sometimes I genuinely crave those things, and then I’ll eat them. But it’s not 3 times a day, every day.). Through this healing process, I’ve found I can eat more foods that used to give me digestive troubles. I can eat grains. I can eat beans in modest quantities. I can eat sugar. And I can even eat dairy. I’ve previously been dairy-free for 3 years, so this has been a newfound revelation. I can indulge in a lot of foods, and have even enjoyed foods I would have never allowed myself to eat previously. Chips. Candy. A rare soda. Of course, I’m not going crazy and bingeing and eating nothing but these “junk foods.” I have no desire to. It’s amazing – when you don’t make things “off limits”, suddenly they aren’t that appealing anymore. But if I want them, I can have them.

With these changes comes some interesting considerations. I’ve obviously labeled myself as a gluten-free, dairy-free, healthy eater. I’ve already been breaking through that identity some, but it’s still there. Generally, I have received little pushback from those around me for loosening up a little. I’m glad for it. But in the world of gluten-free living, there’s one line you should never ever cross:

Eating gluten.

And yet, with my digestive system in better shape than it’s been in many years, I’ve begun to wonder. Can I eat gluten? If I try, and I find that I can, what does that mean?

I realize I’m getting ahead of myself here. I haven’t tried it yet. While I don’t have celiac disease (I’ve tested negative and I don’t have the genes for celiac), I have in the past been sensitive to small amounts of gluten. But the same would happen with dairy, and dairy is back in my life and I’m feeling no ill effects from it. (In fact, my digestion is more regular and near-normal now than it has been for years.) This doesn’t necessarily mean I can handle gluten. I could try and find it to be a complete and utter failure.

But if I find I can eat gluten, then what? Will I still be part of the gluten-free community? How would this impact my place in the community? I will certainly continue to cook gluten-free for the most part. I have family members that eat gluten-free, and I’m always cooking and baking for them. I still strongly believe that the gluten-free community needs support and of course, delicious recipes.

The majority opinion in the gluten-free community seems to be that if you have ever had a gluten intolerance, you can’t recover from it and you will be gluten-free for life. You will be doing damage to your health if you stray. There is so much we don’t know about the hidden effects of gluten, and we don’t know everything about celiac disease. And so on. I’ve read it. I’ve preached it. I’ve lived with that belief for a long while now. I even went so far as to believe that gluten was bad – for everyone.

I already feel like I have a lot of crow to eat. I no longer believe gluten is bad for everyone – people have been eating gluten for thousands of years with no issues. I believe instead that issues that people are dealing with today can sometimes be caused by gluten – celiac disease, for one, is a real and serious thing – and I also believe there are people with compromised digestive systems that cannot digest gluten. But I now wonder if that’s truly a “forever” thing, and I think that perhaps a compromised digestive system is caused by a myriad of reasons, not merely because of the “evil” gluten.

But if I no longer “live” a gluten-free diet, will that mean I am “out”? Do I lose respect in the community? Do I lose identity? Admitting my mistaken beliefs on the personal side is tough in and of itself. Explaining it in the blogosphere is different. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to face, and I’m still wrestling with how to handle it. I’m willing to take whatever is thrown at me, but it’s definitely a change.

What I am realizing, however, is that it’s kind of disordered to identify “myself” with my diet. Sure, support is great. Necessary. But since when does what I choose to put into my mouth define who I am? I venture to say that I don’t lose identity at all. I don’t lose myself. In fact, I’m gaining a new appreciation for finding my way. I am feeling more free to explore and enjoy life and focus on so many other aspects of myself now, not just my diet. It always seems to be a natural thing – labeling ourselves, labeling others. But nothing is so black and white. Nothing is reduced so simply.

I am many things, but I am not my diet. I am me, and I’m fine with that.