A few years ago, my doctor gave me an unpleasant ultimatum: remove all wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and oats from my diet, or feel sick for the rest of my life, damage my intestines, and elevate my risk for cancer.
After a spectacular flame-out (I dropped twenty-five pounds in a month, and spent three days in the hospital, getting blood transfusions), he diagnosed me with celiac disease, a chronic disorder where in which gluten leads the body’s defenses to attack the intestine. I didn’t have much choice but to listen to him.
Like many people whose doctors tell them they must change their diets, whether because of cholesterol, diabetes, allergies, or other chronic illnesses, I went through all the stages of grief: I denied it, got annoyed, tried to cheat, and, eventually, accepted that I would forever be Powered By Rice.
Along the way, I learned some strategies to make the change easier, and to make cooking, eating out at restaurants, and sharing a table with friends fun again:
1. Do A Little Grocery Store Tourism
According to some estimates, most Americans eat the same core group of foods—only twelve to fifteen items—every week. We’re not quite like koalas and pandas, munching the same plants day in and day out, but maybe closer than we think.
There are good reasons for repetition: we have a lot to do, and grocery stores can be crowded, chaotic places, and cooking new items can be stressful. But it’s a sweet time to browse a grocery store. Never have the aisles been packed with so many international and specialty foods, wholesome sauces, good produce, and other items.
Do this: It’s completely possible to make a quick scan of the International Aisle, or the produce section, take a small financial risk, and bring home something that fits your new diet that you would have previously ignored. Find a recipe for it online. Once you find a few new eats, you can work them into your weekly rotation, and let them take the place of things you cannot have anymore.
2. Learn A New Food Tradition
According to more studies, the average American spends less than twenty minutes preparing food. That’s less time than it takes to boil a pot of brown rice. Cookbook writers know this, and there are plenty out there that are designed to increase your repertoire without keeping you hunched over the gas range for hours.
Do this: find one cookbook that fits your new dietary needs. After saying goodbye to wheat, I leaned heavily on Thai and Mexican cookbooks. Every person looking to eat more vegetables should get to know Deborah Madison. Everyone looking to cook at home more should read Alice Waters. If a cookbook fits your diet and has won a James Beard award, consider it. Read the reviews.
Then, start out slowly: one new recipe a week. That’s all. You’re teaching yourself a new tradition, not opening a restaurant.
3. Involve And Teach Your Friends
What can you have? That was the question I most commonly received after changing my diet. My friends wanted to help me, but they needed some instruction. I didn’t help my own cause by being shy at first, not wanting to be a bother. So I made a list of things I could eat that I thought would be easy for them to make: rice casseroles, polenta, anything with potatoes.
Within months, I had friends launching into the harrowing world of gluten-free baking, trying to cook Indian food for a night, and keeping their eyes open for restaurants where we could all gather. It became a team effort, and we helped each other learn.
Do this: Communicate, share, and give thanks. People who love you want to see you succeed. They want to see you comply with your dietary needs and restrictions. And they certainly don’t want to hurt you.
These things will take a little time, yes, and a little money, and they may lead to disappointments. Nothing, however, can be as bad as the worst possible consequence for not giving your body what it needs—or for giving it what it doesn’t need.