The next part of my story is my roller-coaster of a relationship with food.
Growing up, I was a vegetarian for most of my teens, living off a healthy rotation of jacket potatoes and cheese, chips and cheese or cheese sandwiches for lunch from the school canteen. This continued into my first year at university when my flatmate and I would take it in turns to cook up a batch of angel hair spaghetti which we doused in butter and sprinkled with… yes, you guessed it! Cheese!
I really couldn’t cook back then and to be honest, with such a simple diet, I don’t think I really tried or cared to try. My second year of university was living in France where a maintaining a vegetarian diet became increasingly difficult. I started to eat tuna in a Niçoise salad and eventually I branched out to chicken, beef and even foie gras. Before I knew it, my horizons had been broadened, but I would still opt for a plain baguette from the boulangerie on my way home for my two-hour lunch break, which I’d devour in its entirety piece by piece accompanied by a block of cheese.
During this period of my life, I didn’t care much about body image or even my health, but I did branch out to eating salads every other day for lunch and rustling up the odd stir fry for dinner to compensate for my starchy addiction to French breads, cheese and, increasingly, beer.
My student days were continued living off of cheap, convenient food, which included supermarket bought pizzas, ravioli or anything else that would be a fast, easy and mess-free meal that wouldn’t get in the way of my socialising. This doesn’t even take into account the junk food drawer I always kept fully stocked in the second drawer of my desk.
In short, I didn’t eat particularly well.
Returning to France, I was on a rapid downward spiral of health but had no idea what was happening to me. I’d wake up randomly covered head to toe in rashes that were excruciatingly painful and itchy. After scratching myself to draw blood on too many occasions, my boss took me off to a dermatologist who told me it looked like an allergic reaction to strawberries. Bizarre, but in desperation I cut out my favourite fruit (and probably the only healthy thing I was ingesting).
It continued. For months and months I was itchy, tired, moody, bloated, my skin would break out and I was getting agitated.
Eventually, after moving to the States to be with my new boyfriend (now husband) and waking up one morning short of breath with what felt like superglue holding my eyes closed and the entire left side of my face the size of a melon, I had to seek help. That doctor put this down to peanuts. So now I was avoiding peanuts and strawberries: two of my favourite things.
A month later, on a trip to New York to celebrate New Year with my cousin, I had to stop in the street holding myself back from vomiting, a feeling that came over me completely out of nowhere. My cousin stepped into the Dunkin Donuts that was on the corner and bought me a plain bagel which I remember nibbling in desperation. Almost immediately, it came back up.
Back in Florida, I told a friend of what had happened and she gave me the number to a doctor. I went and had blood tests and a whole lot of digging around, and he came back with news that almost crushed me to the ground there and then.
I will never forget the moment that man said the words “You’re gluten and lactose intolerant”.
I cried. I told him I can’t be. I’d eaten bread, cheese, pasta all my life.
I refused to believe it could be both, so I cut out gluten first but after a few weeks of feeling better but still suffering, I reluctantly gave up the chocolate I loved, stopped eating cheese and butter and tried every type of dairy-free milk until I found one that didn’t completely destroy my coffee drinking experience.
In just two weeks I was a changed person. I had so much more energy, my skin cleared up miraculously and my stomach had regulated itself. In two months, I’d lost 11kgs of bloated water-weight I didn’t even know I was carrying.
The change was drastic and I suddenly felt on top of the world.
I had no idea that the things I ate could affect every part of my body in such a big way, from my skin to my moods to my sleep and my energy. I honestly, truly had no idea how bad I had felt for as long as I could remember until I felt as good as I suddenly felt. I had overdone it on the gluten, the bleached and enriched flours, the plasticky cheese my poor stomach was struggling to digest and the butter I’d slapped onto everything.
But I refused to give up all of the treats I loved so much – the muffins, the baked goods and the tasty breakfasts so I set out to a health food shop and bought all the ingredients I could possibly need to sustain this gluten and dairy free lifestyle that lay ahead of me without eating only leaves and drinking green tea, like I’d feared when I first heard those daunting words from the doctor.
I started to bake almost every day and test different ingredients that I didn’t even know existed. Xanthan gum became my new best friend and I fell in love with quinoa. I played with buckwheat, determined to start enjoying the flavour and experimented with white and brown rice flours as baking alternatives.
I failed, and I succeeded. I won some and I lost some, but I discovered a whole new world of eating. I tested a peanut in a small dose and didn’t react and reintroduced strawberries after everything cleared up. I got two of my favourite ingredients back into my diet and turned the challenging diagnosis into a positive, life changing opportunity. Six years on (and now cooking professionally), I am determined to help change the way that other people relate to the food they eat.
My mission for this blog is to help anybody that might need a little convincing to believe and see that gluten and dairy free is DELICIOUS.