Going Gluten Free, Part 1: The Summer It Started, Lactose Intolerance, and Cocoa-Banana Chia Pudding

Dear Joey,

I get asked pretty often if going gluten free was hard, and if being gluten free is still hard. I have said it before and I will say it again: yes and no, and sometimes even both at the same time.

Yes, I have a hard time being gluten free sometimes because I’m normal and I like donuts, and watching the four of you enjoy your Sunday morning sugar rush isn’t exactly fun. But knowing those donuts would wrack my body with a mysterious, hard-to-describe pain (that convinced me I was dying for years) is enough to keep them at bay. So no, choosing to stay gluten free is not hard.


But in the beginning, it was really difficult to swallow the idea that gluten was the culprit behind my ailing body–even harder to actually get rid of the stuff. Gluten is sneaky and  inconspicuous, and the kitchen is a formidable foe when tasked with eradicating the stuff from the pantry. I was ignorant about how to go about tackling what seemed impossible, and the learning curve intimidated me. Cooking with gluten-laden ingredients was all I knew, even though I didn’t really know what gluten itself was until my body decided to finally start rejecting it.


This all started back in high school, you know, when I got sick the summer before Senior year with something I didn’t understand or appreciate. It came out of seemingly nowhere: I was spending the week at my best friend’s house while our parents were off on a cruise together. Molly and I had been friends for as long as we could remember, the prospect of spending a week home alone together right before Senior year began seemed awesome. And it was–until suddenly it wasn’t. By week’s end, my insides screamed, burning with pain and urgency that surprised and horrified me. Lilting with nausea, I staggered to the bathroom and stayed there for what felt like hours, shivering and feeling very much alone.


Another friend was with us that day, Cari, and although I don’t know exactly what those two girls were feeling in those strange moments, I imagine they panicked and probably got a little grossed out. Cari knocked on the bathroom door and told me her mom was on the line and wanted to talk. I eased the door open and took the phone, relieved to hear the voice of an adult. With calm firmness, she insisted I stay at her house so she could keep an eye on me until my parents came home. I agreed, humiliated but grateful. I imagine Molly was relieved to have me go too–taking care of a sick friend without an adult around is a tall order, even for best friends.


I’m sure everyone braced themselves for being knocked upside down too, thinking I must be suffering from a virulent bug. The curious thing is this: no one else got sick. I improved after a couple days, but my insides were never quite the same after that. My stomach was temperamental and almost anything set it off, it seemed. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, vomiting and plagued with the other not-so-pleasant digestive issue that the doctor eventually diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). At the time, dairy products seemed to be the biggest trigger, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Pretty soon I sort of stopped eating, meaning I ate very little from a small list of “safe” foods that didn’t seem set off my symptoms. I dropped quite a bit of weight in the coming months.

As I cut foods out of my diet, things looked up a bit. I certainly didn’t get struck down sick as often, but when I did get sick, it was violently so–and still out of seemingly nowhere. I would feel my new normal of “fine-ness” until another attack came on, and when it did, I would become flushed and feeble as searing pain radiated in my abdomen and blood prickled itself through my veins, both cold and hot at the same time. Finding a bathroom wasn’t a dalliance; it was an urgent need.


Nerves made everything worse. I was anxious pretty much all the time. I feared an attack was imminent, and because of this, I labored over getting in the car and going farther than a five minute drive. Being away from home, not having a bathroom close by, being stuck at the mercy of teenage drivers — it was all a lot to handle. And I was afraid no one believed me. I knew how extreme and uncommon my issue was, and I began to fear others were rolling their eyes in disbelief when I missed yet another day of school or fun night out. To make matters worse, completely nutty scenarios of catastrophe plagued me, and I believed deep down I was going to die, and soon. I never told anyone that before.

I lived as though I was lactose intolerant because clearly at the time I was lactose intolerant. Dairy products were my nemesis, and I carried that with me through the first couple years of college. As time wore on, I was able to tolerate small amounts of dairy, and then a little more, and on it went until dairy didn’t bother me at all. But something still wasn’t quite right. I still suffered from IBS and various other maladies that seemed unrelated to my food intake, and it took several years–over 10 of them–to figure out the real source of all the problems. Read Part 2 here.

After the doctor suggested I might be lactose intolerant, I relied on lactose free milk and soy-based dairy-like products because that’s what was available and that’s what my mom was able to find. (Tofutti and Go Veggie were our go-to brands, but much has changed since then and a variety of soy free, pretty-good-tasting substitutes are around now. But I digress.) Using coconut milk as a substitute for cream didn’t occur to my 17 year old self, and in truth didn’t occur to me until much later when I cut out all dairy completely. This recipe was borne out of a deep need for the creamy comfort of a simple dish of homemade pudding, a dessert staple in the Maier home. Variations to this pudding abound, clearly, but what sets this version apart is simply this: it’s thick. I credit the richness of the full fat coconut milk along with the sheer amount of cocoa powder (1/4 cup!). This became a life-saver in our family because we like our desserts on an almost-daily basis, and this one is healthy one all of us can eat freely!

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