At the risk of oversharing, I'll give you a brief overview of my stomach problems, just because I always refer to them that way and have never been more specific on this blog. You can skip this paragraph if you don't like to read about such things. I've had five specific episodes of painful cramps and diarrhea, which occurred on Thanksgiving and two days later, Christmas, and twice in mid-January (meaning, not at regular intervals). In between, I've felt bloated, gassy, nauseated, and just generally unsettled -- and sometimes I've felt more or less fine. I've kept a food diary since the first episode, and there's no discernible pattern in terms of food consumed, or anything else. Mostly I feel worst in the evening, though the January 16 episode happened in the middle of the day. Basically it's all been totally perplexing, and very inconvenient and uncomfortable.
I went to the doctor a few weeks ago, and she suggested removing dairy and gluten from my diet, and she ran a bunch of tests including some stool cultures that were a bit unsavory to collect. I just found out yesterday that everything has come back normal, so at least we know I don't have bad things in my colon ("fecal occult blood" test... I still think that sounds like witchcraft), etc. I'm going to keep up the dairy-free, gluten-free diet for another few weeks to make it a full month, since that's the longest I've ever gone without having an episode. The doctor says if the dietary changes don't do the trick, I should consult a gastroenterologist.
If you'd told me two months ago that I'd have to cut out dairy and gluten, I would have freaked out. But the strange thing is, by the time the doctor suggested it, I had already been considering it. These stomach problems have totally shifted my food preferences and habits. These days, I'm just so grateful not to have cramps, not to have to run to the bathroom after meals, that I am voluntarily eating small, regular meals and snacks, and I've even changed my sleeping schedule to accommodate an earlier breakfast. I'm a little wistful when I think of all the things I can't eat, but honestly, I don't really have a desire for dairy or wheat. I think just knowing that they might upset my stomach is enough to kill my interest.
Having to avoid these things that were previously staples of my diet has made life more interesting in the kitchen. I've discovered that I really like gluten-free bread (nice cakelike texture!) and almond milk. And I've been experimenting with adding different things to my food, like more nuts, seeds, and fun things like nori. Soy sauce has wheat in it, and since we're moving I didn't want to bother buying tamari, so I've had to look for other seasonings. My food has definitely gotten more texturally exciting and differently flavored since I cut out the milk and wheat.
Then there's the physiological benefit to avoiding dairy and gluten. I haven't had any stomach problems for almost a week now, so I'm very excited about that. And I don't know whether it's the small meals or the lack of gluten, but I never get that gross, overstuffed feeling after meals anymore. (Instead I feel hungry every few hours, but that's easily solved with a handful of trail mix.) Moreover, no dairy and no gluten means almost no dessert, except things like sorbet and hard candy. (I won't eat Jello because of the gelatin.) And no gluten means no breaded fried things. I suspect this is the cause of my weight loss, because prior to this, I ate pretty healthily except for my trouble controlling myself around desserts and fried foods. And, like I said, I don't really miss these things. I feel better without them.
The only real problems with my new diet are: 1) the difficulty in eating out, 2) the amount of advance planning required (because I'm constantly hungry, and there are so many foods I can't eat), and 3) that I crave meat all the time. The meat thing is very annoying, but not totally unexpected. I've recognized for a long time that I actually feel deprived if I'm not eating at least a certain amount of fat in my diet; that's partly how I ended up going back to seafood. Erik can vouch for this -- I get pretty cranky if I've been eating only lowfat vegan food for a while. (We made deep-fried tempeh the other night, and somehow even that didn't feel rich enough!) And I haven't been eating much oily food or much seafood lately, because the thought of both of these turns my newly-sensitive stomach. I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't want to go back to eating meat; meat is problematic for ethical, environmental, and personal health reasons. But I crave it all the time.
I guess there is still much to learn about being gluten- and dairy-free, since I've only been eating that way for a little less than two weeks. I'm going to rely heavily on my wonderful World Vegetarian cookbook and my Vegetarian Times subscription, and keep on experimenting with different foods and recipes, in hopes that these meat cravings will stop and the stomach problems won't return.