DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: Years ago, after becoming a vegetarian, I began to steadily gain weight. I was baffled as to why, and it seemed that no amount of careful eating or exercising made any difference. Over about eight or nine years, I ballooned up to about 40 pounds over my ideal weight. Then, about a year ago, I discovered I had a sensitivity to gluten and moved to a gluten-free diet. Over a period of about 9 months, I lost about 12 or 13 pounds — mostly through, I believe, more mindful eating. Having to be a lot more careful about what I put in my mouth, I found I was cooking more at home, saying "no" to processed foods and having more respect for myself and my health. Deciding that I was unwilling to eat foods that gave me a headache or caused stomach upset gave me a real sense of empowerment. No longer do I eat what someone has prepared so as not to "hurt their feelings." I have found a new sense of self-worth and it brings a wonderful feeling and determination to continue on this healthy path. I've lost about half the extra weight and I feel wonderful. — Felicia
DEAR FELICIA: Thanks so much for your note! Your story is interesting for several reasons. For one thing, I think many people believe vegetarianism is a clear road to good health. But the fact is, you can be a vegetarian and eat extremely poorly. Think about it: Twinkies are vegetarian, as are soda and wine and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I remember interviewing a weight loss expert several years ago who noted that many teenage girls were missing key nutrients because their diets consisted almost completely of yogurt, bagels and bananas—all of which are good for you (or at least not bad for you) but which are missing key things like antioxidants, fiber and protein. So often, we think healthy eating is about what we’re NOT putting into our mouths, but that’s only part of it. What you ARE eating, and how much, is just as important—maybe even more. It’s my view that if you focus on getting all the good things you need out of foods every day, you have little time (and less room in your belly) for the not-so-good things.
Another issue you bring up is gluten sensitivity and its connection to weight gain and intestinal distress. Gluten is a protein in wheat, and an intolerance can lead to bloating, cramping, diarrhea and other issues. People with a severe intolerance are often diagnosed with celiac disease, which is affecting increasing numbers of folks in the U.S. People who suspect that they have an issue with gluten can undergo a blood test to detect high levels of antibodies that are a marker for celiac disease. It’s best, according to experts from the Mayo Clinic, to have such a blood test before trying a gluten-free diet because going gluten-free can affect the results of the test. As you’ve experienced, following a gluten-free diet requires diligence: Wheat is in almost everything, even stuff you might not suspect. It’s almost impossible to eat drive-through food when you’re gluten-free, for instance—a fact that undoubtedly contributed to the positive results you’ve had on the scale. Whether you have a gluten issue or not, making your own choices, eating what you want and need, is so important in your journey to lose weight and get healthy. It’s great that you’re finding your way, and I’m wishing you all the best.