Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Dieting as a Form of Identity and Autobiography

I would like to take the time to write a more reflective post on my experience with gluten-free dieting. I undertook this blog, not just to assist with my final year research project, but also because I wanted to document a stage in my life. So in a sense this blog exists as a form of autobiography. The general conception of a biography begins with ones birth and might end toward the end of life, or at ones death. But in actuality biographies tell stories of life, they might describe a few interesting years, document an era of greatness, or simply present it entirely, from start to finish.

We don’t commonly equate diets with biographies, we usually think of them as quick ways to lose weight, or sub narratives in our lives’ greater story. However inconsequential diets might seem in the scheme of things, they do mark our lives.

For many, diets hold great significance with regards to their personal identity. Religious beliefs are enmeshed in dieting, such as Halal in Islam, or Kosher in Judaism. Ethical beliefs also lead people to become vegans or vegetarian.

Though I have never held a single dietary pattern for my entire life, I have personally found that each time I undergo a diet it is for a different series of reasons, and tends to mark a different period personally for myself. Reasons can be physical or health related, like the time I stopped eating sugar to lose weight or dairy to clear my skin. Reasons for dieting can also be mental and emotional, like the times I stopped drinking coffee because it made me nervous, or when I became vegan at the age of 11, after being horrified by a PETA pamphlet. Regardless of motive, the diet you undertake will define a deep need within yourself to control your consumption patterns.

People go on gluten free diets for a host of reasons. Though not backed by nutritional science, many Americans and Canadians think that this diet is healthier for them. Others have claimed a heightened mental clarity when they remove gluten from their diet. A friend of mine who took up the diet suffered from severe acne, after going gluten-free his face became spot-free. Severely allergic individuals have complained of eczema outbreaks and bloating. Celiac patients become sick to the point that they sometimes can’t get out of bed and lay weak for days.

For someone like myself, taking on a gluten-free diet is only temporary. After all, even if I did unknowingly have a slight allergy to gluten, it hasn’t impeded my life in any noticeable ways. However, undertaking the diet, especially inside of Hong Kong, where assistive resources are limited, certainly has caused some trouble. Social relations are strained, and the lack of gluten free options has at times left me rather starving, willing to eat just about anything that doesn’t contain gluten, be it healthy or not. I would not chose to continue this diet here for any longer than I have to, it is simply too extreme of a hassle.

Others unlike myself will continue to avoid gluten for their entire lives. For them the diet has nothing to do with novelty and curiousness, their bodies simply cannot function with gluten inside.

So how would I define this gluten free dietary stage of my life? Let me start by considering the personal motives, which led me to do this. Before moving to Hong Kong, I was rather unaware of gluten free eating. I have an Uncle with celiac in Pennsylvania. Though I had witnessed the discomforts of his disease, I didn’t see him that often growing up, so the condition lay removed from my everyday life.

Upon arriving to Hong Kong I began to meet new people with celiac. One close friend in particular shaped my perspective on what it was to live gluten-free. He developed an extreme digestive disorder a few years after moving here; I spent time with him and his partner nearly every day. His partner took the time to cook for him, and make delicious gluten-free concoctions. They were both enthralled with the diet, and I suppose also the sense of empowerment they felt preparing and consuming the meals.

I learned a lot about the diet from these two over the course of that year, so much so that I thought it would be great to contribute what I learned toward my final year thesis. So for me taking this diet has represented the cumulative learning process I have undergone for well over a year.

In this year I didn’t just learn about the diet, I learned people’s life stories, explored nooks and crannies of the city, gained friendships and partook in many adventures. But these experiences were always from an outsider perspective.

Going gluten free myself has led me to understand the inner perspective of these individuals. For me this story is just a page in my life, for others it's the whole book. Going gluten free in Hong Kong has let me see myself, the city, and those around me in a different light; a segment of my life has thus been memorialized through undertaking this diet. In this sense, my blog acts an autobiography, documenting a particular phase in my life, shaped by a dietary shift.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Time Off From Gluten-Free: A Glutinous Vacation

Yes I am now back, and I must apologize for disappearing so long. I have been away on a trip to the UK, through which I permitted myself to consume gluten, in order fully enjoy my holiday. I must admit I have somewhat been dreading and putting off my inevitable return to the gluten-free diet; I was unable to continue the diet straight away upon return as planned. During my return to gluten I have had five prominent observations, which I would like to share.

1.     Weight Gain

Well it is perhaps no surprise that just as easily as I experienced weight loss when I began gluten-free dieting, I consequently gained said weight back once I stopped. Upon arrival to the UK I weighed myself in at 57.5 kg. I had lost nearly 2.5 kg in the past 3 weeks from my diet. This was the quickest weight drop ever for me; I knew I lost weight, but was rather surprised by just how much! However, just a week and a half later I was up to 59 kg; I am now back to the original weight that I started at.

As I have articulated on before I believe the weight loss has to do with 2 things. To clarify, I don’t believe that going gluten-free is necessarily an effective diet plan; many gluten-free foods are unhealthy such as m&m’s, blocks of cheese, most flavors of Hagen Das etc. 

       The first reason I believe I lost weight, was that eliminating gluten frequently leads to decreased carbohydrate consumption, this is of course with the exception of rice, and other gluten-free grains. Carbohydrates in my experience are the largest cause for weight gain. 

       Next, since there are so few gluten free options in Hong Kong, I sadly believe I experienced a great deal of weight loss from momentary bouts of starvation. When I reintroduced gluten into my diet I was instantly consuming both a larger amount of carbohydrates and additionally all food options were again at my disposal. I believe restricted food access was the biggest cause for my extreme weight loss. 

2. Reckless Abandonment

The first morning I was allowed to eat gluten I went directly to the Popeyes in the Hong Kong Airport and proceeded to eat a rather gross breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried chicken, and biscuits (though the biscuits were good!). This certainly foreshadowed events to come. As goes with most restrictive diets, the moment I was liberated from its chains, I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. It turned out that many of the things I craved were unhealthy, to say the least. I began binging on fast foods, all sorts of gluten rich products, and more; the world was my oyster.

These reckless eating patterns both contributed to my weight gain, and reflected how one copes when transitioning from a very restrictive eating space to a very liberal one. The experience reminded me a great deal of how I dealt during my 3 weeks visit fom Hong Kong back to my home in Madison, WI, US. Though it has its faults, I would consider Hong Kong, a more health conscious location than the Midwestern United States. Food portions here are smaller, whereas people back home eat enormous amounts of unhealthy food – I wasn’t too sure how to control my eating, and as a result was horrendously bloated many times and gained a quite a bit of weight. 

       Diets can be individualistic and collective in nature. The diets that we take on as individuals as well as the food culture within a society, impact both our weight as well as our decision making processes. Diets can help to keep us from reckless abandonment, however food cultures too also help us deem what is the appropriate amount for consumption. When we strip ourselves of internal or external defenses, we can be left with somewhat sporadic and glutinous eating patterns.

3. Increased Socialization

It was impossible not to notice how much easier it was to socialize again. In the UK I was really only visiting with my significant other, so at first I didn’t take notice of this. That being said, it was largely the social pressure put on myself from her to eat everything that led me to discontinue my gluten free diet for this time. Once I got back to Hong Kong the social liberation became more pronounced. While I had intended to start the gluten free diet immediately, the need to catch up with friends left me stalling.

I kept putting it off.. The delay led me to ultimately realize just how much my gluten-free diet had impeded my social interactions and plans with others. Once I started to eat gluten again I was free to make plans, when I wanted, with whomever I wanted, wherever I wanted. I no longer was forced to explain my diet or modify my social activities accordingly. This renewed ease in socialization was certainly liberalizing. I now can empathize and understand just how great of a toll having gluten allergies or celiac disease has on one’s social life.

4. Ease of Gluten Free Dieting in the UK

As you know I was not gluten free while staying in the UK. However, I could not help but realize just how much easier it would have been for me to follow the diet there. 

Wherever I went there seemed to be accommodations for gluten-free and allergy eaters. In the grocery store all gluten free products were clearly labelled. In the restaurants, dishes would be specified as gluten free. Even the cheapest eating establishments had signs advertising their ability to make gluten and allergy free food dishes. 

It made me think just how much easier it would be to be a gluten-free eater in countries like the UK or the United States. Living in a country where both grocery stores and restaurants consider your allergies could make all the difference. 

The traditional British afternoon tea, is almost always offered gluten-free (though you might have to order in advance). Here is a picture of the menu from the Marriott in Bristol.: 

While it might be hard to find gluten-free Asian cuisine in Asia, restaurants in the UK frequently provide advice to help guests chose items that are allergy friendly: 

5. Difficulty Returning to a Gluten Free Diet

The last thing I have noticed, is just how hard it is to get back in the swing and return to the gluten free diet. Though I have been back for nearly two weeks, Tuesday was my first day to return to the gluten free diet. I kept finding reasons to put it off, whether it was an upcoming get together with friends, or I had forgotten to pack a lunch for school. No matter what there is always some great excuse to eat gluten! 

I must say that going gluten free in Hong Kong has definitely been the most difficult diet and lifestyle change I have ever undergone, and I am pretty experienced with dietary changes. I’ve done vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, sugar free – you name it. This is truthfully the most challenging diet ever (though I suppose raw diet might be more challenging, I have not tried this yet).

It would be one thing to just avoid the products we associate with gluten such as bread and pasta, but the real killer is the hidden ingredients found in seasonings and sauces. Being gluten free is the most tedious diet I have tried for this reason. Gluten seems to have infiltrated itself everywhere! Without some sort of regulation or proper labeling system in Hong Kong, undertaking this diet here is a serious challenge.

Regardless of setbacks I am back on the gluten free train today, I will be going gluten free again for three more weeks. 

Though going of the diet forced me to slow down my embodied research progress, it also allowed for me to perceive the diet in two separate geographical spaces. Similar to personal cultural identity, I find that the diet itself can exist in a diaspora of sorts, fitting well inside of one country and feeling an outcast in the next.

It's back to being an outcast for now, wish me luck!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Week 3: The Struggle is Real

I am approaching completion of my third week on a gluten free diet and of course the challenges of avoidance and language barriers are still continuous. I went to a local vegetarian restaurant with my local friend earlier in the week. I figured that having him with me would ensure my safety since he was able to elaborately communicate my dietary need to the host. We sat and ate, I got a fake tofu meat of sorts, only to find out later in the meal from another friend that this consisted primarily of gluten! No wonder I had previously avoided local eating establishments, even with Cantonese speaking skills the idea of eating gluten free is so foreign to many locals that it is literally untranslatable. If I were to actually have celiac disease, I might have anticipated falling heavily ill for at least a day from such misunderstandings!

Social Pressure & Small Treats

Another observation I had this week was that I was much more prone to experience social pressure to consume gluten in small treats as opposed to larger meals. The first time I experienced this was when meeting with a student's parents for a parent teacher conference. We met for coffee and one of the mothers presented me with cookies. It was very difficult to explain that I had an allergy and couldn't accept. This occurred a second time at work, when a few colleagues were sharing some mushroom crisps from Taiwan which had wheat in their seasoning. I felt it particularly rude in both cases to say no to the offerings, which were in many ways a form of gift giving. It is particularly rude not accept a gift, and potentially disadvantageous career wise.

Next week should be interesting as I am going on a trip to the UK starting Thursday. I will be putting my diet on  a hiatus. I know this is a luxury, but I hope to take this time to further reflect and see how my body reacts when I readmit gluten into my diet. My trip will be for almost 2 weeks and upon return I will reconvene my gluten free diet for a month's time until completion. I will still keep updating my blog weekly, so you don't have to miss me too much.

Now onto the food sharing! I have three lovely and delicious gluten free items to share with you.

These are some delicous gluten-free cupcakes from The Cupcake Ministrel. I thoroughly enjoyed expert baker, Maria's cupcakes and tried both the vanilla and chocolate flavors, both had excellent flavor and a great moist texture.
Next I would like to share Grassroots Pantry's vegetarian "Chicken" Tikka. The vegetarian version really tasted like chicken, with a complex texture. It is served with mango chutney and guacamole. Make sure to substitute the spinach naan for quinoa or rice, to stay gluten free. The staff is extremely well versed in the ins and outs of various diets whether they be vegan, vegetarian or GF.
In addition to the lovely Grassroots pantry restaurant, Chef Peggy Chan has opened a cafe attached: Prune Deli. If you are looking for incredible gluten free and raw desserts, look no further. Below is the orange chocolate cake - I really enjoyed this one.

That is all I have for now - See you all next week from the UK and have a great week.