I remember drinking skim milk. A lot of skim milk. Once and a while I would have 1% at my friend’s house, but all in all, I had skim milk most of the time. I also remember that my best friend was always in good shape and healthier, though he generally ate the same stuff I ate. He didn’t overeat, though, which was interesting.
Sweets used to be a big deal. I always wanted more candy. I spent all of my allowance on candy bars (mostly Reese’s peanut butter cups and Hershey’s Symphony) at Rite Aid up until I was about 8 or 9, which is when I started to instead turn my attention to the bargain (…actually, not-so-cheap) VHS movie aisle. Somewhere in that time period, I remembered noticing that I was getting fat. I used to be stick thin until I was like 6. My dad even called me “pencil neck.” My first grade class portraits show a transition to a completely different Robby. When I caught on to this unpleasant transformation via insults and not-so-subtle comments about my weight, I became my own self-advocate at the ripe age of 10, and my solution was to eat a “low-fat diet.” Imagine that—a kid on a low-fat diet. I also loved the idea of aerobics at the time, too, and tried to “exercise my heart rate” as often as I could on the family treadmill. To tell you the truth, the low-fat diet actually worked. My body trimmed up slightly. But I was not satisfied or energetic. I was pale and sick, and I had awful B.O., which I tried to cover up with antiperspirant deodorant and a flannel.
I used to lie in bed on certain nights in fear that I was having a heart attack. A pain would creep from my chest to my jaw. I got TMJ often, too, which added to the discomfort the morning after. When I asked my mom, a registered nurse, what was going on, I believe she used to tell me it was arthritis. It took me a really long time to realize that what this was, but I do recall that it was unofficially diagnosed as arthritis. I now know with 100% confidence that it was caused by what I was eating, a whole lot of bread and gluten, but I’ll get into that later.
Also of note, when I was in elementary school, I used to get strep throat. I must have had it 3 or 4 times and taken antibiotics every time. The first time I took penicillin, I noticed weird itching on the top of my right hand. Then it broke out into a rash. Some less severe rashes also appeared on my arms and legs. From that point on, I had to use “alternative antibiotics.” It always seemed so pressing that I find an appropriate antibiotic to fight these infections, but I don’t remember finding erythromycin until I was in high school or something. I guess antibiotics worked, though, when they needed to, regardless of my reaction to them, because I didn’t get any complications that you would get from an improperly treated or untreated sinus infection.
In the middle of 6th grade, I started to enjoy my newfound slimness by eating more. By 7th grade, I was the fat kid again, and everybody knew it. 8th grade was the same. These were the bad times.
In 9th grade, I knew my growth spurt was coming and I couldn’t wait. My plan was to let the accordion effect take hold and eat as little as possible as I grew taller. This worked smashingly, and I was stick thin. I was still sick, though. All kinds of sinus infections and flus plagued me and caused me to miss a lot of school (which I treated with countless more courses of antibiotics), even though I still managed to become valedictorian of my class by senior year. I got barely any sleep in those years, and I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from that time in my life.
By the end of high school, I was depressed and eating a lot. I hadn’t gained a ton of weight yet, but I was geared up to do so in college. And boy did I. I ate tons of gummy bears, waffles, and meatball subs with my free dining hall and “Late Night” food (I had an awesome scholarship). Actually, my affections turned towards eating out anywhere and everywhere I could around town, too, because I had an awesome stipend to work with as well. My life was eating carbohydrates and processed crappy fats. Sound like a familiar story to anyone?
Somewhere during the first year of college, probably winter break, I had my deviated septum operated on by my allergist. Did I mention I had allergies? Oh yeah, when I was in high school and pretty much all my life I used to get watery eyes whenever I was outside. It was stupid. So the deviated septum surgery helped me a lot. A lot better than the weekly tedious and expensive allergy shots I was getting from the aforementioned allergist. Less sinus infections, but much worse things were to come.
I weighed 230 lbs by the beginning of my Junior year. Let me move back a bit. I was depressed from relationships and had started to eat more and more. At some point, after a bad breakup—I think around when my weight maxed out—I was on Paxil, an antianxiety drug which made me gain even more weight. Some time in 2006, I had an epiphany—or an otherwise frightening experience that permanently changed my diet. I remember digging into a carton of cookie dough ice cream and thinking it didn’t taste like anything. That scared me. It also seemed pointless to eat ice cream if it’s bad for you and you can’t taste it. Makes sense, right?
I’ve basically been off sugar ever since then.
Let me go back a bit again. Months before that, I had already switched from regular to diet sodas for about a year. I remember doing that and losing 15 lbs right out. I also recall giving up French fries then and losing 15 more lbs. This had me down just under 200 lbs. by my senior year of college. That evened out to about 210 after a little bit, because (I believe) diet soda causes a similar spike in insulin—the cause of obesity—and my body eventually adjusted to the change. So when I gave up sugar—well, to be more specific—desserts with sugar, everything changed again.
My weight stabilized to around 190 at its best, which was awesome. I saw things more clearly and enjoyed life pretty thoroughly. I even started running, and was able to go about 5 miles without too much trouble. That particular ability didn’t last long, though, because I ran in a Turkey trot in Thanksgiving of that year and could not make it more than a mile. The rocky terrain tore my back up, and it hurt so bad. That pretty much destroyed all of my resolve to run long distance.
Continuing in my nutritional journey, now with considerably less sugar, more ways to get a carb/sugar fix presented themselves. I honed in on pancakes and breakfasts. I had decided to compromise with myself for giving up dessert completely (except for 1 or 2 exceptions per year, I am dead serious) by eating sugary things that were classified as meals, like barbecue, ketchup, and any sort of breakfast pastry except danishes and jelly donuts. I even allowed myself to enjoy fries with lots of ketchup in binge-type arrangements. Red Robin was the place where this atrocity on my liver, arteries, and immune system was perpetrated. IHOP was the place where I got my carb and syrup fix, though I did try to use sugar-free syrup whenever I could (not that this was much better, because of the insulin spike). I was also not adverse to raisin bran and Honey Bunches of Oats, which have some of the highest fructose—the other major cause of obesity—content you could possibly imagine.
This was around the time I got married. I took it upon myself to treat my bride, who was raised Filipino, to some of the wonderful wheaty American treats she’d been deprived of as a child eating lots of rice, cassava, chips, fries, and rice-based pastries. The substitutes I provided were pancakes, waffles, sandwiches, spaghetti, burritos (with shell), flour tortillas, and bagels. By the time we got to bagels, usually whole wheat, she started to realize that her stomach was expanding to astonishing sizes after meals. This was often accompanied by terrible pain in her gut. This awful ailment plagued her for months—longer than I can remember, really—and we lackadaisically searched for answers through word of mouth and very infrequent google searches. There was even one night where the pain had her doubled over so badly that she was on the floor weeping and I was ready to take her to the emergency room.
In retrospect, it is hard to believe it took us so long to find out what a gluten allergy was. We had heard of it because of an episode of a cooking game show where they had to cook for Zooey Deschanel. I remember making fun of her pretty bad at the time, both because of her veganity and this weird gluten thing on top of it. The way we finally learned to take it seriously was through a very nutritionally minded couple we had been friends with for a year or two. The lady half of the couple had very similar symptoms to my wife—actually even in things that they had had trouble with all of their life, like extremely painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea). Our meeting these people was absolutely providential, because Rachel would not have been healed of this progressing illness if it weren’t for her bringing up her new gluten-free diet that was necessary.
When Rachel tried the diet, the effects were almost instantaneous. I believe she went a week without gluten to try it out, and I even joined her because of my love for interesting diets and to see if it would affect me in any way at all. The diet was very hard at first, actually, because as a GF newbie, you don’t know how much stuff has wheat in it. It’s like soy and corn. It’s just in flipping everything.
So the results were in: Rachel’s digestive symptoms went away, and I was cured of my mysterious arthritic symptoms. Wait—I didn’t plan on this! The latter was total happenstance, as we didn’t find out the connection between rheumatoid arthritis and gluten sensitivity until after I noticed that abstaining from gluten completely alleviated all symptoms of arthritis. I cannot emphasize this fact enough. We have since found several people who’ve experienced similar relief from going gluten-free and we’ve read several studies and even talked to doctors that confirm the realities of gluten sensitivity.
Whenever either of us messed up and accidentally ate gluten (we never “cheated” because our results were so good), we would experience a temporary resurgence of symptoms, so we were 100% convinced that gluten was the issue.
So this was to be the last major diet adjustment I hacked before I got extremely sick. It also turned out to be the last nail in the coffin as well, which ultimately caused my illness in synergy with the mold in my house. Now don’t get me wrong, gluten is evil. It’s almost as bad as sugar. It just leads to a lot of much worse dietary choices, some of which I didn’t even make, yet I still had awful incidental results. It changed my life forever.
Next time, I’ll go over the problems with a nominal gluten-free diet and my cascade into a toxic wall from mold and diet.