How My Gluten Intolerance Made Me Realize That Food Can Change Your Identity

by Alexia LaFata
Mattia Pelizzari

For so long, I refused to believe I had developed a gluten intolerance. I would insist, convincingly and forcefully, that I'd be fine if I ate just one small plate of pasta, or just drank one bottle of beer. One serving of gluten couldn't hurt when I'd been shoving my gluttonous Italian face with pizza and pasta for my entire life, right?

Wrong. Like the perfect cause-and-effect science experiment, a day after eating gluten my stomach would expand and my eczema would flare up more violently than it ever had in my entire life. I'd be left with digestive issues and bloody scabs from scratching my skin that took weeks to heal, and I'd be very much not fine.

But still, I'd do it again. More pasta, more cereal, more bread, more bagels. This time will be different, I'd say, grabbing my fourth slice of pizza at lunchtime and downing three beers at happy hour. My body can't react to the foods that have given me so much joy during my 22 years on earth forever... can it?

Oh, but it can. It can.

I never wanted to be that girl who has to ask for the gluten-free menu at restaurants. I still find myself shooting apologetic "I swear to God, I'm not one of those health freaks who is just doing this for no reason" looks at the waiter.

But suddenly, seemingly overnight, gluten went from a staple in my diet to public enemy number one. I was scratching my skin constantly, picking out dead skin that accumulated under my fingernails, grabbing tissues from the bathroom to soak up blood, slathering prescription ointment on every inch of my skin three times a day. My stomach was expanding so much from painful bloating that I couldn't fit in my jeans. And my farts were straight up horrifying.

So, I waved the white flag. Gluten would be eliminated from my diet.

Before giving up gluten, I never realized how much what you eat contributes to your identity. Food is not just something you consume; it communicates who you are to the world.

My penchant for carbs is my expression of my Italian culture. On Christmas Eve, my extended family indulges in a special yearly ritual of eating spaghetti with fresh fish sauce. If I'm eating a warm, creamy, comfort bowl of pastina for dinner, I probably had a bad day. If I'm eating pork roll egg and cheese on a bagel, I'm celebrating my Jersey pride. Everything I put in my mouth tells the world something important about me.

Food even communicates your social status. There's a reason people who live in impoverished areas don't eat quinoa, microgreens or other fresh, luxury health items: They just don't have access to a supermarket stocked with them.

Unfortunately, my gluten intolerance has involuntarily altered my identity. I didn't choose this life the way a vegetarian chooses not to eat meat to make a statement about his or her aversion to animal products, or the way an Instagram fitness guru makes a special trip to Whole Foods to buy kale.

I am NOT the girl who purposely avoids a food group for the sake of "health" or who makes special trips to Whole Foods. I am the girl who puts on sweatpants and runs to the general corner store and who eats carbs at every meal -- toast for breakfast, bread on a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner.

But now, I can't be her. Now, I am the girl who replaces her hamburger buns with lettuce. Now, I am the girl who doesn't drink beer. Now, I am the girl who orders a salad at a restaurant if there are no gluten-free options. Now, I am the girl who shops at specialty supermarkets that stock gluten-free items. And I DON'T WANT TO BE HER.

I don't feel like myself. I'm an empty, carb-less version of myself. It's depressing.

I yearn for the day that my stomach and skin don't betray me when I eat a slice of bread. Until then, you'll find me picking at my sad, sorry, wilted salad (all salad is wilted when you love carbs) while dreaming endlessly of bowls of spaghetti and meatballs.