Can You Take a “Gluten Cheat Day” if You Have Celiac Disease?

Patient Expert

Can you have a “Gluten Cheat Day” when you have Celiac disease? Until recently, I would’ve said: “Absolutely not.” The mere idea probably makes your stomach start churning as you recall what gluten has done to you in the past.

I was diagnosed with celiac disease nearly 20 years ago as an eighth-grader, whose friends gasped: “Oh my goodness, that means you can’t eat bagels? I would die without bagels!”

Needless to say, I’ve survived just fine without bagels.

The few times I accidentally ate gluten in the past few years were notable. After once eating a giant bowl of farro grain (and being told it was definitely gluten-free), I woke up in the middle of the night with sharp, shooting pains up and down my abdomen. Still unaware that the farro grain does indeed contain gluten, I went to the emergency room because I was sure my appendix was bursting. (Took another week before I realized the pain was from the farro, after explaining the event to my friend. And yes, I learned my lesson that I should never trust anyone else’s assessment of a new food item — no matter how hipster-wise they may seem!)

During the few years following that ER visit, I was extra careful to make sure I didn’t ingest gluten.

And then ... my father died on March 3, 2016. He was killed while sitting in the bicycle lane in Arizona at a red-light, guiding a cycling group from New Mexico. A young man who was under the influence of several drugs drove right through the group of cyclists with his truck, going over 40 miles an hour through that red light. Fortunately, most of the group was unharmed, but he took my father’s life and the life of another woman.

What does his death have to do with taking an annual “gluten cheat day?” If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know the weeks after their death can leave you trying to simply find the right source of comfort, an outlet for your heartbreak, or perhaps even a distraction.

During the week of my father’s funeral in Arizona, I passed by the most beautiful cinnamon buns (a pastry that cannot be adequately replicated in a gluten-free form) in the bakery section of a Whole Foods. And a part of me just said: “Whatever. I’m going to eat these.”

The decision was driven by a mixture of anger, sadness, and the search for whatever it was that could provide comfort for something there really isn’t any comfort for: losing your father.

I ate two giant cinnamon buns that night.

And I ate two more the next day. (Taking plenty of insulin, too, of course.) To aid in my body’s ability to digest them, I also took some psyllium husk capsules (all natural corn fiber), and I anticipated the shooting pain and discomfort that ought to arrive a few hours after eating them.

But it never happened. If anything, I may have had a light headache for less than a day after the indulgence, and I was also probably a little bloated. It was enough to ensure that I didn’t want to eat more gluten the next day, but not enough that I actually regretted the indulgence.

In other words, I got away with it.

Does that mean I should eat gluten regularly? No way, because of course, I would then be damaging the lining of my small intestines, increasing inflammation throughout my entire body, increasing my risk of stomach cancer, and making myself generally sick in a variety of unpredictable ways.

In the end, I don’t know if I would be so lucky next time, but I’m starting to wonder if an annual gluten-cheat day might be oddly therapeutic and fairly harmless.