The story behind 'What Melissa Eats'

During my first year of college, I got sick. Really sick. I took a semester off during my sophomore year and was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythmatosus. After heavy-duty steroids, we got my blood counts under control, but I still felt awful. Joint pain, nausea and extreme fatigue ruled my life. I returned back to college and struggled to keep up .

In 2006, I went vegetarian after reading about other lupus patients who felt better after ditching meat. And for the first few months, I did feel better. The new diet reduced my malaise considerably, although I still felt crummy. I stuck to it, finished college in Nagasaki, Japan, and moved to a new town in southern Idaho with my then-fiance.

Over the next two and a half years, my health gradually got worse. By then, a newspaper had hired me to write features stories for its health, food, entertainment, garden and family life sections. I managed to turn in stories, but not without taking a lot of sick time. My fatigue was once again overwhelming. I threw up several times a week and my joint pain left me in tears.

Trips to the rheumatologist yieled no more than shrugged shoulders. My blood work indicated that the lupus was in remission, and had been that way since my initial flare during my freshman year of college. The only abnormality: a Vitamin D deficiency, despite the megadoses of D I took weekly. In December 2009, after watching me cry from pain and frustration during a visit, the doctor finally suggested I was just depressed. He sent me home with a script for a doubled dose of antidepressants -- and, of course, more Vitamin D.

I threw the prescriptions away.

In January 2010, my condition plummeted. Exhaustion made it hard for me to sit up without my husbands help. I could no longer concentrate on anything, and often forgot what I was talking about mid-sentence. I fainted. I had seizures. All day, I felt like I was in a fog.

A neurologist ordered an MRI, EEG and blood work. Before we started the tests, he told me he thought it could be neuropsychiatric lupus, where the immune system starts attacking the brain. The only options were chemo or steroids, he said. My husband and I braced ourselves and looked into getting me on SSI.

At our follow-up appointment, the neurologist burst into the room with a slight smile on his face. "Your brain is fine," he said. "You have sprue."

That wasn't what I expected to hear. It wasn't what he expected to find, either, but there we were.

I knew about Celiac-sprue from an article I had written two months before. I remembered sources telling me about their gluten-free diets, how difficult it was to eat out, how careless cross-contamination could put them out of commission for days. Still, I was elated. I had an answer, and it was an answer that didn't involve chemotherapy.

It all made sense. I still have lupus, but haven't had a flare in five years. That's why the doctors were so confused -- they were looking for the cause of my symptoms through the lupus lens, and not considering other options.

At this point, I had been vegetarian for four years, and wasn't about to give up. I know now that I probably felt better when I first got rid of meat because I started eating healthier in general, but I remain vegetarian for personal reasons.

But I'm not going to pretend it's easy being a gluten-free vegetarian in suburban southern Idaho. It's hard enough eating out when most restaurants here revolve around steak and burgers and chicken gravy, but eliminate wheat from the picture and there go most of my menu main-stays -- pastas, stir fries, sandwiches, quesadillas. Even salad dressing from unknown origins poses a risk.

Giving my kitchen a GF makeover wasn't easy, either. Every single one of my go-to meals included wheat in some way. My most basic recipes, like peanut sauce or udon -- needed at least minor tweaks.

But there are so many foods I can eat. Besides the gluten-free options available in stores, like quinoa pasta and gluten-free pizza crusts, there are several natural wheat-free foods. Every single vegetable and every single fruit is fair game. Rice and corn and potatoes are good, too.

And now, I have the energy to cook. Spending half an hour on my feet was impossible before. Since my diagnosis, I've made dahls, chilis, stews, salads, pizzas, breads and pastas, all from scratch. No more depending on delivery for me.

When I tell people I'm a gluten-free vegetarian, most of them ask "What can you possibly eat?" Many tell me I have no choice but to take up meat again -- some jokingly, some not.

No need, I say.

So whether you're a veg who has just been diagnosed, or you have Celiac and are considering going vegetarian for ethical reasons, or whatever -- I hope this blog can help.