Saturday, August 18, 2012

Lessons Learned in a Year of Eating Gluten-Free

Photo: Gluten-Free Chocolate by Sugarbloom Cupcakes

It’s been a year, more or less, since my endocrinologist suggested that I try out a gluten-free diet.  I’ll be heading back to her office for my annual checkup on Monday, where I’ll learn whether or not the dietary changes I’ve made had a positive impact on my health–but in some ways, I have to say that it doesn’t really matter.  I know I’ve felt better since I cut gluten out of my life (or, on a bad day, minimized its presence.)  The stomach pain that always followed a big plate of pasta is no more, the frequent unexplained nausea is gone, the brain fog that so often plagued me has lifted, I’ve had a lot more energy, and I’ve just felt generally more healthy.  In other words, even if my lab results show no change at all, I don’t think I’ll change my diet.  Eating gluten-free clearly makes my body happy.

Which is not to say it’s easy, or without challenges.  I’ve learned a lot about the world of gluten-free food in the last year, so I thought I’d offer the following thoughts for anyone just starting the journey.

1.  There are lots of options that are naturally gluten-free: meat, eggs, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, rice, and grains like quinoa.  One thing I discovered very quickly is that focusing on the things I can eat makes it much easier to avoid the things I can’t.  It also helps to prevent the (sometimes inevitable) pangs of self-pity over that dinner roll you can no longer enjoy.

2.  Gluten is everywhere: in soups, sauces, and drinks (like beer), not just in the most obvious places (bread, baked sweets, crackers, and pasta.)  If you have celiac disease, it’s obviously very important to avoid gluten altogether.  If your gluten intolerance isn’t as serious, the small amounts of gluten in some items might not pose a major problem.  My general rule of thumb is that if flour is one of the last five ingredients listed on a packaged item, I’m probably going to be okay with it.  This is something you’ll have to figure out for yourself via trial and error.  Gluten intolerance is that sort of thing.

3.  Having said that, I’ll add that I’m much more careful at restaurants, where I have little control over what goes into my food.  If a restaurant has a gluten-free menu, I generally trust that they’re knowledgeable about preparing gluten-free food.  If not–if the restaurant simply offers the option of a gluten-free bun for your hamburger, for example–I make a safer choice, like a piece of grilled chicken and some steamed vegetables.   You can’t blame food service workers at a chain restaurant for not understanding that storing regular and gluten-free buns in the same plastic bag will cause a problem for customers with celiac disease; you can, however, anticipate that these same employees might not think to tip you off to the presence of flour in a sauce that’s slathered on your gluten-free bun.  (Here’s an example of the difference: I went to lunch with The Hubs and The Girl one day last week at a restaurant with a gluten-free menu.  After we ordered, because I had ordered off the gluten-free menu, the server made sure I understood that the cornbread she’d be bringing to our table wasn’t gluten free, nor was the appetizer The Hubs and The Girl had decided to share.  I appreciated the fact that she understood why this would matter.)

4.  Gluten-free versions of foods normally made with wheat flour don’t taste the same.  They just don’t.  Cakes, cookies, and breads are more dense; rice pasta is more sticky and less chewy; corn pasta is hit or miss.  Somewhere along the way, I learned to stop asking myself “Does this taste like real bread?” and ask, instead, “Do I like this bread?”  Getting rid of the comparison was really liberating, and I’ve since discovered some gluten-free items I really do like–Udi’s Gluten Free bread, cookies made by Alternative Baking Company, pasta by Mrs. Leeper’s and Tinkyada, cereals made by Nature’s Path.  I’ve also discovered which baking mixes and flour blends I like (or don’t).  I’ve reviewed a number of those mixes on this blog.  Trying out different brands is part of the gluten-free adventure, and each person will have different preferences.

5.  Unfortunately, the gluten-free adventure isn’t cheap.  That’s because, to be certified gluten-free, foods have to be produced in a dedicated facility where no gluten contamination is possible.  And, because a fairly small segment of the population purchases gluten-free food items, it’s not possible to spread out the cost of their production–which means each individual consumer pays more.  (The fairly high price of these items is another good reason to stick with foods that are naturally gluten-free.  I think I’ve eaten less bread in the past year than I ever have at any other time in my life.)

6.  Baking gluten-free takes some practice.  Gluten-free flour blends don’t always work in recipes designed for wheat flour, as we discovered when we made a batch of very, very gluey pancakes.  Loaves of bread can’t be sliced while they’re still warm, or they’ll be gummy.  Gluten-free cookies tend toward being crunchy, not chewy, no matter what you do.  Many gluten-free baked goods don’t brown while they’re in the oven.  And gluten-free cookies don’t spread out and assume a circular shape while they’re baking; they retain whatever shape they had when they went into the oven.  I’ve learned these and more lessons in the last year, which is pretty humbling for a person who thinks she knows a little something about how to operate in the kitchen.

7.  Most people really don’t understand what gluten-free means–they don’t understand, for example, why a bag of wheat flour can’t sit on a grocery store shelf next to a bag of rice flour. The idea that wheat flour on the outside of the packaging would contaminate the product sitting next to it, making that product potentially dangerous, just doesn’t occur to them.  This is mostly a matter of ignorance, not malice–but I’ve pointed in out to my local grocery store (via their website and in person, at the store) enough times now that I’ve determined they just don’t care enough to make the necessary changes.  I buy my gluten-free baking mixes elsewhere now, in solidarity with those shoppers who need them to be more careful.  I figure my higher tolerance for gluten shouldn’t make carelessness okay.

8. Many people think they understand what gluten-free means, but actually they understand celiac disease.  That’s one small segment of the gluten-free population.  There are also people in the world, like me, who can pick the croutons off their salad and be just fine.  That doesn’t make their gluten intolerance any less real, or their reasons for avoiding gluten any less important.  We’re all just trying to stay healthy.

9.  Some doctors believe that patients who feel better after cutting out gluten are experiencing a psychosomatic benefit:  they believe cutting out gluten will help them feel better, so it does.  To this, I can only say:  so what?  If people feel better, and they’re generally healthy, I don’t think it matters whether they’re “actually” gluten sensitive.

10. Many people think gluten-free is just the latest food fad, like low-fat or low-carb foods were some years ago.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “Are you still gluten-free?”, as if it’s something I’ll give up when I get tired of it.  Trust me when I say that if this were the case, I’d have given it up about a week after I started.  I very quickly got tired of not being able to eat many of the things I like.  And I have never once enjoyed skipping dessert while my friends eat cake.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned, though, is what an incredible blessing it is to be able to eat pretty much what I want.  All the stories I’ve read in the last year–stories of parents trying to solve their starving child’s problems with food allergies, and stories of adults who were wasting away until they were diagnosed with celiac disease–have made me count my lucky stars again and again.  Giving up pasta and cookies is nothing in comparison to what others have gone through in giving up wheat, corn, milk, eggs, nuts–the list goes on, but you get the idea.  I’m grateful that managing my own diet is a fairly simple (if not always pleasant) process.

Update:  Good news from the doctor today!  No question that maintaining a gluten-free diet is worth the effort.

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