What Gluten Free Looks Like

I made the decision to try a gluten free diet about six months ago with great results, but lately I’ve been hearing a lot of criticism of the GF diet.  Let me be clear: I do not have Celiac disease, and I have not been diagnosed with a gluten allergy.  I won’t go through this entire story again, but I learned that gluten (and perhaps more notably the chemicals used to treat wheat) can lead to inflammation, an underlying cause of several issues I’ve dealt with, including horrible sinus problems.  So I decided to try the gluten free diet to see if any of my symptoms let up, and they all did within a few weeks.  I honestly didn’t know I could feel so good, breathe so deeply.  Talk about a new lease on life!

So what’s my problem?  My problem is what I hear on TV, what I read in the newspapers, and what I hear from other people when I mention gluten.  “A gluten free diet is not for everyone.”  “A gluten free diet can be dangerous.”  “Doctors warn against gluten free products.”  When I first started hearing these claims, I listened.  After all, I don’t know everything, and I might have missed something in my research.   But here’s what I found: all of these claims assume that GF people are substituting every morsel of gluten with a GF substitute.  They fail to consider what else a GF diet can look like: tons of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, dairy, and naturally GF grains like rice and quinoa.  Depending on where you come down on meat and dairy, this list doesn’t look harmful.  When I first went gluten free, I didn’t run to the store to replace every wheaty product in my kitchen.  I began thinking about other foods I could eat instead.  So my problem is that many critics of the gluten free diet are completely ignoring the various other options – the bounty – that people can eat instead.

As I have continued along this gluten free path, taking many detours cheating along the way, I have purchased some gluten free products.  I’ve cooked gluten free pasta, and once in a while I will buy gluten free pizza dough.  There is a loaf of gluten free bread in my fridge right now.  Do I like being able to eat the same foods without suffering side effects?  You betcha.  But these are no longer staples for me.  Chicken is a staple, albeit more like a once-or-twice-a-week staple.  Tomatoes, bananas, apples, avocados, walnuts, almonds, beans, brown rice.  These are the things I’m buying every week (and much more – you should see my last grocery bill).  Since I went gluten free, I have eaten more fruits and vegetables each day than I have at any other point in my life.  One of the best things going gluten free has done for me is to seriously limit the processed foods I can eat.  Not only do they contain wheat, but they also tend to contain all kinds of yummy preservatives and other chemicals that make gluten look like child’s play.  Eating better and avoiding gluten has alleviated my inflammation, and it has also forced me to cook at home, helping me discover new recipes and ingredients along the way.

It’s frustrating to say the least to see people making such generalizations and assumptions about what a gluten free diet looks like and ignoring other possibilities.  I’m not advocating for anyone to go gluten free or vegetarian or vegan or anything else.  But I do want people to think about the foods they eat and to realize there’s more than one way to dodge the wheat and many, many other real foods to eat instead.  And tis the season – with farmers markets opening soon, it’s about to be easier than ever to eat real, good food.  Find your markets.  Befriend your farmers.  Thanks for listening.

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Gluten-Free Valentine

Hey there, internet.  It’s been a minute (or, you know, six months) since I wrote a blog post.  But a lull is better than giving up, right?  So here we are.  Things have really been business as usual: trying to eat healthy, slipping a bit, getting back to it, and rinse and repeat.  Happily, I do have some food-related news to report – enough to kick me back into blogging.

A few months ago, I started researching symptoms of gluten allergies.  I always thought a gluten allergy meant digestive issues, but after talking to a few friends who have cut out the infamous protein to relive other symptoms, I wanted to know more.  In short, I found that even a gluten sensitivity can manifest in rhinitis, sinus issues, asthma, psoriasis, feeling tired (also known as “brain fog”), and much more.  I’ve had trouble with all of those things, but never in a million years would I have guessed they could be in any way connected to what I was eating.

Really, given everything I’ve read about food in the past few years and all the horrors I’ve discovered along the way, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.  After I cut out gluten for a few weeks, I stopped using my steroid nasal spray and inhaler, and my psoriasis calmed down considerably.  I was astounded, thrilled, and also a little bit angry.  Why had no one ever mentioned this to me?  All these different forms of inflammation and a medicine to treat each one separately.  That’s not how I want to roll.

I have eaten gluten since I discovered all of this, in part to test out how it made me feel, and while I don’t get seriously ill from a meal or two, I do get tired.  Dog-tired.  Unable-to-focus-or-function-tired.  Such is the “brain fog” they talk about.  Experiencing this made me wonder how I was ever able to accomplish anything with all the gluten I’ve ingested throughout my life.

Bottom line: I feel amazing when I cut out gluten.  Sadly, some people have told me they’re skeptical that this is a real thing, that I really could have an adverse reaction to something as ubiquitous as wheat, but I know how I feel.  I have energy, I sleep deeply, I breathe deeply, and my mind is sharper and more focused than I knew it could be.  To me, that’s all the evidence I need.  I’ve read a few different theories on why it affects people: a good, old-fashioned allergy to wheat, an inability to deal with the genetic modifications in wheat, and most interestingly, a reaction to the Roundup used on the crops.  Either way, my body is definitely telling me loud and clear to stay away.  Yes, I’ve missed certain things – bread, lemon pound cake, croutons – but that’s a post for another day.

And now, to last weekend.  Valentine’s Day!  It was a snowy, cold Saturday here on the East coast,  and I wanted something warm and rich of dinner.  One of my favorite comfort foods is baked macaroni and cheese – a dish containing pasta, bread crumbs, and flour.  I have the incredible advantage of a little place called Wegmans, and I thought I’d try to de-gluten it.

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I already had gluten-free flour (Bob’s Red Mill is just as incredible resource as Wegmans), and I’d tried the Ancient Harvest quinoa pasta before.  It’s hard to describe, but to me, this pasta doesn’t taste as sweet as regular pasta.  That may seem like an odd way to describe pasta, but if you were to side-by-side taste test, I think you’d see what I mean.  I’d read about gluten-free bread crumbs recently and found the Ian’s brand in the gluten-free section of Wegmans (yes, there is an entire section of the store devoted to me).

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Once I had all of my gluten-free replacement ingredients, I was able to follow the recipe exactly.  The only difference I noticed in cooking was that the roux thickened really quickly.  Everything else worked out just as it would otherwise.

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Like I said before, the quinoa pasta does have a different taste (other gluten-free pastas I’ve tried taste more like corn), but I’m calling this meal a success.  I enjoyed it, Steve enjoyed it, and on Valentine’s Day, that’s really all that matters, right?