You might wish you didn’t.
Gluten is a generic name for the storage protein found in grains; in wheat, for instance, it's called gliadin. Gluten basically binds starches together; it's the stuff that makes dough, well…doughy.
If you regularly feel uncomfortable after a gluten-rich meal (like pasta and bread), gluten could be the culprit. “Uncomfortable” can mean anything from feeling slightly bloated and gassy (mild gluten sensitivity) to much more severe symptoms like excruciating cramps, vomiting, migraines, dizziness, even loss of consciousness — signs that you may have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that is the most serious form of gluten intolerance.
“Problems with gluten are widely under-diagnosed,” says Mark Hyman, M.D., author of The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First and creator of Gaiam's UltraMind Solution Club. “The most serious gluten-related problem, celiac disease, affects 1 in 100 people or 3 million Americans, most of which are not diagnosed.”
“People with gluten sensitivity don’t have the long-term and ongoing damage to the villi of the small intestine that people with celiac disease have; once gluten is removed from the diet, the symptoms go away,” says Melissa McLean Jory, a master nutrition therapist and yoga teacher who writes the blog atwww.glutenfreeforgood.com. “But gluten is hard to break down, period, for all of us.”
Although you might not even know it’s making you sick, gluten intolerance is linked to many ailments, including seizures, swelling, intestinal problems,lowered immunity, adrenal exhaustion and thyroid problems. “Other studies have linked eating gluten to everything from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia, autism and even dementia,” notes Dr. Hyman.
Allison Sampish, a kindergarten teacher from Fort Worth, Texas, spent decades not knowing what was causing her painful symptoms. “I remember in middle school I was always not feeling well,” she says. “I had all kinds of tests but they never found much.” Finally, in 2001, her new gastrologist suggested eliminating gluten from her diet for two weeks to see how she felt. She did, and it worked, and she has been happily gluten-free since.
“The diet is a lot easier to follow now than it was at first,” she admits. “Maybe it’s because I have a core group of foods that I eat, or maybe because it’s also getting a lot more common to find gluten-free foods in ‘normal’ grocery stores and restaurants.”
So...how do you eat gluten-free?
Most people who follow a gluten-free diet — either out of necessity or personal preference — say that eating gluten-free is not as difficult as it sounds.
“The gluten-free segment of the food industry is exploding, so it’s much easier to find gluten-free products now than it was even a few years ago,” says Jory.
Jory says that the easiest and healthiest way to live gluten-free is to focus on fresh, organic, whole foods. “There are no labels to decipher on an apple; no wondering what the ingredients are in spinach,” she says. “This way you don’t have to worry about being unintentionally exposed to gluten.” Check glutenfreeforgood.com for Jory’s unique recipes like Sweet Potato & Kale Soup and Ruby Red Beet Cupcakes.
Food shopping can be frustrating and tiresome for those new to the diet. “I cried the first month at the grocery store because I was so tired and so hungry, and I couldn’t figure out what I could safely eat,” says Patty Carmichael, a teacher in Longmont, Colo., who has been gluten-free for two years because of celiac disease but also avoids corn, dairy, raw fruits and veggies, and nuts because of Crohn’s disease. “At first, I wasn’t thinking well enough to figure it all out. But now I’m used to it, and there are so many more options out there.”
Tricia Thompson, M.S., R.D., is the author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Gluten-Free Eating. Her Web site, glutenfreedietitian.com, is loaded with information on the subject, like gluten-free diet basics and a long list of resources. Thompson says that reading labels is actually pretty simple: “With a few exceptions, if you don't see the words wheat, barley, rye, malt, or oats (unless labeled gluten free), the food most likely does not include any gluten-containing ingredients.” (According to the National Institutes of Health, most people can safely eat small amounts of oats, “as long as they are not contaminated with wheat gluten during processing. People with celiac disease should work closely with their healthcare team when deciding whether to include oats in their diet.”)
But don’t just read labels on breads, pasta, cereal, crackers and cookies. “These ingredients are also commonly found in many other processed foods, including soups, gravies, sauces, seasoned rice mixes, seasoned nuts, and many others,” Thompson warns. “You must therefore read the ingredients list of all processed foods.”
If the thought of all that label-reading gives you a headache that rivals your worst gluten-induced pain, browse a website that has already done the legwork for you. The Gluten Intolerance Group site has links to other sites where you can find gluten-free products and manufacturers, plus restaurants with gluten-free food, and gluten-free recipes you can whip up at home.
At Zeer.com, you can search for gluten-free products or sign up for Zeer Select, which gives you detailed information on more than 30,000 products for a small monthly fee. The site also directs you to alternatives for the foods you miss the most. For instance, type “Oreos” and you see two comparable products — although if you join Zeer Select, the list of alternatives is more than 70.
Gluten also hides in many non-food products, including some lip balms, lotions, makeup, soaps, shampoo, even Play-Doh. The blog at Gluten-Free Cosmetic Counter is a good starting point for finding safe cosmetics. For gluten-free molding dough, you can make your own or buy some from Aroma Dough.
Once you’re armed with only gluten-free ingredients, you’re ready to start playing with new recipes at home. Or take a class; Sampish went to a gluten-free cooking seminar in Rhode Island and gained the confidence that she could make just about anything. “It helped me realize that I could play in the kitchen and find the best fried chicken, snickerdoodle or stir fry recipe.”
Living with family members who are able to eat gluten does pose a few problems, but Carmichael says she’s gotten used to that, too. “My diet is so restricted, I don’t think it’s fair to the kids,” she says. “So most of the time I make different things for myself, but it usually takes just a little tweaking, like I make them spaghetti, but I make mine with gluten-free noodles.”
Venturing into restaurants is usually the biggest challenge for those following gluten-free diets. Says Sampish, “More and more restaurants are offering gluten-free choices, but it’s still scary…especially the sauces.”
The Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program lets you search for restaurants using your zip code, though only a handful of restaurants, mostly national chains, are listed.
You can also email the corporate headquarters of your favorite restaurant and ask about their gluten-free menu items. In response to customer concerns, Chipotle, for instance, includes gluten in the allergen information on the "Special Diet" page of their Web site. Chipotle says that only the flour tortillas contain gluten; someone who is sensitive to distilled vinegar should also avoid the hottest salsa. They also allow you to bring your own gluten-free tortillas; just be aware of cross-contamination by the person preparing your food.
When family and friends embrace your gluten-free lifestyle, it’s less stressful to eat in their homes. “I am amazed to think of the amount of menus changed, desserts custom-ordered and Google searches that have occurred as a result of my friends and family accommodating me,” says Sampish. “And many of my friends have been willing to try my food with me; some unfortunately got to eat the dirt-tasting muffins, while others rejoiced with me over the delicious pizza crust I found.”
If it still makes you nervous, consider bringing your own food. “I prefer to just bring my own food to potlucks,” says Sherri Willocks, an R.N. in Loveland, Colo., who has been gluten-free for three years, after suffering for 14. “But I also have cousins who are celiacs, so it’s always safe to eat with them. Two years ago, they started hosting a totally gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner, and I love it!”
Staying connected with others going through the same thing makes it easier. “Just ask around; you’ll be amazed how many people are gluten-free, or know someone who is,” advises Sampish. “My best resources and brands of food [like that pizza crust] have come by word of mouth.”
Use Google to find support groups; GlutenFreeIndy, for one, provides support in the Indianapolis area. Or search “gluten free” on Facebook; more than 500 groups pop up.
Most of all, do whatever it takes to stick with it. “When I was first diagnosed,” says Sampish, “I was a little bitter that I couldn’t enjoy that great cookie, donut or breadstick. But if gluten ever slipped in, and I had to go through the painful repercussions, I never craved them again. And now, I have no bitterness and no desire to eat those foods ever again.
“I do still miss cinnamon rolls and Cheez-Its the most,” she adds, “though I have found some really good gluten-free substitutes, even for these. Just keep at it.”