Sunday, March 18, 2007

Gluten-Free

I'm gluten-free. I have been gluten-free for about 12 years. (It sounds like a confession!) I've collected information over the years and have learned a few things. The most important thing I have learned is to appreciate what I can eat instead of focusing on what I can't have.

Over my college years I put on quite a bit of weight. During my senior year of college, I started having digestive problems, mainly chronic diarrhea and terrible cramping. That first year after symptoms started I lost 60 lbs. During this time I was eating mostly carbs and protein and fat. Anything to keep the weight on. At first it was fun to lose weight without trying but after awhile it was unnerving.

One evening at a church function, I visited with a man who was an old friend of the family. He asked how I was doing and mentioned how he had learned of some of my stomach troubles from my mother. He suggested that I stop eating wheat. He had stopped eating wheat and his recurring headaches had disappeared. I thought I had nothing to lose. I tried everything else, so why not? I'm so glad I tried a gluten-free diet! I have felt so much better ever since!

I visited several doctors but none of them took me seriously. I had done research on my own and finally asked one doctor to test me for celiac disease. The doctor told me that some stomach cramping wasn't enough to warrant a test. He said, "Usually there are other signs such as weight loss and anemia." I quickly pointed out that I had lost over 60 lbs in the last year. I finally got his attention! He ordered a blood test that came back negative but I was anemic. He recommended that I have a small bowel biopsy in order to physically examine the lining of my small intestine. This test is as nasty as you would think! A nurse sprayed the back of my throat with a numbing agent then I swallowed the end of a tube. This tube was guided through my stomach and into my small intestine to scrap a sample to examine. I would never do that test again. I was so anxious for an official diagnosis I risked a punctured esophagus, stomach or small intestine not to mentioned a very unpleasant test. Whether celiac or not, I knew the result would be the same: eat a gluten-free diet. In the end this test was also negative. In order to rule out more serious concerns such as ulcers or even cancer I had other tests done: two colonoscopys and barium swallow test. Everything seemed normal. All I knew was that I was symptom-free on a gluten-free diet.

Some Helpful Links:

Celiac Disease Gluten-free Diet Information
Celiac Sprue Association
List of Foods to Avoid
List of Safe Foods


The key to living with a gluten-free diet is to enjoy what you can have. If you spend your time searching for gluten-free substitutes for your favorite wheat-based foods, you will be disappointed. There are some great tasting gluten-free products out there, but believe me, nothing you find will taste as wonderful as a fresh loaf of bread made from wheat. Don't forget that fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free so add plenty of these to your diet. Take this opportunity to expand your diet, rather than see it as a limitation. Think of it as a reason to explore a small ethnic grocery store. Many ethnic recipes don't use gluten in the first place. Try these dishes.

Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup (Pho)
(The rice noodles used in this soup are also a great replacement for spaghetti. I think they taste good when topped with a tomato sauce or tossed with stir-fry vegetables. Find rice noodles, sometimes called "rice sticks", in the Asian food section of the grocery store.)

Pappadam can be found in Indian grocery stores.

Tandoori Chicken

Dal with Potato and Cauliflower

Cantonese Tomato Beef
(Make sure to find a gluten-free soy sauce.)

Many Mexican dishes are made with corn tortillas and corn flour. Make sure to read labels as some enchilada sauces are thickened with wheat flour. Corn tortillas are a great substitute for flour tortillas in most recipes. For a quick roll-up sandwich, heat a corn tortilla in a pan or the microwave to soften it, spread with mayo and fill with deli meat, top with lettuce and roll.

Meatloaf and meatballs don't have to be made with breadcrumbs. Oat gluten does not bother me so I often use quick-cooking oats in place of breadcrumbs. My husband prefers when I use no binder at all. The meat holds together fine. Oat flour (or oats finely ground in a food processor) also makes a tasty, if crumbly, shortbread. Simply substitute equal amounts of oat flour for wheat flour.

Occasionally I really, really miss having a good cookie or delicious piece of cake, although an apple-cinnamon rice cake topped with vanilla frosting will do in a pinch. I miss bread the most. Gluten-free products tend to be much more expensive that regular foods so I don't buy them often. (A typical gluten-free loaf of bread is about $5!) It is nice to have a treat once in awhile though. Here are some gluten-free products that I like:

Pamela's Cookies come in many different flavors and are very good. Pamela's also makes a great Brownie Mix.

Ener-G White Rice Loaf is good for sandwiches as long as it is toasted first.

Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free Pancake Mix is also very tasty. Bob's Red Mill also makes a multi-grain gluten-free hot cereal. But good old-fashioned grits are gluten-free too!

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