By: Shannon Connor Winward
CHEW ON THIS: TIPS FOR MAKING THE CHANGE TO GLUTEN-FREE
(PCM) Gluten is a lovely thing. In breads and products made from wheat, barley and rye, gluten is the protein combo that creates that wonderful, irreplaceably chewy texture. Unfortunately, for some people gluten can cause gastrointestinal distress and related health issues; this reaction can range from a mild discomfort that resolves within hours after eating to a chronic and severe – even life-threatening – disability. About 1% of Americans are thought to suffer from Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s reaction to gluten causes damage to the small intestine and can lead to dangerous malnutrition.
Many more people are considered to be gluten intolerant – a condition that cannot be definitively diagnosed (you “have” it if not eating gluten makes you feel better) and thus has had variable support by medical science and is the subject for great sport on the internet (this article is gluten-free!). Despite the anti-anti-gluten snark and sentiment in the media, the number of people rethinking gluten is ever on the rise.
If you’re just getting started on a gluten-free diet, it can feel like your life is over, or that you’ll never enjoy food again (which for many of us amounts to the same thing). The good news is it really doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s what you should know:
The first rule of a gluten-free diet is to talk about the gluten-free diet. Ask your doctor (of course); she will probably caution you to get plenty of fiber and eat a variety of fruits and vegetables and/or take a multivitamin. Ask friends and family; Celiacs is a genetic disease, so if you’ve been diagnosed with it you may well be related to someone who has it, too. Social media can also be a great source of information: look for chat groups and websites dedicated to Celiacs, food allergies, and/or gluten-free lifestyles. Stalk the gluten-free aisle in your supermarket – or, better yet, check out your local health food grocer. While many modern stores are on the gluten-free band-wagon (sales in this market are expected to exceed $5 billion dollars this year), specialty stores usually offer a greater selection and can provide more specialized knowledge than your average stock boy.
Some stores and manufacturers make their products easy to spot with gluten-free icons on the packaging, which can be enormously helpful when you are first learning how to shop. However, figuring out labels for yourself is the ultimate key to surviving gluten-free. Products that were once gluten-free may change without warning. Also, not everything that is naturally gluten-free is labeled (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, vegetables, fruit, legumes, many (though not all) canned goods, nuts, rice, and other types of grain), whereas some foods that do contain gluten might surprise you (many salad dressings, malt vinegar, soy sauce, some sushi, soup, processed meat, candy, spice blends, beer and even certain wines). Wheat and gluten are can be listed by many names – learn what they are so you know what to avoid. Gluten is as sneaky as it is ubiquitous.
Fortunately, there are many safe alternatives in the marketplace today. If pizza, power bars, or cookies are your comfort foods, keep gluten-free versions stocked at home. Pasta and sandwich breads are particularly useful to have on hand for quick meals, and bringing your own hot dog roll or burger bun is an easy fix for enjoying the neighborhood cookout or office party.
As you become more comfortable with gluten-free eating, it could be a good idea to work more homemade, whole foods into your meal plan, as these are not only cheaper but also healthier. The better a specialty gluten-free product tastes, the more likely it’s harboring added fat, sugar, salt, and additives. Insidious, right?! But not to worry – the internet and cookbooks abound with gluten-free recipes. It just takes a little exploration to find some to suit your needs. While you’re at it, be sure to add a few salads, sweets, or covered-dish-crowd-pleasers to your repertoire so you’ll always have something safe to contribute at dinner parties or potlucks.
A little strategy and pre-planning are also helpful for dining out gluten-free. It can be overwhelming (not to mention depressing) to be handed a menu with nothing on it that you can order besides water and a baked potato. All things considered, though, there has never been a better time to go out gluten-free. Many restaurants have answered the trend with gluten-free/allergy-friendly menus – all you have to do is ask. Chain restaurants in particular often have nutritional information posted online, and thanks to reviews on food-allergy websites and smart phone apps, you can usually get the scoop on locally-owned places too. When in doubt (and to save time and sidelong glances) you can always call ahead, but, really, don’t be shy about asking questions of your server. Tell them what you need to know, and why. Once you learn which restaurants are most willing and able to accommodate you, reward them with your repeat business!
Eating gluten-free takes commitment, certainly, but unless you’re also allergic to pre-planning and a little education, it’s nothing you can’t handle.