Gluten is the stretchy protein substance that holds grain-based products like cake batters and bread doughs together. But for some people, a diet containing gluten is the cause of many ills. The most common foods with gluten are wheat, rye, barley and their derivatives, and the most serious illness related to the consumption of gluten is celiac disease. Effecting 1 in 1333 Americans, celiac disease is a genetic inability to digest gluten. If not controlled through diet, it may cause infertility, depression, intestinal damage, colon cancer or possibly a deadly condition in which the digestive system simply ceases its normal peristaltic movement.
Other conditions that foods containing gluten may exacerbate are irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia and asthma as well as many other illnesses that medical research is only beginning to link to food sensitivities.
But products containing gluten are a staple of American life. What’s breakfast without toast, cereal or muffins, a coffee break without a bagel or donut, lunch without a sandwich, a party without crackers and dips, or watching the game with friends without pizza and beer?
Avoiding gluten gets even more insidious if you either have celiac disease or an extremely reactive digestive system. Even a tiny amount can trigger serious consequences, and you’d be surprised at the foods that contain wheat, barley, rye or their derivatives. (Note: researchers are not yet in agreement that oats are gluten-free) Gluten may be found in fillers used in certain vitamins, as malt syrup or barley malt, which are commonly used sweeteners, or hiding in a myriad of processed foods like salad dressings, soups and cereals. I was surprised, after two weeks of trying to give up gluten in an attempt to ease my fibromyalgia symptoms, to find that the herbal tea I drank every night contained barley malt! So labels must be read diligently. You can find a full list of “safe” and “unsafe” foods at www.celiac.com.
After some initial research, it gets easy enough to avoid gluten in your own home (see “A Typical Gluten-Free Day” menu below). But what happens when you go out? Rather than trying to “fit in” and suffering for it later, here are a few ways the gluten sensitive can handle social situations and still avoid the foods that give them problems.
First, Know The Sources of Gluten
Again, gluten is most commonly found in wheat, rye, barley and their derivatives. It’s also found in other grains such as couscous, kamut, triticale and spelt (don’t make the mistake I did and think it’s fine to eat spelt bread; it’s just another form of wheat). Oats are still “on the shelf” as far as the research goes. So if you’re extremely sensitive or simply worried about whether oats contain gluten or not, it’s better to avoid them.
But don’t fret that there will be nothing you can eat. Plenty of grains are gluten-free, including buckwheat, rice, quinoa, corn and millet. You can find buckwheat, millet and quinoa either in your local health food store or the natural foods section of your supermarket. There, too, you can buy gluten-free breakfast cereals, snacks and, if you like to bake, a variety of mixes – for breads, cookies, pancakes and even an all-purpose mix (equivalent to something like Bisquick) for biscuits, desserts, and other goodies. And, with the current trend toward catering to the food-sensitive, you can probably find a few gluten-free cookbooks, either in a specialty store or on-line. A good one is Cooking Gluten-Free! A Food Lover’s Collection of Chef and Family Recipes Without Gluten or Wheat (Celiac Publishing, 2002).
This means stocking your kitchen with “safe” foods so you will have options and not be tempted to dive into the kids’ stash of cereal or other treats. It also means planning your meals and snacks, especially if you will be traveling.
Bring Your Own
Social events at restaurants and other people’s homes can be especially problematic if you’re gluten-sensitive. At restaurants, don’t be shy about asking how foods are prepared and what’s in the salad dressing (I did this once at a restaurant when I’d ordered a salad. The waitress came out with the bottle so I could read them for myself. I found several offending ingredients and asked for oil and vinegar instead…fine as long as the vinegar is not malt vinegar.) At a party, if you are unable to bring your own nibblies, survey the selection first. Avoid the crackers and those omnipresent mini-quiches and opt for raw vegetables (mind the dips, unless you know how they’re made), cheese (check ingredients), wine and fresh fruit instead.
Take Control – It’s YOUR Health!
While I don’t have celiac disease, I am gluten-sensitive, and I found that even after just a few days of avoiding these products, I was already starting to feel more energetic and less achy. Yes, it can be hard work to keep up such a stringent diet. But the rewards – feeling good, a healthier body – are tremendous.
A Typical Gluten-Free Day
Gluten-free cereal with milk and fresh or dried fruit OR
Scrambled eggs with gluten-free toast, fresh fruit
Green salad with grilled chicken or sliced hard-boiled eggs and oil and balsamic vinegar dressing
Baked potato with butter (check ingredients of butter)
Grilled salmon with rice
Steamed or sautéed vegetables
Nuts, fresh or dried fruit, plain yogurt, brownies baked from gluten-free mix