Starting the Gluten-Free Life

Gluten-free sign at Slice of Vegas in Mandalay Bay

As I mentioned last week, it’s critical to stop, think, and plan before embarking on a gluten-free lifestyle. Here’s a story to explain why. Years ago, long before my doctor and I had “the talk”, I was vacationing and had a spa appointment. Before beginning my treatment, my aesthetician asked if I had any allergies to products.

Oh yes, I said, I am allergic to grasses and pollens and just about everything except chocolate (a sad irony, since I am not a fan of chocolate). She assured me that the products being used were safe for me. The conversation went this way and that way, and somehow turned to gluten. Having a friend who’d just gone gluten free due to an Addison’s disease diagnosis, I wondered if gluten might be the source of some of my digestive problems.

That night, I told my husband I was going “gluten free”. He just shrugged, and off I went, cutting out bread and pasta like I was an expert. My problems didn’t disappear, for many reasons, and I decided gluten wasn’t my problem.

Here’s where I went wrong:

  1. I was clueless. Bread and pasta aren’t the only sources of gluten in the foods we consume. I assumed I knew what I was doing, didn’t do a lick of research, and never felt better. Of course, gluten wasn’t my problem. I went back to a life filled with, ahem, many, many, many races to the restroom and uncomfortable feelings every time I ate. Also, other symptoms, which will be discussed over time.
  2. I cheated like crazy. My number one mantra these days is that you can’t be a little bit gluten free. When I say I quit pasta, I mean I quit meals that were filled with pasta. I still ate the pasta in the rice pilaf at a local Armenian restaurant. And I still felt like crap. All. The. Freaking. Time.
  3. I ignored my symptoms. This is key. I had a lot of classic celiac symptoms, from digestive problems to extreme exhaustion. Everything except unexplained weight loss. When I ate a half a sandwich, I felt like I’d consumed a bowling ball. When I ate rice, veggies, and chicken, I felt pretty good. Still, I didn’t get the connection.

A few days after my endoscopy, I went gluten free again. The timing was purposeful, and I’d spent the weeks leading up to this event planning my strategy. In my gut (ha!), I knew gluten was the problem, and I was determined to do it right this time. It turned out I was right in my thinking. This strategy involved doing research and planning:

  1. Discovering Hidden Sources of Gluten. Gluten, the type that causes so many problems for us, is found in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s easy to eliminate bread and pasta, but gluten is also found in a wide range of other foods. Soy sauce and its various components like teriyaki sauce. Enchilada sauce (seriously, why?). Beer. Some corn tortillas. Hairspray (don’t laugh, you touch your hair, you touch your mouth). And more.
  2. Understanding My Body. This sounds silly, but the first time I tried this, I failed miserably and continued to make myself sick with foods that hated me. I spent some time with my body, paying attention to how I felt when I ate certain foods, how I felt when I didn’t eat certain foods. At the end of the process, I had a clear understanding of what it meant to feel sick, which really made the moment I felt healthy all the more sweet — the absence of a host of symptoms was clear and obvious (and incredibly welcome!).
  3. Cleaning My Kitchen. Next week’s article covers this in more depth, but for now let’s say that it’s essential to start with a gluten-free kitchen. Gluten is a sticky protein — which is great when you need it to do what gluten does best, but not so great when you’re trying to eliminate from your diet.
  4. Accepting My New Life. I had to come to terms with the fact that a gluten-free life is permanent. This new life would not only affect how I ate at home, but how I ate at restaurants. How I ate at parties. How I ate when friends invited us over for dinner. It required me spending time thinking about how I would talk to people about my life, something that I’d been shy about. Now, in order to remain safe, I had to be clear and firm about my diet. Hard at first, easy now.
  5. Grocery Shopping. Even though my husband is *not* gluten free, he’s also not much of a cook. It was easy for us to make the decision to run a wholly gluten-free household (though he still buys beer!), and I spent time stocking up on gluten-free staples. This does not mean gluten-free baked goods — I went with whole grains, vegetables, and other foods that it turned out I preferred to those baked goods.

You’ll notice I hit the grocery store last. I think it’s really easy to panic and start buying every gluten-free product you can find, but taking your time and considering what this life change means helps you decide how you’re going to eat. What I’ve learned, through a lot of trial and error, I’ll admit, is that the diet that works best for me is filled with good proteins (less meat than I used to eat, lots of legumes and pulses), lots of vegetables, and minimal grains.

Your body will be different. Or maybe your body will be great on a diet like mine. Doesn’t really matter as long as what you eat makes you strong and healthy. The trick, I firmly believe, is to spend time figuring out what works for you…before you spend a fortune (see this piece about the myth of the gluten-free diet being expensive).

Tip of the Week

Proponents of healthy lifestyles encourage shopping the perimeters of the grocery store. I agree, with one caveat: avoid the bread aisle! Shopping dairy, meats, and vegetables first is the key to well-balanced and gluten-free diet.

Gluten-Free Meal of the Week

Last week, I started with a focus on naturally gluten-free meals, and I’m continuing the trend this week (I promise I’ll wander into other areas at some point in time, but it’s important to me that you know how much of our daily diet is naturally gluten free). It is not secret that I am a rice addict, though I try very hard to keep my rice intake to a minimum.

We all face challenges!

So, one of my favorite, not-simple recipes is a biryani. This Indian rice dish is complex and impressive. It’s a dish I do for parties because a) it makes a lot of food, b) it’s full of flavor, and c) it’s customizable to address most dietary concerns (vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free, and so on). Plus it’s pretty!

Then I’m going to go off the map with a naturally gluten free bread. Socca, which is known by other names, is a garbanzo flour-based flatbread that is common in parts of France and Italy. Garbanzo flour (and whole beans) are common in Indian cooking as well, so this bread makes a perfect accompaniment to the biryani.

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