Our family has gone on an adventure over the past week. We left the comfort of our lifestyle to the new and frightening (at least unsettling) world of Gluten Free. Why? Why did we leave the routine? Why did we jump ship from the familiar tastes and textures of wheat? Our adventure began in search of relief from months of illness. One of our clan has suffered greatly with what is thought to be migraines, predominantly in the form of abdominal migraines (stomach pain and vomiting), with ever-increasing headaches. We have futzed with medications and avoided the obvious migraine triggers, but desperate times, meaning continued–or even increasing–symptoms, call for desperate measures. This week seemed just right for that sort of desperate measure worth trying– the complete elimination of all migraine triggers, including wheat and gluten. Yes, we were/are that desperate.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal to eliminate gluten or wheat, if you haven’t done it. But, just a short peak at labels gives an indication of what it takes. Wheat is EVERYWHERE in the American diet. At least that’s what it seems when you live in the bread- and pasta-filled house that we have had. Bagels, toast, sandwiches, cereal and pasta – lots of pasta. Did I mention cupcakes? If you have a cupcake baking hobby, gluten free are not words you will want to hear. I found a fabulous, seemingly comprehensive list of 128 ingredients to avoid[p1] . This list is dizzying in its length. Even for a food buff like me, this list poses a daunting challenge to find any acceptable foods in the grocery store. But wait, there’s more! The obvious ingredients don’t go far enough. Another 55 ingredients must be considered, as they may or may not be a general term that represents a wheat or gluten containing item. Great. Now we have to uncover the hidden products also.
My biggest discovery here is that many, many foods in the American diet are processed for our convenience, but as a result have ingredients added that are invisible to most consumers who read only the big text labels and product descriptions. This shouldn’t surprise me, as a student of foods, but the sheer volume of additives and inexplicable ingredients is concerning. Increasing simpler foods with less convenience–but with more straightforward ingredients— are the main target in elimination of gluten. This amounts to looking for something desirable, rather than eliminating the undesirable. It might sound like I am splitting hairs, but the mind set behind finding something good rather than saying, “No, no,” all the time makes a tremendous difference.
We share this adventure with people of many diagnoses. Celiac (gluten enteropathy, or non-tropical sprue) is experienced by about 1% of the population, but many more suffer from non-celiac gluten intolerance (NCGI).[i] NCGI is “diagnosed” when patients suffer from celiac like symptoms, but do not meet the criteria for celiac diagnosis. This might mean that one or more medical tests for celiac are negative. Additionally, for NCGI improvement is seen with removal of gluten, and symptoms reoccur with reintroduction of gluten. Other symptoms aside from abdominal complaints also have been described in patients with NCGI, including muscular disturbances, neurological disorders, attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder, migraine, headache, sleep disturbance, lethargy, tiredness, and cerebellar ataxia, bone or joint pain, as well as psychiatric disorders such as autism or schizophrenia.i So we’re really talking about gluten affecting people with many different types of symptoms, encompassing a fairly large group of people.
We have found and re-introduced ourselves to the natural foods section of our grocery story. We have introduced ourselves to the new “natural foods” store in town, and made a field trip to Trader Joe’s. We are completely chocked full of products to try. Our adventure started as a depressing plan to eliminate many of our favorite foods. Optimism is higher now that we have choices. My favorite discovery is that many of our favorite foods need no change at all, or a very small alteration to meet the needs of our new diet habits. Some of those causing the most optimism that we will maintain some resemblance of “normal” (a big concern by some of the clan) are:
- Tuna (not a favorite to bring up by the one of us who is allergic to seafood. See my first blog);
- Hummus and carrots (also nicely altered as hummus and cucumbers or tasty gluten free crackers);
- Grilled meat, baked potatoes, mixed vegetables and salad (a yummy dinner needing only a gluten free salad dressing);
- Stuffed peppers;
- Chicken enchiladas – made with corn tortillas with no additives;
- Burritos (minimally altered with gluten free tortillas);
- Yogurt and fruit.
The biggest offenders, you might guess, are pasta and bread. These are heavy hitters in the Risica palate. We’ve started down the path of finding an acceptable GF pasta, and I am hopeful that there will be something acceptable given the positive feedback from friends. The bread story might be a bit different. The first tries have been mediocre or worse. Our dissatisfaction, though, might stem from our expectation that the new product will be a good substitute for the wheat version. A better goal would be to find a GF bread or pasta that tastes good, leaving aside the preconceived ideas of the wheat version. Rather than looking for a bread or pasta with the same taste and feel, look for something that tastes good in its own right. An even better strategy might be to reduce the bread and pasta all together, focusing instead on the very tasty foods without gluten that are already part of our repertoire.
If you decide to head out onto this adventure with us, I suggest you start with this list or make one of your own as your first steps down the path. Many tasty and healthy foods already contain no gluten, so listing favorites is the first step. Next, realizing how many extra ingredients are added to common foods, and looking for those prepared or packaged without additives, or even preparing foods fresh will expand the menu greatly. Last, working through the very many gluten-free processed products to find those that are both safe and tasty will finish off the list. Good luck! Let me know of your voyage, and I’ll do the same.
[i] Bizzaro N., Tozzoli R., Villalta D,, Fabris M., Tonutti E. Clinic Rev Allerg Immunol 2010 Dec 23.