It Ain't So Bad Being Gluten-Free

I've been following a few gluten-free folks on Twitter and recently came across an interesting article in The Examiner about the diet's potential of being referred to as a fad diet (read more here). The author makes a few points at discussing the diagnosis of Celiac disease and how it can be commonly misunderstood. She also discusses what it takes for a true diagnosis of the disease, an intenstinal biopsy, but makes a good point that some people who go undiagnosed- those who just forego gluten in their diets under simply suspicion- can fail the diagnostic tests if they've been gluten free for awhile. The recent exposure and heightened awareness to the disease raises questions as to whether the gluten free diet is just a new fad diet, like Atkins and South Beach. And to me, that's just ridiculous.

I was never diagnosed with Celiac disease. For years, I've had issues with my guts. The gurgling, bloating pains I'd feel after eating, especially before going to bed, were both uncomfortable physically as well as socially (it was quite embarrassing for me when other people could hear my intenstines groan and gurgle from across the room). I had no idea what was wrong with me. In 2006, I had an upper GI to see if something was wrong with my stomach or large intenstine. I swallowed the chalk-like, milky goo and watched it flow through my guts on an x-ray screen. It was cool to see, but it didn't yield any results (and with Celiac disease, that sort of test wouldn't). I thought I had a lactose intolerance, because ever since I started college, my body wouldn't digest dairy. So I gave up dairy (sans ice cream?! Boo!). Still, nothing really changed. So I gave up meat, thinking maybe there was something going on during the digestion of such a high-protein food that caused me problems. My guts continued to rumble. Finally, I talked with my boyfriend's mom, who is a trained nurse and currently serves as a patient advocate. She, as well as her daughter and mother, have Celiac disease. She suggested that I give up gluten, and see if anything changed.

And things changed. I no longer felt my intenstines fill with gas. I could go to sleep without hearing my guts gurgle incessantly. I could even drink a glass of milk without having to rush to the bathroom five minutes later. Granted, it took me a while to get the diet figured out. It was difficult to shop, mostly just expensive, because it seems as though everything gluten free is a little more costly. And it was also difficult to give up my comfort foods: the whole-wheat bread covered in peanut butter and jelly, the flour tortillas that make the crispiest quesadillas, and of course- the pizza. The gluten-free variety of bread that I had found just didn't cut it, and I couldn't find the time to experiment with baking on my own.

Whether I have Celiac disease or not, I guess I will never know. I am not going to go back to gluten for fear of ruining the progress that I've made in the last year. And if I were to attempt to get diagnosed, chances are good that the test would come back negative, because I haven't had triggers in my diet for over a year (aside from the occassional contamination of lingering wheat). But this isn't a fad diet. Whatever removing gluten did to my body, I'm happy with the progress that I've made. I didn't go on this special diet to lose weight. I don't really like making it a big deal when I go out to eat with a group of people. In fact, I find it embarrassing when I have to ask the waitress repeatedly about certain ingredients that are in the dishes they serve (Tiffany mentions this in her article in the Examiner). And I don't like it when my friends have to make a big deal about what I can and cannot eat.

Luckily, even in just the last year, awareness has been heightened. Call it what you will: fad diet, special diet, inconvenient. The gluten-free diet works for people with gluten intolerances, allergies, sensitivities... and there is little evidence to prove that it is harmful to people even if they don't have any issues with gluten. I find that, with a gluten-free diet, I have to cook more for myself. I can't just turn to a box of animal crackers or box of cereal for a snack or even a meal. That being said, a lot of industrial food companies are traveling down the gluten-free road. General Mills makes several gluten-free Chex cereals now, and they actually taste like the "real thing." Even Betty Crocker has a line of gluten-free cake mixes now, although they haven't hit the shelves in the U.P. yet (at least, not in these parts).

But for the most part, I have to make what I want to eat, which means knowing what I'm putting into my body, and carefully monitoring the ingredients and portions. Being the poor graduate student that I am, I can't afford to sit down and eat a box of gluten-free cookies in one sitting (but my pre-gluten free days illustrated otherwise). So I savor things more, and I turn to less-expensive and naturally gluten free foods like real foods (read: vegetables! fruit! who'd have thought?!). I'm no longer a vegetarian (that would be really difficult, and kudos to those who are). I eat a lot of potatoes and rice. I love my weekly CSA delivery of spinach and mixed greens, peas and berries. By eating the real food, the whole food, I don't have to worry about reading the labels or wondering if the modified food starch was made in the US or overseas. I also find my favorite gluten-free bakeries when I visit larger cities. The SillyYak Bakery in Madison, Wisconsin, has the best bread I've ever bought. They make different varieties every day, and I've tried their spinach feta kind as well as garlic cheese. Both are so great!

If I have it available, I'll grab a banana and some almonds for a mid-morning snack. But, at work, it's not always that easy. I often forget to pack a lunch, let alone snacks, so I stockpile my desk drawers with products like Larabar and Kind Bars. I've listed below some of my favorite commercially available gluten-free foods. Some are ready-to-eat, some you need to spend time to prepare, but it's totally worth it!
  • Larabars- Peanut Butter and Jelly is my favorite, but I also love: Cherry Pie, the Jocalat varieties, and Key Lime Pie
  • Namaste mixes - by far, the best chocolate cake I've ever had, gluten free or not, came from a Namaste brown bag
  • Bob's Red Mill mixes - the cornbread is awesome, the Mighty Tasty hot cereal is also great with a spoonful of honey and peanut butter!!!
  • Honey Stinger Protein Bars- Peanut Butta Pro (although not designated gluten free, these bars are made with gfree ingredients)
  • Trader Joe's Cranberry Maple Nut gluten-free granola- tastes and looks just like the Bakery on Main's gluten free granola, but costs half the price!
  • Pamela's Products cookies- Lemon Shortbread cookies as so delicious, but I also love the chocolate chip kind
  • MiDel gluten free ginger snaps

The three newest Larabar flavors!

On behalf of my tastebuds, I'd like to make a quick shout out to the "other" new Larabar flavors that I didn't mention in a previous blog: German Chocolate Cake and Tropical Fruit Tart. The chocolate bar is like dessert in the form of a healthy snack bar, and the tropical fruit tart is perfect for summer.


Jade said...

Wow it's so enlightning to find someone with a similar "gut wrenching" story. I have been going through gross gut tests for 2 years and they finally found that I have a wheat/gluten sensivity and dairy allergy. Sucks being allergic to everything that tastes good but like you I won't go back to the constant pain. Glad to meet you!

Megan said...

It's nice to meet you, too! Yes, it totally stinks being allergic, sensitive, and/or intolerant to the favorite foods we've loved for so long. But, luckily, there is a great group of people out there just like me and you that can help each other learn new tricks in cooking, grocery shopping, and lifestyle modifications. We can enjoy good stuff, just gotta put a little more work into it, that's all :)

melly mel said...

Great blog!! I also avoid gluten (though lately I've been sloppy due to travel and have paid the price). Your discovery sounds so similiar to the way I figured it out! I'm glad that you're feeling better!

Personally I work hard to eat fresh foods that are not processed (plus rice pasta and brown rice). It's definitely costly, however. Eating out is the toughest part - not because it's impossible to find gluten-free dishes, but because it's so tempting to EAT gluteny dishes instead :)

JenZen said...

Great post!! I LOVE Larabars! I was introduced to them at a running expo. They were handing out samples and I was immediately hooked. Thanks for the reminder that I need to order some more.

Really interesting about the gluten free diet. I have been tempted to try it, but too lazy and I love bread just a little TOO much. LOL.

Megan said...

It is a huge lifestyle change but once you get used to it, it's not really so bad. Good products like Larabar and Bob's Red Mill help the cause, too. Plus, a "special diet" like this helps you reconnect with the food you're eating, and requires somewhat better time management skills.

Traveling definitely makes thing difficult. I find that I eat a lot of "junk" food, like milkshakes, Snickers, and french fries, because I need calories but I can't always find them in the fast-food setting.

Jeffro said...

Some interesting info on wheat. This doctor believes wheat has no place in the human diet.