Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Gluten Free for the Beginner

a gluten-free snack, or lunch!
This week my former next-door neighbor emailed to ask me how it's going with my gluten free diet.  She had seen a very interesting program on Public Television that explained many of the ramifications of gluten sensitivity.  She went on to say that she was considering "joining the ranks" of those who are avoiding gluten in our diet.

She began searching the web for recipes and came across one for pumpkin bread that called for psyllium husk and thought that was strange.  She wanted to know if the psyllium husk was added because gluten-free flour has less fiber. She also asked if I have found a flour I especially like -- and just what are the choices out there?

Gluten intolerance began to make itself known in about 1966 and then over the next 30 years it escalated into something more common.  While I am not an expert on the subject, I can explain very simply that gluten, an ingredient found in wheat, barley and rye, is not the same as it was many years ago.  In an attempt to improve the wheat crops, genetic changes have been made to the seed that do not agree with the digestive systems of a growing part of our human population. Apparently some people do fine with these changes, but some of us have an allergy or negative reaction to them. 

The good news is that once a person begins to eliminate gluten from their diet, they can begin to feel better quickly.  After I was diagnosed by my doctor that gluten was my problem and I removed it from my meals, it was only 48 hours until I felt remarkably better.  The perpetual tummy ache and sudden urges to spend lengthy and frequent time in the 'sitting room' went away.  I am grateful it was that easy for me. For some it's a much more serious problem. 

I need to eat this way for the rest of my life. I am diligent to avoid the allergens in my food, but when something gets past me (which will happen on occasion), I know it based on how I feel. I make a note of what might have caused it and don't eat that again.

But to answer my neighbor's questions, here was my reply:

While I didn't see that program on PBS, I'm sure it must have been extremely interesting. As a result of eating gluten-free for the past 4 months, I do feel like my thinking is clearer, and depression is a thing of the past. I have lost (to date) 12 pounds, gone down a size in jeans, and have no more stomach aches or disturbing intestinal problems.

I have chosen to stay away from alternate grains (rice, corn, etc) most of the time because frequently they have not been satisfactory to me.  I have made up an all-purpose baking mix but such products can more easily (and less expensively) be bought at the store.  Some taste better than others. They can be pricey, but if you make your own, you still have to buy A LOT of odd ingredients (such as white rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, xanthum gum) and you have some of those left over after preparing the mix. (Perhaps I would feel differently about making those things if I were feeding a large family.)

I am learning by trial and error which ready-made gluten-free baking mixes I like and which I don't. Some of them have a heavy taste of corn, reminding me of corn tortillas.

The common grocery chains are selling more and more of the gluten-free breads, cookies, pizza crust and the like. (look in the bakery section as well in the freezer case)  I've had the bread, some of which is okay if you buy it in small amounts and eat it quickly. After a few days it becomes tasteless and/or tough. Pizza crust in the gluten-free form can be very chewy. Gluten-free hamburger buns in restaurants  aren't all that great.

I have tried gluten-free pastas from the grocery store and found them to taste fine.  When combined with a sauce, I taste no significant difference. As for comparing them nutritionally with the whole grain pastas I used to eat, I think they are lacking and so for that reason I don't know if they are worth eating very much of the time. Rice is an acceptable substitute for pastas.

But eschewing bread and pasta is only part of the deal.  You need to read the fine print on all labels of everything you buy because wheat is tucked into so many things!  Gravies and ready-made mixes, soups, and sauces are all very likely to have wheat in their list of ingredients. Some brands of beans have wheat while others don't.  

Barley and rye have gluten in them.  Oats are wheat-free EXCEPT that most oats come from a facility that also processes wheat. Cross-contamination can be a problem. I do enjoy rice cereals. Reading food labels gets very tedious but even that gets easier with practice.  

A very close family member who has been a raw vegan for about 2 years (and does marathons, so she's healthy) has taught me to use vegetables to substitute for pasta. I do that a lot.  For example, I have a hand tool made by Zyliss* to cut summer squash and zucchini into narrow ribbons and call that spaghetti. With an ordinary paring knife I slice those same squashes to make "crackers" for dips.

sliced Zucchini "chips" with Hummus

Bleu cheese.  I can't eat that.  Did you know that the  mold in bleu cheese comes from moldy bread?!! I had some bleu cheese in a restaurant salad and had a stomach ache for the next 24 hours. I was baffled as to what had made me sick until I did a Google search to ask what bleu cheese does to Celiacs.

Here's a tip: when you don't know if a food is gluten-free, Google this:  "Can Celiacs eat … [name the food]?"  Although I am not a Celiac (that's the next step beyond gluten intolerance) you can get reliable answers if you just ask as if you are Celiac.  There is lots of help on the Internet about this subject.

Gluten Free Flourless Chocolate Dome
at PF Changs

Most restaurants have a gluten-free menu. PF Changs is especially good about that.  We ate there this last weekend and I love the section for people like me.  I ordered the Mandarin Beef with the Gluten Free Flourless Chocolate Dome for dessert. If you must eat gluten-free, always tell your server.  They are more than willing to accommodate you.

My default plan for eating out is to order a salad with no breaded meat, croutons, or bleu cheese. I get my meat grilled instead of breaded.  If they don't have any gluten-free dressing, I can always go with oil and vinegar.  As I shared in a recent blog post, lettuce wraps are a wonderful option to sandwich bread or hamburger buns. 

Red Robin's lettuce-wrapped BBQ Burger

My happy days of dining at places devoted solely to burgers and fries are behind me now. Restaurant French Fries should be avoided because they are often fried in the same oil as breaded meats -- breaded meaning there's wheat in the coating.

My favorite chain restaurants are (in alphabetical order)  Panera Bread, PF Changs, Red Robin, Sweet Tomatoes, Texas Roadhouse, and Woody Creek.  I am sure there are more with a gluten-free menu but it's been only 4 months since this adventure began for me so I have more places to explore.

Gluten-free eating is a big change.  I have adjusted well, and those closest to me have said so. I feel much better for having made this change. If a person makes this choice because they get sick if they don't, it's a lot easier to stick with it.

* here is a close-up of the Zyliss label on the veggie pasta maker.  You could also use a hand-crank tool called a Spiralizer.

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