Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Secret to Gluten-Free Living

When people find out that I can't eat wheat, their eyes fill with pity, and they make comments like, "Oh, you poor thing. That must be so hard. I'm so sorry."  Well, I'm not sorry at all. I love living gluten free. Yes, it's challenging. Yes, sometimes I wish I could just grab a bagel off the table at a luncheon. Yes, sometimes I'd love to order a meal at a restaurant without putting the waiter through an inquisition. But that's just sometimes.

Most days, I love it. But it didn't start out that way.

Five years ago, my mother told me that I should be tested for a gluten intolerance, because she tested positive, and there was a great possibility that I was also gluten intolerant. Gluten intolerance is genetic, and she carried the gene. Of course, my tests were positive, and I was instantly crushed. I went through the list of all of my favorite foods -- cereals, muffins, crusty breads, pizza, pasta, bagels, cookies, pies, brownies... I mourned that I'd never be able to enjoy them again.

Diagnosed family members pointed me in the right direction, shared their favorite recipes, and gave me lists of red flag words to look for on ingredient labels. Armed with my lists, I went to the grocery store to look at the ingredients in my favorite products. I was stunned by how many products, like soy sauce, listed wheat as a main ingredient. And then there were products that contained hidden gluten. One by one, I placed them back on the shelf as I found words like flavorings, modified food starch, malt, seasonings, HVP, and MSG, all which could contain gluten. I cried. I literally cried as I walked down the aisles, frustrated, defeated, and hungry. I was going to be hungry for the rest of my life.

Being gluten-intolerant forced me to get the junk out of my diet. For dinner, instead of adding Hamburger Helper to ground beef, I learned to cut up an onion and throw in a few diced peppers and tomatoes. My staple lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pretzels changed to brown rice, chicken, and veggies. And instead of Cheerios and milk for breakfast, protein shakes with milk, strawberries, and bananas became a morning treat. I found that most of the foods that I had to eliminate from my diet should actually have been eliminated long ago, because they were junk! And the changes that I was making were changes for the better.

Don't get me wrong, eating gluten-free doesn't mean that you are going to eat healthily. Within my first month I found out that M&Ms were gluten-free. Eating M&Ms by the fistful isn't exactly healthy. And there are a lot of gluten-free products out there that are made with even more sugar and fat than the wheat version. I was astonished to find gluten free cookies with twice the number of calories as a wheat cookie. And then there's the "oh my gosh, I actually found a muffin that tastes like the real thing" euphoria that quickly turns to frenetically devouring the entire container of muffins because you've been deprived for so long.

Today, gluten-free options are becoming more and more prevalent, and the quality of the products are improving both in taste and quality. It's been a long time in coming. So, you don't have to devour the entire plate of gluten-free brownies, because Whole Foods has their own Gluten-Free Bakehouse brand just a quick drive across town.  You can stock up on mixes from The Cravings Place and quickly whip up a batch of cookies, muffins, or cupcakes to sooth a sweet tooth.  One of my favorite sweet treats is Laura's Wholesome Junk Food (Better Brownie Bite-lettes).  We are no longer living without.

I've found the secret to living gluten free.  Enjoy naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, potatoes, lean meats, rice, and nuts.  And I mean enjoy them.  Savor the flavor of a summer peach.  Feel comfort in the fall from a butternut squash and apple soup.  Grill a burger and top it with avocado and goat cheese.  (With such rich flavors you won't even miss the bun.)  Then experiment with some new grains like quinoa, buckwheat, montina, and teff.  You might find that you like the nutty, earthy flavors better than that of wheat.  Try some of your old favorite recipes using a gluten-free all-purpose flour.  And find a few gluten-free treats so that you don't feel deprived.  It's actually rather simple.  Get the junk out, bring the wholesome food in, and allow yourself occasional treats.  Even those who are not gluten intolerant will be much better off following that tip.

So, don't feel sorry for me.  I'm not deprived.  Living gluten-free hasn't just helped me eat healthier, it has expanded my world of food.  There's my secret.  Feel free to spread it.

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