People who don’t have to live without gluten in their diet are usually pretty confused about what gluten is and which foods have it. That’s understandable. Why should they know? It doesn’t affect them, unless they have a friend or family member who has to eat gluten-free.
A lot of people think that “gluten-free” is just another fad, or diet choice, like veganism or the paleo diet. I can assure you that no one would voluntarily choose gluten free and stick with it for very long. Navigating the landscape of the American food scene, when gluten is a trigger for debilitating symptoms, is challenging, and many times disheartening.
So what is gluten?
It is the sticky protein in wheat flour ( and rye and barley flours) that enables dough to rise, giving breads and other baked goods the airy texture we expect. Without it, breads would be leaden and cakes would make a good door stop. Gluten is in anything that is made from wheat flour — pasta, gravies, breads, cakes, cookies, pizza, donuts, rolls, biscuits, fried foods battered with flour, many condiments, cereals made from wheat, crackers, and the list goes on. Even beer has gluten.
When you analyze the menu in most restaurants, you will see that it is nearly impossible to choose a gluten-free meal, although some restaurants are beginning to offer alternatives and actually label them “gluten-free” on the menu.
Gluten can cause serious health issues for some people.
There are many people with a diagnosis of Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack the small intestine when gluten is ingested. It is a serious disease that leads to permanent damage to the small intestine with symptoms of severe pain and bloating and chronic diarrhea, and can lead to other serious health issues, including cancer and infertility. There is no treatment other than a lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet.
Gluten has also become an issue for a lot of people who do not have a diagnosis of celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance are both conditions where the body sees gluten as a threat and attacks it, triggering an immune response that results in inflammation. Symptoms can be mild to severe, including bloating, abdominal pain, joint pain, headaches, lethargy and diarrhea.
I was ill for years before I finally figured out that gluten was causing all my symptoms. I do not have a diagnosis of celiac, but I am severely gluten-intolerant.
My symptoms included extreme pain and bloating after eating, frequent gall-bladder attacks, joint pain and weakness, headaches and fatigue, and general inflammation — my hands would swell so I couldn’t get my rings off. I began to dread eating, because I never knew when my symptoms were going to be triggered.
When I was referred to a surgeon to have my gall-bladder removed, I chickened out of the surgery and went back to my research. I found a definitive link between gall-bladder issues and gluten. When I read that going gluten-free could eliminate the need for gall-bladder surgery, I was all in.
No one tells you how difficult it is to adhere to a gluten-free diet in a culture that worships bread and all things related. While I was convinced that eating gluten-free had made a marked improvement in my health, the learning curve was steep.
There are so many gluten-free alternatives now that were not available just 20 years ago.
It was way more difficult to eat gluten-free then, when no one was experimenting with ways to make foods without gluten that look and taste similar to foods with gluten. But there is still a lot of times that I have to advocate for myself when others don’t understand what gluten is.
When my husband and I were eating in our favorite restaurant once, I asked the waitress if they had gluten-free pasta. She assured me all their pasta was gluten-free. I just looked at her and smiled. I sent her to the kitchen to inquire if they had gluten-free pasta.
Other times, I have ordered gluten-free bread or pasta, and when my meal came, what was on my plate was not gluten-free. It takes a lot of vigilance to eat the way my body needs me to eat to be healthy.
When I am at a birthday party or other gathering, there is usually very little I can eat. The offerings are all gluten-filled — little pastry wrapped sausages, crackers and cheese, tiny sandwiches. I miss out on the cake at the party or the donuts at the office meetings. The only way I can resist those foods is that I know what will happen if I cheat. But the feelings of deprivation are sometimes the hardest part.
Once, when I was working late and there were donuts on the counter in the office, I gave in to temptation because I was starving. I ate not one, but two delicious donuts. I had missed donuts and they tasted so good! It was a good thing that the next day was Saturday because I could barely move I was so sick. That memory keeps me from thinking a little gluten won’t hurt me.
I order my hamburgers without a bun, my sandwiches on a lettuce wrap, my mashed potatoes without the gravy. I pass on the basket of warm bread that comes to the table before the meal. I eat gluten-free pizza where I can find it, with various levels of edibility. Gluten-free pizza crusts sometimes taste like cardboard. There have been some improvements in pizza crust in the 6 years I have been eating gluten-free, and I have found one pizzeria that makes a cauliflower crust that is pretty good.
The thing I miss the most is bread.
My mom taught me to bake bread when I was young and there is nothing better than a piece of bread right out of the oven with a big pat of melting butter. Without gluten, it is impossible to make gluten-free bread rise and come out with that same spongy, airy texture as wheat bread. The day someone comes up with a way to make a good gluten-free loaf of bread will be the day I celebrate with a big, frosty mug of gluten-free beer.
Until then, I will continue to try new products, make substitutions where I can and accept that there are just some things I will never be able to eat again. It is hard, but regaining my health has been the reward. I have not had a single gall-bladder attack since I stopped eating gluten. And I just found a brand of gluten-free donuts that are almost as good as the real thing.