A Big World Without Gluten

mangoes

I had stomach aches when I was little. I threw up in my grade-school lunchroom, and I refused to eat lunch at school for the rest of the year. My mother picked me up and took me home every day at noon. I can’t believe she did that for me. Doctors didn’t find any particular reason for my upset tummy. A psychologist told my mother I was stubborn (he was right). He also told her I didn’t follow my peers. I did my own thing. My mom took that as a compliment, but he didn’t mean it that way.

My belly aches continued on and off for years. They weren’t always a big deal, but sometimes they were. In college, doctors diagnosed me with IBS. They told me I had too much stress — two majors and a job editing the student paper. For a while I stopped eating dairy, but that didn’t help much.

fish

Life went on. I didn’t think too much about my gut because it wasn’t a life-threatening issue. I never thought anything was majorly wrong. Not until grad school when I traveled to Vietnam for the first time, and I felt so much better. I felt great! I didn’t feel achy, cranky, bloated, sluggish. I didn’t feel the way I had felt my entire life, thinking that was simply the way human beings felt.

Singapore plate

When I returned to the US, I tried to mimic my diet in Vietnam. Lots of fish, lots of herbs and vegetables, not much meat. But it was never the same. I made my food spicier. I tried cutting out cheese. Nope– not the same. My husband and I could lay awake at night, listening to my gurgling gut. But every time I returned to Asia, my belly settled. It was happy and I couldn’t figure out exactly why.

watermelon

Then one cold winter evening in early 2003, an American friend came to dinner. She told me her doctor suggested she eliminate wheat from her diet. She had similar symptoms. Her doctor told her about celiac disease.

Wow! What an idea. It would make sense for me — many foods in Southeast Asia, based on rice, are naturally gluten-free. Every time I left for Asia, I essentially left my gluten habits behind. So I tried the new diet for a week. No wheat. No bread, no cereal, no pretzels, no pasta. (No pasta? Pasta was key to my upbringing. I mean, I ran track in high school and gorged on those pre-race spaghetti dinners!)

I started feeling better. I read about celiac, about gluten, about all the foods in America that contain gluten in hidden forms. You wouldn’t believe how much stuff contains gluten! I never knew. I began dissecting labels, eliminating canned soups, packaged snacks, processed sauces, salad dressings — absolutely everything that had a trace of gluten.

And my gut said thank you. My husband said thank you — he could sleep in silence, in the absence of my belly noise.

Fried

Millions of people have stories like mine, though no two are precisely alike. Gluten intolerance affects people in very different ways, and only recently has the issue been brought to mainstream attention. Undoubtedly far more people suffer gluten’s ill effects than realize it.

In truth, I have never been diagnosed; I have never had a doctor tell me my body can’t tolerate gluten. Some might say I should get an official opinion on the matter. But I know how I feel without gluten, and I willingly choose to avoid it. (Yes, I do cheat occasionally, when I think the immediate benefits of a fantastic meal outweigh the side effects I know I will suffer two days later. But that’s me. That’s not everyone. Many people with celiac can never touch gluten again.)

I don’t feel deprived. Rather, I feel enriched. In recent years, I’ve discovered the amazing depth and breadth of grains and flours without gluten — corn, soy, chickpea, mung bean, quinoa, taro, sweet potato, amaranth, cassava, red bean, rice. The world is full of fantastic gluten-free food. Had I not figured out my stomach problems, I might have missed some of this .

tortilla

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I want to draw your attention to an important new book by the original Gluten-Free Girl, Shauna James Ahern. Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back…And How You Can Too hit the shelves yesterday. It’s Shauna’s story, a story of turning her life upside down and all around, and coming out the other end a much happier, healthier person.

Gluten-Free Girl

It’s available here and here and here. Shauna and her new husband, The Chef, have embarked on an American book tour, on their own dime. When Shauna asked me to take part in her virtual book tour, I was delighted. Even if you do not have celiac, if you love bread and it loves you back, and you have no intention of abandoning your lifelong gluten friend — Shauna still has something to say to you. She is one of the most positive people I have ever encountered. She’s a woman with “Yes” tattooed on her wrist. Her message is always about the bounty of life.

pomegranates

Live well, eat well, enjoy the moment. These are sentiments I second, anywhere in the world.

Cheers!

juice

9 thoughts on “A Big World Without Gluten

  1. Karen,
    A great post, as a chef I had never heared of gluten free food until seven or eight years ago, catering for allergies of any kind was virtually unheard of. Now it is a regular occurance and I am proud to say that we offer our guests about 98% of our ‘normal’ menu. Particularly pleasing is that our local coeliac (English spelling) community group choose the hotel for their annual christmas lunch. In previous years they had fallen ill due to lack of knowledge on the chefs part and I am proud that all seventy of them have confidence in us to cook for them. The first year I deliberately put Italian bread salad, pork and bread stuffing, bread sauce and christmas pudding on their menu-that raised a few eyebrows!!
    Thanks for the links, it’s a big help for home cook and professional alike.

  2. Thanks, Miles. It’s great to know that chefs are paying attention to this issue and caring to accommodate their guests.

    Eating out remains a problem for me when I’m in the US. I’ve been lucky to find several restaurants with gluten-free menus and highly knowledgeable chefs. On the other hand, many times I ask whether a dish contains gluten, I’m told it doesn’t, then discover it does. I’m guessing that’s because the waiter and/or the chef doesn’t fully understand gluten and all of the areas in which it can pop into our foods. I’m also lucky in that the effects aren’t so dramatic for me. Annoying, yes. But my condition is not like that of others, such as Shauna, who cannot tolerate the smallest smidgen of gluten. That’s why this issue is so important.

    And that’s why Shauna’s book is, too. We’ll all be better off when the world understands gluten intolerance in the way it understands peanut allergies.

  3. Karen – One thing you probably already know is that coeliac disease is gender discriminatory. Typical manifestation in males is in middle age, but in females is at birth. As a consequence it leads to raised mortality in girls, especially in developing countries where simple side effects such as diarrhoea can lead to dehydration and death, never mind the effect of nutrient deprivation on weak and vulnerable bodies.

    At the age of 41 I went through the experience of getting more and more ill until the point came when I could no longer work. I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and eventually referred to a psychologist. Only when I referred myself privately to a gastroenterologist (who turned out to be the professor at Barts, one of London’s best teaching hospitals) was I correctly diagnosed. In the following years my GP invited me to speak to new trainees each year on correct diagnosis of coeliac disease.

    A decade and a half later the only thing I truly miss is proper bread (I find gluten-free bread to be awful stuff and my son refers to it as an oxymoron on the grounds that gluten is the defining component of real bread). This apart, I share your view – The world is full of fantastic gluten-free food!

    I’m sure that Shauna’s book will help many people to recognise their own conditions and many others to greatly enrich their lives post-diagnosis. Good luck to you both.

    Wishing you all the best
    Mike

  4. Mike,
    Many thanks (on behalf of Shauna, too) for sharing your own story here, and for pointing out the dangers of this disease around the world. Conversations like these are precisely what Shauna hopes to inspire with her book. I’m glad you were able to figure out what was wrong. And I’m glad this issue is getting the attention it deserves.
    Eat well and stay healthy! (Having a talented chef in the family always helps!)

  5. Yep — “keen wa.” Great stuff and super easy to make. I used to love couscous, but since I’ve given up wheat, I sometimes substitute quinoa and it turns out just as nicely. It’s also incredibly healthy with a high protein content. The Incas called it “mother of all grains.”

  6. Karen,
    Thanks for that, I’ve been pronouncing it wrong for years! I serve it with a rabbit dish at the moment, we make a ‘risotto’ from the quinoa with brown chicken stock, smoked Italian bacon, fried sage and the slow cooked leg meat. Works a treat, as we say over the pond!
    Miles

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