Danger in the Gluten-Free Aisle

Hold the celebration

These labels are a lot more common now than 20 years ago

Not long ago, a news article reported on a conference to support those of us who must live without gluten.  In a food world dominated by gluten products, lord knows we need support, as well as information on all the new gluten-free products coming to market.

One aspect of this gathering gave me cause for concern, however:  the celebration of newly created substances that better mimic white bread products.  The news report quoted one of the speakers gushing over new white flour substitutes–things that had a lot of “modified,” “refined,” and “white” in their names.  These modern miracles, she bubbled, could make soft, tender baked goods, just like white flour.

But does this miss the point?

Sure, we’re getting the technical part of the gluten free diet by eliminating the specific protein called gluten.  But are we missing the bigger call to action:  Eating a more healthful, whole, vividly varied diet.

As the conference speaker pointed out so enthusiastically, we can now go gluten free without having to change anything:

  • No need to cultivate a taste for other grains and whole grains.
  • No need to expand our food horizons to include lentils, leeks, Bosc pears, eggplant, cashews, tofu and the myriad other non-gluten vegetables, nuts, fruits, meats and oils in the food kingdom.
  • No need to give pause and question the quality of our meals, the sources of our food and the sanity of our eating lives.

Just substitute white, gluten free pizza, bagels, French bread and cookies for their white gluten cousins.

So what’s the problem?  Why ruin the party?

Because there’s so much to be gained from moments of crisis! And believe it or not, moments of dietary crisis are as valuable as near-death experiences, divorces and job losses for propelling us off dead center and on to the better lives we deserve.

It’s a widely and well-known fact that we are killing ourselves at the dinner table, and this despite the fact that we come in contact with healthy eating information on a daily basis.  It’s an ironic joke among healthy eating professionals that there’s only one sure way a client will make serious dietary change:  by having a heart attack.

What if gluten problems are meant as teachable moments not just a medical diagnosis?  Gluten intolerance could be a life-changing catalyst, rather than just an inconvenience to be worked around as expeditiously as possible.

This idea is not just theoretical musing.  Twenty years ago, we received a wheat-free, diary-free diagnosis, long before “gluten” was a household world and when the number of non-wheat food products could be counted on my right hand.  With two small children and a full-time business, a transition of this magnitude seemed impossible, and I would have given my right hand for a gluten-free Betty Crocker cake mix at birthday time.  Yet in the way that our biggest challenges bring the greatest rewards, being forced from our comfort zone without a life vest brought unimaginable rewards:

Boring Alert I would never have guessed we were so boring—from a culinary standpoint.  Fully 75 percent of our diet involved some combination of white flour and cheese or milk:  Grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, PB&Js, mac ‘n cheese, pasta & more pasta, pancakes, quesadillas, burritos . . .  need I say more?  While I was astounded at our monotony, my body was astounded at all the nutrients we had missed out on with such a limited food intake.

What’s a Whole Grain? Nor could I believe how ignorant I was.  Despite 21 years of schooling, I didn’t know what a whole grain from a peanut, why whole grains are important, that wheat is just one grain, that wheat is in practically everything we eat, and that there are lots of other grains that millions of people eat in other parts of the world.  When I was growing up, Wonder Bread and Twinkies were the extent of our exposure to grains.  Now I know that dietary knowledge is power—power to shape and direct my health.

Cheers to the Colorful Plate Forced out of my comfortable bread and cheese cocoon, my taste buds were stretched to the breaking point.  But they were a lot tougher than I could have guessed.  Polenta, bok choy, papaya, cannellini, lamb, buckwheat, kale and dozens of other strange-sounding foods became fast friends, adding color, flavor and delight to our meals.

No Picky Eaters Here Not only did my taste buds rise to the gluten free challenge.  My kids’ taste buds did, too.  As they got older, I never had to short-order cook, I could be as creative as I wanted, we could go out to interesting restaurants, and even to this day, our kids treasure family meal times, wholesomely interesting dishes and vegetable-rich meals.

So in a crazy way, it was good we weren’t able to simply swap white for white.  We were forced to take advantage of a big learnable moment, and instead of just simple substitution we got a complete gastronomic transformation!  Meal making is now an adventure.  Eating and wellness are intimately integrated.  New foods and cooking techniques continually beckon and keep life interesting.  And as we learn more about strengthening our diet, we learn how to eat in a way that feels more right environmentally and socially.

Hooray for teachable moments, even if inconvenient.

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Wheat-Free and Gluten-Free Living—Beyond Recipes and Cookbooks


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“Do you have any wheat-free recipes?” As a kitchen and healthy eating coach, that’s usually the first thing I’m asked by people who have been prescribed a gluten or wheat-free diet.  It’s a completely understandable inquiry. We think “recipes” when someone tells us we need to eat differently, whether it’s to benefit the heart, to ease arthritis or work around food allergies.

Don’t get me wrong, cookbooks and recipes aren’t a bad starting point. But they are only part—and a relatively small part of the solution. What’s more, they’re the easy part.

The fact is, there are TONS of wheat-free recipes. They’re all over the place, including under your nose (and on your cookbook shelf): think of all the stir-fry recipes, chicken recipes, meat dishes, vegetable recipes, bean recipes, fruit salsas, stews and soups and rice dishes, to name just a few. A vast majority contain no wheat or gluten products. I have lived wheat free for 20 years and am far from starving—in fact I’m better fed now than ever.

The problem, of course, is that when we are newly diagnosed with a wheat or gluten allergy, we filter the news from our current eating perspective. Likely as not, that eating perspective revolves around A LOT of wheat products: pizza, pasta, tortillas, pancakes, toast, sandwiches, flour-thickened sauces, muffins, cakes, and so on and so forth. Only when you are given wheat or gluten diagnosis do you realize how wheat-centric our diet is.

To begin with, I certainly viewed our wheat (and dairy) diagnoses as tremendous burdens, but it didn’t take long to see what a hidden blessing they were. Being forced to think creatively about food, we had our eyes, minds and taste buds treated to a Technicolor world of wildly different and delicious new foods. Thank goodness we haven’t been saddled with a myopically monochromatic diet for the last 20 years!

Making the shift from tremendous burden to tantalizing blessing, I discovered, was attributable to a whole range of things. Yes, I found a few new recipes to help, but as important were things like:

–being organized enough to find those recipes when mealtime rolled around

–having the right ingredients in the frig

–being open to new tastes

–learning a few basic cooking skills to make decent meals

–knowing where to find gluten-free products at the grocery store

–being willing to invest time in setting up the kitchen for gluten-free cooking

–being willing to give meal making the attention and consideration it deserves, and

–being willing to exercise the parental vigor necessary to prevent a picky eaters from taking root in our house.

This last point is vitally important when kids are involved. If a child is raised from Day 1 with a broad range of tastes, then you will have no problem feeding him well on a gluten-free diet. But if, as so many children, he is allowed to dictate the food agenda and constrict his tastes to a narrow range, he will be consigned to a life of fighting his food limitations instead of reveling in the joy of all the delicious foods still available.

So that is why I encourage anyone newly diagnosed to inquire beyond recipes and cookbooks and examine the approaches and attitudes you bring to the table, so to speak.

Check out my tips on preventing picky eaters (email for a copy), look at how well your kitchen is organized for gluten-free cooking. My book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, can be a big help here. Notice if you have good mealtime habits, like planning ahead for meals, always having gluten-free snack bags for car trips, a lineup of school lunch options, etc. MOST IMPORTANTLY, develop a firm sense of purpose, i.e., that the time and effort you put into feeding you and/or your child is indeed a valuable and worthwhile use of your time.

For families, remember that taising a gluten-free child will be most successful and cause the least amount of stress if it is a family affair—and mom and dad will gain all the health benefits of the child’s good diet. Many parents worry about getting their child into the right schools, pushing them to excel in reading and math, preventing their brains from being corrupted by X-rated movies, monitoring their friends, and so. Yet we think nothing of racing through a fast food outlet and poisoning our children’s bodies with factory created food will few, if any, of the nutrients a growing body and mind needs. As parents, we must dare to be different and take the time to nourish ourselves and our children—body, brain and spirit—with wholesome food. Do not doubt that this is a valuable use of our time—despite what the fast food ads blare out.

I hope these insights will be of help if you face a wheat or gluten-free diagnosis. If you could benefit from some one-on-one coaching and assistance, I specialize in implementing wheat and diary free diets and we can work over the phone and Internet as well as in-person.

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