It was during a doctor’s appointment in 2008 that I first heard the phrase gluten free. I didn’t know it then, but those two words would soon change my life forever.
I’d gone to the doctor about some stomach issues I was having, expecting it to be a food allergy issue. After numerous tests, however, the doctor confirmed it wasn’t an allergy or intolerance causing my stomach pain—it was an auto-immune disorder called celiac disease. To put it simply, when someone with celiac eats gluten (items derived from wheat, oat, barley, and rye) their body mistakes it as a bad foreign object and attacks the small intestines. This in turn leads to numerous problems such as stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting.
According to the doctor, the only way to resolve my stomach issues was to completely remove gluten from my diet, so that’s exactly what I did. No more breads, sandwiches, pizza, or pasta. No more cakes, cookies, doughnuts, or muffins.
Now, it’s important to keep in mind that this was 2008—long before there were multiple gluten-free options in restaurants and grocery stores (and long before people tried it as a fad diet). As a result, this new gluten-free lifestyle completely turned my diet upside down. It really sunk in around my birthday when I realized I couldn’t even have a traditional birthday cake. (Luckily, I’m blessed with an amazing family who used rice flour to bake a gluten-free birthday cake.)
Initially, I stuck to mostly fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy. And after several months of gluten-free living, I finally started feeling completely better. That doesn’t mean things magically got easier, though—at least not at first. My shopping options were basically limited to Whole Foods, and dining out at restaurants was nearly impossible. Worst of all, gluten-free food was extremely expensive back then and tasted pretty awful.
In the years since, though, gluten-free foods have become more affordable and much better tasting—and it’s not just Whole Foods carrying the items. Most grocery stores now offer an array of gluten-free items, including Walmart. Several popular restaurants also cater to the gluten-free crowd; some places even have entire sections of the menu devoted to gluten-free diners.
As a result, those of us dealing with celiac aren’t reduced to living a bland, flavorless life. I finally feel like I can eat “normal” meals again and not miss out on pizza, cakes, pasta, and sandwiches. For those of you new to the gluten-free lifestyle, or for those of you who might be living with a celiac sufferer, here are a few tips that have helped me along the way.
1. Know where to shop. The trick to gluten-free shopping is to know the store’s layout and where to find the items. For instance, many Food Lion stores group all gluten-free items together, but most Harris Teeter stores mix gluten-free items with the regular items.
2. Read the labels. Remember that just because a product says gluten free on the front doesn’t mean it is. Small amounts of gluten can be hidden in many preservatives and ingredients. If you see any direct mention of wheat, rye, or barley on the label, take caution.
3. Try these standbys. A staple in our household is Betty Crocker’s gluten-free baking mix, which can easily make pancakes, waffles, pizza crusts, biscuits, and many other things. More favorites are Betty Crocker and Glutino’s gluten-free dessert mixes for cookies, cakes, and brownies.
4. Speak to your server. When going out to eat, it’s important to tell your server that you need to eat gluten free. This alerts the kitchen staff to avoid cross-contamination, which can happen easily.
5. Experiment and enjoy. If you’re forced to live gluten free, you might as well have some fun with it. A recent trip to Barnes & Noble revealed more than a dozen cookbooks devoted to gluten-free cooking. So sample different foods, experiment with different flavors, and learn to embrace your new lifestyle.
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