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Gluten-free, Wheat-free living

We wooed each other with food. From the early days of our courting, we cooked for each other until that dance we did around the kitchen table became part of the people we are and the people we would become.

This blog is about the pure pleasures of preparing and sharing a meal: the planning for it, the making of it, the taking in of the smells, the turning out of a humble (or spectacular) spread, and the table talk that issues from each of us as we share.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Your Cheatin’ Heart

Getting beyond the reasons we cheat on the gluten-free diet

by Gina Mohr-Callahan

Food is more than nourishment. It is the fragrant embodiment of our memories: every holiday meal echoing with the laughter of loved ones, every wedding feast reverberating with the pulse of the celebrants, every pizza-and-beer FAC shared with old friends.

No matter how humble or grand the fare, food and drink are at the heart of nearly every memorable life event. We need these palpable memories. We crave them. We take in these life-sustaining bits; we imbibe these moments. And when believe we can no longer have these soul-nurturing morsels, we naturally feel deprived.

Why We Cheat
For all these reasons, it is very difficult to chastise clients when they confess that they’ve cheated on the gluten-free diet. As a person with celiac disease and a dietary counselor, I hear this all the time:

“I just wanted to feel like a normal person again.”
“A small bite [of gluten-containing food] can’t hurt that much, can it?”
“All my friends were going out for beer and burgers. I wanted to be
part of the group.”
“I didn’t want to be rude by asking: ‘What’s in that?’”

These are just a few of the many reasons we cheat. Of course, you already know what I’m going to say. You already know that cheating on the gluten-free diet IS very bad for you, and you shouldn’t do it. It’s NOT just because you may suffer for a day or two with diarrhea or some other unspeakable symptom that is unique to your experience of celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Why We Shouldn’t
If you have celiac disease, you do not have an “allergy” to gluten. A simple allergy is likely to provoke an unpleasant (or sometimes life-threatening event, in the case of peanuts or bee stings) side effect, but it usually runs its course and goes away. If you have celiac disease, you have an autoimmune disorder. This is a life-long illness. It never goes away. There is currently no cure. When you ingest gluten-containing grains, you insult your immune system, the miraculous gatekeeper that recognizes what is you and what is “not you.”

Sometimes, immune systems get confused, and they inexplicably attack the bodies they’ve been charged to protect. Having celiac disease puts a “chink” in your immune-system armor. If you eat gluten-containing foods, you’re bulldozing the nutrient-absorbing villi in your small intestine and sending yourself back to healing-square one where it’s likely to take you months to get back on track.

And autoimmune disorders like to travel in groups. Having celiac disease increases your risk for other autoimmune challenges such as lupus or multiple sclerosis, just to name a few. It’s known than tiny amounts of protein, like gluten, even tinier than the head of a pin, are sufficient to fully activate the immune system. Is a little bit of gluten OK? The answer, of course, is absolutely not. Why flirt with possible disaster?

Redefining the Memory Stage
Just because we know we’re not supposed to cheat, doesn’t make us want to cheat less. We naturally long for what we can’t have. When you find yourself at this crossroads, here are some strategies you can use to help you conquer the urge to cheat:

Know thyself –
Identify the foods/drinks that you’re willing to cheat for, such as restaurant desserts, breads, pastas, pizza, or even gluten-containing beers/other liquor. Then, learn to make superb GF substitutes. Search our A Fork in the Road website for recipe ideas or search the Internet for other ideas. There are countless substitutes for gluten-containing beverages, including sorghum beers, potato vodkas, 100 percent blue agave tequilas, wines, and more.

After nearly 10 years on a GF diet, I can assure you that nearly everything can be made wonderfully gluten-free. It just takes a little time and practice. For inspiration, take a GF cooking class or buy a GF cookbook. Check out our class schedule and pantry for ideas.

Do the “avoid” dance –
Avoid situations where you feel you’ll be compelled to cheat, such as FACs, restaurants where there are no GF menus/GF options, buffets, or banquets.

Take the lead –
If you find you want to cheat so you won’t stick out in your peer group, take the lead. Grab your clipboard and whistle and orchestrate an event that fits into your dietary plan:
  • You choose the restaurant where you know you can eat safely.
  • Suggest a potluck and you bring safe GF foods to share.
  • Host a dinner at YOUR house and YOU pick the menu.
  • Try to educate your friends/family about your dietary needs.
  • Assemble a GF gift basket for key friends with key GF items you typically need at a meal: wheat-free soy sauce, GF salad dressing, GF crackers, etc.

Ask for what you need –
If your partner is eating gluten-containing foods in front of you, it can be very tough to stay on the straight and narrow path. If you find your partner’s eating habits are leading you astray, ask him or her to help you strengthen your resolve. Ask if he or she will join you in the gluten-free life – even for a little while, until you get your gluten-free sea legs firmly planted under you.

Remind yourself “you’re worth it” –
Temporary gratification with gluten-containing foods may feel good, momentarily, until your symptoms return, or if you’re asymptomatic, until you manifest other unpleasant signs, such as hair loss or weight loss. But in the long run, you’re only damaging yourself when you cheat. It’s important to remind yourself that the gluten-free diet is your path to wellness. You deserve the health and vitality you feel when you choose the gluten-free life.

View “gluten-free” as a lifestyle choice, not a diet –
The word “diet” has come to be synonymous with deprivation. “Diet” even sounds restrictive. I prefer to call this path the gluten-free life, because I do choose it as my personal path to wellness. I know I feel better on this path. The awareness that it’s a choice, not a restriction, is liberating, physically and mentally.

For many of us, food is our drug of choice. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than a slug of mashed potatoes with a puddle of gravy or a gooey brownie eaten over the sink at midnight when my husband and dogs are asleep, and it’s just me (in my flannel jammers) and Bobby Flay in the throes of another throw down on the Food Network. We all have our secret comforts.
If yours is food, and you have a mind to cheat – yourself – remember that we craft our own memories. Choose to make yours gluten-free.

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