Eating Gluten Free is Hard! Or is it?

October 20 2011 - 6:41 PM

I was tested years ago for food allergies and the blood tests proved to be inconclusive so I never pursued it further. On a recent trip to my doctor she was reviewing some of the old lab results as reference for our conversation and noted that although I tested negative for Celiac Disease my scores were on the higher end of the range. She recommended eliminating gluten from my diet for a couple of weeks to see if it made a difference. She said, “Really, how hard could it be?” How hard could it be? My initial thought was extremely hard. I had been eating wheat at every meal every day of my life. It took me several weeks just to mentally prepare myself for the task. I decided to start the diet on a day that I went to The Loving Hut in Edgewater for lunch and noticed gluten free symbols next to several dishes. I was encouraged to see that I could go gluten free and still enjoy going out to eat.

The first week was hard because I had to retrain my way of thinking about food. I noticed that I would automatically grab pretzels, chips, cookies and other snacks at work because they were convenient. I also had to go through an educational process. I knew bread and pasta was off limits but other foods that I ate routinely, like soy sauce and California rolls (fake crab meat is made with wheat) were now off limits. Going out to eat was also full of surprises. At my favorite Japanese restaurant in Andersonville, Sunshine Café, I was sure there would be a variety of dishes for me to choose from but it turned out that there was nothing on the menu was gluten free. I was told however that they would gladly accommodate me by preparing one of the vegetarian dishes without the sauce and that they typically try to carry gluten free soy sauce. At St. Andrew’s Pub in Edgewater I went begrudgingly thinking there would be nothing for me to eat when in fact they had two gluten free beers on the menu (New Grist from Lakefront Brewery and Green’s Quest) and a variety of pretty good salads to choose from.

By the second and third week I was getting into the swing of things. I was able to buy a variety of gluten free foods at my local Dominick’s without having to go to a specialty store. Some of what I purchased was pretty good. I really enjoyed the Quinoa pasta and couldn’t really tell the difference between it and regular pasta in texture and taste. Bakery on Main also had some pretty good granola and granola bar options. Some of what I purchased was simply inedible. A wheat free pizza crust from Rustic Crust promised to be better than the real deal but ended up being a very poor imitation, and at a considerable expense.

What I’ve learned from this experience is that going gluten free is expensive. One box of pasta averages at about 4 dollars and a loaf of bread at over 6 dollars. At those prices I was tempted to make separate meals for the gluten eaters at home to make my meals stretch further. However, since I’m not Celiac and won’t get sick from cross contamination I found it wasn’t always necessary for me to buy something specifically labeled gluten free. As long as I was confident in reading the labels there were a variety of everyday foods available. If I were really ambitious and wanted to cook from scratch there were even more options.

I learned that eating gluten free is not necessary a low calorie diet. I value meals in Weight Watchers terms and with no high fiber options available eating rice bread, crackers, granola or pasta packs on the points. A slice of rice bread will run me 3 points compared to 1 point for a high fiber alternative.

I learned that once I retrain my habits and educate myself that eating gluten free is easy and accepted when going out to restaurants. When I mentioned to servers that I was eating gluten free they didn’t look at me like I was crazy and were eager to talk to the chef to recommend something on the menu or an alternative way to prepare a dish. I also noticed that many chain restaurants had symbols categorizing gluten free dishes on their menus (like the newly opened Cantina Laredo in River North) and on their websites so you can plan ahead.

The best thing I learned is that going gluten free works for me. It didn’t take long to realize that some of my chronic symptoms, including constant bloating and fatigue, were gone. It has been a month now and I can honestly say that I enjoy being gluten free and the results have outweighed the temptations.

 –Stacy Kenny