As the incidence of food allergies rises ever higher in today’s world, a lot of people find themselves lost and confused about what it all means. I was certainly one of those people, the day I was told I should cut gluten and dairy products out of my diet. I mean, I know what milk products are, but what the hell is gluten, anyway?
The word ‘gluten’ is Latin in origin and means ‘glue’. From Wikipedia (LINK TO ARTICLE), “Gluten is a protein composite found in food processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye. It gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and to keep its shape, and often giving the final products a chewy texture’.
Some people just have an allergy to gluten (this can be a spectrum from low- to high-level allergy), and others have Celiac disease. Whatever the case, it effects each person differently, but one thing is certain: they need to cut out the bread products, stat.
Part 1: My story:
I was never truly diagnosed on paper, but after describing my symptoms to my doctor and a few others with MS, an exclusion diet was suggested, and I saw immediate results after following it. In my case as an MS patient, I was told to eliminate gluten, dairy AND legumes (beans) from my diet.
But getting to the exclusion diet was the hard and scary part. I had done the most minimal amount of research on gluten at work after getting back from my doctor’s appointment. I knew that it effectively showed up in any product made with wheat. I knew the word ‘casein’ was bad, too, and that I should stay away from anything bread-related or fried.
As I read online, in the back of my mind, I silently mourned the fact that I wouldn’t be able to eat mozzarella cheese every day. Or have wine and cheese nights. Or eat my favorite Boca Chick’n Patties, which have gluten AND soy in them (soy is a legume). All of my favorite foods, save for sushi, were effectively supposed to be eliminated. Pasta. Cheese. Fried calamari (but grilled would be ok).
At the time of my ‘diagnosis’, I was pescetarian (fish-eating vegetarian). I was eating majorly healthy by normal standards: whole grain everything, whole milk, happily farmed cheese and eggs from the farmers at the weekly farmer’s market, granola and Boca/Morningstar everything. I was eating EVERYTHING I’d have to give up. Except for eggs, although some doctors suggest dropping those as well. I’d considered going vegan at one point in my life, and now it seemed there was NO way that could ever happen, unless I wanted to drink my protein supplements. I knew nothing about protein substitutions that weren’t wheat, dairy or soy in their foundations.
I had no idea what to do, so I went home and looked in my refrigerator. Everything in it save for some juice and condiments needed to be tossed. I knew that if I left it in the fridge, I’d falter and eat them as soon as I got hungry, or had a craving. The cupboard full of pretzels and Cheetos had to be emptied, too. There was only one thing to do: I had to go grocery shopping. I remembered seeing a big gluten-free cookbook at my local Whole Foods, and although I knew next-to-nothing about grocery shopping for an exclusion diet, I was suddenly hungry and decided it needed to happen, that very moment. This was NOT a good idea.
As I walked into the store, I came first to the produce section. I threw a load of fruits and vegetables into my cart, figuring in my head that I was going to be eating a LOT of salad in the coming weeks. Months. Years. I felt pretty confident about the fruit and vegetables, and after leaving that section, I made my way over to the books section of the store, to grab the cookbook. In my mind, my idea had been to grab the cookbook, find a few recipes that looked good, and then maybe buy the book or at least walk around the store with it, using it as a guide to what I could and could no longer eat.
There was only one problem: the book wasn’t there. I was SOL, as they say. Rather than being discouraged, I tossed my hair, turned up my chin, and made my way through the rest of the store… how hard could this be, right?
WRONG. The first aisle I came to was the pasta and cereal aisle. After turning away from the milk and dairy section, in which I couldn’t even buy the milk-free cheese, which was made of soy. In the course of five minutes, I realized I was defeated. I stood there, looking at a full row of things that I wasn’t able to eat, and felt the hyperventilation starting to come on.
I must have looked like I felt, because as I looked up and down at everything from dead center, a worker approached me and asked if he could help me. I immediately burst into tears, and between sobs babbled about having MS, needing to go gluten-, legume- and dairy-free, not knowing anything, loving pasta and mozzarella cheese, etc.
I’m pretty sure he laughed at me as he patted my hand and told me to calm down and not to worry, because he could help me. From there, he guided me around the store and pointed out the symbols on packages that I should look for: vegan. Gluten-free. Soy-free. All of these labels exist, if you know to look for them, which I hadn’t before he pointed them out. It turned out there was no cheese I could buy, but there WAS pasta and bread I could buy. And Hemp milk. And cookies. I was NOT going to starve!! Thank you, lovely Whole Foods Man!
He even showed me what to look for on the labels, in order to make sure I was not buying anything that might hurt me. I got bread from the freezer section (which, btw, is TERRIBLE: NEVER buy it if it comes from the freezer section, unless it’s waffles. Just trust me on that one), got to choose between five or 6 different types of milk, and even found gluten-free corn bread!!! My favorite!!!
What started as a terrifying trip to the natural foods store turned into an ok experience. From that day on, I still had a lot to learn, but at least I could buy soup and GF cereal and drown it in chocolate hemp milk (my favorite of the milks so far, although they don’t sell it here in Germany).
My experience was the same as those of so many others. Your entire life changes with a diagnosis like this, and that’s why I’m writing this 3-part series: to help make it easier. It doesn’t have to be hard or scary, you just need a helping hand to guide you through it! And if you happen to have a GFDFLF family member or friend, this will help you to understand what they can and can’t eat.
The long short: don’t buy things that are ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ and expect them to be harmless to someone who is GF. It sucks. But it’s not that easy.
Coming up next: what you can and can’t eat. And how to shop for things. Be prepared to become an excellent cook/baker! If you want something done right…