LIFE WITHOUT GLUTEN – A SURVIVORS GUIDE – PT1: CALAMITIES, STOMACH CRAMPS AND ABSOLUTELY NO CAKE!
Have you just been diagnosed or realised that you are gluten allergic? Maybe you’re feeling exhilarated because daily life suddenly became less painful? If you’re experiencing that awesome relief of not having a chronic inflammation making you feel constantly tired and irritable, and you’re now recovering day by day, you may already be asking yourself:
I’m gluten allergic and I love eating great food – what do I do now?
Read on for a primer to going gluten free.
Some years ago I was diagnosed with lactose intolerance. Even though this didn’t have a huge impact on my cooking or eating, removing the dairy definitely made me feel better. I wasn’t crazily lactose sensitive and could cope with smaller amounts of lactose without any discomfort. In contrast realising I was also allergic to gluten was a huge change. The minor detail of not being able to process lactose properly took a very distant backseat to a chronically inflamed intestine, stomach cramps and constant low energy. Removing the gluten from my diet effectively ended over a decade of stomach trouble. But it also seriously disrupted my eating habits. Sound familiar?
Like many allergic to gluten, who were not diagnosed as kids but rather as adults, I realised pretty much everything I loved to eat contained gluten. Bread? Delicious? Doughy, soft, elastic? Because of gluten. A lot of processed food contains gluten. All the carbs I tended to load up on before or after working out… My dessert obsession. All of it full of gluten. Indulging in NYC one dollar pizza slices at least once a year. Death by gluten. Crap. It also explained why I’d never really enjoyed beer – a fact that both myself and people around me had erroneously attributed to me being a stuck up snob, something which now could obviously be completely laid to rest and refuted.
For a couple of months, I was incredibly relieved about not feeling shit all the time. Having a bad gluten allergy makes you feel like you have an permanent inflammation or infection in your body. It can make you feel constantly tired. So when I dropped the gluten from my diet I suddenly started enjoying having a lot more energy, but I also had to come to terms with the fact that eating, as I knew it, was over.
At this time I think I did what most people do in the same circumstances:
I started trying gluten free products from the super markets.
alternatives – not Substitutes
All of these complications makes most gluten free products a sad consolation prize at best.
The gluten free segment is also marred by something I think of as “substitute – not alternative”. Most gluten free products are substitutes for an existing product – and as such they are usually just not as good as the real thing.
An example with an analogy from the vegetarian world would be the difference between soy meat and Tzay. The soy meat substitutes regular beef, chicken or pork while the Tzay, while meaty and protein rich, is a really nice new protein alternative in its own right but its not a direct beef, pork or poultry substitute. And I would generally argue the alternative products are far better than the products trying to masquerade as some already existing food. The substitutes, at best, being pale copies since they’re constricted having to be designed similarly to what they substitute. Instead of like the alternatives being designed primarily to be a desirable and great product in its own right. Simply put: if you don’t have to, there are no great incentives to buy and eat gluten free products – the products they substitute will with little exception to no be superior to the substitutes.
Lost in the Supermarket
My first ever gluten free shopping run was executed with my business partner as moral support (thanks man!) I remember picking up a pack of gluten free tortillas, handing them to my business partner for inspection. The reaction was immediate and telling: incredulous laughter.
The tortillas were not only packaged in crinkly NASA inspired semi-metallic foil, but the tortillas were also about as soft and pliable as tar paper. The very real prospect of a lifetime of eating tacos made of something you could easily use as a military grade frisbee, started making stomach cramps look like a viable, if not to say plausible, option.
With a smaller market and less turnover a lot of gluten free products are made to have longer shelf life simply because they need to stay on the store shelf longer. Sadly this doesn’t exactly help making the gluten free products more attractive or indeed edible.
Would you like some sh#t in that soup?
One of the less reassuring things that does happen is when the service or restaurant in general use the word “gluten” in ways that are less than appropriate, thereby not exactly signalling a complete understanding of the customer. I’ve had servers say “ah… ok, you’re gluten”, of course this being their shorthand for me being gluten allergic. However when the stakes are as high as stomach cramps and feeling ill for a few days you just don’t want that ambiguity around when ordering. I once saw a copy of an order with the text “*Gluten*” beside the stuff I’d ordered. At that point I sort of hoped I hadn’t just asked for a meal with an extra serving of gluten. Imagine how you would feel if you happened to see the kitchen order and on the row with your soup order you would see “poisonous shit” beside your “asparagus soup”. You’d probably feel a bit ambiguous about that wouldn’t you?
Another good rule is to not take any chances if you sense there is any language barrier as you make your order. And most of the times you can order meat or fish with no carbohydrates if push comes to shove.
So while I can’t imagine the substitute gluten free food stuff to be a permanent strategy for your gluten free needs, exclusively going out to eat at restaurants that make good gluten food seems a bit unrealistic too. Constantly eating at restaurants could be both expensive and quite unhealthy. And if you have family: what about that hallowed time at the kitchen table trying to get your kids to tell you about their day as they just want to get in front of their iPads and video games? And what about the larger family gatherings of passive aggressive, tin foil headgear wearing relatives and the awkward political conversations starting with “what about…”? We can’t do without that now can we?
So having survived the intitial phase of going gluten free you obviously need far more effective strategies than the ones described above. For two ironclad, awesome strategies, and dare I say it, a permanent solution AND some pancakes, read the second instalment of Life Without Gluten: Reaching a Plateau & Building a Rocket Ship (also Pancakes)! which will be out next week!