Life After Bread

Gluten-free eating

At a gluten-free picnic in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, young guests enjoy iced carrot cake, cookies, and other goodies without gluten.

Photographs by Lane Johnson

As a malnourished young child, Allison Ryan’s physical condition baffled her family. “I had a distended belly, sunken eyes, and was always fatigued. The doctors could not figure out what was wrong with me,” Ryan recalled. After several false diagnoses, an endoscopy revealed she had celiac sprue, an autoimmune disorder which causes the production of antibodies in response to gluten and damages the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. There is no known cure for celiac sprue and a gluten-free diet is the only treatment.

Gluten refers to a mixture of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, triticale, spelt, kamut, and oats. Commonly known as the glue that binds baked goods together, gluten is also the second most common ingredient in today’s mainstream diet after sugar. Often used as a thickener, additive, and flavoring, gluten is found in everything from processed foods to alcohol to cosmetics. It’s even in postage stamps.

Five-year-old Ryan’s life drastically changed after the diagnosis. Now 28, she is a healthy and happy analyst in Campbell. “The food stuff is easy. There is a gluten-free alternative to everything I cannot eat. What I find challenging is not being able to drink a beer when I'm out with friends.”

Christian Harris, a landscape architect in Los Gatos, agrees. Simple things like going out and socializing with friends over food and drinks can cause a great deal of anxiety for the gluten-free. Harris wasn’t diagnosed with celiac sprue until age 28. Although it is a genetic condition, it can go unnoticed until triggered by environmental factors or other illnesses. “Going gluten-free is a wholesale lifestyle change,” Harris explained. “It is hard to come to terms with the fact that most of what you used to eat, you can no longer eat.” In the 6 years since his diagnosis, Harris grew accustomed to diligently reading labels and has found a suitable gluten-free substitute for most of what he used to enjoy, including beer, yet is disappointed with his bread options. “There is nothing like bread. Or carne asada burritos,” Harris joked. “And eating out is still the biggest challenge.”

Many restaurants and most grocery stores now accommodate gluten-free diets yet cross-contamination is a frequent hazard. Unless a product is prepared in a gluten-free facility, it may contain the culprit protein. Strategies used to alleviate the repercussions of accidental exposure include taking enzymes or engaging in a high intensity workout to process the gluten more quickly.

Dr. Gary M. Gray of Stanford University Medical Center is hopeful that new medical science will allow doctors to determine the extent of gluten food contamination in patients as well as provide celiac sufferers with a way to interrupt the negative immune response. He does not believe there is a true increase in the number of people with celiac sprue but recognizes that the medical field has become more astute at picking up on it. Yet it remains one of the most commonly misdiagnosed conditions. “It is often missed as the main diagnosis and symptoms are simply attributed to irritable bowel syndrome,” Gray says. Although the diagnosis is becoming more common, celiac sprue is not the only reason people choose to go gluten-free. Gluten sensitivity, in varying degrees, is showing up more often as well.

“More people are reacting negatively to gluten than ever before,” says Nancy Birang, a Certified Nutrition Consultant who practices in Los Gatos and teaches at Bauman College. Many commit to a gluten-free life after finding that it brings relief from a variety of conditions, including the symptoms of other autoimmune diseases. “There are many ways to react against gluten and most sensitivities won’t be picked up by the tests doctors and nutritionists currently use,” says Birang. One can self test by eliminating all gluten from their diet for four to six weeks before eating something containing gluten on an empty stomach and evaluating how their body reacts. “A negative reaction is a strong indication that you have a problem with gluten,” says Birang. She sees a clear correlation between increased instances of gluten sensitivity and our society’s consumption of processed foods. “We are exposed to gluten so much more today than in the past in such a highly concentrated way,” she says. “And it’s sad because there is nothing like warm bread fresh out of the oven.”

Patti Crane, owner of Mariposa Baking Company and Café in Oakland, provides the bay area gluten-free population with a delicious solution to the bread dilemma by making a wide variety of baked goods they can enjoy. Crane diagnosed herself with an aversion to gluten after finding that a gluten-free diet quieted the symptoms she experienced with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system.  She does not miss eating foods that contain gluten at all. “Most people never want to go back to how terrible they felt,” Crane says. A positive attitude and a pretty darn good bread recipe doesn’t hurt either. “We’ve been evolving our bread recipe for three years and it took a lot of experimentation to get it to a point where it’s really good.”

Crane understands the initial feeling of lack when one goes gluten-free. “But there is a bounty of good food in the world without gluten and though it can be overwhelming to read labels, it becomes a lifestyle change for the better,” Crane says. For those who have found relief on a gluten-free diet, embracing this whole new world of food and improved health is a no brainer. Life is simply easier when you feel good.

On Thursday, October 6, attend Eucalyptus Magazine’s Dinner Event with Dr. Gary Gray of Stanford University hosting a discussion on gluten-free diets. Guests will enjoy a gluten-free and dairy-free dinner prepared by Chef Lauren Hoover, who specializes in cooking for health issues including diabetes, autism, celiac sprue, autoimmune diseases, and inflammatory conditions. Hoover is the author of the No Wheat No Dairy No Problem cookbook. Click here for more details


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