(See Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pie Recipe below)
Recently I decided to join the gluten-free revolution and eliminate that sticky protein found in wheat, rye and barley products from my diet. From the Lain for “glue,” gluten gives dough it’s typical elasticity, helping it to rise and keep its shape and gives breads their chewy texture. As a binding agent, gluten is often added to food, cosmetics, hair products and adhesives to make them thicker and stickier. Gluten is insoluble in water, which can make it irritate the lining of the digestive tract. It’s estimated that 12-20 million Americans suffer from gluten sensitivity or intolerance, a toxic response to gluten, leading to digestive disorders like gas, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and abdominal cramping. A full-blown, genetically born autoimmune reaction to gluten that damages the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients is termed Celiac Disease. “Celiac” may present itself with symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping and distension, intense fatigue, sleeplessness, headaches, joint pain, skin rashes, tooth decay, reproductive issues, anemia and a wide array of digestive disorders. An estimated 3 million Americans may be living with Celiac Disease and only 1 in 22 patients is accurately diagnosed. That’s less than 5% of those who have it who actually know what health problem they’re dealing with! The only known treatment for Celiac is a gluten-free diet for life. No pharmaceutical drug can treat it and since the drug companies fund most diagnostic research, they have very little to gain from accurately diagnosing the disease. But the right foods can be the best medicine for clearing up gluten related health disorders. I’d like to share my private journey of digestive disorder, discovery and healing so that it may inspire you to adjust your dietary habits this holiday season and improve your overall health and wellness for good.
THE STORY OF MY GUT… THE GLUTEN YEARS
I decided to go gluten free because my nutritionist friend and I started talking about my past digestive issues, which my gastroenterologist diagnosed as the dreaded “IBS” in 2004. I had long suffered from bloat, abdominal cramping and distension after I ate, since I was maybe 13 years old. My stool was rarely solid and sometimes painful to pass. Hemorrhoids became an issue and my skin would develop heat rashes out of nowhere. I had Whooping Cough and Candida in high school, over and over, which was treated with every known antibiotic. I suffered from terrible tonsillitis until my tonsils and adenoids were removed at age 21. My entire digestive tract was raw and my good gut bacteria were decimated. Much of the immune system resides in the gut and it seemed mine was busted! I kept eating like a normal teen and twenty-something, downing lots of coffee, pizza and beer throughout college. I tried to go with the flow and enjoy the Standard American Diet (SAD) of meat, wheat and sweet foods. But the abdominal pain got worse and lead to long bouts of diarrhea, fatigue and the formation of a fistula – a painful abscess near the anus caused by a strained colon. It was colonoscopy time!
The doctors proposed possible diagnoses that scared the crap out of me (more puns to come) and said I might have Crohn’s Disease, a debilitating autoimmune disease of the small intestine, or perhaps Ulcerative Colitis or Celiac. My doctors probed me from stem to stern, scanned me right, left and center and poked and prodded me more times than I care to remember. They finally had to operate on the fistula. I sat on a doughnut for a month – still teaching yoga everyday – and took sitz baths while it healed. It was an ordeal I would never want to endure again – a real, literal, undeniable pain in the ass (irresistible pun)! They finally decided to label me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), the ambivalent umbrella term for digestive disorders that doctors can’t quite diagnose with any certainty. My diet was never addressed and no intestinal biopsy was taken to determine if indeed I had Celiac, the only sure-fire way to rule it out. But I got some great pictures of my sigmoid for posterity. (Okay, that was my final pun!) Unfortunately, aside from surgery or drug intervention, there was little hope the doctor-gods could give me. I did my own research and decided to totally change my diet and went full-on “Macrobiotic” (think whole foods – grains, teas, fish/seafood and lots of veggies like the Mediterranean or Japanese diet), and supplemented probiotics and digestive enzymes for 9 months! I fixed my gut, felt a thousand percent better and slowly re-incorporated the coffee, alcohol, starches, sweets and red meat I hated giving up. Boomerang! A few years later I had gained 65 lbs., became hypertensive and my tummy revolted again!
In 2012 I got back on track and started eating whole grains like quinoa and steel-cut oats twice a day to lose those 65 lbs. and lower my blood pressure (See my post – Whole Grains, Whole New Me). I went back to my yoga practice full time and cut a lot of sugar and red meat out of my diet. I looked and felt a lot better than I had in years. I still drank coffee and beer, but only on occasion. I still ate some pizza, pasta, bread and cereal – but the best, organic brands. My tummy seemed to be getting better – or at least looked flatter in the morning! But at night I felt like was going to sleep on a bowling ball. Then I’d wake up feeling like I hadn’t slept at all. Dark circles formed around my eyes and my skin began to rash again. I had no energy and my digestive bloating and cramping returned with a vengeance. I was done broaching the issue with doctors so I asked my nutritionist friend what I should do. She said everything I had described sounded like undiagnosed Celiac or sensitivity to gluten. She suggested the best way to find out was to eliminate it from my diet and see what changes I noticed. So began my education in gluten free eating and my process of eliminating that glue-like gunk from sticking to my gut to see if it was making me sick.
So two questions had to be answered: What foods must I avoid? What CAN I have? Here’s what I found out and how I altered my diet…
THE OFF-LIMITS GLUTEN FOOD LIST
The only foods I had to avoid were those containing gluten: wheat, barley, rye and their derivatives. So regular wheat or grain flour products like most bread, pizza, beer, pasta, crackers, breadcrumbs, croutons and cereal were off the table. Bran, couscous, farina, graham, panko, semolina, malts, groats, pumpernickel and orzo are buzzwords for foods containing gluten that also have to be avoided. Soy sauce usually contains gluten. I knew this would be a challenging diet to start four weeks before Thanksgiving! What am I, nuts?
THE GO-TO GLUTEN-FREE LIST
For starters, some grains I could indulge in – quinoa, buckwheat, rice, corn, millet and cassava, plus my favorite breakfast food, steel-cut oats – if they’re certified gluten-free (as some oats are grown and processed near wheat which can contaminate them). All fruits and vegetables are gluten-free. Untreated meat, poultry, fish and seafood are perfectly fine, but no breading allowed! Cheese is okay, except for blue cheese, which is grown on bread. Nuts, seeds, eggs, beans, butters, tofu, teas, wines and pure spices are delightfully gluten-free – giving me quite a lot of good foods to choose from.
GLUTEN-FREE HOLIDAY HINTS
So, finally we get to the challenge of remaining gluten-free through the most gluten-tempting time of the year, when food cravings strike and resistance is low: the holidays! A time of joyful celebration, gathering together loved ones, unrealistic expectations, compounding stress and extra helpings of rich food and drink. A recipe for disaster every year – how do we ever make it through? With humor! And a vodka tonic or four!! To me the holidays are about being with family and friends and getting to enjoy their company. The food, presents and decorations are secondary to feeling good about life and sharing that feeling with those you love. But the food is going to be there, we’re going to indulge – so why not make the best of our excesses? Going gluten free or staying on any diet isn’t too difficult if you keep a firm resolve, splurge on the healthy stuff and know what pitfalls to watch out for.
The gluten-rich foods to watch out for during the holidays include stuffing/dressing, gravy, mac and cheese, breaded or pasta-laden casseroles and most desserts like cake, pie, cookies and pastries. Potatoes, mashed, sweet or any way you like them are fine, thank goodness. Veggies, cranberry sauce, fruit desserts and most alcoholic drinks are gluten-free, except for beer and some whiskey. Cider and wine are great options when drinking gluten-free. Ham, roasts and turkey are all good – unless they’ve been stuffed or breaded with non-gluten-free breadcrumbs. There are great ways to modify and replace those sticky starches with gluten-free alternatives… Mom is making her stuffing with gluten-free breadcrumbs for me this year, which can be found commercially at Whole Foods, your local health food store or in the high-end section of your supermarket. Thanks, Mom! Glutino is a reputable brand for gluten-free products. You can bake with almond, quinoa, rice or tapioca flours. Gravy can be made with chickpea or buckwheat flour. There are tons of gluten-free breads on the market nowadays. Most are better when toasted a bit as their texture is somewhat gummier than regular bread. Quinoa and brown rice pastas can be a healthy, gluten-free substitute for macaroni-based salads and casseroles. I’m making my “impossible” crust-free pumpkin pie with tapioca flour this year – it’s quite possibly the yummiest pie I’ve ever baked! See recipe below…
MY GUT CHECK and TAKE-AWAY
Taking control of your health, digestion, weight and cravings is well within your reach this holiday season. Going gluten-free, low-carb, low-sugar, vegetarian or any other route with your diet can be challenging but you’re worth the discipline. For me, going gluten-free has been worth the supposed sacrifice. My gut has gone flat, I lost 6 lingering lbs. and an inch at my waist, I have more energy, the dark circles around my eyes are gone, my skin has cleared, my head is less foggy and I no longer have the abdominal pain and digestive problems that plagued me only a few short weeks ago. I had a gluten-free pizza the other day – it was actually pretty tasty. Lots of restaurants now cater to gluten-free diners – all you have to do is ask about it. It’s a brave, new, gluten-free world out there. So no need to be shy about taking your health into your own hands and making yourself feel better. A gluten-free diet can help stave off other autoimmune disorders like Fibromyalgia and Rheumatoid arthritis, help minimize the risk of developing cancer, heart disease, thyroid disease, neurological disorders and diabetes and may possibly help prevent reproductive problems, depression and malnutrition. The gluten-free pros well outweigh the cons.
I don’t feel I need to be diagnosed anymore. This process of elimination and my own reason and experience tell me that gluten is not my friend. Whether I have Celiac or just sensitivity to gluten, I now know how to treat it – by remaining gluten-free. But if you suspect you suffer from a gluten related disorder or disease, I do suggest asking your doctor for the necessary tests to be sure. It can’t hurt to clean up your diet, either way. Remember, without your health, your life becomes very limited. So be thankful for your good health, care for yourself and those you cook for and treat your body with respect this holiday season and at all times. Best wishes for happy, healthy and safe celebrations this year with your family, friends and great food, festivity and love.
GLUTEN-FREE CRUST-FREE “IMPOSSIBLE” PUMPKIN PIE RECIPE
1 Cup of Organic Cane Sugar
2/3 Stick of 100% Canola Margarine
1 and ½ Cups Evaporated Milk
1 and ½ Cups Cooked Pumpkin (plain, pie filling)
½ Cup Tapioca Flour
1 Tsp Baking Powder
4 Eggs beaten with a fork/whisk
1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
3-4 Tbsp of pure Honey
¼ Tsp each of: ground Ginger, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Allspice and Garam Masala spices
Cream sugar and margarine together with a fork or hand blender until evenly blended with no lumps. Mix in evaporated milk and pumpkin filling evenly. Add Tapioca flour, baking powder and spices. Mix in vanilla extract and beaten eggs (works best to combine eggs and vanilla before adding to the mix). Mix until well blended. Pour mixture into a greased 10-inch pie pan and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for an additional 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Remove pie from over before the top browns! Upon removal, while still warm, drizzle honey on top for a sweet glaze. Set to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving. Best if set overnight. Enjoy sharing and savoring your gluten-free, crust-free custardy pumpkin pie!
~Be thankful, be joyful, be free… and be well!
“I’m honest with myself about the reality of what and how I eat. I choose well so that I can feel well. The energy in what I eat sustains me and I honor that fact by preparing meals with gratitude, mindfulness and a loving heart.” ~Nathalie Herrman, author