Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Gluten Free Goodie Swap - like being a kid in a gluten free candy store!

This event is hosted by the Atlanta Gluten Free Dinner Club, which I'm an assistant organizer for. Last year when I attended this event I overdid it. It was the first party I'd attended in eleven months where I could eat everything there. Well, that's not completely true since I'd been to the gluten free Thanksgiving Potluck lunch the month before, but there were probably only six or so desserts there. In any case, I ate way too much sugar and was uncomfortably full at the goodie swap last year. So this year I watched myself. I had the best gluten free pound cake I've had to date. It was made from a mix called Sylvan Border Farms. It was certainly indistinguishable from any gluten containing version I've ever had. You can make many different variations with the mix, according to the lady who brought it. Oh and I split a piece of this cake with my husband...that's how I cut back on my intake this year. I'm sure I still had way too much sugar but the gluten free goodie swap only comes once a year, after all.

There was so much glorious gluten free food laid out on the table, which was about thirty feet long, it was hard to believe it was all safe for us to eat! There were homemade cookies, more cookies and then some more sent from a bakery in PA - The Grainless Baker, carob rice cereal bars, lemon bars, chocolate cake, Swedish raspberry bars, almond bars, pecan pralines, brownies, cheesecake squares...I honestly can't list everything because there was too much to remember. Mostly I remember how great everything I tried tasted, and I remember all the big smiles on the faces of everyone there. As our members entered the room and saw this huge assortment of gluten free goodies - well the look on their faces was priceless. I think the adults were as excited as the kids that were there. I certainly was anyway.

Our goodie swap inspired me to throw a little holiday get together for some gluten eating friends. I now love baking so I made all the food myself and guests were asked to bring only wine. We had Namaste spice cake, Bob's Red Mill chocolate cupcakes (the trick is to use chocolate soy milk to overpower the bean flavor), rosemary spiced pecans, chocolate butterscotch fudge (Kroger's butterscotch chips are gf), chex-type party mix and several other treats! Everyone loved the food and several neighbors were not even familiar with my diet so they had trouble understanding that I made baked goods without wheat flour...lol! But I did and everything I made was simple to make. We did have a few left over treats so I sent them to work my husband on Monday. One co-worker who will remain nameless said the fudge was better than his wife's! And that she could never know that...lol!

So don't go around thinking you have to do without anything this most gluten filled season of all. You can pretty much have all your favorite holiday treats, even if you do have to make them yourself. For sixteen years of my eighteen year marriage, I avoided the kitchen except when figuring out where new dishes could be stored. Now you can't keep me out of the kitchen! There is just something really special about creating fabulous food with your own hands - even if you are using a baking mix. I even perfected my husband's family recipe for pumpkin bread...finally after several disappointing tries. And of course, I could not use a gluten free mix for that. When the bread is baking it actually smells like Christmas to me. The holiday season will quickly pass but remember, you can have glorious gluten free goodies all year long!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Tis the season for gluten....

I hope you all not only survived, but thoroughly enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday - and that you were able to stay healthy in the process. I ate too much fabulous gluten free food and made my favorite pie crust ever! I decided to try the Breads by Anna pie crust and it was out of this world. You need to cover it with foil 20 minutes into the baking time but besides that, it's very similar to a gluten crust. Even though it's a dairy free mix and does not call for butter - it was flaky! Not sure how that happened but I won't ever try another gluten free pie crust, besides this one, again.

So now that the holiday season is in full swing, I've been thinking about the many little things that happen during this time, that can make the life of someone who is living gluten free, pretty annoyed and/or depressed. Things like there are cookies in the breakroom at work every other day that are not gluten free, and work lunch celebrations at places that don't offer gluten free menus or any gluten free food besides a bland salad. Here is what I suggest you do, to keep from feeling left out of all the holiday cheer and gluten filled gluttony. Think about what treats you enjoy and then make several things to keep in the freezer, to be plucked out on your way to work when you know there will be something going there - for which no food will be provided for you. This could be brownies, fudge, a cake, cookies - whatever you like! If you don't bake, then get some ready made gluten free things like Whole Foods GF Bakehouse chocolate chip cookies or even one of their pies. My husband who can eat gluten if he wants to, is addicted to their gingersnap cookies! I don't even like this type of cookie but I think the gluten free version is fabulous. The important thing is you need to have something tasty ready to grab, in case you feel left out in any given social situation, this holiday season.

If you're going shopping with friends, remember to pack snacks in your purse. When they want to stop for coffee and grab a cinnamon bun, you'll be able to enjoy right along with them. Of course, this is a rule I follow all year long - not just during the holidays. I wouldn't dream of meeting my gluten eating friends for coffee without packing a scrumptious treat in my bag. I actually rarely even eat what I bring - but it's knowing that it's there, in case I want it, that's important.

I was at a holiday business lunch today and had a little homemade fudge with some hot tea after the meal. I never order dessert at lunch but my fudge was left over from Thanksgiving weekend and it was the perfect end to my meal. Some people are too timid to take food into restaurants, worrying that the staff or Chef will be offended. Here is what I have to say about that - when they start offering me more than ice cream or sorbet for dessert, and gluten free bread or crackers - then and only then will I stop taking food into their establishments.

Did you know that in many restaurants in Ireland have you two types of bread? Yes - they offer you gluten free or regular bread....just like servers here offer you water in a restaurant. Also, in Sweeden, some places have separate pastry cases for their gluten free goodies. When we had Afternoon Tea at The Dorchester Hotel in London last year, the sandwiches were made with homemade gluten free bread that I've yet to find anything like in the states. The bread was so good that we were sure it wasn't gluten free - but it was. This is just simply not okay with me and the other several million gluten free people in the US. Until things change over here, our community is not going to stop pushing for change.

Okay - back to the holidays and navigating them safely gluten free. When you're invited to parties, ask the hosts in advance what is being served. If there isn't going to be much, or anything for you to eat, let them know you'll be bringing your own food. Then share your food with others unless you have way more than you need to get full on yourself. Remember most of the other guests will have plenty to nibble on. And don't put your dish on the main table or others will get crumbs in it, rendering it unsafe for you to eat from again. I usually find there is a cheese tray so if I take my own crackers - if the gluten crackers are in a separate basket of course. If you are worried about offending your hosts with your specials requests, all I can say is don't be. If people really want me at their party, they will do a little something to accomodate me or I won't go - it's that simple. I would do it for them and if they don't feel the same way - I probably shouldn't be spending time with them in the first place. Life is too short to hang out with people who aren't considerate of your needs....way too short.

Attending the company holiday party....oh how stressful this can be. Last year was my first gluten free holiday season so I had to ask HR at my husband's work if any of the food served at the holiday party was gluten free. Luckily Wolfgang Puck Catering does the party food at the GA Aquarium and they had plenty of great food for me to eat. I had to skip the pasta bar and rolls, but I had chicken, beef, shrimp, rice, salad a few other things. They didn't have much in the way of gluten free desserts (only ice cream or sorbet) so I snuck in a little chocolate pecan bark I'd made the night before. My husband was thought the chocolate was going to be confiscated but apparently the metal detector didn't have a chocolate x-ray coponent to it...lol!

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the party including the food, and I must say that seeing the Aquarium at night without a zillion kids running around was THE WAY to see it! I have to admit that I found it quite hilarious that with about 2200 people at the party, I was the only one who inquired about the gluten status of the food. I felt really lucky since about 22 of those other attendees have Celiac and just don't know it yet. And that's not counting the gluten intolerant set. If you add them in, you might be looking at almost 50 people....all eating gluten at a party and some of them going home and not feeling well and not knowing why. And many others are 'silent' Celiacs. They have no outwward symptoms - they are the ones I really feel sorry for. They have no way of knowing what damage they are doing to their bodies every day, unless they get an intestinal cancer that their Celiac caused. Hopefully one day routine Celiac testing will be the norm here, like it is in many countries.

I'll admit that this is the season of a lot of gluten, but if you take the time to plan accordingly, you can enjoy yourself and a lot of gluten free treats as well. And sometimes it's nice to eat something decadent and not share it with others. Let someone else see how it feels to do without for a change. Heck - it might even do them good. Most people don't mean to be inconsiderate - they just don't go around thinking about our food intolerances, just like we didn't do that when we ate gluten. But if you're lucky like me, and have friends that go out of their way to accomodate your dietary needs - well those are the friends you want to keep close to your heart. Those friends are 'keepers'!

Happy holidays everyone - and good luck staying gluten free in this gluten filled world of ours!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Surviving your first gluten free Thanksgiving

I'm going to share a secret that I'm not proud of with you - I moved my biopsy (looking for evidence of Celiac) out a month, just so I could have one last holiday season without having to figure out how to make the food gluten free. The thought of having to learn what gluten free meant, and survive the holidays all at the same time was just too overwhelming. My only outward symptom of Celiac was anemia - hence I had no energy so I wanted to start anew in January, and that is exactly what I did. By the time my first gluten free Thanksgiving rolled around, I was a bit of a gluten free pro, and I not only enjoyed the entire holiday season - I enjoyed it more than I had in years, since I felt better than I had in years.

The first thing I checked on was the turkey. Though you might think that's silly - how could there be gluten in turkey, right? Well, I don't know, but gluten hides in so many things, it's better to be safe than sorry. And when a Butterball customer service person told me there was corn gluten in their frozen turkeys, so I should stick to their fresh ones, it was fairly unsettling. Yes, corn contains a certain gluten, but not the kind people with Celiac have to avoid. You can see how daunting one's first gluten free Thanksgiving can be, when you can't get correct information from the Butterball hot line - they are after all the turkey experts. Well, apparently not as it pertains to gluten. Of course, you have to throw out the gravy packet that comes with the turkey, but the turkey itself is gluten free, as are most other turkeys (but not all) you'll find on the market today.

Okay - now we've got our meat pinned down as safe, but what about my favorite of all holiday dishes - the cornbread dressing? Without that delectably savory dish, the holidays just would not be the same - for me anyway. As far back as I can remember, I've been eating almost the same cornbread dressings (both recipes of two Grandmothers) for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yes, in the South we are strange - we have basically the same meal for both holidays and everyone who is not from the South makes fun of us for it. When I learned to make one of my Grandmother's dressing recipes, I found out she actually used the Aunt Jemima cornbread mix. Yes - you guessed it - it contains wheat, as most such mixes do unless they are specifically marked gluten free. No worries though - I now make homemade buttermilk cornbread as the base for my dressing. None of the other ingredients contain gluten and no one can tell the dressing is gluten free - they just know it's delicious, which is all that matters.

The other dishes we generally have are either naturally gluten free, or can be easily modified to be so. You can use a gluten free flour blend (not one that contains bean flours) in your sweet potato casserole topping and no one will be the wiser. I never liked gravy when I ate gluten, so I didn't bother to try any of the gluten free gravy mixes available on the market. Personally, I don't think you can modify the classic green bean casserole to taste good gluten free, so I prefer to do without it these days. If you know something I don't about making this recipe great, and gluten free, please share it with me. I did learn how to make awesome fried onion rings but that was the only part I perfected. The only time I ever used canned cream of mushroom soup was for this casserole, so trying to recreate a recipe for a dish I made twice a year seemed a bit obsessive.

By far, the toughest challenge for me was making a gluten free pie crust. I made a heavenly gluten free pie crust for the Thanksgiving Potluck last year sponsored by our local support group. I made and took mini pecan pies to the event, and before I could turn around they were all gone. Had I not saved two pies at home, I would not have gotten to enjoy the fruit of my labor. If you think it's a lot of work to make a pie crust from scratch, or even a mix, like I do, try making 24 mini crusts. I won't be doing that again anytime soon...even though a member came up and hugged me when she found out who made the pecan pies. She thought they were fabulous, as did most everyone else who was able to swipe one before they vanished. The pie recipe also came from one of my Grandmothers. When I was old enough, she handed me a bottle of Karo Syrup and showed me the recipe on the back....lol! Years later, my husbands Grandmother told me her secret of cutting the sweetness of this pie, just a bit, with a half teaspoon of lemon juice. It really works but this pie has a candied pecan pie taste. If you want something with more butter and less sugar, use another recipe.

This year I'll be adding a new dessert to our Thanksgiving meal menu - a spice cake that is the best spice cake I've ever tasted, let alone made. Okay, it's the only spice cake I've ever made, and it is of course a mix. In a previous post I mentioned my first attempt at making a gluten free cake - a nasty vanilla cake that we threw out as it was not edible. The maker of that product, Namaste, also makes a spice cake mix that everyone is always raving about it. I finally took the plunge and bought their spice cake mix, but when my husband saw the bag he reminded me of the cake 'incident' from over 20 months ago. I promised him if he hated it, I'd never buy it again. Well, he ate more of the cake than I did and he can eat gluten! I love to find out how gluten free kids like something, so I gave some to my friend Kerry's kids to try. It didn't even have icing on it so I told them it was like a breakfast bread or snack. They both enjoyed it thoroughly even without icing - they are 7 and 9 years old. That convinved me - this is the best spice cake mix on the market - including those than contain gluten. I prepared the mix as stated, then added a half cup of unsweetened applesauce and the same amount of raisins. Next time I'll add nuts as well. The cake tasted great for a full five days - that is unheard of for gluten free baked goods as most of you know. Another variation I've read about it is to add canned pumpkin so I'm trying that next week. I'll let you know how it turns out with my homemade cream cheese frosting.

Last but not least, I was raised eating canned cranberry sauce and I still eat, and serve it, during the holidays. Both of Ocean Spray's sauces are gluten free, as are most other brands. So go forth and bravely enjoy your first gluten free Thanksgiving dinner, with all (or most all) the trimmings. And if there are going to be two dressings where you're eating and one contains gluten, don't put them next to each other. The spoons can be swapped by mistake too easily. I can't think of a worse time to be glutened, than the holidays. It will take a little extra planning on your part, and possibly some nagging of your in-laws about what goes in their dishes. But if you take the time, you can have at least as good a Thanksgiving dinner as you've ever had, if not a better one. After all, you are probably feeling better than you have in a while as well!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Gluten Free Cooking Spree comes to Atlanta!

Once I felt comfortable with my new diet and gluten free life, I wanted to do something to help others who were going through what I did, upon getting that dreaded Celiac diagnosis. I researched several national groups, that are all doing great things for the Celiac community, but I chose to align myself with The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. They are a non-profit organization, founded and run by Alice Bast, whose heartbreaking Celiac story really touched me. Alice decided no one should ever go through what she endured, and vowed to make a difference. And oh what a difference she's made! You see, Alice is a 'think outside the box' kind of person. She came up with the brilliant idea of having an 'Iron Chef' type competition - only with gluten free food. She even thought to get doctors involved in the cooking!

Here's the basic concept - you team a local chef, a medical doctor and media representative up on cooking teams, and give them only gluten free ingredients, which they use to create fabulous gourmet dishes. Then you let a panel of judges (a medical doctor, media representative and a child with Celiac) choose the winning dish. The doctor of the team that wins, gets funding for a Celiac awareness campaign, for the hospital they are affiliated with. It's the perfect storm of Celiac awareness - we need doctors to stop resisting testing for, and diagnosing Celiac (they hate to prescribe restrictive diets). We need Chefs to learn how to cook gluten free food not only safely, but creatively as well. Last but not least, we need the media to publicize this effort so word gets out to everyone possible.

Last night, the Atlanta Gluten Free Cooking Spree was held at CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. The venue was perfect since the CNN meeting space allowed people to wander by the event, and wonder 'what in the world is a Gluten Free Cooking Spree?'...lol! You can find a write up of all the dishes made at http://www.celiaccentral.org/ later this week. I'll just say that though everything I tasted was fabulous, I was shocked that the Maine Lobster Chili didn't win the contest. It's one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth - gluten free or not! Chef Robert Gerstenecker from Park 75, at The Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, created that entry, and I could have eaten it until I made myself sick - seriously. Chef Robert you were robbed!

Event attendees not only got to taste all the dishes the competing teams made, but also many other gluten free foods, from vendors all over the country. Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse goods were well represented - including a pecan pie that I hate to admit rivals my own homemade version. There was a vendor I'd never heard of from CA - Azna Gluten Free - who had everyone raving over her cinnamon muffins and various scones. Bountiful Harvest Bakery (http://www.bountifulharvest.net/) from Chattanooga, brought scrumptious cakes made with almond flour, which were also sugar free. My absolute favorite pasta joint, Saba (http://www.saba-restaurant.com/), served up two yummy pasta dishes - one was dairy free as well. Chow Baby (http://www.therealchowbaby.com/) handed out tiny Chinese take out boxes with a spicy noodle dish - complete with chopsticks! The Brazilian Cheesebread Company (www.braziliancheesebreadco.com) was there with their addictive cheese rolls in several flavors. And last but not least, there was a local restaurant I've never patronized called Ritters (http://www.rittersrestaurant.com/), serving a vegetarian pasta dish and chocolate cake. The latter was the best chocolate cake I've ever tasted in my life. It's not just the best gluten free chocolate cake - no - it's the best chocolate cake ever - period.

Outside of a support group meeting, the event last night was the first major social event or party I've attended, since my Celiac diagnosis in early 2006, where I could eat all the food offered. No playing 20 questions with the server - just walking up and asking for a sample of whatever looked tempting and eating it. You know - like most people do every day, everywhere they go. It was a little slice of gluten free heaven, to say the least. So for me, Christmas came early this year indeed. I literally felt the same excitement, in seeing all the delicious food that I could actually eat, that I felt when I was a young child creeping into the living room on Christmas morning, to see what Santa had brought the night before. Oh and meeting Dr. Sanjay Gupta and chatting with Heidi Collins (both of CNN) was just icing on the (gluten free) cake. The entire evening was a magical and exuberant experience - one that I will never ever forget!

Thanks to both Alice Bast, and CNN's Heidi Collins (the NFCA's National Spokesperson) for being a part of this fantastic night. Also, special thanks go out to two NFCA staffers - Vanessa Maltin, whose enthusiasm for for helping others is contagious, and Stephanie Kleinman, whose dedication and hard work behind the scenes helped make this magical night come to fruition. Ladies - you all did a terrific job and you deserve a gigantic pat on the back. Atlanta's gluten free community is most appreciative of your efforts, and we thank you for including our fair city in your fabulous event!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The connection between Celiac and mental disorders

Most people who know anything about Celiac, know it usually affects the digestive system in some way. People are typically misdiagnosed with IBS for instance. In my case, my only outward symptom was anemia. But once diagnosed, I was able to connect the dots, realizing my intermittent painful bloating and stomach aches were all due to me eating gluten. As I delved into more Celiac research I discovered some interesting peer reviewed, and published medical studies, that noted connections between some mental disorders and undiagnosed Celiac. A few of them are : anxiety, depression, ADD, ADHD, dementia and even schizophrenia. I'm no doctor and can't begin to list everything listed in the studies and please understand - all people with these conditions do NOT have Celiac, of course. But some do, and in many cases, one can't rely on a US doctor to figure this out. In many cases, patients who adhere to the gluten free diet get rid of all their symptoms and also get off rx meds they might be taking for the issue. Worst case they can reduce their doses, and therefore any side effects of the drugs.

Recently there was a listserv posting regarding an article about Celiac and schizophrenia. Some studies indicate that almost 25% of patients with that disorder benefit from being on a gluten free diet because they in fact, have Celiac disease. Think about that if you're supposed to be gluten free and are tempted to cheat on your diet. There is no way you can know how gluten will choose to attack your body. The way it reacts this year, won't necessarily be the same next year, or the one after that.

Most of you are probably aware that many kids who have Autism, do very well on the gluten free/casein free diet - some returning to 'normal' behavior patterns eventually. But you might not know this - a few US doctors believe that a percentage of the kids thought to have Autism, have been misdiagnosed and actually have Celiac disease. No one is suggesting it's a huge percentage, but how is this happening in America? This is ridiculous, unbelievable and so very sad for all those parents out there struggling to pay for expensive therapies when some of them have kids who just need to go off gluten to lead healthy, happy lives. What is going on? It seems to be very hard to get tested for Celiac in many places here. People are having to demand to be tested and doctors are so reluctant to look for Celiac, it's crazy!

In many parts of Europe, testing for Celiac is routine - when you test for it, you find it in one percent of the population - it's that simple. When a doctor isn't looking for something, they surely won't find it. And that's what is happening here in the US. Docs are told they'll never have a patient with Celiac so they never do - to their knowledge anyway. This has GOT to change and people with Celiac are the ones who need to be speaking up and talking about Celiac and gluten until everyone in the US knows what those words mean.

October is Celiac Awareness Month so if you have Celiac, or are gluten free for other health reasons, please do your part by telling people about it at least once this month. Or else, please don't complain that it's hard to eat out here or find great food. Gluten free fairies aren't going to bring delectable gluten free goodies to your local grocery store by chance. You have to ask for what you want in life - even if it's just fabulous gluten free food! I have rarely asked a food store to carry something for me, that they weren't able to get eventually. Ask and you shall receive - it really does work - even for gluten free food!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Unpleasantries of eating out gluten free in the US

If you read my vacation post, you know how fabulous and easy it was to eat out all over London and Paris gluten free. I must say that the only bad part of the trip was coming home to servers with those perplexed looks on their faces, as I tried to explain I had an intolerace to gluten - or an allergy to wheat. No matter what terms you use - unless you're dropping $50 or so for dinner, you'll be lucky to ever get a server that knows what the heck gluten is. And I'm sorry to say that applies to all those famous chains with gluten free menus as well. Sure there are a few good ones and you might even catch an informed server but if you pry, you'll ususally find out they know someone with Celiac. It's not that they were trained by the restaurant they work at (that has a gluten free menu). I'll never understand why companies bother putting together a gluten free menu and then train no one in their restaurants about gluten.

I've been to all the national chains that have gluten free menus and the only excellent company is Wildfire Grill out of Chicago. The day I read they were opening here was a very good day indeed! I'd contemplated a trip to Chicago just to eat at Wildfire (there is a trade show my industry holds there yearly so it would have been a business trip) but now they were coming to me. Wildfire didn't dissappoint - both their food and service are exceptional. They've been open about a year now and no other chain has a better trained staff in regards to their gluten free menu and safe food preparation. Their gluten free chcolate cake is scrumptious! My hubby is allergic to dark chocolate so I have to eat the entire dessert by myself...poor me....lol! Actually the portion size is perfect for one. Do not miss this dessert if you like chocolate and can't eat gluten - or even if you do eat gluten - it's loved by all!

Please note - if you have to eat in a restaurant where none of the staff (including the chef and manager) know what gluten is, you can probably have a chicken breast (make sure it's not packaged in a wheat protien soloution as are many chain chicken breasts are), a baked potato and a salad. If you can't read the salad dressing ingredient label, use your own dressing or oil/vinegar (not malt vinegar). Many commercial dressings contain wheat. Packets of dressings are available at many online gluten free stores and www.minimus.biz.

I once went to a very popular restaurant in Chattanooga where the only thing I could have was a salad. The place has about a six page menu but after the server spoke to the chef and manager, they decided the only thing they wanted to serve me was a salad. I'm sure there was more I could have had, but I appreciated them airing on the side of caution instead of making me sick. It was painfully clear that no one there had any idea what gluten was. To date, that was by far my worst dining out experience, and in fairness I should admit that my salad was actually delicious! Since then I've been able to avoid situations like that, by letting my friends know if I'm going to eat out with them, we're going somewhere that has yummy dishes for me - otherwise they can count me out. It's a simple concept and like most of those - it works!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Meet the Atlanta Gluten Free Dinner Club

Right after my Celiac diagnosis I joined the local Celiac support group and they were and are a great resource, especially for 'newbies', but I needed something more. Many people with Celiac don't go out to eat - ever. My husband and I consider ourselves just this side of being 'foodies' so not eating out anymore wasn't an option. One night, after getting a disturbing reply to a post about how to eat out safely (that said it wasn't possible), I frantically typed the words 'gluten free dining Atlanta' into the Google search box. And there it was in black and white - it seemed a bit of a tiny miracle actually - The Celiac Disease Meetup Group. From their home page I could tell they are a gluten free dinner group but are they all single? Since I'd been married for almost 17 years at that point, this group wouldn't work for me if they were a singles trying to 'hook up'. Finally the organizer of the group, Kerry, e-mailed me and explained the group and I joined as fast as I could type. You see, this group was exactly what I needed at that particular moment in time.

My first Meetup event (or dinner) was amazing. The meal was very good and gluten free but the best part of the evening was meeting so many others that had the strange condition that I did. I guess aliens hadn't taken over my body after all....lol! That first night I learned that I lived very near a great health food store that carried a ton of gluten free products. Since then I never attended a Meetup event where I didn't learn a thing or two...or even three. The group's organizer summed it up best by saying 'sometimes the best resource we have is each other'. You were dead on with that one Kerry! I've tried to make the monthly Meetup dinners for over 18 months now and usually only miss events if I'm out of town. It's always a good time with great food and friends. Later I'll tell you about a dinner where we had hot gluten free rolls - all we could eat of them. The place is was the Disney World of gluten free dining!

If you have Celiac, I highly encourage you to join a support group. Statistics show that people who are involved with others facing the same struggles, fare better than those that go it alone. This is true no matter the particular challenge. If you are lucky enough to have educated and thoughtful people running your local group (like I do), that's great! If you aren't impressed with your local group's leadership because they are preaching 10 year old gluten free rules like you can't have vinegar - think about starting a group of your own. Trust me when I say that all those naysayers out there spouting warnings like you can not eat out safely and you should never travel again are WRONG. You need to connect with others that have been where you are and can show you the gluten free ropes, so to speak. Help is out there but you might have to hunt for it. Good luck!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Uh - oh! How am I going to eat gluten free in Paris?

My long awaited vacation to London and Paris was planned for early May (2006) so I had less than four months (after my Celiac dx) to figure out how exactly to take the trip, and remain healthy while doing so. I'd heard rumors of England being very Celiac friendly but Paris is the home of the delightfully gluten laden croissant - how the heck could I go there and eat safely? Celiac message boards were of no help whatsoever - most people suggested I cancel my trip actually. I think someone said 'there is no way you can eat gluten free in Paris'. Obviously I took that as a challenge, so my quest for a game plan to take and enjoy my trip began.

I'd recently signed up on the Celiac listserv - it's a great way to get help from others living the gluten free life. It was people on the list that saved the day. Several fellow list members were also planning trips to Paris, and one lady from Chicago would be back from her trip before I left. She was an absolute lifesaver! She not only provided me with a list of places she ate safely all over Paris, she also reassured me that gluten free in Paris was not only doable - it was much easier than eating in the US gluten free. But how could that be? I really don't have an answer for that question - even after finding out it's true personally. It is what it is. Simply put - Paris is the least Celiac friendly city in all of Europe and they are years ahead of the US on this issue - period.

For the trip I printed and laminated some free gluten free dining cards in English, Italian and French. I should have taken every language card available since both London and Paris offered so many ethnic cuisines but I did fine eating safely all over both cities. Only two of our meals were pre-planned before leaving town - afternoon tea at The Dorchester Hotel and one dinner in Paris, accross from Notre Dame, where the Chef's wife was a Celiac. We ate every meal out the entire trip - well I did have to take my own meal on Delta which didn't offer a gluten free meal option at the time - and I never once reacted (for me that's bloating or a serious stomach ache) to my food. I never 'got glutened' as we say. I'd be very afraid to attempt such a feat in the US.

I think the fact that I'd been to Paris once before (unplanned 20 hour layover) did help since I'd had a 'real' croissant and French bread. Somehow, knowing how great both those things were didn't tempt me to cheat on the diet. I could not afford to get sick on vacation. The biggest mistake I made was packing a backpack full of food - nuts, dried fruit, pretzels, crackers, energy bars - anything I could think of. You name it - it was shelf stable and gluten free, it was in my backpack. The crackers and salad dressing packets came in handy at times but most of the food came right back home with us. I ate cheese in Paris three meals a day and my crackers were the perfect accompianment for that. That's the only snack I ate most of. I didn't put a dent in my stash of pretzels, energy bars or anything else I took.

In London there is a grocery store called Sainsburys. They have a gluten free product line that is somewhat similar to Hostess items in the states. It seemed much more healthy but as it's shelf stable, it does contain perservatives. I bought a few boxes of tiny gluten free loaf cakes to supplement my breakfast in London and managed to get one box of loaves to Paris on the train. I should have bought much more stuff at Sainburys and brought it home. There is nothing like this product line made in the US - that I've found anway. If you're ever in England, I'd suggest you look for a Sainbury (or Tesco) and stock up yourself, on all the gluten free delights that we can't get here.

I know this post is long and for that I apologize but I have to make one more very improtant point. I never had to settle for a bland, plain meal in either London or Paris. The most uninspired meal I had was actually one I'd packed for the Delta flight - a turkey sandwich, chips and fruit. But for breakfast I'd packed bacon, and egg, cheese, crackers and fruit and when the other passengers got a whif of my bacon, they all wanted what I had. Delta served a green bananna and a hard, cold roll for breakfast on that flight...lol! I ate like a Celiac queen during my travels and you can too. It takes some research and planning but it's oh so worth it! Safe and tasty gluten free travels everyone!!!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Eating out with friends - gluten free that is

My advice on this matter is simple. Don't do it...at least in the beginning. You'd be surprised at how difficult it is to sit around a table full of pasta and bread and not be able to have any of it, for the first time anyway. I don't care how much you care about your friends and family - you won't feel very loving towards them when they're noshing on crab cakes and you're eating crackers you brought in your purse. Trust me...I learned this the hard way. These days situations like that don't bother me at all, since I see gluten like others see rat poison. But that was not the case when I first started navigating this mysterious gluten free existence. It probably took me a good six months before I was comfortable going out with someone besides my husband for a meal ...except my gluten free dinner club but more about them later.

If you're lucky enough to have a supportive spouse like me, they won't order crab cakes or three layer chocolate cake in front of you. However, your friends, and probably even your family, won't be so thoughtful. You might even find yourself wanting to cram a loaf of bread down someones throat at some point. Keep in mind that no one is trying to aggravate you on purpose - it's just that if someone is not on a restrictive diet themselves, they can never understand how it feels.

Eventually you understand that it's really not even about the food - it's about someone saying 'you can't eat this or that'. Let me tell you that I didn't like the words 'you can't' when I was a child and my feelings about them have solidified with time. If you tell me I can't do something...anything...and I will set out to prove you wrong and so far I've never failed at this task. It should be noted that my parents raised me to believe I could do anything I set my mind to. Without question that belief was one of the greatest gifts they ever gave me.

Throughout my life I've met people that were scared of everything...(changing jobs, starting a business, moving to a new place) and I've never understood them. Thanks to my upbringing I doubt I ever will. If it weren't for the wonderful foundation with which I was raised, I'm certain I would not be diagnosed with Celiac today. You see, I would never thought of questioning doctor after doctor, all of whom were sure I didn't have Celiac disease. I can never express the gratitude I feel for all the things my parents did, and continue to do for our family. By the way, they will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary in December - congrats Mother and Daddy! Oh and for those of you not from the South, grown women routinely use the term Daddy for their fathers, no matter their own age....lol!

Okay I'll get back on track about eating out now. I did not believe others (mostly on Celiac message boards) who told me that my life of eating out and travel were over now that I had Celiac. Someone actually said 'the sooner you accept that, the better off you'll be'. As you can imagine I set out to prove them all wrong and thankfully, the book 'Let's Eat Out!' helped me do just that. It taught me (and showed me in easy to read graphs) exactly what I needed to do in order to eat out anywhere in the world gluten free. Well the book actually covers all top eight allergens but I only had to learn the gluten free stuff. The book is huge and I'm not going to pretend I read every word of it. But I read the important things that pertained to eating out with my own allergen of gluten, including all the sections that explained what dishes typically contain gluten all over the world. Let's Eat Out! helped me to take a trip of a lifetime, when many people told me to cancel my trip. Thank goodness those words 'you can't' kept popping up. Mmmm....we'll see who can't do what.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why had I never heard of Celiac disease before?

Going into my second month of gluten free living, I knew I still had a lot to learn (the curve is about a year on the gluten free diet) but I was up to the task. After all, what choice did I have? I wasn't knowingly going to eat gluten (poison to my system) and just hope that I didn't end up with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, stomach cancer or the other cancers that Celiac can cause if left untreated. Not everyone who has these cancers has Celiac, but some do. If you know anyone that has (or had) these cancers, please urge them to get tested for Celiac disease. Many cancer specialists in the US are undecided regarding the Celiac/cancer connection so they don't mention it to people who are afflicted with these cancers.

Unfortunately, the US medical community is appallingly undereducated about Celiac disease. I found this hard to digest at first but now that I've lived that truth personally, I'm not in denial anymore. My struggle to get properly diagnosed, proved that the doctors did NOT want to help me find out what was wrong. But they were more than happy to give me a prescription for iron supplements for the anemia...yeah I thought that was crazy too and bought on OTC supplement. Of course, I didn't absorb much of the iron since you can't absorb nutrients properly when you have Celiac and continue to eat gluten.

All of the Celiac Medical Specialists in the US, and in the rest of the world, agree there is proof (a lot of it actually) of a connection between several cancers and untreated Celiac disease. Only a small percentage of the patients with certain types of cancer are affected. If those that do have it but don't know it beat the cancer, and then continue eating gluten - their cancer will probably return again and again until it eventually wins. You see, in this country, there is a lot of money being made to treat cancer, but practically none being made to prevent it. Therefore, there are not a lot people out there shouting from the rooftops that we have a silent epidemic of Celiac disease in this country. After all, 1 in 100 people is a lot of people - that's 1% of our population, or 3 million of us. And that doesn't include the gluten intolerant population...more about them later.

Luckily for me and countless others, a book finally came out that spotlighted this issue. 'Celiac Disease : A Hidden Epidemic' by Dr. Peter H. Green of Columbia University's Celiac Center, was my greatest resource of information on the disease I had. My doctor didn't know much (if anything) about it so I was fortunate when Dr. Green's book hit the shelves in March 2006. If you have Celiac and haven't read this book yet, I suggest you get it. It will answer most all the questions you have, that your own doctor probably can't. I loan my copy out often so try and borrow one if you can't get your own copy. This book is a must read for anyone newly diagnosed, or those who want to know more about the condition they've had for years, and have not gotten much help from their own doctors. Dr. Green does a great job explaining a complicated condition, in easy to understand text. You'll be surprised to find out how many health problems untreated Celiac can cause. Celiac is an auto-immune disease and one of those begets another. But one's chances of avoiding other auto-immune diseases, greatly improve if the Celiac disease is treated with a gluten free diet. There is research being done right now, that might prove Celiac disease is the 'mother' of all auto-immune diseases.

Another interesting fact is that many people with undiagnosed Celiac have many other ailments (not necessarily auto-immune related) that will either go away or get much better, when the person goes on a gluten free diet. I personally know someone who was on 23 prescription medications before her Celiac was discovered. After a lifetime of bad health, she was finally given the answer she'd searched for most of her adult life. She went on the gluten free diet, lost over 100 extra pounds (that Celiac caused her to gain) and was free of most of her meds in the first year. In less than two years, she was completely free of all prescription medications. Keep in mind, she'd been told she'd be on most of them for the rest of her life and she wasn't forty years old yet. Her blood pressure returned to normal, as well as her cholesterol numbers and everything else she'd previously had problems with. Do you know how much money all those meds cost her a month? Now remember that a prescription drug co-pay is much less than the pharmaceutical companies are getting for the drug. That's a lot of money that the drug industry is not getting now, just because one person found out they had Celiac and went on the gluten free diet. I find that very interesting indeed....

To find out more about the campaign to educate US doctors about Celiac, please visit http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/about/ddnews/spr06/NDDICNewsSpring06.pdf.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I survived my first gluten free month!

I must admit that the first few weeks of my gluten free life were a blur. I had a gluten free mentor of sorts, who helped me immensely. I met her through the local Celiac Support Group and she answered ridiculous questions like 'is canola oil gluten free'?...almost on a daily basis for a month. A million thanks to you Nisla - I'm forever in your debt. By the way, canola oil is gluten free and can be used in place of vegetable oil, in most cases.

So the first week I rid my home of gluten (except husband's cereal and bread, which were now confined to a remote space in the pantry). Cleaning out the fridge and pantry took the entire weekend and even though I had help, neither my husband nor I were expert label readers then. I'm sure we threw out or gave away some items that were in fact gluten free. We found a good home for the unopened products (ALL my canned soups and cornbread mixes for instance) and were shocked to find in the end, we didn't have much left to eat. We thought we were such healthy eaters, but in actuality we had way more processed foods in our home than anyone should. And about 90% of them clearly listed wheat as an ingredient. Luckily, the US labeling law requiring companies to list wheat (in all forms) on labels, went into effect January 1st, 2006....three weeks before my diagnosis of Celiac. Of course, many things in the kitchen were purchased before that date so we used the motto 'when in doubt, leave it out'....or in this case, give it away.

The second week of my new life brought about my first delicate social situation. I had to cancel a lunch with a client. Do you know how odd it is to tell someone (whom you've eaten out with for years) that you don't know how to eat out anymore? Well in case you don't, it's extremely strange and even embarrassing. This particular client knew someone who had a Celiac child and knew how hard it was to learn this new way of living. She told me we could reschedule whenever I was comfortable doing so. Thanks RA...your support on my journey is appreciated more than you know.

Three weeks into my gluten free diet I faced quite a challenge. It was the 20th anniversary of the first date with my husband of 16+ years - Valentine's Day. This day is usually special but this year it would be different since we were venturing out to eat for the first time since my Celiac diagnosis. For the record, I don't recommend taking that plunge on a major holiday. Since I was not going to eat at a chain restaurant with a gluten free menu on this special night, I scrambled to find a gourmet place that could feed me safely. The restaurant I chose had a Chef with a Celiac wife and much of the menu is gluten free without modification (well except the appetizer and dessert courses...those are rarely very gluten free friendly). However, the place is so popular they don't take reservations. No problem....we'd get to the restaurant early (at 6 pm in fact) and we'd have a lovely time....seems I was not the only patron with this idea. When we arrived at 5:55 pm, the hostess quoted us an hour to hour and a half wait. You have got to be kidding me....we were in Buford, GA (over 20 miles north of Atlanta). Where did all these people even come from? It's not normal to go to dinner at 6 pm unless you're over 60, have Celiac, or are very frugal and like to catch the early bird specials. Obviously these folks didn't know it, but there were ruining my anniversary, Valentine's Day and my first gluten free dining out experience. The actual wait turned out to be just over two hours so by the time we sat down I could have eaten the tablecloth.

Lesson learned that night - don't EVER leave home without crackers or some other snack to nibble on in case of a long wait. And better yet, don't go to places when they have such long wait times to be seated, in the first place. Go on Sunday night instead of Friday or Saturday. Both you and the Chef will be happier if you follow this guideline....trust me on this one. If you patronize any the chains that offer gluten free menus, the kinds that don't have real Chefs, this rule still applies - if you want the best experience possible that is.

In the end, we did have a lovely gourmet (and gluten free) meal that first night out. I even ordered some fabulous cheeses for dessert since I didn't want the only other safe option of creme brulee. I ordered the cheese plate sans crackers (again it would have been nice to have my gluten free crackers there) and took most of it home to enjoy the next day. Even though I'd baked my first gluten free cake that afternoon as a surprise for my dessert loving husband, I convinced him to get something sweet to complete his meal. You see, I was curious about how the gluten free vanilla cake I'd made tasted, so I shaved a little piece off before assembling my heart shaped masterpiece. That bite proved my efforts were a waste...the cake had a great look and texture but it tasted like it had a little wheat germ in it. Of course, if did not but the result was the same - it was awful! When we arrived home from our long evening out, my husband insisted he wanted to try the cake that I'd made with love (and crossed fingers). He tasted it...struggled for something positive to say and finally said the frosting was great. We promptly threw the entire thing into the trash can as we didn't think it would be nice to feed to the birds, chipmunks and rabbits that hang out in our back yard. I don't think all the sugar in the icing would have been good for them.

It should be noted that at that time, I was able to buy a national brand of canned frosting that was gluten free. The maker of this product now states that since their ingredients change often, and many times include barley, it might be best for those avoiding gluten to avoid their frosting in a can. If you want a gluten free frosting you don't have to make yourself, I suggest trying Decadent Chocolate frosting from Trader Joe's if you're lucky enough to have a Trader Joe's. If not, check out your local store brands. The most offending ingredient in these products is generally malt made from barley, but the labeling laws do not require barley to be listed. When you see malt on the label, further investigation into the source of the malt is needed before consuming.

The most important thing I did in the first month of being gluten free was contact my local support group (http://www.atlantametroceliacs.com/). Because of that connection, I was lucky enough to see Dr. Cynthia Rudert speak about my condition, only two weeks after my diagnosis. Dr. Rudert is the only nationally recognized Celiac expert in the Southeastern US and she's the only doctor I'd seen to date, that thought there was life after Celiac. I don't want to misquote her but her comment was something like 'It's a great time to be a Celiac'. And you know what? ....she was right!

Monday, August 27, 2007

I have Celiac what?....and by the way, what in the world is gluten?

In January 2005 I complained to my new doctor that I was extremely fatigued and it was affecting my quality of life. She tested my thyroid and when it came back 'normal', she offered me no other help or ideas as to what was wrong with me. Three months later I was getting my skin cancer check up at the dermatologist when I complained of the fatigue problem. That doctor sent me for an iron level test that day, and rushed the results which showed I was severely anemic. I was put on iron supplements and that was the end of it...for my doctor anyway. No one thought it odd that an otherwise healthy 40 year old just became anemic out of the blue...well except for me, of course.

Over the next few months I was subjected to several invasive tests, including several to rule out various cancers. Finally in January 2006, almost a year to the day after I first complained to my doctor that something was wrong with me, I was finally diagnosed with Celiac Disease (1). It should be noted that two of the three doctors I consulted with on my journey told me that the only positive marker for Celiac (of the six panel blood test) was just a 'fluke'. Since I did not have typical intestinal distress symptoms, I could not possibly have Celiac disease. When the doctor (that I manipulated into doing the biopsy) called with the news that I did indeed have it, he told me I could still eat rice, corn and potatoes and hung up...just like that. I was on my own and had to figure out how to live a gluten free life, in a world full of gluten. It's easy for me now but it's an overwhelming task in the beginning, to say the least.

If it weren't for some strangers on a Celiac message board, who explained that not many doctors know how to recognize Celiac disease in this country, I would probably be undiagnosed today. I'm glad I listened to those cyber friends and risked being labeled a hypochondriac by pressing for answers, until I finally got the correct one. But wait...I was lucky enough to be born in the United States of America...so how is it that I have a disease I've never heard of? And it's easily treated with a gluten free diet (no wheat, rye, barley or oats (2)) so why does it take an average of 9 years for a proper diagnosis of Celiac in the US? What I've learned about that is way too disconcerting to ramble on about here, so I'll just say this. There is at present, no prescription drug to treat my condition. I don't mind since I don't want to take a pill (and certainly not three a day) just so I can eat gluten. But if there ever is such a pill (two companies are supposedly working on one) there will be a $10 million ad campaign blasted on every tv station, which will scare the general public at large into thinking they could have Celiac, or at least gluten intolerance. Gotta love those drug companies....lol!

It is my hope that with this blog, I can help others navigate their own gluten free lives, as easily as possible. More to come...

(1) Celiac Disease affects 1 in 100 Americans, 90% of those affected are undiagnosed at present. To find out if you're one of them visit http://www.celiaccentral.org/.

(2) Regular oats are typically contaminated with wheat, which makes them off limits on the gluten free diet. There are several companies that produce safe, gluten free oats and mine come from http://www.glutenfreeoats.com/. These oats are also available at some health food stores and make fantastic oatmeal raisin cookies!

Gluten-free in a pandemic? No problem!

Not to make light of the current situation the world finds itself in, but I'm so thankful that I learned to self isolate when I was diag...