Monday, May 31, 2010

Celiac study seeks participants.

Have you been diagnosed with celiac disease within the last 3 months? If you're over 18 and live in the US, you can participate in a study on pre-diagnosis diet. Read the specs here and email <celiacstudy at nventure dot com> to get involved.

Friday, May 28, 2010

It's the little things.

Here's something that makes me happy: going out for dinner with friends, toting along my bottle of GF soy sauce, and having our friendly server exclaim, "Oh, does someone here have a gluten issue? We have gluten-free soy sauce in the kitchen and we can make your appetizer (sesame spinach) with that." AWESOME! Kudos to Mikimotos in Wilmington, where choices include Thai-inspired curries and paella, rice noodle dishes, and a wide selection of fresh, delicious sushi. I really appreciate that the servers and kitchen staff alike are attuned to the existence of their GF customers.

I'm grateful for the advocacy work accomplished by the celiac awareness movement in the many years up til now (celiac disease was first described in the 2nd century CE but wasn't linked to wheat until the 1940s) when gluten intolerance is becoming more widely known in the food and restaurant industries. I feel fortunate, relatively speaking, to have been diagnosed at a time when possibilities are expanding every day. The response I've received from most friends and acquaintances alike has been overwhelmingly supportive, and people in general are more curious about celiac disease than I could have possibly imagined.

That said, the word "diet" makes me so frustrated. It gets thrown around so indiscriminately that many people think the gluten-free diet is the latest fad or trendy health craze or weight loss regimen (au contraire). As if gluten-free is the new macrobiotic or organic or fat-free or low-carb or raw food or grapefruit or caveman diet. As if I had a choice.

The problem with gluten is that it's virtually everywhere so it requires a drastically new way of dealing with all food and avoiding contamination. And the repercussions are in the long-term, in addition to the immediate reaction of being glutened (which varies from person to person), so it requires strict self-discipline at all times. There's no cheating in celiac disease! Even if I don't get sick right away, although I probably would, it's an investment in my future health so that I can hopefully reduce my risk of far more serious problems.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Gluten-free field trip.

Yesterday we took a road trip to our nation's lovely capital. We spent some time wandering around the Mall area before heading to Nationals Park for the Mets/Nats game. My main concern, not surprisingly: what can I eat?

Pickings are slim around the tourist areas of the Mall, besides overpriced food carts and museum cafeterias, but the Mitsitam Native Foods Café is a welcome exception. It's the cafeteria on the ground floor of the beautiful National Museum of the American Indian. There are four food stations, each one featuring indigenous specialties of a different geographic region, and all items are clearly labeled if they're vegetarian or gluten-free. The menu choices are thoughtful and creative, including buffalo/duck burgers, fire-roasted salmon, grilled bison steak, and quinoa salad.

Unfortunately they aren't kidding when they say "limited menu" after 3 p.m. When we got there at 4, only one station was open and there wasn't anything GF except for a few sad pieces of salad. Lesson learned! But the café is clean, sophisticated, and inviting; Mitsitam is definitely the place to eat interestingly and gluten-free on the Mall, but get there before 3 to do so.

I'd read that there were gluten-free snacks available at Nationals Park, so I was looking forward to investigating. There's a tiny cart in Section 110 called the Healthy Plate, which offers wraps, salads, yogurt parfaits (all non-GF), gluten-free chips ($3), and Redbridge beer ($6.50), which is made from sorghum. Noah's Pretzels does indeed sell gluten-free soft pretzels ($5.25), but I just can't recommend them. While I appreciate their effort, I thought my pretzel tasted awful. They are frozen and individually wrapped and heated so there's no cross-contamination worry. Mine was apparently produced in January 2009. Fresh, not so much. The main ingredient is tapioca flour, rather than a more promising flour blend, and the pretzel was dry, pasty, and had a displeasing flavor. Blech. Moral of the story: as always, dear celiacs, make sure you eat first, unless you can make a meal of chips and beer.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wheat dreams.

Right after my diagnosis, I would have vivid, lovelorn dreams about forbidden gluten. (Really, it is just like getting dumped.) I would wake up raging like The Hulk after dreaming of pizza. Well, some major transformation has occurred in my subconscious since then. Last night I dreamed I had a gluten-free pb&j and someone placed their regular sandwich on top of mine, rendering mine inedible. I was crestfallen. It's funny that even my dreams have turned gluten-free. Or maybe a sandwich is just a sandwich.

One of the quirks of celiac life is that, at least in my experience, you need to shop at several different grocery stores to find everything you want. This has become something of an official hobby - I enjoy checking out new stores and exploring the gluten-free items. Even if I'm not interested in the products, it's still dorkily thrilling to see what's out there. (Many of my non-GF allies have gotten into the game as well.)

Newark Natural Foods, a local co-op, is a must for gluten-free staples and treats. The prices are steep (things are usually priced above Whole Foods, which doesn't exist in Delaware anyway, though I suppose that's the cost of supporting independent stores) but I like their selection of organic produce and their huge range of GF miscellany, most of which is conveniently labeled as such on the shelves, that can't be found at chain supermarkets.

Some highlights of today's new-to-me GF haul include Flamous Falafel Chips, which are, as advertised, delicious with hummus, and Amaranth's hot dog buns. If you forget what you used to know about hot dog buns, these are quite good - they're more like a whole wheat/multigrain bun. (Which, in fact, they are. They're made with a brown rice, millet, amaranth, tapioca, coconut starch, and arrowroot flour blend.) Not that I recommend eating hot dogs often, especially given yesterday's monumentally non-shocking news, but I've had a craving. At $6 for four buns, I am reminded that GF life is not for the faint of heart and/or wallet.

Monday, May 17, 2010

GF kitties - who knew?

Even our feline friends can join the gluten-free world! I came across this Blue Wilderness canned cat food at Petsmart yesterday and of course those two magic words jumped out at me immediately. While it's true that cats don't really need grains and fillers in their food, in my cynical and non-veterinary opinion the GF labeling here seems to be capitalizing on the recent wave of gluten awareness. Although who knows, maybe it is a plus for celiac pet owners who don't want any gluten in their house whatsoever. Case in point: my cats' favorite treats do contain gluten, so I have to remember to wash my hands after feeding them to make sure no minuscule crumbs transfer to whatever I eat next. Their regular dry food happens to be wheat-free, by coincidence.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What's for dinner?

Some things never change, whether you have celiac or not: sometimes dinner means scrounging the pantry for anything edible, and sometimes I have the energy and initiative to cook something interesting. Tonight I made my first successful foray into the world of scallop searing and with this guide, it really couldn't have been easier.

Next time I will probably use my cast iron skillet to get more of that nice crispy sear, but they were tender and perfectly cooked. Just make sure you rinse them well and pat dry before cooking. For an alternative, coat the scallops in GF breadcrumbs and give them a quick broil. Or serve them in a wilted spinach salad, à la Macaroni Grill. I see a lot of pan-seared scallops in my future this summer, when using the oven is just too unpleasant.

I paired my scallops with roasted veggies - not as photogenic but they tasted great. I chopped up a small eggplant, green pepper, onion, and asparagus. Put them in a foil-lined pan (or not, but it makes cleanup easier) and drizzle everything with olive oil. Mix it up with your hands to make sure it's all evenly coated and season with some kosher salt and pepper, and if you are so inclined, a few garlic cloves and/or balsamic vinegar. Pop it in the oven at about 400-450° for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring once or twice. Super easy and extremely tasty.

On Friday I was in downtown Philly so naturally I had to drop by Sweet Freedom Bakery, a gluten-free, every imaginable allergen-free bakery on South Street between Broad and 15th. They have sidewalk tables and cozy indoor seating, where you can savor your GF treat and a beverage - or just bask in the heavenly aroma of baked goods you can actually eat. On this occasion I tried (only in the name of science and journalism, of course) the mint chocolate chip cookie and the strawberry-rhubarb oat cobbler. The mint was a bit overpowering for me, but the cobbler was the best thing I've tasted yet from SFB. It had a nice oatmeal cookie crust base with the sweet/tart fruity topping and oats sprinkled on top. A little oily and very sweet but I really enjoyed it. The cobbler and my willpower did not last long enough for a photo.

To complete my weekend wrap-up, I'd like to give a big celiac raspberry to Texas Roadhouse, which, in a rare turn for national chains these days, does not have a GF menu. I'm not sure what I expected from a restaurant that encourages patrons to drop peanut shells on the floor - classy! And the newly-added indoor caution sign is a bit "too little, too late" for those with severe peanut allergies. In my defense, it was close and I was starving. (I feel fine after having a sirloin sans seasoning, baked potato, and plain steamed broccoli, however.) I won't even mention the guy with the swastika tattoo. Check, please!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Celiac 101.

ce·li·ac also coe·li·ac (sē'lē-āk')
adj. Of or relating to the abdomen or abdominal cavity.

[Latin coeliacus, from Greek koiliakos, from koiliā, abdomen, from koilos, hollow; see keuə- in Indo-European roots.]

I love words and I am from that disappearing breed of sticklers for spelling and grammar. So I'll start this blog at the very beginning (a very good place to start) and establish that it's not "celiacs" or "celiac's" disease, just as it's not "cardiacs disease." (But you can say celiac as a noun, as in "person with celiac disease.") Whew. Sorry. That's off my chest now and I feel much better.

Celiac disease is a hereditary autoimmune disorder marked by the inability to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. The immune system starts attacking the villi of the small intestine and this wreaks all sorts of havoc and unpleasantness. Someone with unaddressed celiac disease is at great risk for cancer, osteoporosis, anemia, infertility, and other serious problems. Symptoms vary widely and don't always present in a typical manner, so diagnosis may be extremely difficult. A blood test and intestinal biopsy are the current gold standard for diagnosis.

Until I was diagnosed, I didn't give much thought as to why I was suddenly seeing "gluten-free" on so many food labels. But it's not a trendy diet; the gluten-free diet is not remotely the same thing as low-carb or Atkins. For folks with celiac disease, gluten is poison and being gluten-free is being poison-free. We can't have "just a taste" because that's sort of like a tiny taste of Drano. Molecules are enough to cause intestinal damage. It's a zero tolerance situation and it is astounding to discover all the places where the enemy lurks (seriously, lip gloss?!). It's not a matter of "oh, she can pick out the croutons" because one breadcrumb can be enough to make trouble. We have to be careful about not only what we're eating, but how it was processed and how it was prepared. Being gluten-free is a serious game-changer and it requires constant, lifelong vigilance.

When I was diagnosed this past January, it was a total shock. "Beth! This is so interesting!" gushed my doctor. ("Interesting" isn't the word you want to hear in regard to medical procedures.) She had me tested on a vague curiosity and my tTG levels came back among the highest she'd ever seen. I had been feeling increasingly sick for at least 2 years but I was sure it was stress, malaise, or an overabundance of pad ki mao. I tried to eat well but couldn't identify the dietary culprit. Not only did I feel gross all the time, but I'd become accustomed to it; I'd forgotten what normal felt like. But I was certain I didn't have celiac disease!

So I was completely stunned and it only got worse as I researched the list of now-verboten foodstuffs. SOY SAUCE?! Only the most clever and vengeful god could dream up such a punishment for me. As a fiercely independent person (Sagittarius in the house), I resented the sudden restriction on my most basic liberty - eating! - and as a foodie I was devastated by the thought of not being able to dine and explore freely. I mourned for so many favorite dishes I would never taste again, and some early experiments with subdelectable gluten-free products left me teary and hopeless.

Now, lest you think this blog is nothing but wallowing, here comes the happy part. Mostly, as Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl fame has written, it is so lucky to have a disease where (a) the damage is reversible, and (b) the only treatment is food! Instead of dwelling on what we can't eat, it's so much more productive to think about everything we can eat. Meats, fish, veggies, fruit, rice, potatoes, legumes, alternative grains - they're all a-okay. Thai and Indian food, two of my favorite cuisines, are still largely open to me, to my great joy. I've even discovered honestly fabulous gluten-free bread. It was a turning point for me to realize that much of what I now live without is stuff I really don't need to eat anyway. All that processed, super-refined stuff that's barely food? Cookies, muffins, French fries? I don't need that. Like most breakups, it's awful at first but soon you look back and wonder why you wasted your time with that jerk.

I am now more than 3 months gluten-free and nearly-dairy-free as well. Yes, it can be challenging, especially with dairy also on the hitlist, but in general it's rewarding to look healthier, to help my insides slowly recover from all that abuse, and to feel great about all the delicious REAL food I now eat. I've even cozied up to vegetables for which my disdain had been legendary (roasted tomatoes, I'm talking to you); who am I now to hold a pre-adolescent grudge against any foods I can still consume?! For further confidence-building on the matter of Real Food and the pitfalls of the Western diet, I recommend reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan if you haven't already done so. I was already on board the organic/sustainable/healthy train, but now I'm even more committed. My health depends on it.

I plan to use this blog to provide more information about celiac disease, to review and discuss products and restaurant experiences in the Philadelphia/Delaware area, and to share my adventures in living well on wheat-nothings!

Thanks so much for joining me.