If you are anything like me and have been known to stalk and shop your local health food store and the "healthy living" aisle at your local grocery, then perhaps you've come across a variety of foods labeled "gluten free." I know I was sorta puzzled when I first happened upon this category of foods, knowing neither what gluten was nor why anyone would need foods that were free of it.
Eventually, I was introduced to the world of gluten free cooking and eating through my sweet friend Melissa. She and her sister Melanie have chosen gluten free lifestyles as a way to counteract the effects of Celiac Disease. Melanie was gracious enough to do this Q&A with me as a way to explain more about her family's experience with Celiac Disease and how to make the switch to gluten free living:
What is Celiac Disease?
About Celiac Disease:
Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disease, is an inability to break down the protein gluten which is found in wheat, barley, and rye. Oats are off limits for the most part as well, since they are almost always processed right alongside wheat. When a person with Celiac eats gluten, it destroys the villi lining the small intestine, and causes microscopic tears in the lining of the intestine. Typical symptoms are gastrointestinal - constipation, diarrhea, but because the gluten leaks out of the gut, it can manifest in MANY different ways - other common symptoms are headaches, fatigue, mental fogginess, restlessness, chronic congestion, skin irritations (in fact dermtitis herpatiformis is an itchy rash that is caused by Celiac disease). Celiac is highly associated with ALL auto immune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, etc. In many cases, a person struggling with one autoimmune disease will benefit greatly, or be cured by eliminating gluten from their diet. Many autistic kids are either much improved or completely healed by going on a gluten free diet. About 1 in 100 people have celiac - some never know it because the symptoms may be tolerable, and so it is never investigated. Ireland is the Celiac capitol of the world at about 1 in 75 people. All children in some European countries are tested for it prior to entering the public school system. Celiac is most common in those of European descent. It is also genetic.
Describe your family's experience with Celiac.
Cooper, my middle son, began having chronic headaches about 5 years ago. They worsened over the course of a year, and instead of just having them every night at bedtime, he began having them all day, and even waking up at night in pain. He also complained of stomach aches quite a bit, developed a few nervous tics, and began to just have a sort of grey appearance, circles under the eyes, and a constant complaint of "Mom, I don't feel good." He underwent an MRI (horrific experience!) to see if there was a tumor, as he was also complaining of fuzzy vision. No tumor and the pediatric neurologist (with a very big ego!) diagnosed him with migraines and tourettes! I just knew that wasn't it, but we tried the migraine diet of no nuts, chocolate, strawberries, cheese, etc. Nothing changed. A friend mentioned Celiac, because her son was in the process of being diagnosed and our boys had a lot of similar symptoms. I got online and did the research, then asked my pediatrician to do the blood test. (They test for certain elevated antibodies) He said he doubted this was the problem, but didn't mind testing. Cooper's results were inconclusive as we discovered that he lacks an antibody which throws the results off, but one antibody was elevated enough to convince me to try the diet. (Cooper also had an endoscopy where they take a biopsy of your small intestine to look for damaged villi under the microscope - his results were negative, but a lot of people have a false negative reading because of the length of the intestine and the patchiness of the damage. This test remains the gold standard, and you cannot be truly diagnosed as Celiac without it - oh well - no more tests for us, thank you!) Two weeks gluten free and an almost complete removal of all symptoms! I was totally convinced!
As I researched on behalf of Cooper, I realized that I had all the common symptoms - things I just thought were "normal for me." I was tested by a doctor in Dallas (all through the mail - and a stool sample this time!) and found that I had very elevated antibodies indicating a gluten intolerance and was malabsorbing fats with off the charts numbers - I had been loosing weight pretty steadily as well. Not long after this, my daughter started complaining of stomach aches and having daily diarrhea, so we tested her and she was positive. My oldest son had a blood test just to rule it out - no symptoms really except for chronic congestion and a need for ear tubes because of it at age ten! His blood work was negative, but about two years later, we did the stool test and it came back positive. So, my husband is the only family member that eats gluten, although not much of it since I hardly have it in the house!
How did you did you make the adjustment to gluten-free living?
At first it seemed very challenging to think of things to eat, but when your child's health is in jeopardy, you just don't look back. I joined a support group in my town, collected recipes, read books, found cookbooks and just forged ahead. Honestly, we eat much healthier - fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken, beef, eggs, nuts, rice, and potatoes! Anything highly processed is usually off limits because it has wheat in it - cookies, prepared foods, breadstuffs. And anything with a long list of ingredients is usually off limits as well - canned soups, salad dressings, sauces, etc. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but often I'm thankful that some things are just not an option in our house! (I've made us corn syrup, msg, and food dye free as well!) I do use some alternative flours for baked goods - mostly rice, tapioca, potato, bean, and nut flours. Almost everything is from scratch, but we do indulge in ready made frozen waffles and pancakes from Trader Joe's (small quirky chain - sorta resembling Whole Foods), brown rice wraps, and Gluten Free Bakehouse sandwich bread and pizza crusts from Whole Foods. Both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are on the same street as me and less than a half mile from my house! HUGE BLESSING - except for the temptation to go to Whole Foods every single day and deplete the checking account!
Tell a little about the book you've written.
I wrote and self-published a book for kids about Celiac Disease. There was nothing out there to read to kids when we were being diagnosed, and I always look for a book to help explain things! It's called Bagels, Buddy, and Me, came out in September, and can be purchased through the website bagelsbuddyandme.com. In it Cooper tells his story of being diagnosed and making the transition to eating gluten free. The story idea came after the first three of us had been diagnosed, and our new golden retriever was needing to go out several times a night because of diarrhea. A friend told us their retriever could not tolerate wheat, and we should try switching food. We switched from a wheat based food to a rice based food and he was never sick again! We could not believe it - how weird is that? The WHOLE family except for dad!
Thank you so much, Melanie, for taking the time to share this insight into Celiac Disease and the benefits of gluten free living! Both Melanie and Melissa have more gluten free links in their blog sidebars. If you are interested in learning more, I know either of these wonderful women would be happy to share more with you!
And now, if you really want to be blessed today, I highly encourage you to click here to listen to "Music From Another Room" - an amazing, inspiring, thought-provoking treasure of a song, written and performed by Melissa. (Melissa didn't know I was going to do this. Hope she isn't mad! I just can't NOT share it!)