So, You Wanna Be Gluten-Free?
As you may (or may not) know, I recently learned that I have multiple food allergies. Since I had the talk with my immunologist, I’ve experienced frustration on levels I can’t accurately put into words, as well as several hilarious (if you’re a true sadist) and memorable mishaps. Gluten-free existence is, by far, not a walk in the park.
Being gluten- (and other grain) free has given me back, or more accurately, given me, a life in many respects. I spent years waking up (and going to bed) with joint pain and headaches, persistent stomach issues, and rashes whose origin I never knew. I felt sick for days after having pizza with friends, and never understood why. I had acne on my face that no topical concoction could remedy. I had swelling, numbness, and tingling in my legs and feet I thought everyone experienced.
If you experience even one-fourth of the discomfort with which I’ve existed for most of my life, by all means, please, please get checked out and adjust your diet accordingly.
If you’re considering gluten-(or other grain) free without a medical reason, I’d ask you to hear me out, and, possibly, carefully reconsider.
Here are a few facts about gluten-free living you may wish to know:
Living Gluten- (or Other Grain) Free is Expensive
Gluten-free on its own is expensive. I am also unable to eat rice, corn, or oats, so I’ve got a whole other layer of confusion/frustration with which to deal. And it’s a lifestyle from which I have no choice. I have begun shopping at Whole Foods (where, yes, I still need to carefully read labels), and buy as much fresh produce as possible. Shopping at a ‘regular’ grocery store is time-consuming and unnecessarily expensive, and shopping at stores like Wal Mart is completely out. If you choose to buy gluten-free items such as bread, cookies, cake, etc.., please be aware that nothing costs below $5.00. Not pizza crust, not bread, not teeny, tiny mini muffins. And you may not even enjoy the taste or utility of the item(s) you chose. In that case, it’s six to ten dollars completely wasted, unless you can convince someone else in your household to consume it for you.
Some Don’t Take Gluten-Free Very Seriously
I’ve been investigatively interviewed by many a server in a restaurant, friends, and even family members. With each inquisition, I learn that people either a) don’t believe gluten sensitivity truly exists or b) don’t believe I have one. “So, how’d you know you couldn’t eat…?” is usually how the interrogation begins, and, by the end, I’m honestly not sure whether they believe me or not. I’ve even gone so far as rolling up my sleeves to show family what it’s done to my skin. Still, I’m not so certain they believe me. So, should you decide to go gluten-free of your own behest, please be prepared for many questions, and formulate your retorts carefully.
Not All Dining Establishments are ‘On Board’ with Gluten-Free Offerings
I’ll share a few anecdotes with you. My husband and I decided to try a popular barbecue restaurant in Providence who advertised their meat was gluten-free. When we were greeted by our server, I informed her I had a gluten allergy, and asked her which sides I could eat. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “I don’t know.” I asked her if we could find a person who knows, because, hey, it makes me sick, and she said, “Well, my boss doesn’t really know, either.” I asked if she could try to find out. She walked to the window (of the restaurant’s open kitchen), and told the cook that I had a gluten allergy, and the cook responded, “Damn! I HATE THAT! That’s so annoying! I mean, if you have a food allergy, why would you even go out to eat?” My coat and purse were in hand and we were out the door before she returned to the table.
More recently, I called in an order to a favorite Italian restaurant of ours. I asked about a particular dish, and the hostess informed me, a little too quickly, that the meal I chose was ‘okay’. I had to inform her that people usually ask the chef, who then tells them whether the meal is safe to eat or could be modified. After putting me on hold for a moment, she returned to let me know it was ‘fine’. She asked what I wanted for a side and offered one option, which was not gluten-free. I opted for pasta, which I would give to my Dad, to be kept separate in a separate container. When I returned home, about ten miles later, I opened my container to find floured chicken cutlets, atop a large bed of linguine, covered in a creamy sauce. I ate spinach salad that night.
These are only two of the innumerable experiences I’ve had thus far. If you’re ordering gluten-free, please do not expect uniform responses, people knowledgeable about gluten in general, people who care, or your food not to have gluten in it.
You Could Make Enemies Out of Friends
There’s nothing worse than attending a party, holiday, or gathering where the host has slaved over a hot stove or oven, and you have to refuse, or otherwise adulterate, their food. Eventually, they will learn your needs and modify an offering or two to accommodate you, but you’ll rarely get a full, satisfying meal. And they won’t feel they’ve provided you what you need. There are also instances where they’ll go out of their way to get or make something they think you can eat, and it will turn out you can’t. Or they’ll become frustrated when you perpetually ask how their items were made. It’s a difficult circumstance for everyone, especially well-meaning family. And your close family? Just imagine telling them you can’t go to their favorite restaurant or eat their favorite cuisine because there aren’t enough (or any) options. Or making them pore through online menus, make calls to ask questions, and report the gluten-free options to you while you drive.
You’ll Never Believe the Items that Contain Gluten
How do I say this? Like the Combo #8 from the Chinese takeout place? Enjoy it now, because you won’t be able to have it again. MSG, soy sauce, and all manner of breading and battering contain gluten. Food items you would never believe, from dry seasonings to soda to cold cuts to salad dressings to the hot chili sauce from Wendy’s, contain gluten. Even the butter at a large barbecue chain (I used to enjoy) contains gluten. Prepare for severely limited choices, especially at restaurants. If you like patties of unseasoned beef with no bun and salad with oil and vinegar (wait – it depends on what kind), you’re in for a real treat. If you’re looking for a meal like you’ve always known (and no dirty looks from the staff), do not bark up the gluten-free tree. Like liquor? Well, I hope you like vodka, because most other types of liquor (including beer) contain gluten. And, just for the record, vodka is now being made with wheat, so prepare to inspect an entire shelf or two of vodka before you find one actually distilled from potatoes. And that one will cost thirty-four dollars.
Cozy Up to Your Stove
The only tried and true way to ensure your food is gluten- (or other grain) free, is to make it yourself. If you enjoy cooking and have time, this choice is perfect. You can eat like a king (or queen) with a little ingenuity, fresh ingredients, and time. But it takes time. And you will most likely have to omit and/or substitute items. You must also be willing to accept the fact that there are some foods you may never eat again, or, at least not the way you’ve always known.
For anyone considering going gluten-free as a health-conscious, or “diet” option, I would strongly urge you to consider otherwise. Gluten-free living has roadblocks and detours that I, had I not discovered my allergies, would be less than enthusiastic about overcoming. Between the cost of my quality of social interaction (i.e., dinner and a movie with my husband or a drink with the girls) and the actual cost of living gluten-free in time and money, were I able to avoid these behemoth sacrifices, I would.
As far as my own health is concerned, though, I am many times grateful for the enormous gift my immunologist has given to me. I can play with my children without pain, I’m not swallowing Advil (which further ruins your stomach, by the way) daily like Chiclets, and waking up in the morning is no longer an activity I dread. Truly, on a personal level, the benefits outweigh the costs.
The world has opened up for me. I just wouldn’t want to see it narrow unnecessarily for you.