We went out to dinner the other night with a couple in Savannah, GA., when the subject of gluten came up.
The husband would like to try going gluten free to see if he feels better, particularly the arthritis in his hands. But he still has to convince his wife, who loves bread, to get on board. This is kind of a sticking point because his wife is the one who cooks.
I told him it’s really up to his wife because if the cook isn’t 100 percent on board, going gluten-free won’t work. Gluten is everywhere: Pam cooking spray. Taco seasoning packets. Chicken broth. Cold cuts (not Boars Head). Packaged seasoned rice. Breath mints. Gum.
Going gluten free – and by that I mean really gluten free – is hard work. It requires constant vigilance, label reading, interrogating waitresses, pestering hostesses, incessant menu planning, and a bit of obsession to pull off.
I know this because I’ve been 95 percent gluten free for about nine years, removing it and dairy (well, most of the time) to control joint inflammation.
A naturopath recommended giving up gluten and dairy after I suffered a bout of rheumatoid arthritis after a stressful series of life events around 2010. The pain moved from joint to joint, shifting from my wrist to my knee to my hips. It eventually became so painful that walking was difficult some days. I tested negative for celiac disease, but was told that leaky gut syndrome can cause joint inflammation.
I removed gluten and dairy from my diet, and my stomach and intestines felt calmer within three days. The joint pain and swelling dissipated, making me feel better than I had in months. Tests showed my inflammation levels had decreased. More than anything, I was relieved to be pain-free.
Unlike other things I’ve given up, remaining gluten- and dairy-free does not get easier with time. In fact, the urge to cheat grows incrementally each year. It’s hard to eat pizza that tastes like cardboard and sandwich rolls that crumble under the weight of tuna salad while others indulge in real pizza, or dunk fresh rolls in flavored oil. It’s hard to watch people eat chocolate birthday cake, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream or Boston cream doughnuts while you nosh on a handful of almonds or assorted olives.
This cropped up when my 16-year-old daughter commandeered a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts during our last day of vacation in South Carolina. When I jokingly told her that that I planned to have the last doughnut, she took it out unapologetically and announced, “You can’t have it. It’s got gluten in it. So forget about it. It’s mine.” Brat.
She is technically right, but let’s make one thing clear: I am voluntarily gluten free. I don’t have celiac disease, which is different and a lot more serious . People with celiac disease can’t eat gluten or they become violently ill. I have a sensitivity to gluten, meaning if I cheat I feel guilty and have joint swelling for a few days. I consciously choose not to eat it, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it or always manage to do it.
Just because you don’t eat gluten or dairy doesn’t mean you don’t want to, aren’t extremely tempted or don’t occasionally cave in. I guess it’s a little like the woman named Helen I met the other day on the Pickleball court. As we swatted the ball in the hot southern sun, the intoxicating aroma of bacon filled the air. We looked a little like dogs tilting our heads back to get a better whiff.
“Boy, that bacon smells fantastic,” Helen said. “And I’m a vegetarian.”
You’d think a person would lose the desire for a real Everything bagel or full-fledged fluffy popover with raspberry butter after nine years without them. But our brains are funny when it comes to food. We still want what we can’t have, no matter how much time passes by. The desire to eat something doesn’t disappear because you can’t or shouldn’t eat something. K.D. Lang’s song “Constant Craving” comes to mind, though I know she wasn’t talking about food.
Years ago, I had a tiny problem with cigarettes. I began smoking a few cigarettes in college while writing term papers to get the juices flowing. Later, as a reporter, I would light a celebratory cigarette after deadline to relax and unwind. I knew it was bad for me – my father was a cardiologist after all – but I enjoyed it and was still stupid enough to think I was invincible.
As I got older, I continued to smoke one cigarette a day, retreating to the privacy of our screened porch and out of sight of my two kids every evening. I was ashamed of my habit, but I couldn’t quit. I was addicted to one cigarette a day, and was pretty much convinced someone could be addicted to one puff. That’s how addictive nicotine is.
I finally quit when my son was in fourth grade. I didn’t want my kids to smoke – I had stolen my first cigarette from my mother’s pack of L&M’s when I was 17 – and I didn’t want cigarettes in the house. I decided to do something else at about 7 p.m. when the urge would kick in, and stopped. It was a huge monkey was off my back because I hated everything about it, including buying them at the local gas station. I always felt like such a loser buying my pack of Salem Lights, hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew.
I still like the smell of a cigarette, or better yet, a cigar or pipe in open air. But I’ve never been tempted to smoke again, even when prodded to “bum” cigarettes by other women who like to smoke at weddings. I won’t even bum cigarettes for anyone because I feel if you want to smoke, you should procure your own cigarettes.
As for the Vape movement, I suppose it’s better than cigarettes, but I don’t get it and have never been tempted to try it. It’s always a little strange when you see people vaping in stores or even on the golf course. No one ever looks particularly proud or happy to be vaping. It always seems to be something done while no one’s looking, in the corners of aisles or in the shadows.
The lure of gluten and dairy has never waned. If anything, it’s grown stronger over the years, and I’ve caved in more than I ever thought I would in the early days. It began with a few scoops of regular ice cream a few summers ago, and now includes the occasional slice of real pizza, or handful of peanut M & Ms. I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth. I’m not 100 percent any more, which saddens me in a way. It’s so nice to feel you’ve got control, even if it’s over a piece of bread.
The good news is that following a gluten- and dairy-free diet is easier today than it was a decade ago. Food companies are now catering to a growing market of consumers who can’t or won’t eat gluten or dairy. When I first began, I could only get gluten free pasta at the health food store, and it was awful – mushy and tasteless. Today, major manufacturers like Ronzoni are producing a line of gluten-free pastas that are indistinguishable from regular pasta.
Of course, there’s still much work to be done, particularly in the area of hamburger and hotdog rolls, bagels, English muffins and pizza dough. But for anyone who wants to eliminate gluten, it’s never been easier. The biggest obstacle is wrapping your brain around it, and committing to it 100 percent. Then again, that’s always our biggest challenge, isn’t it?