Picture the generic food pyramid; it says to eat a bunch of carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, protein and just a touch of sweets. Now cut the large base portion off of the pyramid. Divide the rest of it in half and hole punch it until it resembles Swiss cheese. This is what a gluten-free diet looks like.
After several months of digestive issues, dozens of tests and no solutions, I’m nearly one month into eating gluten-free. “Basically,” my doctor told me, “you just can’t eat anything that comes in a box.” Being an athlete, it’s important that I fulfill my daily caloric needs. Never before has 2,000-a-day been so difficult to obtain.
Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat, rye and barly. Although those with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, there are people without the disease who have gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy.
I didn’t realize how difficult the transition would be until my first trip to the grocery store. I walked past the fragrant bakery and through isles of crackers, pasta, cereal, frozen waffles, breaded chicken and pretzels, overwhelmed by how much food I had to avoid.
Many staples of my diet were omitted and reluctantly replaced with gluten-free versions. Although I now prefer gluten-free pretzels over the actual version, gluten-free pasta is chronically mushy and tasteless, and I definitely am not fond of the jump in price and rarity for modified products.
In the past three weeks, I’ve had to become an obsessive label-reader. For that one percent of the population with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, even the slightest trace of gluten can cause major negative effects, according to the FDA. I never imagined that products like raw almonds, pasta sauce, lunch meat and seasoned vegetables could contain gluten.
While some companies do a great job of making it clear whether or not their products are free of wheat, it’s a puzzle to decipher some products with gluten aliases: spelt, matzah, farina, malt, einkorn … I’ll spare you the rest.
Cross-contamination is a problem in itself. I have had to designate condiments in my apartment as gluten-free; if my roommate dips a knife into my peanut butter, spreads in on a slice of bread and sticks the knife back into the jar, it’s no longer safe.
Because of cross-contamination, eating out is especially difficult. I’ve attempted twice, and ended up with a dry salad with grilled chicken both times. No one wants to be that allergy-freak customer requesting that the cook wears clean gloves at a sanitized station and refrains from using any utensil or ingredient that might have touched any type of gluten.
Like some food companies, some restaurants are starting to display gluten-sensitive options; although these often doubly target low-carb customers, it’s a step in the right direction. Sweetwater Cafe on Third Street offers a gluten-free portion of its menu, and Jimmy Johns sells an unwich: sandwich fillings wrapped in lettuce leaves.
Although it’s currently just a three-month run, it could be a change for the rest of my life if my body reacts well to the omission of gluten. As much as I want to feel better, the nuisance of eating sans gluten nearly outweighs the health aspect.
Whether or not I continue this journey, I hope that companies and restaurants tune into the needs of that one percent of the population, even if it’s giving a clear heads up not to consume.