Information & Resources on Being Gluten-Free

Gluten 101

The question I get the most is: what the hell is gluten?  Before we get into that, I want to be clear that I am not a doctor, but I am gluten-free, which frankly, means I probably know more about certain aspects of gluten than most doctors, but I am not here to diagnose or give medical advice.  I can just tell you what I know, knowledge gained from personal experience and research I've done over the years to better my ailments with gluten.  With that said, here's the basics:

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.  Anything that has those ingredients therefore has gluten.  Examples: flour, malt vinegar, most breads and pasta.

Being gluten-free can mean a few things.  For some, it is a diet and lifestyle change.  Others, it is medically necessary.  A confusing things about gluten-intolerance and Celiac's is that it is not actually an allergy.  These two words Allergy and Intolerance are often used interchangeable, but its very important to understand they are not synonyms.  Not to say they aren't as serious.  Allergies imply that if a person eats, or even touches the thing they are allergic to, they will have a reaction like swelling, throat closing, passing out, etc.  Allergies manifest themselves externally (as well as internal).  Intolerance's refer more to the digestive system. 

Located in the small intestine are villi which are small and finger like.  Each time a gluten-intolerant person eats gluten, the villi are damaged and damaged villi cannot digest nutrients properly, leading to malnutrition among other things.  After years of abuse, a person who doesn't realize they should be eating a gluten-free diet will have very damaged villi.  This affects a person throughout their entire body.  Signs of this include, but are not limited to:
-bloating (almost all the time)
-emotional problems such as mood swings and anxiety (due to the body attempting to digest
something it physically cannot digest)
-dry skin
-weight loss or inability to gain weight
-thin and brittle hair
-hives or skin redness

The good news is, once you go on a strict gluten-free diet, the villi does repair itself over time.  Bad news is, if you accidental eat it, the villi is damaged again. 

Going gluten-free can seems very intimidating, and down right depressing.  I have shed many tears over the fact that I will never again EVER eat a real bagel or my father's pasta dishes.  I was devastated over this.  And of course, there's the social aspect.  No ones wants to be the person who makes everything difficult.  It took a long time to comes to terms with this, and realize: being gluten-free doesn't make you difficult.  Different, yes, but not a burden.  It's not your fault you can't eat something, and you should never feel like you're being a burden.  Sorry, but you will have to help choose restaurants, check menus before going places, make your own food etc.  But I promise, it gets better. 

Hidden sources of gluten:
-Fried foods: yes, french fries seem like they'd be gluten-free since they're potatoes, but once they enter that fryer with other breaded items, or where bread has been, they aren't gluten-free anymore.  A lot of the time they have a coating on them, too, which isn't.  Stay away, unless certified gluten-free of the restaurant has a separate fryer for gluten-free items.
-Envelopes: strange, huh?  Don't go licking those envelopes. 
-Oatmeal and oats: this is a tricky one.  Oats themselves do not contain gluten, but often the fields where wheat and oats are grown are neighbors, and the wind causes cross-contamination.  I just recently started adding oats back into my diet and I will only eat the certified gluten-free ones.  I tried some normal kinds, but it was just too risky. 
-Cross-Contamination: this is a word you'll hear a lot.  It refers to your gluten-free item crossing paths with a gluten-filled item.  This happens mostly with toasters, knives, and counter tops.  If someone (like me) is very sensitive to it, just having gluten touch my food can make me sick.  The simplest solution for this is to keep everything simple.  In my house, we have separate butter dishes and use squeeze bottles when possible for condiments to avoid the accidental knife-on-bread-then-in-jar problem.  TRAIN YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS TO KEEP EVERYTHING SEPARATE!
-Malt: this is a very dirty word when you're gluten-free.  Don't go near anything malted.  This includes malted beverages such as Twisted Tea, malt vinegar, cereal with barley malt etc.  It's barley and a no-no.
-Soy Sauce: most of the time its made from wheat.  Check the label!
-Wheat Free is not the same as gluten-free: just because something says it doesn't contain wheat, doesn't mean it doesn't contain gluten.  It may have hidden sources, rye, barley etc.
-French onion soup sans the bread: don't let your waiter fool you.  Just because you remove the bread, doesn't mean its gluten-free!  On the night of my wedding rehersal dinner, I was told this by my waitress, only to find myself sick in restroom minutes later.  Come to find out, it had Guiness in it.  I don't think a barley filled beer in my soup really constitutes gluten-free.  Don't just take their word.  Most of the time they don't know what they are saying or what gluten is.  *same goes for a sandwich.  No, you can't just take the burger off the bread.  It's still covered in bread.  Send it back.  Do not eat something just because you don't want to be a pain and say something. 

Really, list goes on and on about where you can find gluten.  The best advice I can give is: when in doubt, look it up.

Items that DO NOT contain gluten (have as much as you want!):
-Rice (unless of course, it is mixed with other types of starches.  Check the label.)
-Xantham gum: this is what us gluten-free bakers use as a binder.  Gluten is a binder, so removing gluten makes baking tough.  Xantham gum is something you'll see in pretty much every baked good for the rest of your life.
-Wine and liquor: see?  There's hope!  Liquor is a confusing thing.  Whisky is made from wheat, but the way they distill it removes the gluten protein.  This doesn't mean you can boil out gluten, but when its distill enough, its removed.  And wine is grapes, so as long as it isn't a malted beverage, go crazy! 
-Most cheeses: with the exception of bleu cheese, which you can find gluten-free, but the way the cheese is made "bleu" often involves bread, so read the ingredients.

There is no cure for this.  The only way to save yourself and your villi is to live a strict gluten-free lifestyle.  In order to do this, you need the support of your family.  Educate those around you about the impact of gluten on your life and what they can do for you.  My husband is the most supportive person alive when it comes to my Celiac's.  He will not hesitate to ask questions and search high and low for a gluten-free item I'm really wanting (like gluten-free french onion soup.  YUM!).   

Check out these resources for more information.  What I've provided you with is a very bare-bones basic introduction to what it means to be gluten-free, but there's always more information to see:

Feel free to comment with questions, and I'll do my best to answer.  A couple more quick things:

1. Most people go years before they realize gluten is the problem.  Talk to your doctor before you completely change your diet, but take a couple days to try being gluten-free if you suspect its a problem.  I felt better within a few mere days.  If you suspect your intolerant to it, track your symptoms and speak to your doctor asap.
2. Some people don't have all the symptoms.  For some reason men don't get the stomach pains and issues as much as women.  (Of course, we have to give birth AND feel worse with gluten.)  This is a blessing and a curse though, because if you don't feel the effects, your likely to keep eating it, which is worse in the long run.  Poor villi.
3. There is a blood test for Celiac's, but it's not always accurate.  A test could tell you that you don't have it, when in fact you have gluten-intolerance.  Go with your gut (har har) and choose the gluten-free lifestyle if you feel better on it.  Doctors don't know everything.
4. THIS IS NOT A WEIGHT LOSS PLAN.  It is often thought that being gluten-free will lead to weight loss.  Yes and no.  Yes, gluten-free means almost no fried food (unless you make it yourself), less carbs, more homemade dishes etc.  This could lead to weight gain, but really you can do these things without actually going gluten-free.  When I went gluten-free in 2007, I finally gained weight because for the first time ever, my body was getting what it needed from my food. 

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