Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Starting Points

Search "going gluten free" and you will get 6.4 million hits in less than a second. There are LOADS of websites out there telling you the steps to take, what to avoid, what to get rid of, and various other advice that comes with the gluten free lifestyle.

I'm not here to give advice (I'm four months in!) - this is simply a post of what I have learned in a short time.

I am type-A personality to a T. Give me a challenge and I will have it figured it out quick as a snap. Gluten free, to put it lightly, is a massive challenge, especially when it came to baking. Jason kept reminding me that people spend years learning to bake, let alone gluten free (but I am already an accomplished baker! People love my baked goods! I need to be just as good as before! I will be just as good as before! I need to be that NOW!). Type A was both great and horrible for this new challenge. Within a week I was learning about gf flours and what they do and how to use them and had 20 of them in my freezer, ready to accomplish. And that first failed attempt brought tears and cursing and "this isn't fair I already have enough on my plate without adding gluten free to it!"

Part of the problem is I was going through withdrawals. Oh yes, in addition to not being allowed to eat chewy, glutenated, beautiful airy bread, I also had to withdraw from the effects of gluten still in my body - a two week to two month process. Symptoms that included even more exhaustion than before, non-stop stomach cramps, headaches, insomnia, and, my favorite, zings of what felt like lightening zapping through my body at any given time of the day. Everyone's withdrawal symptoms are different, and those were mine, coupled with the manic need to learn alltheglutenfreethings as soon as possible.

So in my manic-ness, here is what worked for me:

1.    Learn the foods that are and aren't gluten free. I was a little ahead with this, since I had some already gluten free friends, so not much of a learning process. If I was new to gluten free, I would have gone with the advice of stick to fruits and veggies, meats, beans (ones labeled gluten free or make your own), and rice, and to stay away from anything packaged until you have gluten-labeling under your belt. Also, finding out that only the USA and Canada label whether an item (like soy sauce, or beef broth) has gluten helps in purchasing decisions.
2.    Celebrate the small victories. Finding recipes I had that were already gluten free, and were tried and true and loved, helped me keep positive. Finding things I already liked (Cocoa Pebbles!) that were gluten free were even better.
3.    I didn't take all the advice. Some made sense - get rid of the toaster because the spring mechanism CANNOT be cleaned. Getting rid of my pots and pans did not make sense to me however. They are an expensive set for one, and for two, they can go in the oven; gluten proteins are killed at 500 degrees.
4.    Find gluten free blogs. Read the comments/reviews. There were so many blogs where the gluten free cake looked amazing, but reading comment after comment let me know it would be a failure. There are some blogs that even post pictures of gluten-containing cakes/cookies and pass them off as if they are the baked goods from the recipe. They're not, and the comments of failure speak to that. I was already fairly in touch with reading and deciphering comments anyway, what with using Pinterest as an avid baker, but became even more so after getting the Celiac diagnosis. The ingredients can be too expensive, and the recipe too time intensive, to allow for a failed recipe.
5.    Reading reviews for packaged gluten free foods before buying. For example, Udi's breads and bagels got the best reviews, and while I have tried others, that is what I go back to.
6.    Learning the flours and the science behind gf baking. Normal, glutenated wheat flour is 60% protein and 40% starch and so to mimic it, you have to do a blend of flours. I have twenty+ flours in my freezer because I wanted to learn what they all do (and they have to be kept in the freezer otherwise they go rancid - yuck!).
7.    Find a good blend and see if there is a good commercial flour already out there. I LOVE Better Batter. So far I have been able to make all my recipes taste "normal" using this flour.
8.    Get used to GF being more expensive. This one has been the hardest for me. I have found some great gf alternatives that are in the same price range (Walmart has a brand of corn pasta that is about $1 each), but I typically pay 2-10x more for GF. While I used to pay around $3 a loaf for bread (or made my own for far less), Udi's is almost $8 for a normal-size loaf. A GF personal pizza is around $7 at the grocery store, for something that is smaller and far less palatable than the $1 Totinos we would get when feeling cheap. I used to buy flour at Costco for $8 for 20 pounds. Better Batter, when I can find it on sale, is $80 for 25 pounds. As hard as it is to pay the extra, what is the alternative? Going back to gluten and being sick all the time, or not baking anymore. It's expensive. I try to find cheaper, grain free alternatives in baking, but it is nice to have an easy (expensive) go to.
9.    Don't force GF textures on yourself. Thanks to gluten free dieters, there are quite a few selections of GF items on the market. I have tried pizza after pizza, hoping to recreate the glutenated pizza texture I loved before. It hasn't happened. I don't buy the pizza if I don't like the texture, hoping at some point the texture is something I will get used to. I find alternatives. Right now, that is making pizza bagels on Udi's bagels. I would make pizza bagels before, so it is a texture I like, and feels close enough to what I used to have. Until I find a gf pizza I like, I will keep making the bagels.
10.  Trying new things. A couple examples - before going gluten free, I couldn't eat onions or pork - after the inflammation went down, I was able to add these back into my diet. I've also found fantastic go-to recipes by being open to "weird" ingredients - like this chocolate quinoa cake.  I get asked for this recipe all the time, and until I tell people what's in it, they have no idea. Sometimes it pays to be adventurous, especially in gluten free.
11.   Bringing food with me when going to others house - I usually find out whatever they are having for dinner, and bring a GF alternative - hamburgers? Bring an Udi's bun. Not sure about the marinade? Bring your own meat. It is far easier than going without.
12.   I wish I had relaxed a little more at the start. GF has so many opinions and options that it is easy to become overwhelmed. I wish I had taken it slow, rather than diving in and trying to become an expert (something Jason suggested, but TYPE A MUST MASTER IT NOW!)
13.   Finally, going completely gluten free in the home. Jason still eats gluten while at work, or if we go out to dinner, but it is so much easier, and less stressful, to have a completely gluten free environment. I have had people ask if I will bake them a gluten item (like I used to) and I tell them if they want it, it is gluten free or nothing. There's no checking labels at home, no cross-contamination worries at home, and no temptations at home. Those who complain can be reminded they can get a break outside of the home, while you never can. It is what keeps me safe and keeps me healthy.

Some of my favorite GF items:

Better Batter - expensive, but worth it if you want your gluten free baking to taste "normal".

Udi's breads and bagels - very similar to "gluten bread", especially when toasted. I don't miss sandwich bread or bagels with these products.

Vans Say Cheese crackers - I like these more than any other cheese cracker. I have also tried their Fire Roasted Veggie crackers. The cheese are definitely my favorite, but Vans crackers are my go to for GF crackers.


Miltons GF Crispy Sea Salt Baked crackers - I use these as a dipping cracker - in hummus or artichoke dip. They are a great alternative to pita (you can even find it at Costco).

Trader Joes GF waffles - almost as good as an Eggo. Almost. I am not a huge fan of homemade waffles, so these work for me.

Walmart brand (Great Value) GF corn pasta, in elbow shapes or spaghetti. I like it better than regular pasta.

Goodie Girl Mint Slims - TASTES LIKE A THIN MINT!!!

Trader Joes GF Rolled Oats - these are the cheapest GF rolled oats I can find (rolled oats *should* be gluten free but can be cross-contaminated if their fields are next to wheat - Trader Joes has certified them, which means there is no cross contamination). $3.99 for 32 oz when others run $7 for 24.


After years of struggling with other autoimmune disorders (PCOS, Hashimotos, and Ulcerative Colitis), I was DONE. I was living an existence of being sick for two weeks, barely able to crawl out of bed due to extreme exhaustion, feeling "okay" for a week and so risking an outing, and then back to being sick.

When I say "outing" I don't mean a whoop-it-up night on the town. I mean going to a friend's house for an afternoon, or doing a day of substitute teaching, or going for a quick, easy, hike with my husband, or, to really push it, go for a weekend up to the river. Nothing outrageous, but that one thing would send me into a tailspin of exhaustion and illness that I just couldn't crawl out of. I constantly told friends and family, while making plans "I'll have to see how I feel." Sometimes I pushed it, knowing the event was important, and knowing I would "pay" for it in the following weeks.

At my lowest I even told my husband, should I die, I wanted him to marry a certain person because I thought they would be a great match. As what I said sunk in over the next few days, it really freaked him out. He realized that I was saying this because I was always so sick. He called me while he was at work to tell me that we needed to figure this out. There had to be something, anything, that would help me feel better. He wasn't willing to just say "this is how you feel, will always feel". He reiterated to me that I was usually sick two to three weeks out of the month, and asked if I really wanted to live like that - one week out of the month, one "good" week where we had to cram in as much "living" as possible, knowing it would set off some autoimmune reaction and I would be out for the count.

I cried. I was upset. I was pissed. I told him "this is what having an autoimmune disorder looks like. I'm doing all I can. I'm seeing specialists. I have three autoimmune disorders. This is just what it is". He refused to believe that. He offered to come with me, talk to my specialists, explain from an outside perspective what he was seeing (those with autoimmune problems tend to downplay the issues they are having, even to their doctors, because the symptoms are their normal). He then suggested something my mom had been saying for a couple years - "what about trying gluten free?"

Those who know me know I already had some diet restrictions because of the Hashimotos and Ulcerative Colitis. For years, I fought the gluten free suggestion because it was just one more thing. I had also done the research on Hashimotos and gluten, and how once you go gluten free, you can't go back - basically with Hashimotos, your autoimmune response attacks the thyroid cells. If you try to return to gluten after going gluten free, your body starts to see gluten proteins as thyroid cells and attack them, causing more autoimmune responses. All these years I refused to go gluten free because I didn't want one more restriction that changed nothing, and could not be changed back. I was nervous about the undertaking of going gluten free, especially considering that if it didn't work, I could not go back to a gluten diet because the autoimmune response would be worse.

For whatever reason that day, my husband's question made me pause (sorry, Mom!). I told him my reasons for not wanting to "try" a gluten free diet. It had to be all or nothing, and I wasn't willing to do that without a confirmed gluten sensitivity test. He asked why I wouldn't take one, and I didn't have a response.

So I called my endocrinologist and explained that I would like to see if my Hashimotos was affected by a gluten intolerance. She told me not to be surprised if it came back negative, but that going gluten free could help the Hashimotos.

A few days later, the diagnosis of Celiac came back. Not just gluten intolerance, but Celiac. Another autoimmune disorder to add to my list. When gluten is in the system, the Celiac body puts up an attack in the form of an autoimmune response. It isn't an allergy (although symptoms for me come on in about 30 minutes), it is a full-blown autoimmune attack. Basically, for who knows how long, my body had been attacking itself on a daily basis. My immune system was in constant overdrive, working to clear the invader from my body. This is why I would have two-three bad weeks, and only one good.

I remember getting the notification and opening it up to read the results to Jason, and just full-stopping when I got to the diagnosis. I instantly started crying. Jason was hopeful that this would finally be it - this was the missing piece to finally feeling good. I was both hopeful and devastated.

I originally wrote this back in April, as a Facebook post to just vent. It was really indicative of my feelings of gluten free at the time:

"It is silly to be sad to lose something that has such consequences on my body.... This weekend, I chose to "gluten it up" one last time. Tomorrow is the start of gluten free, but this weekend was a chance to have some of my favorites one last time (the easy, glutenated version, anyway). One more favorite sandwich from that hole in the wall in Miramar, breakfast sandwiches in the morning, a salad with croutons and dressing I don't have to scrutinize or ask for a detailed list of ingredients, homemade cookies, beer, and, one of my favorite comfort foods, grilled cheese sandwiches. All week I have felt awful, because I have consumed extra gluten in the hopes of having an accurate test. This weekend I really over did it in the hopes of having "one last", and it was so bad that I started declining things. I honestly wasn't really upset about anything that I was going to have to give up. It seemed like every item took a turn that is the universe telling me this is what is supposed to be. Mayo on the sand which. Cheese bread that fell in baking, so grilled cheese wasn't as good. Beer that, while good, can be substituted for gluten free (which one of my favorites is, and Jason can make gluten free). I also feel awful. Things that I have felt for a long time that, after being diagnosed, I realize is as a result of gluten. And making a weekend completely gluten filled amplifies it all. Horrible headaches, a constant stomach upset, being so exhausted that I have had to take a nap every day just to be able to "adult" later. This whole weekend I have just felt awful, but I have been really hopeful that the amplification of these symptoms means that once the gluten is out of my system completely, I might finally feel "normal" again. 
And then I decided to have one of my favorite beers one last time. Jason emailed the brewery this weekend, asking if they use clarity ferm, which is a product that reduces the gluten in beer so much that it is gluten free. Some breweries use it but don't advertise, because each batch made has to be sent off for testing to prove it has no gluten, but if it is used it is safe for me to drink. The brewery in question does not use it. So I had one more. And, unlike everything I had eaten, this taste I will miss. And it brought up all the anxieties I have been feeling about what this process will entail. Beer aside, Jason and I already eat a reduced gluten diet. My issues with soy mean we stay away from most processed foods. We cleaned out cupboards this weekend, and they are still almost full. A little pasta out, some flour, and some croutons. Not much. 
The freezer, however, was another story. I am the baking queen, and I bake in bulk. I find it easier to make a double batch of French bread, and freeze them into mini loafs so that one can be quickly pulled out for dinner. We make our own hamburger buns, and do so in bulk. I make cookie dough in double, sometimes triple batches, ball up the dough and freeze it, so I always have a dessert handy and quick. I enjoy baking. It's one of the few things I can do without exerting a lot of energy, and so on those really bad days, when the 3 (now 4!) autoimmune disorders decided to band together against me, trying to force me to stay in bed all day, I could still bake. Nothing else might get done, the dishes might stay in the sink, but I at least could feel I accomplished something.
And then I drank this beer. A beer that, knowing Jason and his palate, he will be able to replicate. But this beer was the first instance of, "I'm going to miss gluten". It opened the floodgates of how far reaching this ingredient is. Especially a baker like me. It is a HUGE part of who I am, and frankly, I really enjoy knowing something I've made was successful, and I really enjoy people telling me they enjoyed it. Gluten free baking is tricky. I have a lot of things I bake that are gluten free, but there are a lot more that are not. And that is daunting. I am having a moment of life already being hard enough without taking another part of my identity away. Enough of my identity has been - the girl who thought she would be a mom, the adventurous girl, the girl who never said no to hanging out with family and friends because she always felt good, the girl who could make plans in advance, secure in the knowledge that it would always be a good day. I am really hopeful that parts that have been lost will return with this drastic measure that MUST be taken. But tonight, I am wallowing a bit in the enormity of the struggle I may face regaining my identity of queen baker - even if it is queen gluten-free baker - and I am bitter that, yet again I am being forced to give up another part of myself, even if it is only temporary or slightly changed."

It has gotten better. I trial and erred my way into some great gluten free recipes (which I will share!). I found great resources and not so great ones (again, will share!). Jason was able to make a better version of the beer, "gluten reduced" (It is called this because it was made with gluten ingredients, so it can't be called gluten free. But the enzyme he uses takes it below 20 ppm which is what is considered GF). I still have my days of "being gluten free is NOT FAIR" (particularly when I am shopping and smell the Cinnabun, which I am convinced has special vents that are connected throughout the mall to taunt you), but I am feeling better. A cold, which usually had me in bed unable to move or accomplish anything for three weeks, now takes a couple days to run through my system. The last cold I had I was able to hike in 100 degree weather - I kept asking if this is how "normal people" felt with a cold - like they could still accomplish life and they weren't dying. It seems like an extreme statement to make, but when your body is constantly having an autoimmune response to one thing, and you add another "attacker", a cold really can make you that miserable.

I still have my bad days. I have four autoimmune disorders, all with a host of vitamin deficiencies and symptoms that are typical for each. My bad days however, are now typically that - days instead of weeks. I've been more healthy since April (when I was diagnosed), than I have been in the years past combined. It makes me hopeful for life again.