Thursday, November 3, 2011

How to go gluten-free in 8 steps

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I have been getting inundated with requests for information on the GFCF diet – email, Facebook, you  name it. So, in order to help address some of these questions I thought it would be a good idea to recycle my first ever Guest Post that I did for BoysRising back in April in honor of Autism Awareness Month. I know it’s not standard blogging protocol to repost something you wrote for someone else, but the demand for information has been so high that I thought I would gloss over the blogging etiquette a bit and revisit this one. I’m doing it for you, my friends.

Please keep in mind that I originally wrote this post for a very different audience – one that doesn’t necessarily have special needs children or the desire to eliminate multiple types of food (like dairy/casein, soy, etc.). Although I left the post almost entirely intact, I did make a few minor changes here and there. I hope it provides you with some good information.
Going gluten-free for your health
Have you seen gluten-free products at your local grocery store recently? According to a report earlier this month from Packaged Facts, the gluten-free market has grown 30% in the past 4 years and is projected to have sales in excess of $5 billion annually by 2015. That is a huge market! In the past few years there have been many new options added to store shelves. I am grateful that gluten-free products are becoming easier to find. I hope that this trend will continue to provide consumers with better access to quality GF products at even more competitive pricing.

Maybe you’re wondering what all the gluten-free hype is about and why someone would choose to make such a change. Well, there are lots of reasons! Some people try a gluten-free diet to relieve symptoms from conditions like: rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, MS, fibromyalgia, and autism spectrum disorder. I have 2 boys diagnosed on the autism spectrum and a change in diet has been the key to unlocking speech in my youngest son. A survey found that among those families who try the GFCF diet (gluten-free, casein/dairy-free) to help with autism, almost 70% see improvements in their children. That is very significant!   
My thoughts are, if it won’t hurt them and it might actually help, then why not try it? Even though I was scared to make dietary changes and I initially resisted the idea, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My son is talking! And, some of his other physical and behavioral symptoms have also improved. As you can imagine, I am now a big proponent of dietary intervention for kids with autism and I love to share our experience with others.

April is designated as Autism Awareness Month. Since both of my kids have seen wonderful benefits from the GFCF diet and I’ve become a sort of expert on the topic, I thought it would be great to give you some basics about going gluten-free. Even if you don’t have a child with autism, a gluten-free diet can be a positive step toward improving your health. There are many symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity, some of which include: fatigue, depression, weight gain, diarrhea/constipation, headaches, asthma, eczema/rashes, joint pain, bloating/gas, frequent infections (yeast, sinus, urinary tract, etc.), infertility, etc.
Are you intrigued and thinking about taking the plunge into the GF world? Here are some tips I’ve developed out of my own experience on how to go gluten-free.

1.      Learn from free GF resources.

Check out gluten-free cookbooks from your local library and visit GF websites and blogs. See what types of ingredients you will need to acquire and become familiar with the names of alternative grains, like quinoa and amaranth. Also familiarize yourself with substitutions and how to read labels. If you’re making changes for your child’s benefit, TACA has lots of helpful information related to starting children on a GFCF diet. My favorite online GFCF recipe resource is Gluten-Free Goddess.

2.      Be prepared to spend more on groceries.

Going gluten-free is not cheap. Pre-made and packaged items are already expensive and the prices of their GF counterparts will greatly affect your food budget. If you like to bake and cook, save money by making your own stuff. Seek out gluten-free products in bulk at your local grocery store or health food store. Places like Costco are also starting to carry GF options. Another place to source and purchase GF items is online. Comparison shop before you buy and look for coupons and sales. Discontinued items or things close to expiration often end up in the grocery store bargain bin. I’ve found many amazing deals on gluten-free items by always checking this section of my store whenever I go shopping.

3.      Take things in steps.

Choose one item, like cereal, and replace it with an allergy-free version. I started my boys on the GFCF diet cold turkey. I DO NOT recommend this because it can be very difficult and traumatic. If you ease into it one step at a time your taste buds will become accustomed and additional changes will be easier. Try one new item each week until you have eliminated all gluten from your diet.

4.      Stock up on GF supplies.

After reviewing some cookbooks and recipes you will have a better understanding of what new ingredients you should buy. Gluten-free desserts and breads require specific combinations of several types of GF flours, so you will want to follow recipes to the letter. Just replacing regular flour with GF flour or a GF blend will not always yield good results. I’ve had some colossal flops along the way as I figured this out. Find a good all-purpose GF flour blend and start experimenting. My favorite brand is Bob’s Red Mill.

5.      Be prepared for a change in texture.

Gluten is a protein that imparts elasticity into baked goods. You are not going to get the same kind of result when gluten is absent from the product. Most gluten-free items tend to be crumbly and dense. When you are first starting out you will notice a big difference, particularly in breads. There will be a period of trial and error as you familiarize yourself with brands you never want to buy again and others you like and want to stick with.

6.      Focus on what you CAN eat.

If you are pining for your favorite chocolate cake or crusty sourdough boulé, you are going to drive yourself crazy. As I mentioned, there is a big texture difference. You’ll find things that work for your palate. We have several allergens that we avoid at our house, which can make meal planning fairly complex. Instead of worrying about what is free of gluten, dairy, egg, soy, nuts, and so on, we try to focus on building a meal around what we know the boys can eat without worry: protein, vegetables and fruit.

7.      Be prepared to feel worse, at least initially.

When making a change like this, the body will often go into detox mode. It can often feel like you’ve got a case of the “blahs” or the flu. My son had a hunger strike for several days when we took him off of allergens. His behavior was already awful and violent, and it actually escalated for the first 2 weeks. His body was addicted to the allergens. The offending foods created a drug-like chemical effect in his brain caused by leaky gut syndrome. Going off the food made him act like he was going through withdrawal. It was not pretty. But, it got better. The first week was the worst, and then after 2 weeks he started talking. He’s made tremendous progress since then and his body is healing.  

8.      Stick with it for at least 60 days.

After you’ve eased yourself into the GF lifestyle, make a commitment to be 100% gluten-free for a minimum of 60 days. Changes don’t always happen suddenly, so give your body enough time to respond. It’s a very good idea to start a food journal and list of symptoms prior to going on the GF diet so you can accurately assess what changes happen after removing gluten. You might notice significant changes almost immediately, or smaller changes that happen slowly.
Some people think that the gluten-free phenomenon is only a food fad, like the low-carb food craze when the Atkins Diet was popular. I strongly disagree. Celiac disease is one of the most under-diagnosed conditions in the US, conservatively estimated to affect 1 in 133 people. Autism continues to rise alarmingly fast, occurring in 1 out of every 91 children in the US. A gluten-free diet is helpful to the vast majority of families who try it in order to help their children diagnosed with autism. Many people who go gluten-free for other health reasons will often see improvements in their symptoms, too.

I strongly believe that the need for gluten-free diets and demand for GF products will continue to increase at a steady pace in the years to come. If you have any sort of health issue, I would highly recommend that you learn more about the symptoms of gluten intolerance and maybe give the GF diet a try to see if your health improves. It certainly can’t hurt!
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