This is the final part of a series in which I attempt to take on four different lifestyle diets in four weeks. For the past few years, I've dubbed myself a flexitarian -- I don't eliminate anything from my diet and enjoy all types of food in moderation. However, I think it's time for me to assess what foods actually work well with my body -- and what foods don't. As always, talk with a doctor before undergoing any rapid change in diet.
Ah, the diet that hath spun a thousand webs of confusion and elation for health professionals and average Joes everywhere. There are even some who think it's a "fad" and that it should -- for lack of a better word -- "die." I must admit I had my doubts about going gluten-free and braced myself for the onslaught of figuring out the dos and don'ts of removing the dreaded gluten from my body. Surely, this would be easier than my paleo experience... right?
To clarify for anyone who doesn't know what gluten is, Merriam-Webster's definition of gluten states: "a tenacious elastic protein substance especially of wheat flour that gives cohesiveness to dough." Well, looks like it's time to avoid that wheat!
Unfortunately, it's not just anything made with wheat that basks in the limelight. Barley (adios, favorite brand of tempeh), rye (sayonara, delicious deli bread), and other types of grain are not allowed, but there are several helpful alternatives that you can manipulate to make your meal du jour. Rice, corn, and soybean products, and the other "almost-over" fad item, quinoa, are all acceptable for those maintaining a gluten-free diet.
At first, some awful thoughts ran the gamut through my head: No traditional pizza. Not even an ice cream sandwich. No bagels! Let me just say: When you also get that initial craving for a large burrito with its warm, floury tortilla, all your inhibitions tend to go out the window. (I exercised restraint and checked out Chipotle on a day I didn't bring my lunch, and minus the tortilla, their menu notes that all other items are gluten-free.)
Exploring the various products that cater to the gluten-free community was on my to-do list, so I popped into Crumbs, a renowned cupcake bakery which boasts its only solely gluten-free store in New York, and upon recommendation, tried their chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies -- not too shabby, albeit a tad dry. Gluten-free pretzels were a must; could that signature wheat taste be matched by corn and potato starch? Why yes, yes it can.
When it came to buying the occasional snack, a gluten-free designation on the packaging and rereading the ingredients' list were my calling cards. Thanks to analyzing too many bags of chips than I'd care to admit, it's incredible how prevalent wheat is in most processed foods thanks to the wonderful, bold, all-caps label, "May contain traces of wheat."
The only thing I could do for this week was make it even more of a challenge: create meals I could enjoy that replicated the dishes I had come to know and love -- minus the gluten.
Pancakes made with coconut flour, topped with chocolate chips, pecans, and a drizzle of condensed milk
First off, there are a plethora of flours for baking -- and it's really not all about the all-purpose. Have you tried cooking with coconut flour? Buckwheat? (Don't let the name fool you -- it's perfect for a gluten-free diet.) They aren't common, but they sure pack a punch when baking.
Because of these substitutions and the general adherence to scrapping gluten, my cravings for anything and all things bread-like slowly subsided as I was able to enjoy diary and other sorts of grains that didn't revolve around wheat, barley, or rye.
Sure, when I didn't cook, I was missing out on warm sandwiches, pizza slices, said burritos, pita bread and beer. But in the end, I did not feel as weighed down as I felt on a normal day. I felt that the gluten brick in my belly had diminished and the head fog I tended to experience had, once again, practically ceased.
Mac and cheese made from rice pasta with Isle of Man cheddar cheese, chopped spinach and sauteed onions
I do feel sometimes that most people embark on this "mission" to feel better, and I can't necessarily say that I blame them. Deciding or having to go gluten-free is essentially a matter of changing your perspective and nudging your taste buds to ditch that familiar taste of wheat and other glutenous products. In the beginning, it seems like an exhausting idea to remove conventional bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, beer, cereal, and even soy sauce from one's diet, as it would prove futile and immediately send some people packing. Like it or not, gluten-free is the mother of controversy to some, and a saving grace to others. Personally, I'm likely to believe the latter.
N.B. I must recognize that my lack of a gluten intolerance likely made this diet change much easier than expected. Most people who suffer from gluten intolerance/celiac disease must consume products with a gluten amount less than 20 ppm. Any cross-contamination could lead to serious side effects.