Living well gluten free

When I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1976, there was no information and certainly none of the tasty gluten-free products we have today. To stay healthy, I needed to remove everything containing gluten -- no pizza, pasta, bread, not even birthday cake.

I was living in Europe at the time and all those wonderful French pastries and German rolls were off-limits. I went to culinary school to learn where gluten might be used. In addition to making great quiche, I discovered that flour can be used to dredge fish and meat, thicken soups and sauces, even dust the inside of the pan when making flourless chocolate cake. I found I could replace flour with gluten-free flour in my recipes and make great foods again. Soon I was baking my way back to good health.

But there’s more to the gluten-free diet than baking great recipes. It touches every aspect of daily life from play dates to real dates, from eating in restaurants to traveling the world.

Today, three million Americans have celiac disease and another 1-6 percent have gluten sensitivity. Still more folks are picking the gluten-free diet as a lifestyle choice. Market research groups say nearly 30 percent of us are choosing to avoid gluten at least part of the time. No question. The gluten-free diet has become trendy.

Whether it’s a medical necessity or lifestyle choice, here are some things you need to know to thrive without gluten.

What is gluten and where is it found?

Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley. Besides the obvious like breads, pasta, cakes and cookies, gluten can hide in some places that might surprise you:

  • Tea
  • Licorice
  • Soy Sauce
  • Fake Crab (Surimi)
  • Salad Dressings
  • Soups
  • Hot dogs
  • Communion Wafers
  • Play-Doh
  • Paper Mache
  • Vitamins and Medications

Even crumbs of gluten can contaminate otherwise safe gluten free food and ruin your day.  Here are a few common ways in which gluten can come in contact with gluten-free food.

  • Cutting Boards
  • Toasters
  • Knives
  • Sponges
  • Condiment Jars (peanut butter and jelly and mayo) and the butter dish
  • Kisses when your date, spouse or baby has just eaten gluten

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

There are more than 200 symptoms. The most common are:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Neuropathy
  • Infertility
  • Anemia
  • Osteopenia and Osteoporosis

The symptoms in children are more likely to be digestive or behavioral. If you suspect celiac disease, your child’s doctor will want to monitor growth patterns and check your child’s vitamin levels.

You may want to keep a food diary (including notes from teachers and aids) and note foods that seem to trigger certain behavior patterns.

How Can I be Tested for Celiac Disease?

  • A simple blood test can be run by the primary care physician or pediatrician to screen for celiac disease.
  • If elevated, your doctor will refer you to a gastroenterologist to perform an endoscopy with small bowel biopsies, the gold standard for diagnosing celiac disease.

If you suspect celiac disease, it’s important to be tested before you stop eating gluten. You can’t make antibodies to gluten if you are not eating it.

Should I be tested if others in my family have celiac disease?

  • Celiac disease is hereditary.
  • If someone in the family tests positive for celiac disease, then all first degree relatives should be tested, too.

Can I lose weight on a gluten-free diet?

The gluten-free diet is trendy for many reasons. One is the belief that it’s a good way to lose weight.  But is it true?

  • You can lose weight if you give up carbs entirely. Veggies, fruits, low-fat meats, and dairy are always healthy and most are gluten-free. But, the gluten-free diet is not a weight loss regimen. 
  • If you replace regular baked goods with gluten-free items, you might be adding more calories to your diet. 
  • If you eliminate wheat, you’ll be missing important B vitamins and fiber. Few gluten-free foods are enriched.

Giving up gluten is not a life sentence but a lifestyle with healthy benefits for those who need this diet. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to live well without gluten.

Resources You Can Use

Guidelines for Diagnosis and Management of Celiac Disease

American College of Gastroenterology

Baking Tips and Recipes


University of Chicago Celiac Center

Beth Hillson is the author of the newly released The Complete Guide To Living Well Gluten Free and Gluten-Free Makeovers (2011).  She was diagnosed with celiac disease 35 years ago and went to culinary school to better manage her condition. She is one of the leading experts on the gluten-free diet and lifestyle in the United States, founded one of the first gluten-free companies, Gluten-Free Pantry, and is the food editor of Gluten-Free & More. Beth is the mother of a son who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1993.