Friday, November 5, 2010

Food as medicine: going gluten-free

I know it's trendy but I've done it: I've gone gluten-free. It's all the rage, believe it or not. A couple of months ago, when I was toying with the idea, and article in the Wall Street Journal talked about the gluten-free "diet" that many without celiac disease are going on to lose weight... and it's not effective.

But wheat and gluten sensitivity are real issues. According to WSJ, as many as twenty million Americans have a gluten sensitivity without having full-blown celiac disease. Symptoms often include depression, mental fogginess, and mood swings, to name a few. Those that know me may say that, at times, I might be sensitive to wheat, based on those symptoms alone. And they might be right... and I never knew it.

My journey to a wheat and gluten-free diet was driven less by my mood swings and mental fogginess and more by problematic skin that I've had since I was a kid. I can remember going to a dermatologist in fourth grade and on every birthday I thought, "This is going to be the year my skin clears up." So a few years ago I went to yet another dermatologist after years of having used every possible over-the-counter, prescription and cosmetic treatment out there. It didn't take long before the doctor diagnosed me with two problems: 1) I was a 20-something hormonal woman for which there was no hope and 2) I was sensitive to wheat. Well, number one was no big shock but I was a bit skeptical of number two... There was little formal testing except some sort of questionable "muscle response" test that involved me holding wheat in one hand while the doctor tested my muscle response on the other. And from that she determined a diagnosis.

I quickly asserted that 1) the doctor was a quack and 2) there was NO WAY I could give up wheat - what would happen to pizza night and pancake morning? Late night bowl of cereal? And let us not forget beer!

Wheat/gluten-free just wasn't gonna happen.

Fast forward to three years and one baby later: my skin was still not clear after becoming a thirty-something. So I did a little research. Much to my dismay I found claims that eliminating wheat can be effective treatment for skin problems. So I tried it... and I lasted a few days. But admittedly, it did seem to help a little. Grrr...

After a sun-and-alcohol soaked vacation in August, my skin was wrecked. Now, thirty years old, I was determined to find a cure. First stop: I made a commitment to going gluten-free. For real.

Not knowing if it is the wheat or gluten that affects me, I decided to eliminate sources of gluten and wheat - both of which are often used in processed foods as fillers and preservatives. I invested in pounds of quinoa and made sure I was stocked up on gluten-free oatmeal. I looked up recipes and swapped potatoes for bread. My expectations were low but I was hopeful... and miraculously, it worked!

My skin was noticeably clearer within a few days. I cheated the first weekend with "real" pizza, french toast casserole and soy sauce with my sushi, at which point my face was inflamed again, but went back to being "free" two days later. And you know what? After two weeks it's gotten a lot easier. Sure, I've had to be creative (and today I did eat the crust of my son's grilled cheese sandwich), but for the most part it's not so bad after all.

I'm still exploring foods that work for me and foods that don't - including if non-wheat sources of gluten (i.e. oats) have the same effect as wheat gluten. And the truth is that I'll probably have to cheat a little more this holiday season because I can't fathom going through it without pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie and gingerbread cookies - and, sorry folks, gluten-free flours just don't have the same quality and consistency. (Thank God this isn't life or death.)

In the meantime, I'll be sure to share with you my favorite wheat and/or gluten-free concoctions, starting with oatmeal squares (or 'momma's cereal bars' as they are known around here). These are great as a snack, or top them with sauteed apples and a little syrup for a hearty breakfast.

Baked Oatmeal Squares
(adapted from Virginia Bed and Breakfast Cookbook)

4 cups rolled oats (read the labels for gluten-free oats)
1/2 cup flour (I use oat flour that I make by grinding oatmeal in my coffee grinder until very fine)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup raisins
1/2 stick melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar or syrup (maple or brown rice pancake syrup)
1 egg
2 cups milk
Cinnamon and sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate. Stir in melted butter and mix well. In a small bowl, beat eggs and milk; add to oats mixture and stir well. Pour mixture into a greased 8x11 inch baking dish. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Bake for 20-22 minutes, or until set in center and edges are brown. Cut into 12 squares and serve warm. Freeze leftovers if desired.


  1. I'm so glad you'll be blogging about this! My mom has felt so much better since she went g-free back in May, and I have to say that I felt awesome this summer when I jumped on the bandwagon with her. I'm definitely looking forward to the good recipes and tips you find!

  2. WOW! I can't believe that wheat could be your answer to your skin problems. Who knew? I am really sorry to hear about it but happy that things seem to be getting better. If I come across any recipes I will send them your way. I guess for now you can pretend to eat pizza.
    I loved reading the blog, I hope things are well!
    Lastly, any gluten free beers?!? Or do you have to stick to wine now?!? : )