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Gluten-Free Is The Way for Me


I hated gluten before it was cool.

That's right. Before the gluten-free diet became fodder for late-night comedians, I said goodbye to wheat and other grains containing the protein, including barley, rye, and some oats.

That decision changed my life.

Pamela Ellgen prepares a gluten-free meal / PHOTO BY: Rich Ellgen
Pamela Ellgen prepares a gluten-free meal / PHOTO BY: Rich Ellgen

While less than one percent of Americans have celiac disease, a severe autoimmune disorder that attacks the lining of the small intestine, the disease has increased four-fold over the last 60 years and as many as 83 percent of people who have celiac remain undiagnosed. According to the Center for Celiac Research, another 18 million people suffer from a wheat allergy or non-celiac gluten sensitivity although emerging research suggests that gluten may not be the lone culprit but FODMAPs (poorly absorbed carbohydrates) may be to blame.

And then there are the rest of us, the people who just feel like crap after eating gluten. Do we really need a diagnosis to justify not wanting to eat something?

After waiting for years for one, I finally decided that I didn't.

My Emerging Symptoms
Constant stomach aches plagued me when I was a child. At one point, I had to take medication to combat parasites. During my teen years, I felt overwhelmed by anxiety. My fingernails would peel and chip and were so stunted I couldn't even drum on a countertop.

As a young adult, my stomach was bloated all the time, as if I were five-months pregnant. I struggled to maintain a healthy weight, but I had an unhealthy relationship with food. Eating drove me -- I was always thinking about the next meal.

The message to eat healthy whole grains was certainly not lost on me. Wheat dominated my diet: whole grain toast and eggs for breakfast, a sandwich on whole wheat bread for lunch, a granola bar for a snack, and salmon with couscous or whole-grain pasta for dinner. And after every one of those wheat-heavy meals, I could feel my mood change. I don't know if there is a celiac version of "roid rage," but I often felt alarmingly aggressive.

Yet no one thought to test me for gluten sensitivity.

Desperate for a Diagnosis
Eventually, I decided to see a doctor about my stomach issues. She pushed against my distended belly and ordered some blood tests to check for markers for celiac and various food allergies. I crossed my fingers and hoped that relief was on its way.

The tests came back negative, and the doctor didn't order any follow-ups. So, I kept eating wheat despite a nagging feeling that it might be hurting me. The message I received back then had taken hold: Unless a medical professional confirms you have celiac or some other sensitivity, there is no reason to give up gluten.

That message hasn't changed. Even as I researched this story, the first result on Google for "gluten containing grains" linked to the Whole Grains Council website, which emphatically states, "There’s no reason for the rest of us to go gluten-free, no matter what fear-mongering books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain may say."

A convenient perspective for wheat farmers, don't you think?

 Going Gluten Free
I feared that without a doctor's confirmation, my symptoms were all in my head. My moment of decision arrived when I started to notice tingling and numbness in my hands and arms. I didn't even want to talk to a doctor about it, I was so afraid that I might hear a more serious diagnosis.

Right around that time, I met a young woman who followed a gluten-free diet even though no one had diagnosed her with celiac or even a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Her courage to act on her instincts inspired me.

Emboldened, I traded wheat and oats for quinoa, brown rice, corn, and grain-free options. Initially, the diet seemed restrictive, but I loved to cook, so I explored it as if it were a global cuisine, like Thai or French food.

I learned how to bake with gluten-free flours and I planned gluten-free meals, such as steak with roasted red peppers and gorgonzola or pasta made from zucchini processed through a spiralizer. Following the diet turned out to be surprisingly easy.

And, I began to feel better. Much better.

Symptoms I didn't even realize were related to wheat sensitivity gradually improved. Food no longer drove me. I became more peaceful and emotionally stable. My belly shrank and I effortlessly maintained my high school weight, even after having two children. My fingernails grew, and the tingling sensations in my arms stopped.

A New Perspective
Although my symptoms had disappeared, I still felt I had to eat whatever was served or defend my menu choices whenever I dined out with friends or family. I overheard more than a few comments about how ridiculous gluten-free diets were, that the gluten-free craze would soon pass, and anyone who followed the diet was nuts.

In 2012, after adhering to a gluten-free diet for two years, I spoke at a conference on how food trends were changing within the younger generation. Gluten-free eating was among the trends gaining popularity. Before I got up to speak, a representative from a major wheat consortium handed me a folder full of nutrition information on gluten-free diets, including a 13-page brief that dismissed the book “Wheat Belly.” The representative's card read, "Nutrition Educator."

I knew why she was there. According to a report from Packaged Facts, a market research publisher, gluten-free revenues had risen to $4.2 billion by 2012, while wheat consumption in the U.S. declined. It made me wonder whether the goal of this "educator" was raising public health awareness or corporate profits.

Let Them Eat Wheat (I Just Won't!)
I no longer care if my rationale earns the approval of my doctor or the general public. I feel better without gluten, so I'm keeping it off my plate.

While the gluten jokes can be mildly amusing, the jibes also can be hurtful to those who have found gluten-free relief. Those remarks desensitize the public to those who suffer from celiac disease -- a serious condition.

To those folks who feel it necessary to poke fun: You're playing with people's lives.

Besides, it's just rude.

– Pamela

Readers – Have you ever eaten gluten-free?  Has eating gluten-free helped you to feel better? Have you ever been tested for or diagnosed with Celiac Disease? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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Pamela Ellgen is a Certified Personal Trainer, food blogger, and author of the cookbook, “Modern Family Table.” Her work has been published in The Portland Tribune, WorldLifestyle, Edible Phoenix, TheNest, and She enjoys spending the weekends at the farmers market and the beach with her husband and two sons.

Learn more about Pamela at her website and connect with her on Facebook and Pinterest.

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