Living ^Gluten^ Free – A Guest Post by Thomas Karounos
Recently, I was asked to write a “guest entry” for Glutenfreelandia. I was honored to be asked, and I told Anne Marie that I would be glad to contribute. I then sat with a note pad and stared at a blank page for the next hour. I toyed with the idea of writing about a recent experience to the South where the waiter had no idea what Gluten Free meant, but he knew that I could not eat fried (which was 95% of the menu; welcome to the South). I also thought a blog post espousing my favorite Gluten Free products in the market would be helpful, but we all know tastes are fickle. Then Anne Marie mentioned it may be beneficial to write about what it was like to be Gluten Free since I started back in 2006, and let me say that a Gluten Free life today is EASY compared to the Gluten Free dark ages of 2006.
If you have just decided to live a Gluten Free life due to your health or for other reasons, you should know that your life is not over. Yes, it means you will have to change your eating habits, and while it can be frustrating at times (Say goodbye to some of your favorite restaurants), choices in 2013 are becoming more plentiful. Stick with it, I am here to tell you that the benefit to your health, the food that you are going to discover, and the life you are about to live is going to be fulfilling and rewarding.
Stick with it…. The life you are about to live is going to be fulfilling and rewarding.
So, like any story, I need to give you some character development before we delve into the world where I recommend Gluten Free items that you may enjoy; that may be in a later blog post. For the person new to the Gluten Free world, you may find some parallels and solace in knowing you are not alone. If you are also a foodie, you may gain some hope that there are great products out there for you to discover; life is not over, it’s just beginning!
I am Greek and Italian, and pasta and bread is/was/is a big part of my life. My mother is Italian, and might I add a GREAT cook (she also had a Catholic upbringing, so after I went Gluten Free, she blamed herself for all my stomach issues I had while I was a child (Her raviolis are/were/are my favorite)). I had almost nightly, unbearable stomach pain as a child. My parents brought me to multiple doctors, and after a battery of tests, I was diagnosed with IBS or an immature digestive system. For the next 26 years, I would be told that my issues were physical, an unknown food allergy (never wheat), or, again, again and again, Irritable bowel syndrome. Pain became the norm in my life, and all doctors had no solutions.
In 2004, scarring was discovered on my liver…. I went 2 more years with sickness, pain and describing to doctors the “feeling of being poisoned”.
In 2004, scarring was discovered on my liver. They said my liver enzymes were at dangerous levels for my health, and doctors tested me for hepatitis. Again, they were baffled by the lack of results, and they suggested I take “new” liver medications to get my enzymes back in order. After reading the side effects of the drugs, I chose to not take this avenue. I went 2 more years with sickness, pain and describing to doctors the “feeling of being poisoned”.
In 2006, after I saw a terrifying photo of myself on my California driver’s license, my wife and I decided to try the South Beach Diet. Along with losing over 30 lbs, I began to feel healthy. In fact, the first few weeks cleansing carbs from my body led to me feeling the best I had felt in years. I credited my improved health with losing weight until I started to ease breads back into my diet. As soon as the wheat was re-introduced, the pain and stomach symptoms returned.
At this time, my sister’s son was having terrible food allergies. One thing my nephew had to remove from his diet was wheat. She recommended I try to remove wheat as well, and I decided it may be worth looking into this “no wheat” diet. I was not diagnosed Celiac, but I was about to start living a Gluten Free life.
The landscape for a Gluten Free life in 2006 could be summed up in two words, “it sucked”. Gluten Free bread was tasteless and stale (Brown rice), pasta dissolved in boiling water, baking ingredients were rare and delivered sub-par results, and I could not find a good chocolate chip cookie (I love cookies). Going out to eat with the family meant I would be eating a garden salad with oil and vinegar. Asking any employee if they had items that were Gluten Free led to blank stares, or my favorite response, “we don’t use gluten; our sauce is thickened with flour.”
The landscape for a Gluten Free life in 2006 could be summed up in two words, “it sucked”.
After 1 year of being gluten free, I was ready to throw in the towel. I won’t lie; I strayed often, and when I did, I got sick. I loved the taste of food too much to live this way. Food was stale and bland, and I was done!!! Yet, an amazing thing happened that strengthened my resolve. A routine check up with the doctor showed that my liver levels had all gone back to normal. For the first time in many years, I was healthy. Subsequent checkups for the next 6 years showed the same thing, no issues, and my wife and I cannot remember the last time I got as sick as I used to get.
Also, over the next 6 years, Gluten Free began to evolve. If around 2006 were the dark ages for Gluten Free living, then 2009 was the beginning of the Gluten Free industrial revolution. It was at this time that my wife perfected what was to me, the Holy Grail of my Gluten Free living, the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Baked breads, raviolis, and pizza would follow, and suddenly, Gluten Free living was no longer hard. People eating at our house could not tell the difference.
Today, restaurants have Gluten Free menus (Be careful of cross contamination), stores have Gluten Free aisles with numerous choices, and manufacturers now make Gluten Free alternatives of waffles, chicken nuggets/strips (I work for Tyson Foods, and the Gluten Free strips are excellent), Beer (That actually tastes like Beer), and breads (Even today, I discovered a new hamburger bun that the kids loved).
It is an exciting time to be Gluten Free, with it becoming mainstream. Celebrities are touting their GF’ness, and whether it is those with Celiac, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, and Elizabeth Hasselbeck or those with Gluten Intolerance, Zooey Deschanel, Mariel Hemingway, and Chelsea Clinton, you cannot go a week without hearing about somebody talking about their Gluten Free diet. Many cook books exist for those that love to cook and even the book by Elzabeth Hasselbeck, The G-Free Diet is worth the read if you are recently diagnosed with Celiac.
Choices are growing, and customers no longer have to settle for sub-par Gluten Free products. This multi-billion dollar industry is still evolving, and as it does, quality will improve and prices will come down.
My advice for products from Soy Sauce, to vodka, to bread, to pizza, to cookies is to not settle!
So many of my favorite foods that I thought I had to give up, are coming back into my life, and I can enjoy them again. My health has improved greatly and I do not feel that I have given up too much. My advice for products from Soy Sauce, to vodka, to bread, to pizza, to cookies is to not settle! If you ever feel like what you are eating is tasteless, stale, or un-fulfilling food, trust me; there is a better product out there!
If you are struggling with the idea of living Gluten Free, reach out to Anne Marie or me. This is a great opportunity to share our experiences and support each other as we live in Glutenfreelandia.
Thomas Karounos, originally from the Chicagoland area, lives in Arkansas with his wife Dorie and children. He has been gluten free since 2006.