MY DILEMMA I recently got out of a painful, long-term love affair—with bread. For years, I was a “gluten” for punishment. You wouldn’t think that gluten—that sticky protein found in grains like wheat, barley, oats and rye—would present a problem for a pasta-loving Italian girl. But the bloating, pain and indigestion that followed my nonna’s lasagna and lemon cake began to take its toll. Something had to give—or, in my case, be given up.
THE LINGO First, a word of warning: Gluten-related terminology is confusing. “Gluten intolerance is an umbrella term that refers to three different conditions: gluten sensitivity, gluten/wheat allergy and celiac disease,” explains Dr. Mohsin Rashid,a gastroenterologist and an associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “With a sensitivity, people experience symptoms but don’t generate IgE antibodies when exposed to gluten like they do if they have an allergy. In both cases, their intestine isn’t damaged and they may outgrow their intolerance. With celiac disease, they generate tTG antibodies and the villi in their small intestine are damaged. This is a permanent disorder, and the only treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.”
THE TESTS “One way to determine if you’re intolerant to gluten is to remove it from your diet and pay attention to any changes in your symptoms,” says Rashid. “Then, after a few weeks, if you eat something with gluten and you feel worse, you most likely have an intolerance.” To determine what kind of intolerance, see your physician to find out if you should get a blood test for anti bodies and/or a biopsy of your intestine to rule out celiac disease. “It’s important to be tested before you go on a gluten-free diet because, other wise, the tTG levels may be negative and the biopsy may be normal,” says Rashid.
THE RISKS Bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea and headaches are the most common symptoms of a gluten intolerance, says Rashid. And, though that slice of birthday cake may look harmless, those with celiac disease who stray from a gluten-free lifestyle are at risk of becoming anemic because the damaged bowel can’t absorb iron, folic acid and other vitamins and, over time, can develop osteoporosis or bowel cancer. and I called it quits.
THE REMEDY Once a doctor has made the diagnosis, you can avoid the post-pizza bulge by reaching for rice-based breads and cookies, as well as products made from nuts and almonds. “Most people notice that their symptoms disappear within three or four days of starting a strict gluten -elimination diet,” explains naturopathic doctor Penny Kendall-Reed. But, just as the pain can quickly subside, the bloating and sluggishness can return faster than how you inhaled that strawberry Danish.
THE FIX Chelsea Clinton didn’t let her gluten intolerance spoil her big day: The former president’s daughter had a 500-pound gluten-free wedding cake. And with any hot trend come celebrity followers: Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow have eliminated gluten from their diets. A few years ago, it was difficult to get your carb fix, but now more restaurants and grocery stores are catering to the gluten-free crowd, says Sherri Doak, a registered holistic nutritionist based in Newmarket, Ont. “Today, it’s so different,” she says. “Even if you don’t have an issue with gluten, you would eat [gluten-free foods] because they taste good.” Doak recommends raw-food desserts, which favour nuts, dates and coconut-sap sweetener in place of flour and sugar.
MY PLAN Instead of getting tested first (like I should have!), I followed my mother’s suggestion that I take a break from flour. For the first three weeks, I felt hungry and lifeless and pined for cupcakes and croissants. But then I noticed that the bloating and pain were gone. Not convinced that I had to give up bread forever, I booked an appointment with Marlene Deres, a holistic nutritionist based in Newmarket. After chatting about my symptoms, she performed an electrodermal screening test, which indicated that I was sensitive to wheat and gluten. (Rashid says that electrodermal testing is still debated in the medical community and not accepted as a valid test.) So, with that in mind, I need to get over my fear of needles and get tested—doctor’s orders. Meanwhile, I’ll pass on the shortbread cookies and mince-meat tarts this holiday season.