The Gluten-Free Way

The GF movement draws both celiac patients and those simply looking to become more health conscious.



Roberto Gonzalez

When Rachel Perez was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1998, finding appetizing gluten-free foods was no picnic.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and their derivatives. Over time, the inflammation caused by the body’s reaction to gluten damages the small intestine’s lining, preventing absorption of nutrients. Symptoms vary among patients, but the worst include diarrhea, nausea, weight loss, headaches and fatigue. Left untreated, celiac disease is life threatening; it can lead to malnutrition and raise the risk of several cancers. 

And there’s no cure except a gluten-free (GF) diet. That means no conventional bread, pasta, cakes, crackers, cereals, pies or pastries. Not to mention a host of not-so-obvious products including soy sauce, most marinades, some brands of chocolate, deli meats, candies—even certain toothpastes and vitamins.

“I remember just eating rice cakes and lots of fruit,” says Perez, now 28 and an Orlando advertising account executive. “I went to support groups and saw a nutritionist. We sought out all the help we could find about what to eat and the substitutions and specialty grains you can have, but the food wasn’t good.”

Fast-forward to the mid-2000s when food manufacturers “started coming out with a lot of better-tasting foods,” Perez says. “About three years ago, the really excellent food starting coming out.”

Perez is referring to the fact that now gluten-free foods and products are everywhere, from health-food stores and chain groceries, to upscale bistros and down-home mom-and-pop restaurants. In fact, the gluten-free products market is expected to exceed $6.2 billion by 2018, according to global research company MarketsandMarkets, with an annual growth rate of 10.2 percent. The double-digit growth of the gluten-free market can be attributed not only to increasing numbers of celiac patients and individuals with gluten intolerance,

MarketsandMarkets says, but also to “health-conscious people”—such as Jessica Kellum and Michael Ciaraldi. The Lake Mary couple incorporated gluten-free foods into a recent diet renovation, their goal being to consume only pesticide-free, organic, gluten-free and raw foods, says Ciaraldi, who studies nutrition at Broward College in South Florida.

After years of partying hard, working “insane hours” and neglecting his health, says Ciaraldi, 27, “I started researching nutrition and that led me down a rabbit hole of information.”
He concluded that most processed foods have been stripped of their nutrients. “We’re cutting corners to produce massive amounts of food by cutting out the nutrients and putting toxins in,” he says. The couple spend hours at farmers markets, and Kellum, 24, enjoys creating her own gluten-free concoctions.

“You can make any recipe as long as you buy high-quality ingredients,” she says. During a recent health-food store visit, Ciaraldi and Kellum spent $60 for three or four days’ worth of food, including gluten-free cat food.

“It would be easier for people to transition if they didn’t feel they were spending an arm and a leg,” Kellum says. “It’s worth it because of our health.” Maybe, maybe not, says René Nicholson, fitness director at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando. She follows a mostly gluten-free diet due to gluten intolerance but says, “I wouldn’t go on it if I didn’t have to.”

The proliferation of gluten-free products is great for people like her and those with celiac disease, says Nicholson, 31. But for everyone else, it’s easier to “eat healthy and know what that consists of.” For instance, “if you eat pasta and feel more bloated, then avoid it.”

Helping to fuel the gluten-free movement are celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, whose tweets tout the diet as a weight-loss strategy. That’s no surprise, says Dr. Douglas J. Sprung, an Altamonte Springs gastroenterologist and author of Lose Weight, Get Healthy, and Be Happy.

“Once you take out gluten, you eliminate a lot of things,” he says. “You’re not eating Twinkies or cakes, cookies or breads.” The bottom line, Sprung says, is that forgoing gluten simplifies your diet: “[You’re] not eating as much junk.”

For individuals like Perez, whose celiac disease requires strict adherence to the diet, the wide availability of gluten-free foods and products has made life much easier. “When I was first diagnosed, there was specialty food I’d get in the mail in a box with dry ice,” she recalls. “Now I can go to Publix, and it’s in the aisle—it’s just crazy how far it’s come.”


GLUTEN DEFINED

Gluten: A protein found primarily in wheat, barley and rye and their derivatives
Celiac Disease: An inherited autoimmune reaction to gluten that can damage the small intestine. Diagnosing celiac disease involves testing blood for antibody levels and an 
intestinal biopsy for further confirmation. People must be consuming gluten to be properly diagnosed. Celiac disease is estimated to affect 1.8 million, or 1 percent of Americans.
Gluten Intolerance: Sensitivity to gluten that affects the 
digestive system. So far, there’s no diagnostic test for wheat sensitivity, other than eliminating wheat and gluten from the diet and reintroducing them to see if symptoms recur. An estimated 18 million people, or 6 percent of Americans, are gluten-intolerant.

 

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