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Simeon: The gluten free diet

I admit I am intrigued by diet fads. I have tried adopting a long list of healthy eating habits: low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar and whole grain. I have been on wheat-free diets, vegetarian diets and dairy free diets. Some restrictive diets work well for me and others are just plain difficult to maintain. I guess eating healthy and in moderation is too simplistic. Lately, I have been seeing more product labels claiming “gluten free.” Wait a minute. … should I be avoiding gluten? More importantly, what is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Most foods made with flour contain gluten so it’s in almost everything I really like. Breads, cereals, pasta, crackers, cookies, cakes and muffins contain gluten. Doesn’t matter if it’s made with whole wheat flour, it still has gluten.

For people who have celiac disease ingesting gluten leads to gastrointestinal distress including abdominal bloating and pain, diarrhea, vomiting and constipation. People who suffer from this autoimmune disorder are required to follow a gluten-free diet. Three million Americans across all races, ages and genders suffer from celiac.

There are people who have gluten sensitivity, which is similar to lactose intolerance, causing a person who ingests foods containing gluten to experience gastrointestinal issues. The amount of gluten to cause a reaction and the severity of symptoms varies.

Since I don’t have either celiac disease or gluten sensitivity I thought the benefits of a gluten free diet may be worth looking into. Most of my research took place last month while attending a natural food tradeshow in Southern California. Thousands of vendors offered gluten free pizza, pasta, cookies, scones, muffins, waffles and cereal and I sampled it all.

Most of the gluten free foods I tried contain all the sugar, fat and calories as regular varieties. As much as I would like to believe I was eating healthier because it was gluten free, it just wasn’t so. People on gluten free diets don’t necessarily have to compromise taste and quality. I had some of the most delicious gluten free brownies, biscotti and pasta, all with catchy names and attractive packaging.

I learned that rice flour is gluten free and commonly used in these products. Rice flour costs about three times as much as enriched wheat flour. On average, gluten free food products cost 30 percent more than standard varieties. A gluten free diet would certainly cost me more at the checkout stand.

Whole Foods [www .wholefoodsmarket.com /] stocks more than 1,000 items labeled “gluten-free” and this is the fastest growing health food category expected to reach $1.7 billion in sales this year. Without a medical need to be on a gluten free diet, I questioned my motivation or ability to follow a restrictive diet. Could I live without my beloved gluten laden carbs? Was I a gluten glutton?

During week one of my experimental gluten free diet I ate mostly lean protein, vegetables, rice and salads. When dining out I chose salads but realized salad dressings and crutons contain gluten. During day four I just broke down and had a dinner roll. I must say I had a whole new appreciation for bread and butter since I deliberately cut it out of my diet but dreamed of it constantly. It was genuinely a challenge to be on gluten patrol. Planning and monitoring gluten free food choices was not part of my normal daily routine. Rather than buy higher priced gluten free foods, I just avoided baked goods, bread and pasta. I made an attempt to be gluten free for one week and I wasn’t very successful.

I have complete appreciation for those who monitor diets due to medical conditions. Diabetes runs in my family and I know how difficult it can be to remain on a low-sugar diet. Planning and commitment are paramount to successfully sticking to any restrictive diet. Since I don’t have a medical condition I had the luxury of eating the restricted foods every now and again without suffering physical consequences.

If anything, the gluten free diet experiment got me back in the mindset of being very conscious of my food choices. A busy life can be a convenient excuse to grab a bagel or pastry for breakfast. To keep me in check, I adopted a plan to alternate days where I restrict gluten free foods completely. Even if I observe two days out of the week where I say no to foods like bread and pasta, I develop healthier eating habits and raise my level of awareness of food choices. It’s proactively changing a lifestyle behavior and I like that idea. Small steps can lead to big changes and that most certainly is a good thing.

Monica Simeon is an enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe. She is CEO and principal partner of Sister Sky. She canbe reached at monica@sistersky.com.