Ditching gluten doesn’t have to mean
giving up your favorite foods.
By Jodi Helmer
Cathy Sheafor underwent countless blood tests, brain scans and MRIs in the hopes of figuring out what was causing her low-grade headaches, tingling extremities and chronic malaise.
After living with these symptoms for five years, Sheafor, a 47-year-old swimming coach in Charlotte, North Carolina, still did not have answers. An integrative physician suggested she give up gluten.
Sheafor admits she was skeptical—“I thought there was no way changing my diet could make me feel better,” she recalls—but she was so desperate that she agreed to eliminate foods such as bread, pasta and pizza from her diet. Within a week, the symptoms that had plagued her for years disappeared.
After 10 days without gluten, Sheafor “felt incredible. I didn’t know it was possible to feel that good.”
Gluten, the protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, can cause symptoms ranging from bloating, constipation and weight gain to joint pain, headaches and depression. The responses range from mild intolerances to celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and blocks food absorption. There are no pharmaceutical treatments for gluten intolerance or celiac disease; the only “cure” is a gluten-free diet. What’s more, some people find a bonus in the form of easier weight loss when they give up gluten.
Eliminating gluten might sound daunting. However, Beth Hillson, president of the American Celiac Disease Alliance and author of The Complete Guide to Living Well Gluten-Free and Gluten-Free Makeovers (both Da Capo Lifelong), says, “Everyone can eat well on a gluten-free diet.”
While a gluten-free diet can be filled with a delicious and filling variety of foods, you need to identify trigger foods and learn how to make smart substitutions.
“You have to be a food sleuth and make sure you read all of the labels so you know which foods contain gluten,” says Jennifer McDaniel, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
While it’s well known that gluten is found in bread, pasta and cereal, it also lurks in foods ranging from soy sauce and salad dressing to deli meat.
The Food and Drug Administration is making it easier to identify gluten-free foods in the marketplace. Starting in August, all food manufacturers who use the “gluten-free” label on their packages must adhere to a strict gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million. The labeling law, coupled with an expanding selection of gluten-free products on store shelves, makes it easier to adopt a gluten-free diet.
“We’re seeing entire aisles in the supermarket dedicated to gluten-free foods,” McDaniel says. “There are so many choices. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods or change the way you feed your family.”
When Kate Hanley experimented with a gluten-free diet at the suggestion of her naturopath, she worried that giving up her favorite foods would make her feel deprived. But she went ahead and added more fruits and vegetables to her diet, stocked up on gluten-free beer, bread and pancake mix, and waited to see if the changes would have a positive impact on her health.
Within a week of making the transition to a gluten-free diet in 2012, Hanley, 43, a mind/body coach and author in Providence, Rhode Island, lost 10 pounds while finding relief from her PMS symptoms, better control of her digestive system and an increase in energy levels.
“I wasn't thinking I was going to do it forever,” she recalls. “I was just going to test it. But after three weeks, I felt so good I didn't want to eat gluten again.”
While Hanley appreciated the health benefits of going gluten-free, the transition took some getting used to. “That first week or so of figuring out what to eat instead of what I used to eat was a challenge,” she says.
Making Healthy Swaps
It’s also helpful to read the labels of gluten-free foods, too. “When manufacturers change the recipes to eliminate gluten, they often add extra salt or fat to make them taste better,” says McDaniel. “Some gluten-free foods have more calories than the same foods with gluten.”
When it comes to replacing processed foods like breads, condiments and snacks, McDaniel suggests choosing products with the shortest ingredient lists and most pronounceable ingredients. Other simple swaps—grits instead of oatmeal, breakfast burritos made from corn tortillas and replacing soy sauce with tamari—help eliminate gluten without dramatically changing your diet.
Instead of toast, Hanley eats eggs, avocado and cheese. The combination of protein and healthy fats keeps her feeling fuller longer.
Hanley says adopting a gluten-free diet has “forced me to reach for whole foods; I can’t rely on the typical sandwich, crackers, pizza [and] pasta or just eat whatever's left of the kids’ PB&J. It’s been very empowering and I feel a lot healthier in general.”
While gluten-free whole foods like fruits and vegetables are the healthiest choices, there are times when cravings for comfort foods and the nostalgia of favorite family recipes are too strong to ignore.
It was the desire to create gluten-free recipes that taste the same, or better, than recipes that contain gluten that led Hillson, who was diagnosed with celiac disease as a child, to attend culinary school.
“I didn’t want to go without all of my favorite foods,” she says. “I learned to bake my way back to good health and good food.”
Hillson discovered that gluten-free flours made from rice, almond, quinoa and hempseed can be used to recreate baked goods such as bread and cake, that thick slices of spaghetti squash are a delicious replacement for lasagna noodles and that cauliflower could be transformed into pizza crust.
“A lot of people are surprised at the options,” Hillson says. “There are easy substitutions that can make almost anything gluten-free and just as tasty as the foods you gave up.”
By substituting gluten-free ingredients in her favorite family recipes, Hillson discovered the possibilities for creating delicious dishes were limitless. She’s even developed a recipe for gluten-free bread that she swears is just as good as loaves baked with traditional flour.
“You need the motivation and an adventurous spirit to learn new recipes,” she says. “I had the motivation; I wanted to be able to make these things so I had the option to eat them.”
For Sheafor, the motivation to experiment in the kitchen stemmed from a craving for her favorite food. “Pizza was the one thing I missed,” she explains. “It was one of the hardest things to replicate.”
When Sheafor adopted the diet in 2009, she tried gluten-free crusts and premade gluten-free pizza as well as homemade crusts made from gluten-free flours but the results had an odd texture and didn’t taste great. “Now, there are a lot more options,” she says, noting that there are gluten-free pizza crusts that taste the same as the regular ones. “You wouldn’t even notice the difference,” she adds.
Sheafor’s determination to find the perfect gluten-free pizza mirrors her approach to adopting a gluten-free diet. “It seemed overwhelming at first but it turned out to be easier than I thought,” she says. “I’ll never go back. It changed my life.”
Susan’s Baked Pasta
Beth Hillson created this recipe after a friend’s daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease.
2 tbsp olive oil
2 lbs ground sausage (a combination of hot and sweet), casing removed
2 medium onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 32-oz jar good-quality marinara sauce
1 2-pound container ricotta or low-fat ricotta cheese
3 large eggs
1⁄3 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 cups grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (about 8 oz)
12 oz corn or brown rice spirals, penne, or other cut pasta
1-2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (about 4-8 oz)
1. In a large saucepan, heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil over medium heat. Break up the sausage and sauté in two batches until cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Set aside.
2. Wipe out the pan and heat the remaining tbsp of oil over medium heat. Sauté the onion and garlic until caramelized.
3. Combine the sausage, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and marinara sauce; simmer, covered, for 30-60
minutes. Add a small amount of water if the sauce becomes too thick. Set aside.
4. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, parsley and 1 cup of the Parmesan cheese.
5. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water for half the time specified on the package.
Drain and rinse in cold water. Return to the pot and toss with 2 cups of the sausage-and-sauce mixture. Spread out evenly so the pasta does not continue to cook. Set aside.
6. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Set a 9” x 13” Pyrex casserole or baking dish on an aluminum foil–lined baking sheet.
7. Ladle 1 cup of the sausage-and-sauce mixture in the bottom of the pan; spread evenly. Add half the pasta and top with half the ricotta cheese mixture. Ladle 2 cups of the sauce over the cheese. Repeat, finishing with the sausage-and-sauce mixture. Top with the mozzarella and one-half to 1 cup of the Parmesan cheese.
8. Bake 30-40 minutes or until bubbly. Serve hot with extra Parmesan cheese. (Refrigerate any extra sauce; it will keep well for several days.)
Serves 10-12. Analysis per 1/12 serving: 491 calories, 21g protein,
20g fat (8g saturated), 8g fiber, 43g carbohydrate, 675 mg sodium
(using corn pasta, turkey sausage, part-skim ricotta and
low-sodium marinara, Parmesan and mozzarella)
From Gluten-Free Makeovers by Beth Hillson; reprinted with permission from Da Capo Lifelong © 2011 (www.dacapopress.com)
“Biscuits are perfect for breakfast or with a hearty soup or stew for lunch or dinner,” says Carol Fenster, author of Gluten-Free 101 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). “I prefer using parchment paper rather than greasing the baking sheet because this biscuit dough is quite soft and the parchment paper allows me to easily transfer the biscuits to the baking sheet.”
1⁄2 cup cornstarch or potato starch, plus more for dusting
1 cup Gluten-Free Flour Blend (see after scone recipe)
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1⁄4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp xanthan gum
1 tsp guar gum
1⁄2 tsp salt
1⁄4 cup vegetable shortening
1⁄2 cup milk of choice
1 large egg white
1. Place a rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat to 350ºF. Grease a 9” x 13” rimmed baking sheet (not nonstick) or line with parchment paper (see below). Dust the surface lightly with cornstarch.
2. In a food processor, pulse the cornstarch, flour blend, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, xanthan gum, guar gum and salt to mix thoroughly. Add the shortening, milk and egg white. Process until the dough forms a ball, scraping down the bowl with a spatula as needed. The dough will be very soft and sticky, but dusting with cornstarch will make it easier to handle.
3. Place the dough on the prepared baking sheet and lightly dust the dough with cornstarch to prevent your hands from sticking. Gently pat the dough to a 3⁄4”-thick circle. Cut into ten 2” circles with a floured metal biscuit cutter (metal cuts better than plastic). Push the biscuit cutter straight down into the dough rather than twisting it as you cut. Shape the remaining dough into a 3⁄4” round and cut again. If the dough is sticky, lightly dust with more cornstarch. Arrange the biscuits on the baking sheet.
4. Bake until the biscuits are lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately (makes 10 biscuits).
Rolling Biscuits on Parchment Paper
Gluten-free biscuit dough is soft and sticky, so it requires special handling. Parchment paper is ideal for biscuit dough because it is coated with silicone to prevent sticking. Try rolling the biscuits directly on the parchment paper on the countertop and cut them out with a biscuit cutter, then transfer the parchment (with the biscuits on it) directly to the baking sheet. Re-roll scraps on another sheet of parchment paper and transfer to the baking sheet with a thin spatula. Be sure to use metal rather than plastic biscuit cutters for a cleaner cut, which enables better rising.
“Although they sound like a delicate pastry served by the English at afternoon tea, scones are actually quite rustic-looking and surprisingly easy to make,” Fenster says. “Once the dough is mixed, work quickly to shape it and get it into the oven so that the leaveners can do their job well.”
1⁄3 cup butter or buttery spread, at room temperature
1⁄2 cup milk of choice, at room temperature, plus more for brushing the dough
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 tbsp sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 3⁄4 cups Gluten-Free Flour Blend (see below)
1⁄2 cup tapioca flour
2 tsp xanthan gum
1 1⁄2 tsp cream of tartar
3⁄4 tsp baking soda
1⁄2 tsp salt
1⁄2 cup dried currants
1. Place a rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat to 375ºF. Grease a 9” x13” rimmed baking sheet (not nonstick) or line with parchment paper.
2. In a food processor, blend the butter, milk and egg together until well mixed. Add the sugar, flour blend, tapioca flour, xanthan gum, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Process just until mixed.
Toss in the currants and pulse twice to incorporate. The dough will be soft. Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and pat with a wet spatula into a smooth 8” circle, 3⁄4” thick. Be sure to make the dough thickness uniform across the circle, rather than tapering the outer edges, because the thinner edges will brown too quickly and possibly burn. Brush the top with milk and sprinkle with sugar.
3. Bake until the top is browned and crisp, 15-20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, but leave the oven on. With a serrated knife, cut the dough into 8 wedges, and pull the wedges slightly away from the center so the innermost edges are exposed to the heat and can crisp up a little. Return the pan to the oven and bake another 5 minutes. Cool the scones on the pan for 10 minutes, then serve slightly warm.
Carol’s Gluten-Free Flour Blend
11⁄2 cups sorghum flour or brown rice flour (35%)
11⁄2 cups potato starch or cornstarch (35%)
1 cup tapioca flour (30%)
Whisk together until thoroughly blended and store, tightly covered, in a dark, dry place.
Excerpted from Gluten-Free 101 © 2013 by Carol Fenster.
Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (www.hmhco.com). All rights reserved.