I never thought of gluten-intolerance until my young niece was diagnosed with celiac disease a couple years ago. Since then, as is so often the case when something new enters your world, I’ve learned quite a bit about the hereditary autoimmune disorder that affects about 1 in 133 U.S. citizens, whether or not they realize it. And many don’t.
Quite simply, celiac patients are allergic to gluten — a type of protein found in grains like wheat, barley rye and oats (WBRO), which show up in just about everything we eat. It can be extremely harmful if untreated, and one of the more challenging aspects of the disease is that it manifests itself in myriad ways. I spoke to several people before writing this piece, and the litany of symptoms they’ve dealt with is mind-boggling, from chronic diarrhea to anemia to painfully dry skin and many more.
In my niece’s case, intense diarrhea led to a distended belly that would not abate for several weeks. That, of course, was quite frightening to my sister and her husband, who were first-time parents. Thanks to a couple of astute doctors, the little girl, 14 months old at the time, was diagnosed within about six weeks from the onset of symptoms. Statistically speaking, it takes about 11 years to get a proper celiac diagnosis. They were blessed.
Interestingly, the condition can be controlled completely by diet, and the remedy is crystal clear: Don’t eat gluten. That doesn’t mean cut back or just eat it every once in a while. It means never eating gluten again.
That’s no simple matter. Gluten is included in so many of the processed foods that we regularly consume. And it presents a unique challenge when it comes to dining out — it’s easy enough to avoid bread and pasta, but wheat can lurk in sauces and dressings and all sorts of unexpected foodstuffs.
The good news is that there are helpful resources for celiacs and others who are gluten-intolerant. Restaurants and groceries are becoming more attuned to food allergies and developing more products that are safe to eat — and palatable.
In Louisville, celiacs can turn to a Louisville support group (www.glutenfreelouisville.org) that formed more than a dozen years ago. The site provides lots of information and helps people connect with others who deal with the disease, and the group meets regularly on the second Thursday of each month (7 p.m.) at Baptist Hospital East. They hold open forums, bring in speakers and discuss cooking techniques, among other activities. The group also holds a monthly children’s meeting (first Saturday of the month, 4 p.m., at Norton Suburban Hospital).
The group’s Web site also includes a section that allows users to discuss local restaurants that offer gluten-free dining options. Interestingly, the chains seem to be ahead of the game. Places like Bahama Breeze, Bonefish, Outback and P.F. Chang’s draw praise for their gluten-free offerings. (My sister — more precisely, my niece — has become particularly fond of Chick-Fil-A.)
The Louisville site also praises several local restaurants where servers and chefs are open to accommodating diners with gluten-intolerance. The word seems to be spreading in the food industry.
For example, Baxter Station head chef Marc Albert says he’s heard a lot more about food allergies over the past year. He’s happy to talk with diners before they order, letting them know exactly what’s in dishes and how they might substitute.
“Typically, a diner will tell the server, and then I can talk with them and work to find other options,” he says, such as substituting corn meal breading on chicken fingers (for kids), or switching out any sauce that includes roux (and hence, flour), with something like a remoulade, Hollandaise or aioli.
Other resources my sister has found helpful include the Triumph “Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide” (www.triumphdining.com), which includes a state-by-state list of good choices, and the Celiac Sprue Association’s list of gluten-free products, which is updated annually (www.csaceliacs.org/productlisting.php). She’s also pleased with a Kroger hotline (1-800-632-6900) that connects to a dietician who is well versed in the grocery’s entire product line.
That’s a thumbnail sketch. If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to tap available resources. They could change your life.
Contact the writer at
Celiac Sprue Association — www.csaceliacs.org
Celiac Disease Foundation — www.celiac.org
Louisville Support Group of CSA — www.glutenfreelouisville.org
Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide — www.triumphdining.com