Gluten-free Living as Easy as Pie

Many stores have increased their selections in gluten-free items.
Photo by Stephanie Pellicano

For months she shared nothing. She refused not out of greed, but out of fear.

"Hey Kristin, you want a piece of gum?" the kids would ask, and she would always deny the offer.

Kinesiology Junior Kristin Fankhauser now approaches her seventh year living with celiac disease.

Essentially, celiac disease is intolerance of the small intestine to gluten. Those who are diagnosed with the disease must avoid wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats.

Both Kristin and her sister, Elisa Fankhauser, have been diagnosed with the disease. Kristin learned that she had the intolerance just one month after she had seen her sister fall to the intolerable fate. Celiac disease is often hereditary, and in short time, the lifestyle of their household completely changed.

“‘What? We can’t have bread?’”  Kristin remembers sobbing for her sister, but also for herself. The initial shock and sadness of a newly diagnosed insensitivity sparked vigilance in their lives and called for a much more focused diet.

Bread, cookies and cupcakes were difficult to avoid, but even surprising products, such as lipstick, Chap Stick and even medications (aspirin) became potential risks. Attentiveness became key. Luckily for the sisters, their parents helped them read all labels, grocery shop effectively and cook carefully. As the girls finished middle school and high school, they lived and ate cautiously.

With the start of college, new challenges arose. Life away from home erases the simple luxury of a safely cooked meal, Kristin says. Grocery shopping became a lofty task when her mom was no longer by her side down the aisles.

Fortunately, with the increase in awareness and growing understanding for those with gluten sensitivities, restaurants and grocery stores alike have recently expanded their menus and department selections in order to accommodate these needs.

Although there are numerous indie cafes and independent restaurants that offer alternative menus, Kristin finds relieving convenience in mainstream places.

“It’s always nice when the mainstream places have gluten-free menus,” she says.

She and her sister find food comforts in chain restaurants such as Pei Wei because they offer an exclusively gluten-free menu and they are easy to track down.

The convenient availability of gluten-free crackers, breads, salad dressings and bagels in mainstream grocery stores also save shoppers— like the Fankhauser sisters— from always needing to track down specialty stores.

Grocery stores have whole sections devoted to gluten-free items, but sometimes these special goods can be more expensive.
Photo by Stephanie Pellicano

Even Target and Safeway have what she needs.  However, Kristin admits that it can be slightly upsetting when she and her roommate both purchase a loaf of bread, but hers is more expensive.

If only it were as simple as cost differences. The gluten-free lifestyle requires cautious planning and diligent understanding of food products that most consumers do not even consider.

However, eating gluten-free would be a piece of cake for biochemistry senior Brooke Frederick.

Even with the utmost care, some of the most wholesome and careful organic eateries may still pose a threat to Frederick’s health.

Undoubtedly, celiac disease is serious. But in perspective, Frederick says she would delight in these simple restrictions—to avoid only wheat, barley, rye and oats. It is not a restriction but a luxury in her case.

“Celiacs have it good,” Frederick says, while trying to explain her dietary restrictions in simple terms. “I’d rather have to avoid wheat and gluten.”

It would be quicker to list that which she can eat as opposed to listing what she must avoid. After she practiced gluten-free eating for nearly 5 years under the assumption that her reactions were caused by gluten intolerance, Fredrick finally pinpointed her true dietary concerns in her throat.

In February of this year, Frederick learned that she has eosinophilic esophagitis, a condition of extreme inflammation of the esophagus that often requires elimination dieting to avoid reactivity.

Ironically, wheat is one of the only ingredients Fredrick can eat safely without fears of an allergic reaction. Elimination diets such as hers are arduous, and her daily efforts call for extraordinary diligence.

In a list of 60 food items on her allergy test, Fredrick must avoid 43 of them. Not only must she shun corn, soy and eggs, but she also faces risks in foods like chicken, cucumber, lamb, pork, green bell peppers and peaches.

With a list so detailed, Fredrick often skips social gatherings.

“Sometimes I feel isolated,” she says. “My friends will ask me to get something to eat at the MU, and I just think in my head ‘No, I’ll stay behind. I already know I can’t eat anything there.’”

Restrictive diets can pose social threats. For both Fankhauser and Frederick, going out for meals inflicts an unwarranted stress about what they will choose to eat. The act of ordering a hamburger without the bun may sound simple, but the associated embarrassment is often enough to deny an invite.

“I’d rather just not go than sit there like an awkward person,” Frederick says. “I always feel like I’m the weird girl asking a bunch of questions.”

Fortunately, restaurants and support groups have grown out of collaborative efforts by restricted dieters to eliminate their everyday worries.

To cope, Kristin and her sister have created “sister dates” that allow them both a delicious meal without worry. Several online sites offer plentiful options for fun and social outings that are friendly for the cautious diners.

Gluten-free blogger Jessica Fielding works to ensure that there is ample access to information for those with nutritional restrictions. Her startup, Gluten Free AZ, offers links to blogs, lists of recipes and celiac support groups, and even links to an Arizona Gluten Free Directory of accommodating restaurants.

“I wish something like this would have been around when I was in college,” Fielding says.

Fielding, who has been gluten-free for 10 years, hopes that college students and adults alike can easily access the tools and resources they need to live and eat stress-free.

Other larger organizations have also taken steps to alleviate the stress of restrictive eating.

“Over the last couple of years, the interest in gluten-free has taken off,” says Lola O’Rourke, Director of Consumer Education for the Gluten Intolerance Group.

Groups such as this one work to inform and support gluten-free individuals in many areas. Efforts for youth support are in action, and campaigns for living gluten-free in school and college  are underway, O’Rourke says.

During a time when quick and inexpensive meals are of the most convenience, those with celiac disease and extreme food allergies face extraordinary inconveniences. With community support for elimination diets, though, it might soon be easy as pie.

 

Reach the writer at ejnicho1@asu.edu or via twitter @TheEmilyNichols


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