Embracing a Gluten-Free Lifestyle
For 20 years, Maurie Ange of El Cerrito, Calif., suffered from chronic belly aches. A decade ago, she was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and told to exercise more and increase her fiber intake. But the pain, bloating and digestive issues continued into her 60s.

Finally, four years ago, at the suggestion of an osteopath she was seeing for sinus trouble, Ange went on a gluten-free diet, avoiding everything that contained the protein found in wheat (durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, einkorn and faro), barley, rye, contaminated oats, and a host of products including lipstick, soy sauce and pharmaceuticals.

"Ninety percent of my issues are gone," Ange says. "When I fall off the wagon the pain and yuckiness return."

Ange is one of many who has benefited from gluten-free living. Whether they suffer from gluten intolerance, hope to temper the symptoms of autism, or have been diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects one in 133 adults and is getting overdue attention, they are going gluten-free for good, not as a fad. It is a lifestyle, that, when approached naturally and under medical supervision, provides relief and bonuses such as avoiding processed and packaged foods.

Still, cutting out gluten is difficult. It requires vigilant label reading and a dedication to eating at home. Most American staples such as pizza, pasta, beer and burgers are off limits. On the bright side, the things you can eat - proteins and fruits and vegetables - are good for you.

As a result, Pleasanton, Calif., personal chef Claudia Imatt has seen an overwhelming surge in the number of requests for gluten-free menus.

"People are requesting it for their ailments," says Imatt, owner of Shall We Dine. "Everything from headaches and weight lossto fatigue, seasonal or wheat allergies and fibromyalgia."

A typical dinner menu emphasizes fruits, greens, proteins and creative spins on rice, corn, beans and potatoes in lieu of wheat-based starches. Imatt struggles to find gluten-free products that meet her standards and don't "break the bank," she says. Overall, she has found that people who come to her for help changing their diet "embrace it and live well. "It's less garbage and less processed foods," she says. "You know where the food is coming from and you can see the ingredients that are in it."

The biggest problem is when people go off gluten on their own and then come in to get tested for celiac or gluten intolerance, he adds.

"If they've done it (the diet) for a month or longer, it's likely we can't diagnose it," he says. Furthermore, he adds, some people gain rather than lose weight as a result of the diet because they load up on fat-laden, gluten-free packaged goods.

Registered dietitian Kathi Nichols doesn't recommend launching into a gluten-free diet without a diagnosis. It's too hard, she says. Nichols, 51, was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago after seeing numerous physicians for unexplained anemia and dermatitis.

"It is one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do," she says, of going gluten-free. "I thought I could just go to the store and buy anything. But a food manufacturer could suddenly change their recipe and add gluten. So it takes twice as long to do a grocery store trip because you have to read everything. And it's more expensive."

The bright side, Nichols says, is that she has discovered food items from different cultures, including a tapioca flour Bolivians use to make rolls. And her disease hasn't kept her from traveling overseas. Quite the contrary. Many celiacs enjoy going to other countries, particularly to England and Australia, where awareness is higher and restaurants are accommodating, Nichols says.

Overall, she advises people to stay focused on what they can eat and remind themselves that there's more to life than diet.

"The only place I have not walked into in years is McDonald's," she says, laughing. "Celiac controls my choices, but it doesn't control my life," she says.