Gluten-Free Made Easy

Why eliminating gluten-filled grains from your diet can transform your health.
By Erinn Morgan / Recipes by Wendy McMillan

Among all the health food buzzwords out there, gluten-free really stands out, backed by a noticeable increase in everything from gluten-free restaurant menus to gluten-free foods and cookbooks. While some people ditch gluten-containing foods to help them lose weight, many others make the switch because health reasons force them to.

My own gluten-free journey began when I broke out in a skin rash of epic proportions—one that kept me swathed in voluminous clothing during the day to avoid embarrassment and up half the night in discomfort. Desperate for a cure, I ran through a plethora of procedures, from dermatologist-administered cortisone shots and steroids to acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and osteopathic treatments. Nothing worked. Then a friend urged me to consider the possibility that food allergies could be causing the rash and suggested I try an elimination diet to isolate a potential allergen. So eliminate I did, boiling my diet down to a plate of nonacidic fruits, vegetables, rice, legumes, and lean proteins.

Sure enough, for the first time in weeks, my rash began to subside. And when I reintroduced gluten-filled foods to my repertoire after a week of abstinence, I became painfully aware that gluten triggered my skin woes.

Turns out I’ve got plenty of company in my sensitivity to gluten, a sticky protein found primarily in wheat, rye, barley, and oats and hidden in a surprisingly wide variety of the processed and prepared foods we eat every day. Because gluten is hard to digest, it can wreak havoc on our bodies, causing symptoms that range from the simple—fatigue, bloating, gas, diarrhea, headaches, and skin rashes like the one I developed—to the severe—malabsorption of nutrients, infertility, and even osteoporosis.

Fortunately, most gluten-sensitive people experience the simpler nagging symptoms. Alessio Fasano, MD, director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, estimates that at least 10 million people in the US are gluten-sensitive.

“Many people go through most of their adult life with symptoms like cramping, bloating, and mild diarrhea, feeling that it’s just their body and they have to live with it,” says Beth Reardon, RD, an integrative nutritionist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. “What they don’t realize is that cutting back on wheat or even eliminating it completely can help them feel so much better.”

Celiac disease vs. gluten sensitivity
Determining whether you have celiac disease or simply a sensitivity to gluten can mean the difference between a lifelong sentence to a gluten-free diet—with absolutely no exceptions—and scaling back on the amount of gluten you consume. Why? Because celiac is a hereditary autoimmune disease with no known cure except the elimination of all forms of gluten. Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, is a condition that can cause a host of uncomfortable symptoms that can be controlled by reducing the amount of gluten you eat.

People with celiac disease often know something is terribly wrong but have trouble getting an accurate diagnosis because celiac mimics so many other conditions, most notably irritable bowel syndrome. And too many people with celiac suffer for years before seeking help because they think stomach problems just run in the family—which of course they do because families pass along the genes that cause celiac disease. Many of these stoics find out they have celiac disease only when the onset of a malignancy or a chronic disease like diabetes or Parkinson’s leads to its discovery.

How can you know if you have celiac or just a sensitivity? A simple blood test, called a celiac panel, can give you a pretty good idea. Test positive on the EMA (immunoglobulin anti-endomysium antibodies) and tTG (anti-transglutaminase) components of the test, and you can be fairly certain you have the disease. Only a gastrointestinal endoscopy can produce an ironclad diagnosis, but you should undertake that only after a positive blood test.

You can find out if you’re gluten-sensitive just like I did by cutting all foods containing gluten from your diet for a minimum of one week (and, ideally, up to one month) and seeing how you feel.

Why wheat can be so damaging
Why does gluten tip the scales of health for so many people? “None of us digests gluten very well,” says Peter H.R. Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University in New York City. It is, in fact, the only protein in nature that humans cannot completely metabolize. “We didn’t evolve on a diet that had gluten in it,” explains Reardon. “Wheat wasn’t used until 10,000 years ago, so our ancient DNA is still trying to catch up with modern foods.” As a result, gluten isn’t as easily digested as other foods and can stay in the gastrointestinal tract and cause irritation and inflammation.

Unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity can also be linked to non-gluten factors like environmental pollution, pesticides in our foods, and the use of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs that can alter our digestive system’s immune function and reduce our ability to digest gluten. High levels of mental, emotional, or physical stress can also contribute to the problem.
Physical stress is what got me. About a year ago, I fell off my mountain bike and knocked my helmeted head with enough force to deliver a considerable concussion. Thankfully, most of my injuries were minor. But the trauma, doctors told me, likely caused enough of a blow to my body to compromise my digestive system. The result? An intolerance to wheat that manifested as a rash. While I have yet to be tested to know for sure whether I have celiac disease, my doctors have said it’s highly probable, since an injury like mine can trigger the onset of the disease in an otherwise asymptomatic person.

In the end, any and all of these stressors can compromise our digestive system, says Reardon. “In general, people have a lot more gut damage today,” she says, “and this can result in specific food sensitivities.” On the upside, she says, people who focus on healing their digestive system through gluten elimination and proper diet could potentially transform their health and how they feel.

The land of the free
So either you know gluten is taboo for you or you’re thinking of eliminating it to see if your health improves—and you’re worried about what your new diet will look like. I know. I struggled with the same fears when I made the gluten-free switch. At first, it was fun. I indulged in the latest gluten-free products, baked gluten-free cookies, and picked my way through restaurant menus to target the safe choices. When the excitement wore off, however, and I sat glumly watching my husband indulge in fresh-baked French bread dipped in olive oil, I realized just how hard this was going to be.

First off, from a palate standpoint, gluten-free breads, pretzels, and pastas simply taste different, which makes sense considering they’re made from ingredients like rice and potato flour and cornstarch.

Second, navigating store aisles and restaurant menus calls for an eagle-eye attention to details, because gluten can hide in the trickiest places. For example, think French-fried potatoes are gluten-free? Think again. Fries become contaminated with gluten in deep fryers that also cook wheat-containing foods, and many restaurants then dust their fries with wheat-infused seasonings.
The same holds true for many sauces and dressings, which often contain flour, soy sauce, or some other wheat-based ingredient. And even though I was vigilant, I still learned far too many simple gluten-free lessons the hard way, by trial and rash-inducing error.

So what’s the best line of defense? Reading labels very carefully. As of 2006, the FDA requires all manufacturers to indicate which of their products contain wheat—a good start, but be aware that many innocent-sounding food ingredients, like malt flavoring or vinegar, contain gluten. For a complete list of foods to avoid, go to

If all this makes you despair, just remember that it’s getting easier to find tasty substitutes for most of the gluten-containing foods you crave. “If there ever was a time to go gluten-free, it is now,” says Carol Fenster, author of Cooking Free (Penguin Group, 2005) and 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes (Wiley, 2008). “Wonderful ancient grains like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and wild rice are more prolific than ever. Not only are they a great-tasting alternative to wheat, they’re healthier too.”

And so my gluten-free adventure continues, and I steer around the obstacles and fine-tune a nutritious, satisfying, and health-promoting diet. As the days pass by, wheat and gluten become a distant memory, and my palate adjusts. Even better, my rash is gone, and I feel better than ever. n

Erinn Morgan is a freelance writer in
Durango, Colorado.

Out to Eat
Simple tips to help you keep gluten in check when you dine out

Be choosy. Many restaurants now offer gluten-free menu options; check out for a comprehensive list.
Opt for ethnic food. Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian cuisines often serve naturally gluten-free foods.
Speak up. Wherever you dine, let the waitstaff know you are looking for gluten-free options. Also, make sure the chef knows you’ve made a gluten-free request.
Avoid fried foods. These can be cross-contaminated in hard-working deep fryers.
Hit restaurants at slower times. This way you can spend more time explaining your needs to the chef or server.
Eat in an upscale establishment. This is typically a safer bet than a chain or fast-food joint.
Avoid soups and sauces. The bases and ingredients in these can hide wheat and gluten.
Frequent restaurants that cater to you. Some will even allow you to bring in your own gluten-free pizza crust and bread

A Website We Love
Serving up homemade, gluten-free delicacies is easier than ever with the menu planner, recipes, and shopping lists emailed to you by This new website taps the expertise of gluten-free cookbook author Carol Fenster, who says the 10 dinner and side dish choices offered weekly are based on a “California fresh” theme. At only $10 a month, this service makes gluten-free cooking easier than we thought possible.

Turkey and Spinach Potato Lasagna
Serves 8

2 pounds peeled baking potatoes,
cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 pound lean ground turkey breast
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups no-salt-added tomato sauce
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 egg white
1 10 oz package frozen, chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1 cup shredded part-skim
mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Coat potato slices with olive oil, and layer on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until slices are firmly tender and beginning to brown on the edges. Remove, and set aside.
3. In a nonstick skillet, cook turkey, onion, and garlic, browning meat. Drain fat. Return to burner, adding tomato sauce and herbs. Cover, and let simmer.
4. In a medium bowl, mix ricotta and cottage cheeses, egg, and spinach.
5. Arrange half the potato slices in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan coated with cooking spray. Spread with half of the spinach-cheese mixture. Top with half of the meat sauce and half of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat layers, and if desired, sprinkle top with Parmesan cheese.
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, and let stand 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
nutrition info per serving: 434 calories; 15 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 101 mg cholesterol; 33 g protein; 46 g carbohydrates; 4 g fiber; 327 mg sodium

Pesto Tofu Rice Noodles
Serves 4

1 14 oz package firm tofu, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup packed fresh spinach leaves
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
2 garlic cloves
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons reduced-fat Parmesan cheese
1 9 oz package wide, flat rice noodles

1. Pat tofu block dry, cut into bite-sized pieces, and arrange on a greased baking pan. Broil 10 minutes each side.
2. Combine next 7 ingredients in a food processor, pulsing to desired pesto texture.
3. In a medium saucepan, prepare noodles according to package directions; drain, but leave noodles and a little liquid in the pan. Add tofu and pesto to noodles and serve.
nutrition info: 325 calories; 21 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 2 mg cholesterol; 18 g protein; 21 g carbohydrates; 4 g fiber; 69 mg sodium

Lentil and Red Bean Loaf
Serves 6

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 14 oz can lentils
1 14 oz can red kidney beans
2 eggs
1 carrot, finely grated
1/2 cup grated zucchini
1/4 cup low-sodium tomato paste
1 cup cooked white rice
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper; 1 teaspoon oregano
1 cup reduced-fat cheddar cheese, grated

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.
2. Heat olive oil in a frying pan, add onion, and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Rinse and drain lentils and beans. Process with onion and egg until smooth.
4. Transfer lentil mixture to a bowl, and stir in remaining ingredients.
5. Pour into loaf pan and bake 1 hour.
nutrition info: 273 calories; 10 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 91 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 34 g carbohydrates; 9 g fiber; 316 mg sodium

Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Torte
Serves 12

2 tablespoons butter
6 oz quality dark chocolate
(approximately 1 1/2 bars)
1/2 cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder
4 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup 2 percent low-fat milk
3 tablespoons agave nectar or brown rice syrup
1?3 cup rice flour
1/2 cup coarsely ground or chopped hazelnuts

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
2. In a saucepan, gently melt butter and chocolate, stirring regularly. Add cocoa powder, and mix well.
3. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, milk, agave nectar or syrup, and rice flour. Fold in chocolate mixture. Stir in nuts.
4. Bake at 300 degrees for 35 minutes in a 9-inch pie plate. Torte will pull back slightly from sides. Serve with low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt. Best chilled at least one hour.
nutrition info per serving: 192 calories; 11.8 g fat; 5.2 g saturated fat; 77.5 mg cholesterol; 4.9 g protein; 19.6 g carbohydrates; 2.7 g fiber; 27.2 mg sodium