At the moment, eating gluten-free is trendy, though I suspect most non-Olympic contenders who are symptom-free don’t stick with it very long, because it is hard. (I pouted and cheated for a year after my diagnosis of celiac.) But by focusing on a gluten-free life, one can achieve a simplicity Thoreau would have envied.
First, eating gluten-free (GF) cuts down on options, and we’ve come to realize that making decisions among many choices creates stress, which is bad for one's health. Who needs it? GF carbs are limited to corn, rice, quinoa, and potatoes. True, there are also some less familiar GF grains such as teff and aramanth. Add beans to rice if you can, and create a complete protein; I don’t, because of their texture. Quinoa, which can be used in most dishes that call for rice, is the only grain that is a complete protein. Feel free to be creative and exotic. Eat like an Inca.
The second, corollary principle of simplicity is the amount of time saved when shopping. One shops only the perimeter of the store, because anything stocked on the inside aisles is probably laced with gluten. I was surprised to discover gluten even in canned soup—wheat flour is, of course, a thickener. One grocery store near me has part of an aisle labeled “healthy eating,” and that about sums it up, because most of what we buy isn’t healthy. Pretzels, pancake mixes, boxes of muffins or cakes to bake, croissants, bagels, focaccio, any bread, pastry, cookies, crackers—all eliminated from your list. (Potato chips don’t have gluten, but with the oil and salt, they’re not really healthy. I do eat them, though. Ditto popcorn.)
A third advantage: no more fast food! Thus, your food will taste better and your diet will improve. In fact, there will be almost no restaurant meals, at least until you figure out how to order without getting gluten, including being sure that the kitchen doesn’t use utensils or work spaces that could cross-contaminate. Are your fries cooked in the same oil as battered fish or chicken? Not a good idea. Neither is using a bread knife that’s gone through a nice loaf of sourdough to cut something for your plate. Or a salad with croutons that have touched the lettuce. Gone are the days of driving through and getting a burger to eat on the run.
Simplicity can be gained and time is saved in meal planning and cooking as well. If I cook a cup of rice and one of quinoa, I have the week almost covered. I’ve fallen into the habit of same meal for breakfast and lunch, sometimes for supper. Breakfast is quinoa, with a lazy woman’s omelet of an egg, a slice of cheese, and some sautéed veggies. Lunch is rice and more veggies. Supper is often a salad, perhaps with some salmon. And before you roll your eyes at how boring my gustatory life is, consider that most of us in the U.S. eat non-nutritious meals on the run or skip them altogether. And while we may have lots of choices, we tend to order the same menu items once we find something we like. At least, my friends do; maybe yours are more adventurous.
We in the West eat differently than people in most cultures do. The vast majority of people—those living in Asia, Africa, or South America—if they’re lucky enough to get three meals a day, enjoy the same thing at each meal. Rice, rice, and rice, or manioc, manioc, manioc. Meat is reserved for special occasions. Variety is overrated.
Simplicity also extends to eliminating fears about one’s health. The big scary of celiac, for me at least, isn’t the digestive issue, but the fear of colon cancer. Constant damage to the intestines from eating gluten makes the body more susceptible to this cancer; I am already more in danger, because there’s a link between ovarian and colon cancers. As long as I avoid gluten, I don’t have to worry that I’m somehow causing another cancer to take root in my body.
Let me admit that this way of life is NOT simple for anyone in a family, with kids and picky eaters at home. That extends to spouses and significant others, who may love you dearly but hanker for and be able to eat gluten. I have in many respects the ideal situation—I live alone and am older. Even before I was diagnosed, I used to say I had a middle-aged, middle-class, Midwestern woman’s stomach. I’m in favor of flavor, but I’ve never liked spicy food. So perhaps the adjustment wasn’t as much of a sacrifice for me as it would be for some people. A plate of rice with some veggies and a drizzle of ranch dressing makes me perfectly happy. If I want to go wild and crazy, I change up the vegetables, or use fruits. If you really like extravagant cooking, there are tons of Web sites to investigate and more GF cookbooks and products coming out all the time.
Eating gluten-free will simplify your life and quite possibly improve your health. However, there are some things it can’t do. It is not a weight-loss program—the packaged goodies contain plenty of fat and sugar. Even if you want to learn to do your own baking, you’re still going to use flour, eggs, fat, and sugar if you want anything edible.
A gluten-free life also won’t solve your cash flow issues. The packaged goodies from health food stores (and increasingly available from the large chain groceries) and the flours, all cost more. Wheat and soy are subsidized, cheap crops. Aramanth or teff—not so much. And most likely, when and if you do begin baking, you are going to make some truly inedible stuff, because that’s how one learns to work with GF flours. In doing so, you will waste the strange, pricey flour. It can’t be helped. Some ways to save money on food include cutting back on meat consumption, adding more grains and beans, shopping sales, buying grocery store brands, and using coupons. But GF eating will not improve your bank balance.
So, don’t expect miracles in weight loss or financial gains from cutting out gluten. Your trips to the grocery will speed right along, however, and your eating life will become less complicated. You, too, can eat as simply and mindfully as the Dalai Lama.