By: Austin Hamby, Renee Moreno, Mark Roberson and Victoria Rodriguez
Gluten-Free: Not just a trendy food option
Gluten-free isn’t just for the cool kids. The latest dietary trend actually saves lives. For people living with Celiac disease, this diet is not simply a fad, but a necessity.
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the body attacks itself every time a person with Celiac disease consumes gluten. “Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disease that damages the villi of the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food.”
Caitlin Barry, a native Austinite, was constantly sick as a child, so much so that her doctors thought she was faking it. At the age of 17, she was diagnosed with Celiac disease after seeing a new doctor. She was relieved to discover her ailment.
“First, I was actually really upset. I had my last glutenous meal that night. Then I was also very relieved that for years I was always sick, always missing school, always missing activities with my friends, and other doctors would tell me I was making it up… or I was depressed and needed to see a therapist so it was nice to know I was not crazy and there was something wrong with me,” Barry said.
According to the NFCA, one in 133 Americans has Celiac disease. The tricky thing with the disease, as in Barry’s case, is diagnosing it.
Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye. If the disease is left untreated it can lead to other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, thyroid disease, and cancer.
Barry has eaten gluten-free since her diagnosis, despite sometimes craving foods with wheat, like cookies or other baked goods. But sometimes it can be difficult finding gluten free options when she travels.
“On a road trip this summer…from California to Texas, especially in West Texas, there were no places to get any gluten-free options. When I go to a restaurant and I say I am gluten-free, if the waiter asks, ‘What is gluten free?’ I know it’s not safe to eat there,” Barry said. She resorted to stopping at supermarkets and buying things like cheese and salami in order to eat while traveling.
But in the city of Austin, those with Celiac disease have several gluten-free eateries to choose from. One such place is Mr. Natural in East Austin, a vegetarian restaurant that provides many gluten-free baked good options, a rarity for non-gluten eaters.
Jesus Mendoza, the manager and baker at Mr. Natural, pioneered the Austin gluten-free baked goods market.
According to Mendoza, he has been creating new recipes for baked goods for about 10 years giving them a leg up on other gluten-free businesses.
“I remember coming up with a simple waffle recipe. It took 12 tries. You have to throw them (recipes) away most of the time. I remember one time … I put way too much baking powder and my mouth tasted like aluminum for like two hours … it’s part of making recipes,” Mendoza said.
Mr. Natural features an array of gluten-free baked goods. The top-shelf of the bakery is gluten-free and ranges from muffins to its famous chocolate donuts.
The emerging diet is not only restricted to those with Celiac disease. Many cut gluten out for dietary reasons. But some disagree over the health benefits of a gluten-free lifestyle, outside of those affected with Celiac disease.
In a WebMD article, Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, stated a gluten-free diet could lack essential nutrients.
“For people with Celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is essential. But for others, unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals and fiber,” Green said.
Anna Fry, a private chef that often deals with gluten-free dieters, said that eating gluten-free has a positive impact when done correctly.
“My opinion is when people eliminate refined grain (including wheat) from their diet… they just feel better, and I think they attribute that to going gluten-free because they all of the sudden start paying attention to what they put in their bodies,” Fry said.
“I think if something makes you feel physically better … then that is fantastic. Do I think a lot of people unnecessarily adopt a gluten-free diet? Yes.”