By Shelly Najjar
Green Lake and surrounding neighborhoods have many shops offering gluten-free food.
What is gluten and should people be eating it or not?
As it turns out, some people should and some people should not.
Gluten is a type of protein found naturally in some foods, like wheat, barley, and rye. It can also be found in food products made with gluten-containing ingredients.
Gluten-free diets (aka GF diets or G-free diets) are prescribed when a person should avoid consuming gluten due to negative physical reactions.
“I often have the discussion with my patients about what I see as a continuum of reactions to foods. On one end, you have Celiac disease. In this case a person has an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by eating gluten.”
When people with celiac disease eat gluten-containing food, the lining of the small intestine is damaged and “that doesn’t allow for optimal absorption of nutrients. In this case, eating gluten in any amount or any form is not acceptable.”
For these patients, the only treatment is to consume a gluten-free diet.
Next, the continuum continues with “patients who have antibodies to gluten.” According to Dr. Wells, “They do not have celiac disease, but eating gluten creates an inflammatory response in their bodies. This can be found through IgG, IgE or IgA testing of the blood.”
Another Green Lake resident, Lesley Mettler, is a distance athlete and the founder of CoachLesley.com. She has followed a gluten-free diet since being diagnosed with dairy and gluten allergies a year and a half ago.
“I felt like it was a bandwagon many are jumping on right now so I made the doctor do blood tests as well as allergy testing,” she says. “Once I knew for sure and that it could make me feel better to eliminate this from my diet I jumped in.”
Dr. Wells says that after initial testing, “it is worth a trial of eating GF to see if the antibodies found on the lab reflect a physical response.”
However, she notes, “these labs are not perfect and in this case I do an elimination diet with the patient to discover clinically how they feel off gluten.”
Elimination diets are also used with the last group on the continuum, “patients who are sensitive to gluten.”
This sensitivity is often called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). “When they eat it [gluten], they feel ill, sluggish, irritable, uncomfortable, bloated, get diarrhea, constipation, etc. You may not be able to find a lab that will tell you why this person doesn’t tolerate gluten, but clinically you can see it is negatively impacting them.”
Diagnosis of NCGS is often given after a gluten challenge under the supervision of a healthcare professional. Gluten-containing foods are removed from the normal diet for several weeks (elimination phase or elimination diet), and after a certain amount of time, added back in (challenge). If symptoms cease during the elimination phase and return during the challenge, the person is diagnosed with NCGS.
Becky Robbins, also a Green Lake resident and founder of Seattle Gluten Free Foodies, was diagnosed with NCGS and shares her experience.
“I went and did an elimination diet, so I took a bunch of stuff out and put it back in and I had severe stomach cramping and things like that. It was pretty bad. And then my emotions got really whacked out and really roller-coastery after I would eat gluten. So that’s kind of how I figured it out.”
Although people with NCGS may eat gluten, many choose not to because of the negative reaction. In her practice, Dr. Wells works with patients who have NCGS to “choose when and if they eat any gluten.” Because there are “consequences of eating the gluten containing food,” she works with the patient to help them decide if they want to eat gluten. She says, “Many of these patients will save it for a treat.”
When a person is on this continuum, the only treatment is to consume a gluten-free diet.
“When people hear of a GF diet, they often stare in shock for a moment and then ask, ‘WHAT do you eat?’” says Dr. Wells. “That is understandable considering the standard American fare of pizza, burgers, eggs and toast, sandwiches and pasta.”
She says she follows an eating pattern similar to the one recommended by the USDA’s MyPlate system (formally MyPyramid).
“If you look at my dinner plate it will be covered 1/2 with vegetables, 1/4 with a protein and 1/4 with a grain. The carbohydrate may be polenta, yams, quinoa, rice, potatoes or corn or quinoa pasta. The loss of gluten in my life has made me feel so much better that I feel it’s really a gain in health and therefore I don’t miss it too much. This is also the case with most of the patients I work with.”
People following gluten-free diets check ingredient labels and take extra precautions when cooking and eating out. Lesley says, “At first it seems daunting but, once you understand all the hidden places gluten is and how to get around it, it is not that bad.”
“Times have changed,” says Becky. “It’s not now like some punishment where you have to eat this rice bread brick or something. […] It’s just awesome, because ten years ago, my dad was sharing to me, ‘Gluten free, ugh, what a torture chamber. There are two options: rice and rice.’”
Today there are many products and recipes for the gluten-free consumer, including those who like to eat out. Some of the restaurants in the Green Lake area that offer gluten-free food include Turnpike Pizza, Jodee’s Desserts, zoëyogurt, Cafe Bonjour, Robeks, Zoka, Tacos Guaymas, and Bandolero.
In addition, the Roosevelt Square Whole Foods Market (1026 NE 64th St) and the Greenlake PCC (7504 Aurora Ave N) sell gluten-free products and ingredients. As well as classes that feature gluten-free cooking, PCC has gluten-free shopping specialists and orange shelf tags to help gluten-free customers find products they can eat.
“That’s pretty much hands down where I go,” Becky says. “Green Lake PCC is my store. I know everybody there, and they actually put on gluten-free events.”
Becky’s co-organizer at Seattle Gluten Free Foodies, Marla Escribano, says that she also enjoys shopping at farmers markets in the area. “Since it’s the season for the farmers markets, I’m always there.” She says she often looks for Menini’s fresh pasta (“It’s out of this world”).
Marla is also in the population of gluten-free consumers who have other dietary restrictions. Before she learned more about sources of gluten and where to eat out, her selection in restaurants was limited. “I’m also a vegetarian, so for me, eating in a lot of restaurants gluten-free meant salad, because a lot of the gluten-free options are meat-based.”
Thrive, a café in the nearby Roosevelt neighborhood (1026 NE 65th St), is entirely gluten-free, “but […] also dairy-free, and organic, and vegetarian,” says founder and CEO Monika Kinsman. Gluten-free customers can be sure that Thrive is careful during the entire process, from buying ingredients to preparing menu items. Monika says that employees are “not allowed to bring in, even for their personal meals, […] any gluten foods or have them anywhere near the kitchen.”
Support and understanding like that shown at Thrive is also found in Seattle Gluten Free Foodies, mentioned earlier. That group “meets regularly and supports each other and shows off really awesome gluten-free foods that are out there,” according to Becky.
Gluten-free options have increased in recent years as food manufacturers respond to increased demand for gluten-free products, including snacks like Pirate’s Booty Veggie, a favorite of Dr. Wells’ daughter.
With all the resources and support for gluten-free eating in the Green Lake area alone, it seems natural that people would be wondering whether they should go gluten-free also.
For people considering getting tested, Marla has this advice: “I would say that taking the leap will make a bigger difference than [you] think it will, and it’s totally worth it. I know that a lot of people let fear stop them, fear of the unknown, and they really shouldn’t. In today’s world, being gluten-free, especially in Seattle, it’s just like being a vegetarian in Seattle: everybody’s got something for you. So yeah, people should just take the leap.”