Scammell: Gluten-free lifestyle gets easier

By Kira Scammell

It’s Wednesday night in Market Central, and all I can see is bread… This is the first in an occasional series about gluten intolerance that will include stories and information about life without gluten.

It’s Wednesday night in Market Central, and all I can see is bread. Basic Kneads is all about the sandwich staple, Bella Tratoria spoons out pasta and shovels out pizza, and the Flying Star Diner surrounds its burgers and sandwiches with a cushioning bun.

But I can’t enjoy these things. As I wander to the back of Market Central, I check out Tutto Fresco, the safe haven the dining hall has carved out for people like me: people who can’t eat gluten. My options are white rice, chicken, spinach and brownies for dessert. Unfortunately, I’m a vegetarian, which means I’m even more limited.

It can be difficult to lead a gluten-free lifestyle, even when eateries do create special dishes to suit my dietary requirements.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It often lurks in foods under other names too. For example, malt is a derivative of barley, so things like malt syrup are off limits. Gluten is also in a lot of processed food, natural flavorings, salad dressings, soups and even gum.

There are numerous reasons why some people aren’t able to consume gluten. A very common one is celiac disease, which doctors can diagnose with a blood test. Celiac disease is a disorder in which villi in the intestines’ lamina propria lay down. In English, that means that your small intestine is unable to absorb nutrients when gluten is eaten. The disease affects about 1 in 133 Americans, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

But it’s not just people with celiac disease who have problems with gluten. I, for example, have been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity. If you count the number of people with gluten sensitivity or intolerance, the number of Americans who can’t consume the protein gets even higher.

I first suspected something was wrong a few months ago. For the last two years I had suffered from migraines, digestion issues, unexplained bloating, fatigue and irritability. After searching Google for information about my symptoms, I pinpointed them to a gluten allergy. I recognized my allergy with the help of Pitt’s dietician, Meg Mayer-Costa.

To test for gluten sensitivity, Mayer-Costa had me cut gluten out of my diet for about two weeks to see if I felt any better. She then suggested I reintroduce it into my system and see if I had a reaction.

Allow me to recount the sort of disappointment that comes with reintroducing a much-loved food you’re allergic to. On the eve of my gluten reintroduction, I went to Local, a restaurant in the South Side. I ordered a wood-fired, margherita pizza, topped with fresh tomato. It was personalized pizza heaven.

About halfway through the pizza I started to feel strange. My temples began to throb, my face started to turn red and my stomach churned. But the worst and strangest symptom was my inability to unshrug my shoulders, like my head was trying to curl into my body.

While all this was going on, I just wanted to keep eating my pizza. Heaven knows I tried. I made it through three out of the four pieces before literally eating myself sick. Unable to contain my disappointment, I openly started crying at the dinner table.

My date ate the rest of my pizza, and in my sick haze I glared at him in jealousy for the rest of the evening.

From that point onward, I knew I had to give up gluten. The first month was discouraging. I almost felt as though my appetite was insatiable without gluten. The worst part of it was when I saw everyone around me eating pasta and pastries, and I was stuck with a NuGo bar from the coffee stand.

But slowly, it got easier. My mom introduced me to some delicious gluten-free foods, and I realized that there are plenty of safe alternatives. Of course, there is a certain degree to which diet change can’t be avoided — sometimes you just have to come up with a different eating style rather than trying to come up with unsatisfying gluten-free versions of your old favorite foods. Gluten restrictions are becoming more common knowledge, so if there was ever a time to be gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive, it’s now.

Honestly, life isn’t all bad without gluten. Now that I’m not eating it, I have more energy, I have a more positive attitude, and, if nothing else, I am more aware of what I am putting into my body.

If you suspect you might have celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, contact Student Health Services for a one-on-one talk about your diet.