The ups and downs of 60 days without wheat with my supportive husband, skeptical teenage son and vegetarian daughter.
I’ve never been much for croissants. The texture doesn’t do anything for me, and I’d rather spend my calories on an indulgent scoop of ice cream than a baked good. But this croissant seemed to be calling my name. And I knew exactly why—because it was forbidden.
There’s nothing that makes you want something more than being told it’s off limits.
As I sat through my meeting at a neighborhood bakery that day, inhaling more and more of the buttery, melt-in-your-mouth scent of the croissant, something inside me snapped. After seven weeks without gluten, I wanted that croissant more than I wanted world peace or at least civility on Twitter.
After the meeting broke up, I marched to the counter and ordered a raspberry cheese croissant to go. As I watched the bakery manager load the gooey pastry into a bag, I felt giddy—and also a little guilty. Was I about to throw away everything from the previous 54 days for a few moments of culinary bliss?
Why go gluten free?
It started, as many good things do, over a pint of cider during a girls’ night. A friend mentioned an article she’d read that claimed removing gluten from your diet could work wonders for what she called “Brillo Pad arms.” A bell dinged in my head. “You mean like this?” I asked, displaying my keratosis pilaris-covered arms. I’ve had them for 42 years, and not even a dermatologist could clear them up. “Yes,” my friend replied.
I’m no stranger to the gluten-free diet. I have worked for Gluten-Free Living for eight years, and I’ve edited countless stories about the impact of the diet. I keep up on the latest research through the Study Sessions column. I’ve written stories about how children on the autism spectrum have benefitted from going gluten free. But I’d never considered doing it myself.
When I got home, I Googled “gluten” and “skin.”
I discovered going gluten free had been shown in several studies to relieve symptoms of psoriasis.
Hmm. My husband has had psoriasis for as long as I’ve known him. I thought a minute, then I Googled “gluten” and “asthma.” Double hmm. Both my kids have asthma. While the evidence is not conclusive, a gluten-free diet has been tied to lessening the frequency and severity of asthma flares. Could it be that after years of trying the conventional medicine approach, the cure to our maladies had been in the refrigerator and pantry the entire time?
I sat on the information until the next morning, then texted my husband, Jeff, at work. “Want to go gluten free for a couple months?” I typed. Within 10 seconds he replied. “Sure. But you have to tell me what to eat.”
Preparing for the journey
I knew going into the experiment that my family was more fortunate than most who embark on a gluten-free diet. None of us has received a celiac diagnosis, and we could bail on the project whenever we wanted, unlike those who have to go gluten free to treat their condition.
I also had to admit, part of me was curious how difficult it would be to navigate life on the gluten-free diet. I grew up with food allergies. From age 6 to 11, I was not allowed to eat dairy, beef, pork, peppermint and more. I outgrew the allergies (or diagnosis technology got better—which one, I’ll never know for sure), but being barred from eating ice cream during your formative years leaves a permanent impact, which probably is why I can never turn down a scoop these days.
I wanted to see if it was easier to navigate food restrictions as an adult and with the benefit of better food technology and options.
During my childhood, we didn’t have substitutions like almond milk or soy protein burgers. We just skipped all the good stuff. Now, it’s completely different, if not easier.
We told the kids about the 60-day experiment. Our 9-year-old daughter, whose asthma flares are worse, was on board but concerned about further limiting her diet. After a traumatic incident at a lobster shop, she had gone vegetarian a few months before. She was still navigating new ways to get her protein.
Our son, 14, was also skeptical. He’s a three-sport athlete with the ravenous hunger of a typical teenage boy and was in the midst of cross country season, which meant he basically inhaled anything within a half-mile radius. Getting him to slow down long enough to check the ingredients label would be a challenge.
Jeff was on board right away, but he proved less detail-oriented than you would need to be to truly adopt a gluten-free diet. One of our first orders of business, after an early unintentional cheat, was finding decent gluten-free beer (choices were limited in our area, but he enjoyed Omission).
I outlined general GF best practices for the family, and we set a start date, timing it so we’d finish our experiment right before Thanksgiving. We had to delay the start when I realized on our designated day 1 that I’d failed to buy the proper lunch supplies—I couldn’t just pull out the gluten-containing leftovers from the night before. Finally, we began.
Here are five takeaways from our experiment.
The high cost of gluten-free food is no exaggeration
I tracked our grocery bills over the course of the two months, and they went up by about a third. In addition to paying more for things like bread and waffles, you also receive smaller portions than in gluten-containing food. A bag of pretzels might be 2 to 3 ounces less, for instance.
Gluten pops up in unexpected places, constantly. But there are so many alternatives.
We were a few days into the experiment when my daughter came to me wailing. “We’re gluten free for Halloween,” she moaned. How could I have forgotten? Our kids are still young enough that trick or treating is an annual ritual. We scrambled to Dr. Google to ask, “what candy is gluten free?”
The search engine spit back dozens of pages of results, and I exhaled slowly when I saw Snickers, my favorite, was among the GF options. In truth, there were tons of choices for my kids. We barely had to remove anything from their bags (though tossing the Whoppers—malt made from barley—hurt).
That was a huge lesson from this experiment. While you couldn’t always find equal swaps, you could always find alternatives. Maybe I couldn’t eat Whoppers, but I could have so many other things that I didn’t feel deprived. That was a change from my youth, when there was practically nothing to swap for dairy.
Being vegetarian might make the GF diet easier.
Especially when you eat out, meat is often covered in something to make it tastier, and that something, whether it’s breading or sauce, frequently contains gluten. So my son’s go-to dinner on busy sports nights, fish sticks, was out. But my daughter still could make her busy night quickie, bean burrito in a gluten-free wrap.
I gravitated more and more toward vegetarian choices when we dined out. My son definitely felt the frustration of not being able to order many of his favorites. My daughter just smiled most of the time. She’d been trying to convince us all to stop eating animals anyway—this felt like a small victory to her.
I wasn’t always comfortable asking for adjustments.
On a lunch date with a friend, I asked the server if she could hold the croutons on a salad. She asked if I was gluten free, and I responded yes. She replied that the kitchen would have to make an entirely new batch of salad and use different utensils for me to avoid contamination. It was a hassle, she said, but they would do it. I felt my cheeks flare—I’m aware of cross-contamination risks, but since I wasn’t really gluten free, I didn’t want to make the kitchen staff go through all that trouble. I mumbled a different order instead.
People who suffer from celiac have no choice, of course. It hit me then that being gluten free is about more than just the physical (food) stuff. For someone quiet and accommodating like myself, having to advocate for what you need can be a significant emotional adjustment.
We noticed surprisingly little change from the diet
My arms had a few days where the KP—little dots that look like pimples but are actually blocked hair follicles—seemed a little smoother. But I saw no long-term effect, and by day 60 my arms felt the same as they did on day 1.
My husband didn’t see any difference in his psoriasis. Now, he and my son definitely had the most unintentional “cheats,” so that could have accounted for the lack of improvement. But Jeff decided the dietary restrictions weren’t worth any hypothetical gains, so we’ll never know if a longer-term commitment would have helped.
As for the kids’ asthma, they experienced no flares or attacks during our two months. I have no idea if that’s a result of the diet or not, since they have had similar periods before. Our pediatrician said they seem to be outgrowing the asthma, too.
Remember that croissant?
I’d love to tell you that I resisted the urge to eat it. That I dumped it in the trash after I walked out of the bakery. Alas, I did not.
Sticking to the gluten-free diet requires a great deal of will power, and I found it difficult to muster. I know those of you with celiac reading this are thinking “well, obviously.” What this experiment brought home more than anything else was how much of a struggle and a sacrifice it is to go gluten free—and how sensitivity to that challenge can make me a better editor.
Toni Fitzgerald is a freelance writer as well as the copy editor for Gluten-Free Living and a slew of other Madavor Media publications. Find her on the web: tonifitz76.com.
Gluten-free products we loved
- KIND bars
- Glutino pretzels (my kids continue to prefer these over regular)
- Cheerios (all kinds!)
- Superior on Main brownies
- Tinkyada rice pasta (we’re still eating this months later)
- Udi’s gluten-free hamburger buns
- Smart Flour Foods frozen pizza
Five small changes that made the adjustment easier
- I packed lunches for my kids every day. Since we were doing this short term, it wasn’t worth contacting the school about a change. My son hadn’t brought lunch in four years, but he did find the balanced meals I packed gave him more energy on cross country meet days.
- I bought more snacks than usual. While we usually keep pretzels and granola bars around the house, I added potato chips, GF crackers and more to my shopping list. We have a rule that the kids have to eat a fruit or veggie with every snack, so they probably got more of those in these two months than ever since they were so eager to try the new snacks.
- Aldi’s and other discount grocers are a huge help. I stocked up on bread and pasta at half the price I would have paid at our name-brand grocery store.
- We found a local parlor that makes gluten-free pizza and ordered it the second night. This reassured my kids that they could still eat the things they loved. And we all enjoyed the GF version, though the pie was smaller and a lot pricier than the other option.
- I took the kids shopping with me so they could pick out foods. They always used to accompany me to the grocery store, but they hadn’t done that in a while. Discovering new foods they wanted to try made the restrictions feel less daunting.