Life After Wheat
A Personal Journey, by Victoria Yeh as originally featured in Vitality Magazine November 2010

Gluten-free has almost become the new "fad" diet of today, with various celebrities and fitness gurus touting its benefits. But for those of us who have a true dietary sensitivity, a gluten-free diet is more than a fad - it's a necessity. According to the Canadian Celiac Association, approximately 1% of the population suffers from Celiac disease which results in inflammation and damage to the intestinal wall. This can lead to a range of issues from poor nutrient absorption to unexplained neurological symptoms and even infertility. While the incidence of Celiac disease is relatively low, it is estimated that yet another 10-15% of the population has some form of non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. Since the symptoms of food sensitivities can be so varied and easily ignored, many people go years without a proper diagnosis and simply normalize or adapt to a life of sub-optimal health.

I was one such person. As a kid, I was- by conventional standards - very healthy. But despite squeaky clean physicals, I still endured recurring headaches, throat infections, stomach aches and fatigue. I suffered just enough to be prescribed some mild painkillers or antibiotics, but not enough to warrant any further investigation by my family doctor.

Finally in 2001, with some luck and determination, I found a very open minded G.P. who practiced integrative medicine. Since digestion is truly the foundation of one's health, it wasn't surprising that his first objective was to establish proper nutrition as a basis for further interventions. He put me on a six-week detoxification diet that forbade wheat, dairy, sugar, corn, soy, nightshades, all flours, all juices, all natural sweeteners (except stevia), beef, pork, shellfish, caffeine and alcohol.

Those first six weeks were challenging to say the least, but the improvement I felt was undeniable. The fatigue that had me sneaking out of calculus class to have a nap was replaced with healthy energy. My daily headaches became a distant memory. And the throat and ear infections that plagued me three to four times a year since I was a baby, never came back. Once I realized how much healthier I could be, I made the decision to permanently eliminate wheat, dairy and refined sugars from my diet. I eventually eliminated all remaining sources of gluten (kamut, spelt, rye and barley) and pursued various complimentary treatments such as osteopathy, psychotherapy and NET - all of which culminated in the superior state of health that I enjoy today. About three years ago, I finally decided to put my years of food research, experiments, failures and successes to good use, and share my knowledge with others. This is how I came to establish my publishing and consulting business, GlutenFreeToronto.com.

Adapting my life to be gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free has been a long journey. Over the past nine years, I've progressed through three distinct phases:

1. Sticking to Whole foods. The simplest way to avoid gluten, dairy and sugar is to eat safe, whole foods. This includes all unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meats and gluten-free grains such as quinoa, millet, rice and buckwheat. Sticking to this diet can be very healthy and nutritious, but can at times feel quite restrictive.

2. Discovering Specialty Prepared Foods. Many mainstream grocery stores and health food stores carry gluten-free breads, cookies, muffins, soups, cereals and more. But just because something is gluten-free doesn't mean it's healthy. Unfortunately, many of these foods tend to be corn or potato based (common allergens), highly refined and/or high in sugar. And if you are avoiding more than one culprit food, you'll quickly discover that prepared foods are often free of one thing, but not of another.

3. Learning to Make Substitutions. After years of research and kitchen experiments, I eventually taught myself a few simple tricks in order to modify any recipe to meet my unique needs. If you truly want to be successful in the long run with dietary restrictions, learning how to make successful substitutions is the key to feeling satisfied and self-sufficient.

Some substitutions are very straight forward: rice milk for cow's milk; honey for sugar; or millet for cousous. Where substitutions, especially for wheat/gluten, become tricky is in baking. Gluten is a protein that, when mixed with water, becomes sticky and is able to hold gas. In other words, it helps food stick together and rise. Gluten is the reason that wheat-based batters can turn into wonderful delights like fluffy angel food cake and spongy bread. It's also the reason that straight substitutions for gluten-free flours can yield a rock hard or crumbly mess!

While you can substitute wheat flour with many combinations of gluten-free flours like millet, amaranth, teff, coconut, almond and arrowroot flours, I often use one of the following two substitutions:

1 cup wheat flour = 3/4 cup brown rice flour + 1/4 cup tapioca starch; OR
1 cup wheat flour = 1/2 cup brown rice flour + 1/2 cup sweet rice flour

The first substitution is best for crusts, cookies, and anything that is crunchy, while the second is best for delicate cakes and anything that is soft or spongy. In both the combinations above, I've used brown rice flour as my "base" and added either tapioca starch or sweet rice flour as my "binder" to substitute for the sticky quality of gluten. As a rule of thumb, I also like to add an additional 1/2 teaspoon of gluten-free baking powder per 1 cup of flour to help compensate for the extra rising or leavening qualities of gluten as well. I discuss in greater detail various other base flours, binders and leaveners along with their characteristics and substitution proportions in my book, Where Do I Start? Your Essential Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free and Sugar-Free Food Allergy Cookbook.

My principle goal in writing this book was to liberate my readers from ever needing another specialty cookbook again by teaching them how to make simple and successful substitutions for gluten, dairy and sugar. Of course, my book has many recipes as well, including the following which, put together, make a great holiday feast. I hope you enjoy these recipes, and remember - don't be afraid to experiment with your food! Keep your eye on the prize of your best health, and your journey will only follow.