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Smell the Coffee: Going against the grain

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For much of my life, when those around me were craving chocolate, I was craving bread. Meals seemed incomplete unless bread was involved. My love for loaves became so out of control I once considered hypnosis as a means to break my addiction.

And then my body found a way to force the issue. It became intolerant to gluten.

Gluten is the complex protein found in the four main grains: wheat, barley, rye and oats. It's present in all baked foods that are made from those grains: bread, cakes, cereals, cookies, pizza, pasta. Gluten is the glue that holds baked goods together so they're fluffy or flaky instead of dry and hard.

While I was spending a few days with my cousin Wendy, a longtime gluten sensitive, she suggested that many of the physical problems I'd been experiencing might have the same source. Among the symptoms of gluten sensitivity are bloating, mouth ulcers, joint and muscular pain, fatigue, anemia, headaches, depression, hypoglycemia, rashes and the ever-reliable post-meal race to the bathroom.

Wendy encouraged me to spend the several weeks following a food elimination diet, where I consumed no gluten whatsoever to see if my symptoms changed. Within a week, I could tell some difference. By a few weeks in, my joint pain was almost completely gone. My mouth sores went away; my stomach was better than it had been in years; my headaches had become a thing of the past.

Plus, on the few occasions when I couldn't resist the temptation to have something that included regular flour, I became so sick afterward there was no doubt. I've never been a picky eater, so I wanted Wendy to be wrong, but she wasn't.

So I can either suffer with the symptoms, or become vigilant.

Being vigilant has been more difficult than I expected. There seems to be flour in or on everything. Even though gluten sensitivities are estimated to affect 15 percent of the population, the restaurant world has been slow to catch on.

Unless you love salads, eating out is difficult. You'd think KFC's grilled chicken would be safe, but for some strange reason, they dust it with flour. They put flour in their mashed potatoes as well. The only gluten-free items at Taco Bell are the condiments and some drinks, but at Wendy's, gluten sensitives can have baked potatoes, chili or grilled chicken (with no bun), and a few local pizza places (Husson's and Pies & Pints) now have gluten-free pizza on their menus.

Trying to explain the need to avoid wheat to a waiter or waitress can be frustrating. At one of the boards I visit online for people with gluten issues, I read one person's account about going to an ethnic restaurant with a friend.

After the waiter, who had a heavy accent, handed them their menus and told them the day's specials, one of the women mentioned that she had celiac disease and said she couldn't eat gluten.

The server just stared blankly at her.

"That means I can't have anything with wheat, rye or barley," she said.

The server continued his blank stare.

She decided to try to explain herself more simply.

"I can't have flour," she said. "Flour makes me very sick."

With that, the waiter smiled broadly. And removed the rose from the vase on the table.

Reach Karin Fuller at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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