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Living the no-wheat life

Gluten-free lifestyle helps many; restaurants, grocers take notice

Sycamore resident Katie Myers, 25, shops for gluten-free products Thursday in Hy-Vee’s health market section. Myers has been eating gluten-free for about six years.
Sycamore resident Katie Myers, 25, shops for gluten-free products Thursday in Hy-Vee’s health market section. Myers has been eating gluten-free for about six years.

When Katie Myers was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity six years ago, changing her diet was challenging.

A lover of bread and pasta, Myers had to give up grains such as wheat, rye and barley. But as she’s become used to her diet and more restaurants and grocery stores cater to gluten-free followers, she said eliminating gluten has become much easier.

“Now, I don’t even think about it,” Myers said.

“Gluten free” has become something of a buzzword as more people are diagnosed with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease. Mike Carew, assistant store director of the DeKalb Jewel-Osco, said he’s noticed items that have always been gluten-free now advertising the absence of gluten on the packaging.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 1 percent of the U.S. population suffers from celiac disease. Of that number, only 5 percent have actually been diagnosed with it.

Monica Klemm, registered dietitian at Kishwaukee Community Hospital, said the hospital has seen an increase in the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease.

When someone has a gluten sensitivity, it is because tiny, fingerlike projections in the small intestine called villi that absorb food nutrients have been flattened and can’t do the job.
Klemm said celiac disease develops when the immune system damages the lining of the small intestine.

Celiac disease and gluten intolerance can cause bloating, cramping, diarrhea and fatigue. Following a gluten-free diet – eliminating wheat, barley and rye – is the only treatment, Klemm said.

Plenty of people have suffered from bloating or cramping for years, unaware of the cause of the problem, said Judith Lukaszuk, associate professor of nutrition and didactic program director at Northern Illinois University.

Because the symptoms can be rather generic, it’s common for people to think something they ate simply didn’t agree with them, or they might assume something other than food with gluten caused the symptoms, said Lisa Brandt, registered dietitian who works at Hy-Vee in Sycamore.

Klemm and Brandt said people might not realize how prevalent gluten can be in packaged foods. For example, gluten is a binding agent in many processed foods, Brandt said.

“You have to look at all the ingredients if you buy boxed stuff,” said Amy Dersch of Sycamore, who has a gluten sensitivity.

Within a week or two of adhering to a gluten-free diet, Lukaszuk said those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities begin to notice a difference. Brandt said some also try a gluten-free diet out of curiosity.

Before she realized she couldn’t tolerate gluten, Dersch said she noticed symptoms like irritability, sciatica and bloating after eating food containing it.

Now, she stays away from items with wheat, barley and rye, including bread or any baked goods, and focuses on fresh foods like meat and produce. At restaurants, Dersch said she tends to take a chance and hope for the best.

Because her husband also follows a gluten-free diet, Brandt said she makes muffins and cookies without gluten, uses corn tortillas and gluten-free pasta.

“I think it’s not so difficult at home as when we go out to eat,” she said. “For a lot of people, it’s a big change.”

Local restaurants have experienced some demand for gluten-free dishes and are responding. Like vegans and vegetarians, those who avoid gluten want options, said Mel Witmer, owner of O’Leary’s Restaurant and Pub in DeKalb, which has offered a gluten-free menu for about six months.

C.J. Finn, manager of Pizza Villa in DeKalb, said they received customer requests for a gluten-free crust, which is now a popular seller.

Grocery stores, too, have increased their gluten-free options. Brandt said Hy-Vee offers almost 1,000 gluten-free items. She directs people to these products if they let her know they’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or have a gluten sensitivity.

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