Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is That Gluten Free? Ask Your Phone

Among the ways I originally rationalized my iPhone purchase was that it served a legitimate purpose for my health. Constant, mobile internet access meant I could check on the gluten-free status of various foods right when they were in front of me. To date this has been a reliable if tedious process of searching the web, usually landing at a post on in which someone at some point called the manufacturer. But there are a few problems with this approach:
  1. The information goes out of date fairly quickly. Gluten has been quietly dropping from a lot of ingredient lists, and what was true in 2006 may no longer be.
  2. There's no central organization to it -- Googling is about it.
  3. The level of detail is inconsistent. Sometimes there's an extensive statement from the manufacturer and sometimes it's "yeah, I ate that and got horribly sick" without mentioning whether or not they chased whatever it was with a glass of raw eggs.
  4. You have to know what you're looking for. There aren't many lists of "here's a bunch of gluten-free stuff", and what lists do exist are hard to look through.
Occasionally I search the iPhone App Store for all things gluten, and yesterday a new application caught my eye called Is That Gluten Free? The short version of my impression is this: if you've got an iPhone and a problem with gluten, grab it now. If you don't have an iPhone/iPod touch, you
might want to think about getting one.

I consider myself somewhere in the intermediate level of living with celiac disesase. I've got a fair repertoire of things I eat, and occasionally branch out after a little bit of research. But I miss out on a lot of things because I'm not
sure and not sufficiently motivated to look everything up (and generally don't trust reading labels...natural flavors indeed!).

The beauty of Is That Gluten Free? is that it helps you find new foods as well as check on something that's already in front of you. You can explore by category or brand, or just search the surprisingly large database for something specific. Want cookies? It's got you covered. Want Doritos? It knows which varieties are ok. And every single one of them is accompanied by a dated statement from the
manufacturer. So whether you're just getting started on the diet or a veteran looking for new ideas, this application is almost certain to have something to offer, and at $6 you can't go wrong.

Of course, the nerd in me wants to see barcode integration (take a picture of a barcode and it gives you a thumbs up or down) and maybe some "where to buy" maps (or filter the lists based on things available in my area), but that can wait. Right now, this is an elegant, well-designed, and genuinely useful application that I believe will do me a lot of good.

* It's also worth mentioning that the database used by this application is stored on the device itself, so no internet connection is required to use it. So it ought to work fine on an iPod touch in the grocery store.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Celiac & Autoimmunity in General in Scientific American

This is by far the best article I've read on celiac disease. It explains exactly what happens, and in the process ties together all sorts of different threads that tend to come up when researching it. So if you're wondering, for example, what TTG does and why they test for it, you'll get a good answer here:

The other remarkable thing about this article is that it shows that researchers aren't as clueless about the specifics as they were even a few years ago. Such a good understanding is leading to some pretty solid looking potential treatments. I, like most with celiac disesase, wouldn't exactly run back over to Krispy Kreme if given a pill to take beforehand, but it'd be nice to have such a safety net. The authors believe that some of these approaches could help not only celiac disease but a number of other autoimmune conditions as well.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Gluten Free in Las Vegas: Encore/Wynn & Palazzo/Venetian

Earlier this month I went on my first real trip since going gluten-free, excluding travel to visit family. All in all it turned out great. Here are some of the ups and downs:

Pictured: funnel cakes from SW Steakhouse. Highly glutenous. But even if I couldn't eat them (or inhale too deeply around them) they're worth showing.

Airports: I haven't yet cracked this problem aside from bringing enough food with me to tide me over, and that's just barely. I love my peanut butter cups, but not enough to keep me going through 12 hours of flights and delays. I've noticed a few coffee shops and smoothie places and the like that sell fresh fruit, which helps. But it's easy when traveling to end up at an airport you hadn't planned on surrounded by eateries you've never heard of, and an hour before getting on a plane is pretty much my worst nightmare when it comes to times to have a gluten reaction.

Encore room service: This was the first thing we tried when we got there. We were assured before we arrived that all of the restaurants at Encore were equipped to handle requests for gluten-free food. I called the concierge when we got to our room and was reassured that I could just call room service and they'd figure it out. So I did. After a bit of stumbling over how to ask, I ended up on the "allergy" keyword, which brought us to a set of menus arranged according to allergies. They sent that up to the room, at which point I started panicking.

Under each allergy was listed a handful of items, some of which could be cobbled together to form a meal, some not so much. Under "glutin" (sic) there were a couple of fish dishes, some appetizers, and a cheese tray. No chicken, no steak, no meat of any kind outside of fish. Curiously, the steak wasn't even listed as safe for those with fish allergies, which struck me as a bit odd -- maybe cooked on the same grill? In any event, it was starting to look like it was going to be a long few days. Hoping for a bit more variety, we started calling restaurants, which led us to...

SW Steakhouse (Wynn): This was a 100% different experience from trying for room service. We sat down, informed the waiter, and he told me I could order nearly anything on the menu and it would be modified to be gluten-free and cooked in a separate area. I settled on a filet mignon with a side of tater tots (seriously), which, alas, were among the handful of items on the menu that couldn't be made gluten-free. So I ended up with fries instead. I believe I had dessert options here as well, but wasn't exactly feeling up for it after ingesting over half a pound of steak. Because she secretly hates me, my wife ordered the funnel cakes, which turned out to be one of the great dessert experiences of her life. We ended up back here on our last night on the basis of those funnel cakes alone.

This place was pricey, but you also get at least three shows with your meal: 1) the shows projected on the lake of dreams; 2) trying to figure out who's there because they're treating themselves on vaction, who's just that rich that they do this all the time, and who's expensing it; and 3) watching people polish off 20 ounce bone-in ribeyes without looking the least bit uncomfortable after consuming over a pound of meat. This place attracts that sort.

Canyon Ranch Cafe & Grill (Venetian): Another winner. I managed to pick something off the menu that I think was actually naturally gluten-free, or at least trivially adapted, (chicken with peanut sauce), so I ended up with a pretty complete dish. This place was a little tricky to find -- down a number of long hallways that had an "employees only" feel -- but worth the trip.

Grand Lux Cafe (Palazzo): Huge menu here. In general, the wait staff won't be aware of the gluten-status of any particular item, but asking for a manager will get things sorted. Our waiter was able to handle the request himself, though. I picked what I wanted off of the menu, he went back and checked if it could be done, and came back to let me know the head chef was working on it.

Society Cafe Encore: This became our breakfast spot. Breakfast in restaurants is a bit tricky for me -- gluten is out for sure and eggs may be problematic as well. Here, though, I was able to put together a version of my go-to breakfast at home: canadian bacon and breakfast potatoes. There was a bit of a snafu here on the second day when the waiter thought that there was flour in the potatoes (after I'd had them the first day!), but it turned out they had changed the way they were prepared since opening the restaurant and the new ones were fine.

Terrace Point Cafe (Wynn): We stopped here for breakfast, asked for the gluten-free menu, and got something similar to the room service menu. I believe the only two gluten-free options listed were fruit platters. So off we went.

Sundries shops (Wynn & Encore): I didn't expect to find much here, but was quite surprised to find some good backup foods -- tostitos, etc, as well as some energy bars explicitly labeled as gluten-free.

Sugar & Ice (Wynn): The sorbet here is gluten and dairy free, and totally hits the spot as dehydrated as that place can make you.

All in all, the trip turned out better than I'd expected, and I wouldn't hesitate to go back.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gluten Nightmares

Maureen at Hold the Gluten mentioned the "gluten nightmare" phenomenon in her last podcast.  I've had several myself, and hearing about others' experiences with them provoked me into digging up an article I'd heard about a while ago about why, in general, we have nightmares.  The idea is that nightmares are essentially rehearsal for threatening situations that we may encounter, and that this rehearsal has actually been essential to our survival.  Just as martial artists practice incessantly to be able to react optimally without thinking, our brains put us through "a hellscape of danger" every night to keep us prepared for whatever might come.

This brought me back to a book I'd once read entitled "Descartes Error:  Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain" which argues that, fundamentally, the body is not just a puppet controlled by the mind, but rather it's just one tightly integrated system where the sensations experienced by the body are as important to decision-making as the work done by the brain to tie it all together.  One of the key elements of this theory was the somatic marker, which is something of a dead end in our decision-making processes that says "stop here, this way's no good", or "ooh, pick me!" without any further deliberation.  This prevents us from endlessly pondering the best way out of a situation while we're being eaten.  

I wonder if there's a connection between nightmares and the development of somatic markers.  We play out the consequences of various courses of action in our internal simulations and prune off paths that lead to bad feelings.

Living on a restricted diet is a choice.  While our intestines do make a forceful argument in favor of it, there are a number of competing forces at play that make us want to just eat what's there and worry about the consequences later.  Early on, continually making this choice is stressful and every day is a challenge.  But as time goes on things get easier, and, eventually, walking by that tray of regular human food is more of a reflex than a decision.  Apparently all it takes is a few nightmares.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Autoimmunity Issues? Have Some Worms!

Bored with the idea of swallowing billions of bacteria for better health?  Worm supplements may not be far behind!

One of the things often noted by celiac sufferers after going gluten-free is that when they do accidentally ingest some gluten the reaction is much worse than it was before.  One theory I've seen proposed as to why that is involves regulatory T-cells, or rather the lack thereof.  Like bouncers, these guys are responsible for making sure nobody burns the place down and everyone leaves by closing time.  The problem is that when people stop showing up at the club for a while, the bouncers get laid off, and when the crowds come back there's nobody around to keep them in check.  The idea of keeping them active by what appears to be the biological equivalent of a playdate seems intriguing.

It turns out that celiac disease (and perhaps other autoimmune disorders) might have something to do with these cells not working very well in the first place.  In the case of celiac this seems due to a genetic issue, though perhaps autoimmune disorders in general have been rising to prominence lately because that issue is exacerbated by a lack of immune system training due to rising standards of hygiene -- eating dirt by the spoonful as a kid shows our immune systems what a real threat looks like.  Lacking that exposure, we get a bit jumpy and xenophobic, perceiving threats where there are none.  The checks and balances meant to prevent that err on the side of caution out of ignorance, and we end up making much ado about nothing. 

(Snarky link aside, I certainly wouldn't want anyone sending me an envelope full of wheat flour...).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Things I Can Blame on Celiac Disease Part 1: My Lackluster Wrestling Career

As a wrestler, I was, shall we say, a bit frustrating to my coaches.  In practice I showed great potential, but when the time came to actually perform I habitually disappointed.  I generally felt terrible most of the day on match day, couldn't stay hydrated, had a fraction of the stamina that I had in practice during the actual match, and generally lacked the motivation to do what I was supposed to be doing.  I just wanted to go home.  At the time I chalked this up primarily to nerves, which I'm still certain played a role.  But in hindsight I think something else was going on as well.

At the time (early to mid 90s), conventional wisdom held that, nutritionally speaking, the best way to prepare for a sporting event was to "carb up" a day or so beforehand to build up some reserve energy.  As such, it was not uncommon to have team pasta dinners the day before a match, or at the very least to eat a hearty dose of pizza or somesuch.  Since this typically came after weigh-ins, these were pretty substantial feasts, and certainly the most food we'd get at one time all week.

This, in retrospect, was not the smartest thing to do given my celiac disease.  Couple that with the immune-boosting effects of the fight or flight response and it's not a huge logical leap to conclude that this had a lot to do with my lackluster performances.  Eventually, in an attempt to reduce this effect, I started "eating light" on match day, which for me at the time meant eating a lot of crackers and toast.  Oops.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gluten-Free Grocery Shopping Strategy

My first post-diagnosis trip to the grocery store took over three hours and I left in shock, daunted at the prospect of having to navigate aisles of hidden poison for the rest of my life.  Slowly but surely, though, I've learned to do just that, and can now get through a grocery trip in a half-hour or so -- faster than before I was diagnosed.

My biggest mistake starting out was trying to hold on to my existing diet.  That leads to $300 grocery bills full of gluten-free baked goods that sell for 6 times the price for half of the quantity of their alternatives, many of which, to add insult to injury, just didn't taste very good.  The trick, for me, was to start fresh and build a new diet based on naturally gluten-free food, indulging in gluten-free specialty foods only as the occasional cravings dictated.

So here is how I've come to view the grocery store:

  • Areas in green are either naturally gluten-free or likely to contain food that's specially designated as such -- it says gluten-free right on the front of the package.  Note that the general pattern of following the outside of the store applies here.  Just watch out for "natural flavors" in the meats, though in many cases they're benign.
  • Areas in yellow are the hard ones to get through.  Here's where ingredient-reading skills come in.  I've included dairy and ice cream here since, if this is one of your first gluten-free grocery trips, dairy products are likely troublesome too.  I generally don't buy from the yellow sections without some kind of confirmation; usually this just involves some web searching.  Watch out for cross contamination here also.
  • Areas in red will not only almost certainly gluten you if you eat from them but will also depress you if you look too hard at the vast array of products -- many of which were probably your favorites -- that are now off limits.  Walk on through and hold your breath.  I'm only half kidding.
My advice on the first few trips is to worry about just getting by until the next one.  When you're told you can't eat such a wide variety of foods your instinct is to stockpile everything you can eat.  But if you look at it meal by meal, snack by snack, you'll start to snap out of the panic and realize there's plenty left to get by on.  And once you've learned how to survive week to week, you can start learning how to enjoy it.  There are hundreds of blogs full of gluten-free recipes out there, but they can be a bit intimidating if you try to start out that way.  You don't have to figure everything out at once -- I've still got a long way to go in rediscovering what I can eat.