When I told my mother-in-law that we would be going without grains for the first half of Lent and remaining gluten-free for the second half, kids included, her response was of concern for our health: “Is that okay? Are they going to lose weight? They’re so skinny already…”
Ironic, I thought, that I’m trying to do something radical to preserve our family’s health, to try to pinpoint triggers for Crohn’s Disease in my husband (symptoms started returning after 7 years of more-or-less remission post-surgery) and try to prevent Crohn’s from rearing its ugly head for my son, 5-year-old Paul. It can be tough to communicate all this to family members.
On my third try or so, Mom Kimball finally understood that gluten could have been the cause of my husband’s pain and chronic disease, and that I would do anything to prevent my son from experiencing the same. There were so many layers of knowledge she had to understand:
- that gluten can be a real allergen for many people, even if they didn’t notice it their whole lives
- that gluten sensitivity is on the rise, and it’s possible that it affects 1/3 of Americans
- that gluten is often tied to Crohn’s
- that when my husband went grain-free for just two days last fall, it cured his chronic diarrhea when prescription medication could not touch it
- that gluten is also tied to eczema, which is what we saw increase in my son that got me wondering about him
- that eczema can be linked to autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s
- that if the body creates antibodies to gluten (i.e. treats gluten like an invader), it continues to do so for up to 90 days after the gluten was ingested – there is no “cheating” on a gluten-free diet that doesn’t hurt you…I think this was a turning point for her, along with my statement: “If we can spare Paul from what [my husband] had to go through, wouldn’t it be worth giving up some cake and bread as a kid?”
- that gluten is everywhere!
- that humans don’t need grains to survive – my kids did just fine without it
- and most importantly, that what we eat truly does affect our health!source for many facts above: podcast with Dr. Tom O’Bryan
Coming from a cultural mentality of medicating disease rather than seeking out causes and changing the diet, that’s really a lot to take in at once, especially for my poor in-laws who already think I’m a teensy bit nutters for choosing raw milk, traditional sourdough, and oh, say, organ meats (pictured above). I’m not exactly mainstream, to put it lightly.
Was Grain-Free with Kids Difficult?
Believe me, I was asking this question often as Lent approached. I knew there would be challenges, and I was hoping I didn’t have to fight too many epic fits from my bread-loving 2 1/2-year-old daughter, for example.
The good news? It was actually a lot easier than I thought.
I didn’t even try all that many new recipes, just cut out the bread when we had soup, offered eggs often, and survived on homemade yogurt like we always do. I did make some grain-free granola (recipe can now be found in the newly expanded Healthy Snacks to Go eBook along with over 45 real food snack recipes – click HERE to learn more), which was a total lifesaver and is so tasty it will continue to be a staple no matter where our family’s diet lands.
The most difficult challenge was to be expected: eating out and eating with others. It’s really, really hard for people to even understand where gluten hides, and then to take a step to cut it out just for one meal to share with our family was tricky.
All of our family members did an impressive job of it, even when we visited my sister-in-law for a whole weekend, including the extremely challenging meatless and grain-free Friday meal. I’ll share a muffin recipe she found for us next week (pictured in yesterday’s Monday Mission)
Eating out: Whenever you cut something from your diet, it always comes into stark relief how often that food is eaten in regular society. Typically nearly every single item on a children’s menu in particular contains gluten, from crispy chicken strips to pasta to pizza to hamburgers.
Usually my kids, who could certainly eat from the adult menu, but oh, do they love those colorful kids’ placemats, had two choices: grilled chicken breast or a hamburger without the bun. (I realized after the fact that many burgers probably had funky gluten-laden fillers, if they started frozen and looked like the surface of the moon – which you notice when there’s no bun!)
There was a little difficulty at times with what they couldn’t have, but I think it really helped that the whole family skipped the bread. In short order Paul picked up the language, “Our family is gluten-free,” and learned to find gluten wherever he looked, too.
Birthday parties: Paul was invited to one birthday party during Lent, and it nearly broke my heart that he couldn’t eat the pizza or the cake. I almost called the whole experiment off and let him have at it, but at that point the kid had sacrificed so much for a month already, and I didn’t feel like we’d learned anything yet because he’d been sick and then on antibiotics for nearly the whole time.
Our solution? We let him get Burger King French fries for a special treat and ate lunch at home (nachos, something he really likes) and then took him over half an hour late when the pizza was nearly gone. He was disappointed to be sure, but he handled it very well. The unforeseen impact of being late that I didn’t consider until I saw it happening was that he missed the socializing around the lunch table. All the girls were giggly and wild by the time he got there, and it was hard for him to enter into the fray.
I sent a special gluten-free cake with homemade “yogurt cheese” frosting, but his biggest disappointment was that there was cookies-n-cream ice cream and he had to be stuck with butter pecan. Understandable!
Snacks: Finally, some good news! Snacks were not nearly as hard as I expected. We couldn’t have cheese and crackers, a common staple with homemade sourdough crackers, but it turned out that after once or twice of just offering ‘cheese’ they didn’t ask for crackers anymore. I even had some crackers and rolls frozen, thinking that I’d grab them for Leah when Paul was at school (since we weren’t really looking for issues for her), but I never once felt the need for them. Here were our common snacks:
- a piece of fruit
- cut apples with peanut butter for dipping
- cheese (sometimes with an apple, sometimes not)
- the occasional “meat stick” from a local butcher – a special treat!
- homemade beef jerky* (although more often this was a supplement to a packed lunch)
- hard-boiled eggs (again, more often for lunch)
- yogurt and frozen fruit – luckily my kids could eat this twice a day and never complain!
- grain-free granola with milk
- two kinds of grain-free muffins (recipes coming next week!)
- nuts and raisins
- power bars (like Larabars) and Popeye bars from my Healthy Snacks to Go eBook
In reality, although that looks like a ton of options, I pretty much said, “yogurt or nuts and raisins?” 75% of the time. Thankfully, my kids love those options, so it wasn’t a big deal.
I knew it was starting to wear on Leah, who had been allowed some bread and toast maybe five times during Lent, when she was snuggling with me before nap on Good Friday and said, out of the blue, “Mama? I love bread.“ Ha! I asked her if the Easter Bunny should bring us bread, and she was very excited about that. The two loaves on the table Easter morning were truly as big of a treat as the candy in the baskets!
The 5-year-old wondered if the Easter Bunny used my recipe or if I made it for him, because it tasted just like mine (honey whole wheat sourdough). Ha! Kids make for the greatest quotes, don’t they?
Did We Notice any Differences While Grain-free/Gluten-Free?
Just like last fall, my husband had an almost immediate change in his digestion, evident in the fact that his nearly chronic diarrhea disappeared completely.
My poor little Paul got strep throat pretty quickly, which exacerbated his eczema like I’ve never seen it before, so it was hard to tell if there was any positive change there. With the weather changing and trip to Florida filled with hours in a chlorinated pool, I figured we really could only learn about gluten via eczema by watching what happened on his skin when we reintroduced it.
I do try to ask him to evaluate his BMs or show them to me (how many 5-year-olds have to do that?!). Since birth, he’s always had loosey-goosey poops…which has always made me wonder about his genetic propensity for Crohn’s, since that’s what my husband’s life was like. I can say we saw a good deal of ‘brown bananas’ during Lent, always a good sign.
Since I’m expecting, my digestion is just weird, no matter what. I don’t think I noticed any obvious changes or even less constipation, but I also didn’t find anything negative (although I missed buttering my bread, so I ate baked potatoes slathered in homemade raw butter like a madwoman to make up for it).
What Happened When Gluten Came Back?
The very first change that was evident came immediately after our delicious Easter breakfast of toast, scrambled eggs with cheese, and nitrite-free bacon. My son, zealous about bread with honey and butter, ate two pieces. He left the table with unfinished eggs and holding his belly, moaning about how awfully full he was.
Every time we’ve had bread or toast since then, even half a piece, he comments about how quickly bread fills him up, but not in a happy voice – it’s that “I’m uncomfortably full” voice.
In myself, I can probably say with some certainty that I’m more constipated this week than much of Lent. Once you see the change back, you realize that there was some difference during the experiment; I just didn’t notice it.
I do think I’m more likely to eat more when I’m munching grains (and even worse with sugar, which I should probably give up again forever!). I keep going back to the soaked granola jar, whereas during Lent, if I grabbed some nuts or a piece of cheese, I wasn’t as likely to feel addicted and go back for more multiple times.
I had the pleasure of eating out at The Melting Pot (a great place to eat if you’re grain-free, by the way!) with Donielle and Wendy, and we were talking about starches and sugars. Donielle explained that when you eat sugar in particular, but carby starches too, you get the insulin boost that acts like caffeine, but then when you get the “crash” of lowering insulin after that, your body asks for more. When I say eating candy or granola or crackers can feel like an addiction, that’s not really an exaggeration.
And the rest of the family?
Leah quite quickly had BMs that hurt. This happened the same way in the fall when she had about a week on low grains/no grains and then had oatmeal. The next day, she is constipated. She wasn’t bound up one single time during Lent, even though she had the occasional piece of bread.
If you consider that it’s pretty common knowledge that babies’ poops will get more solid as soon as they start the standard rice cereal, and we’re even told by medical professionals that it’s totally normal to go three days without a BM (I have even heard TEN in the range of normal) once rice cereal has been introduced, this firming up with grains seems pretty expected. The fact that my boys go the opposite way is a potential cause for concern in my mind.
My mother accidentally got dragged into the experiment when we spent a week with them in Florida and cooked gluten-free and largely grain-free for the week. She had a burger bun once or twice, but for my mom, who eats a half peanut butter sandwich and an apple nearly every day for lunch, it was a pretty serious reduction in grains/gluten.
Her results? She lost weight and noticed more regular digestion, without a doubt. This week after three days of her typical sandwich lunch and unsoaked oatmeal for breakfast, she’s feeling it.
Honestly, I think it’s fascinating to see the difference grains make in the diet.
Paul started with not much to note, but he is getting tiny bumps on his back (eczema flaring up in a new way?) and had a very loose BM today, although most of his have been well-formed. I’m definitely going to keep watching him, because it’s not like eating gluten always has an immediate and noticeable effect on people, even if they’re gluten-sensitive.
My husband, on the other hand, did have an immediate and noticeable effect, sadly. By Easter afternoon with one piece of sourdough toast under his belt, the diarrhea returned. He’s experienced it almost every time – but not every time – he has consumed gluten in the past week.
The End: Something New
It’s a hard realization to accept, that he probably has a gluten sensitivity. Although he had the standard blood test for gluten in the fall, which came back negative, we’re strongly considering having this comprehensive gluten reactivity and autoimmunity test done. It tests for 17 more components of gluten that can be allergens, not just alpha-gliadin, which is what the standard test covers. (Read more about this issue at Underground Wellness’s very comprehensive post on Detecting Gluten Sensitivity.
My husband hates to spend the money to do it, but he agreed the other day that he probably wouldn’t be willing to radically change his diet for good unless he had it in black and white that he had to.
At this point, it’s too easy to question: “Is eating gluten going to cause him a one-time bout of diarrhea, and acceptable risk for the glory and joy of a pizza buffet? Or is it destroying his intestines, inflaming his Crohn’s Disease and promoting fertile ground for other chronic and life-threatening diseases every time he takes a bite?” There’s a big difference in risk there, and we want to know what’s going on.
This morning he lamented, “It’s going to be awfully hard to give up gluten for good.” I think the idea is starting to sink in, and there’s nothing happy about it. We may end up needing to try the GAPS Diet or SCD, both of which would be a huge challenge for me. I’m thankful that at least I know what to do and where to find resources – if we have to have a gluten sensitivity, a real food blogger is fairly prepared and has a community of people to walk me through it!
(Two books I’ll be digging into a whole bunch are Gluten Free and Good for You! and Against the Grain, both of which I get to share with you in a giveaway this week! Check them out here and here. I also have The Gluten-Free Diner Cookbook in my files and will be tapping my favorite GF bloggers for ideas and help as we go! Keeper of the Home has a great post with GAPS diet recipes for me to rely on, too.)
I’ll be spending the remainder of the next two weeks on grain-free and gluten-free living, including more resources like those above, our thoughts on some gluten-free mixes, and a few recipes for you to try.
This month I’m pleased to introduce Fertility Flower, Kitchen Stewardship’s site sponsor for May. If you use or are interested in Natural Family Planning, Fertility Flower helps you track everything online, even through your Smart Phone, with some unique and utterly helpful features to make charting a piece of cake. Please say hello and check out the software – an extra free month beyond the trial month for KS readers with the code “KitchenStewardship”!
See my full disclosure statement here.