At Large Column
Gluten-free diet can eat at you
Beer and pizza. For college kids, they’re two of the five food groups, besides Pop Tarts, Trix and ChefBoyardee.
Not for my son, Eric – in the traditional sense.
Eric is a senior at a private university in Ohio, in a Norman Rockwell town where pizza and/or beer is available, though not commonplace. Until a year and a half ago, he loved pizza and much spicier food – and gobs of it. And being an undergrad, he had developed an appreciation for suds, as his dad had decades before.
But during summer 2011, he started feeling rotten on nearly a daily basis, with headaches and severe stomach distress. A varsity runner throughout high school, he had gone from a kid with boundless energy and no health issues to a young adult paralyzed by pain and fear. The robust body that had served him so well suddenly, inexplicably, was betraying him.
Eric saw three doctors, had three exams and endured six weeks of excruciating anxiety before a specialist diagnosed the problem.
Wikipedia describes celiac as “an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that occurs in genetically predisposed people of all ages from middle infancy onward.” Fatigue and gastrointestinal issues are common symptoms. The cause is a reaction to gliadin, a gluten protein found in wheat, and to similar proteins including barley and rye.
It’s permanent, too.
This was a beacon of hope, though. My son finally knew what he was dealing with, and after consulting with the specialist and with Google, began formulating a dietary response that would restore his health and vigor.
But the light of that beacon was harsh, rife with profound sacrifices. Eric, once carefree, could no longer consume conventional bread, conventional pancakes, conventional pasta, conventional cakes … or conventional pizza and beer.
He has to eat gluten-free, which means avoiding certain foods at all times, checking ingredients on grocery products, researching restaurants and their menu options, questioning wait staff, and frequenting the few stores that have a respectable array of gluten-free items.
It’s a hassle, it’s time-consuming, it’s frustrating – and it can be really expensive. Gluten-free products generally cost more than comparable items with gluten. Prices have declined, but not to the cost-effective level. As if college students aren’t stressed enough about their financial present and future … those with celiac get less from their grocery budget than those without the disease.
Eric occasionally asks for money, as college students have done for a century-plus, and my wife and I are willing to supplement his checking account. You do what you can for your children, especially if they are dealing with a food-related illness. Still, gluten-free prices are hard to swallow.
So is some of that food. I’ve tried gluten-free bread and desserts, and generally don’t like them. Yucko-ptooee.
Eric never complains, although I’m sure desires a big sloppy pizza.
He is doing well, physically and with his diet. A dozen years after we stopped fruitlessly pushing fruits and vegetables, he is eating plenty of them. And he prefers organic.
Part of that is adhering to his dining restrictions, and part to his education – on and off campus. Eric is an environmental studies major with good grades who likely learned more during his internship last summer at the Rodale Institute farm in Kutztown, in Eastern Pennsylvania.
Stepped in a cow patty for the first time on his first day.
My son does have occasional gluten episodes – he may slip up, or it may be the restaurant cook. But he generally feels great, especially now that the Penguins are back.
The college staples? There are a few beers he can drink and he prepares his own gluten-free pizza.
Neither is yucko-ptooee.
Rick Shrum is a business writer for the Observer-Reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.