Gluten-Free (Wheatless) Meals




by Carol Fenster, Ph.D.

Gluten: A Real Pain in the Gut

Unless you’re a baker, most of us go through life not knowing or caring much about gluten. That’s why our gluten sensitivity comes as such a surprise. We didn’t know gluten existed in the first place!

Nonetheless, gluten (a protein in wheat and related grains such as barley, rye, spelt, kamut, and triticale) plays a major role in many conditions.  I’ll give you a brief explanation of these conditions and point you toward resources that provide more details.


Wheat Allergies and Intolerances

Wheat is one of the top ten food allergens. We don’t know which of the many proteins in wheat is the actual culprit, but we do know that people can be deathly allergic to it.

I know of one young man so desperately allergic to wheat that if he inhales the tiny particles of flour that waft through the kitchen during baking, he experiences an anaphylactic reaction and must be treated with an epinephrine injection to “buy” him enough time to get to an emergency room. The IgE antibodies in his system react to the wheat and this reaction can be fatal.

For other people, wheat is bothersome, but not necessarily life-threatening. Like me, they have a wheat intolerance. This means that the IgG antibodies in our systems react to wheat, although different people may experience different types of reactions.

My response to wheat is nasal congestion and stuffiness, often resulting in sinus infections. Other people have stomach aches, headaches, rashes, joint aches, fatigue, brain fog-to name just a few symptoms. Wheat may not kill those of us with wheat intolerance, but it certainly compromises the quality of our lives. 

True allergies must be diagnosed by an allergist; not all allergists believe in intolerances and may not perform these tests.


Celiac Disease (Celiac Sprue)

Less well known but perhaps far more prevalent-often called the “common disease no one’s heard of” — is celiac disease (also called celiac sprue, or related forms of gluten intolerance or gluten sensitive enteropathy or GSE).

It is a genetically transmitted condition in which gluten (a protein in wheat and related grains) damages the small intestine’s ability to absorb food nutrients. Another form of GSE is dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), which manifests itself with skin rashes and blister-like spots.

According to the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland, approximately 1 in 133 people in the United States have celiac disease.  Other parts of the world such as Great Britain, Ireland, and Northern Europe report a 1 in 300 incidence in the general population. 

Persons with celiac disease must avoid all forms of gluten, found in wheat and wheat-related grains such as barley, rye, and spelt, as well as the lesser-known grains of kamut and triticale. Oats-which do not inherently contain gluten-are often contaminated with wheat during the growing and manufacturing process. Although there is considerable research on the safety of oats for celiacs, for the time being oats remain off-limits.

Celiac disease is a lifelong condition requiring strict adherence to a gluten-free diet. The condition is diagnosed by a gastroenterologist; then dietitians help patients manage the new diet. See the Appendix for national associations with celiac information.


Where Can I Find Help?

There are many different approaches to living with food sensitivities. My advice is to read as much as possible about the physical consequences of food sensitivities—but also about the psychological, sociological, and emotional issues that we all face when the doctor says “no more gluten”.

One book that is very helpful to newly diagnosed celiacs is Against the Grain by Jax Peters Lowell. Her sense of humor along with her slight irreverence about coping with food sensitivities is both exhilarating and reassuring. Another excellent book that will help you understand the nutritional aspects of the celiac diet is Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide by Shelley Case, RD.

If your children have celiac disease or other food sensitivities, you will find help in Food Allergy Field Guide: A Lifestyle Manual for Families by Theresa Willingham and Kids with Celiac Disease: A Family Guide to Raising Happy, Healthy Gluten-Free Children by Danna Korn. Danna founded a national support group network called R.O.C.K. (Raising Our Celiac Kids) at

Other books that will enlighten you about celiac disease, gluten allergies and intolerances, and other gluten-sensitive conditions include Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous to Your Health by James Braly, MD, and Ron Hoggan, MA; Food Allergy Relief by James Braly, MD, et al.; and Dr. Braly's Food Allergy and Nutrition Revolution: For Permanent Weight Loss and a Longer, Healthier Life by James Braly, MD and Laura Torbet.

Two excellent magazines that are very helpful to people with gluten sensitivities are Living Without: a lifestyle guide for people with food and chemical sensitivities and Gluten-Free Living. (See Appendix.)

For information on how gluten is related to autism and other developmental disorders see Special Diets for Special Kids by Lisa Lewis, Ph.D., and Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder: A Mother's Story of Research and Recovery by Karyn Seroussi and Bernard Rimland, PhD. Betsy Prohaska’s videos are excellent: “Cooking Healthy Gluten and Casein-Free Food for Children” and “The Comprehensive GFCD Diet Video”. You may order them at

There are also many good cookbooks on gluten intolerance. This article is meant as a beginner’s guide to provide you with the basics. You might like to move on to my cookbooks (see them at or examine other gluten-free cookbooks to find the ones best suited to your way of eating.


Living with Food Sensitivities

Being diagnosed with a food sensitivity is like any other loss involving the stages of denial, anger and, finally, acceptance. I went through all these stages. Here’s how I adopted a new lifestyle:

First, get a reliable diagnosis. This is important so you know exactly what you can and can’t eat. All too often, patients try to diagnose themselves and end up confused, frustrated, and unsure of what’s really bothering them. Furthermore, they might omit very nutritious foods from their diets without adequate replacements.

If your symptoms are gastrointestinal (bloating, diarrhea, constipation, gas), a gastroenterologist should test for celiac disease. Often, patients correctly suspect food as the culprit, but incorrectly assume that they should see an allergist. The allergist finds no allergies (celiac disease is not an allergy) and patients are left even more confused. And, they often resume eating the very foods that caused the symptoms!

According to the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG), the average celiac takes five years to find a proper diagnosis. In the meantime, many go from doctor to doctor searching for answers.

Many such patients come to believe that they suffer from some other unknown malady, or they’re told “it’s all in your head”, or they’re accused of using a food sensitivity to “get attention.” I personally heard these very things from well-meaning physicians. They are no longer my physicians!  I fired them!

I’m not a celiac nor am I allergic. I have a wheat intolerance—I don’t digest wheat well. When tested for true allergies, my results are negative because these tests search for IgE antibodies, rather than the IgG antibodies characteristic of wheat intolerances.  Vent your feelings. Honor your feelings by expressing them. Join a support group and share your thoughts-and listen to the feelings of others. It will help you put your situation in perspective and allow you to let off steam in the process.

In addition, support groups provide valuable information on how to manage a gluten-free diet—including recipes as well as tips on cooking, shopping, reading labels, and eating out.

If you have a close friend or family member (who’s willing to listen without judging), share your thoughts with them. Get their input. Ask them to support your efforts to avoid gluten. People who are with you every day need to understand why you can’t eat your particular food culprit and where it might be lurking.

Enlist family, friends, and co-workers to form your own private support group. This is very important because family members unwittingly (or sometimes knowingly) sabotage our diet efforts (just like husbands who give chocolates to their dieting wives). 

And, don’t forget that family members may initially regard your food sensitivity as a threat to their way of life. They don’t want to give up their favorite foods just because you can’t have them. Be open and honest with them about your needs. Ask for their help.

Learn to prepare or choose foods that don’t compromise meal-time at your house. At my house, we eat gluten-free because that’s the only choice I provide! My family and my guests enjoy all the usual foods, except in gluten-free versions.

Accept the facts and get on with your life. You can no longer eat with abandon; you have to examine every morsel of food. Your world seems like it’s tilting out of control because you think you can’t have the customary birthday cake...or join your friends for coffee and pastry at your favorite coffee house... or simply eat pizza.

It’s OK to have feelings of anger or even guilt. You may even try to blame that ancestor who passed on the celiac genes to you or your parents from whom you inherited your food allergies. (If you’re born into a family with allergies, your chance of having allergies is 50-60% higher. Talk about “lucky” genes!)

Well, get over it! Accept the facts and be grateful that all you have to do is control what you eat. That’s a lot better than having a terminal illness or losing a limb or being morbidly ill every day of your life.  Choose to look at your cup as half-full, not half-empty.

It’s also important to accept the fact that you can’t have even a little bit of the forbidden food. It took me five years to learn this! With my demanding executive lifestyle and constant travel, I thought I could eat a little bit of wheat now and then. Wrong!

But eventually—after all the anger, tears, denial, and guilt-most of us accept the hard, cold facts that we can’t eat certain foods. That’s when we’re ready to learn about alternative ways of dining.

Don’t whine, complain, or express sorrow for yourself. Most people live with some sort of inability or disability. Dwelling on it makes you a bore.  Learn to answer questions about your condition with tact. If you don’t want to go into the gory details, simply answer, “(Blank) makes me feel sick.” Or, “(blank) doesn’t agree with me so I don’t eat it.” Or, simply, “No thanks.”

Learn to cook or—if you don’t want to cook—at least know how to choose prepared foods wisely  In the end, you’re responsible for what you eat.  When you cook in your own kitchen, you have control over what goes into your food and the standards under which it is prepared.

Even though my husband and I love to dine out, we always know the best (and safest) food is served in my own kitchen. Even though manufacturers are producing more gluten-free foods and restaurants are becoming more knowledgeable, you’ll fare better if you develop some basic cooking skills. The better you get at cooking, the more your food will look and taste like the “real thing.”

Make small changes first. Of course, you have to give up gluten entirely.  But rather than trying to learn how to cook (or buy) everything in one week, master a basic recipe first and adapt it to your way of life.

Allow time for your palate to adjust. We Americans expect baked goods to taste like wheat because we’ve grown accustomed to the taste. Celiacs who once learned to like bread made from rice flour now find that it takes time to adjust to the newer flours made from beans, sorghum, or quinoa.

Read labels. Become familiar with the words that indicate gluten. Learn how they’re portrayed on labels. Labeling laws are getting better, but it’s still basically “buyer beware.” Not all ingredients have to be listed or explained. For example, the term “natural flavors” could be harmless-or a literal landmine of problems.

Purchase the guides published by the CSA/USA, Tri-County Celiac Support Group, or Clan Thompson. These guides list gluten-free foods in various categories to aid your grocery shopping. And, remember manufacturers may change ingredients or accidentally mislabel foods, so you have to constantly stay vigilant.

Be prepared by planning ahead. This has all sorts of implications. Keep your own kitchen well stocked with the right ingredients so you can put together a meal at a moment’s notice

Keep a bag of snacks (dried fruit, nuts, crackers, jerky, trail mix, etc.) on hand for when you’re running errands, at a doctor’s appointment, or at the kids’ soccer games. When hunger strikes, munch on your safe food rather succumbing to temptation.

Stand up for your rights. Whether you’re a schoolchild, a teenager, or an adult, you have a right to expect your food and the conditions under which it is served to be safe.

This means that you have a right to query the restaurant about its menu or your child’s school about its lunch program. And, check out Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to learn more about your rights.


Sample Recipe: Scones

Although they sound like a delicate pastry served by the English at “High Tea,” they’re actually quite rugged and surprisingly easy to make.

1⁄4 cup butter or margarine

1⁄2 cup milk (cow, rice, soy)

1 large egg

2 Tbsp. sugar 

1 3⁄4 cups Flour Blend (see below)

1⁄2 cup tapioca flour

2 tsp. xanthan gum

1 1⁄2 tsp. cream of tartar

3⁄4 tsp. baking soda

1⁄2 tsp. salt

1⁄4 tsp. soy lecithin granules

1⁄2 cup currants 

1.         Preheat oven to 425º. Grease nonstick baking sheet.

2.                  In food processor, blend butter, milk, and egg together until well mixed. Add sugar, flour blend, tapioca flour, xanthan gum, cream of tartar, baking soda, salt, and soy lecithin. Blend just until mixed. Toss in currants and toss twice. Dough will be soft.

3.                  Transfer dough to baking sheet, patting with spatula into 8-inch circle, 3/4-inch thick. Bake 15-20 minutes or until deeply browned. For crisper, wedge-shaped pieces, cut into 8 wedges with sharp knife and return to oven for final 5 minutes of baking. Serves 8

Calories 225; Fat 7g; Protein 3g; Carbohydrates 44g; Cholesterol 43mg; Sodium 280; Fiber 1g

Flour Blend
1 1/2 cups sorghum flour
1 1/2 cups potato starch or cornstarch
1 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup corn flour or bean flour or chestnut flour


Excerpted from Gluten-Free 101: Easy Basic Dishes Without Wheat by Carol Fenster, Ph.D. Copyright © 2003 by Carol Fenster, Ph.D and Savory Palate, Inc. Excerpted by arrangement with Carol Fenster, Ph.D. $19.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.741.5418 or click here.