Tuesday 20 February 2018

Gluten and dairy free diet: A gluten for punishment

It's a fad for film stars and a life-saver for coeliacs, but what is a lifestyle free of gluten and dairy really like? Joanna Weinberg made her family try it for a week to find out

A taste of
the glutenfree
with her
May and
Photo by
Richard Pohle
A taste of the glutenfree life: Joanna Weinberg with her children May and Billy. Photo by Richard Pohle

Joanna Weinberg

What do you take 'round to people who invite you for brunch? Noon is early to start drinking wine if you have two children under five, and chocolate seems too dinner-ish, so when we visited old friends I decided to take a loaf of home-made bread. What better gift to rekindle a friendship, I thought, than a linen-wrapped parcel of fragrant, warm dough?

I had hoped for some fanfare as I handed it over but the two glanced at each other, took it wordlessly and put it at the back of the kitchen. My heart sank, not least because I had been looking forward to it.

Still, lunch was delicious -- a crispy, juicy roast chicken, baked apples for pudding -- and as the meal progressed I discovered that the couple and their children had gone gluten- and dairy-free a year ago: not because they were on a diet (they are both groovily slender) or for medical reasons (a gf diet is essential for coeliac sufferers) but because they just wanted to "feel better".

Eating fads come and go. Some are food-led (sun-dried tomatoes, anyone?); others health-led. Most come from the States, and half of America (the thin half) appears to be gluten- and dairy-free at the moment. Is this the path we are destined to tread, I wondered? And can you tread it and still eat well?

My lunches are a snatched piece of bread and cheese at my desk or a sandwich on the run. I'm sure I eat too much bread, and not simply because it's the cheap and easy option.

As Bridget Hugo, co-founder of the pizza chain Franca Manca and to-be-launched bakery BreadBread, says: "Bread is the foundation of a traditional table. It's what you work to bring home."

If I were trying a gluten-free regimen alone, I would probably be happy to make a project out of eating like a crazed movie star.

No milk in my tea? No sweat, I'd happily go green (tea) for a week. Granola with almond milk for breakfast? I'd be chomping at the bit. But to get the bread, pasta and cheese maniacs that make up the rest of our family to go gluten- and dairy-free for a week proved quite a challenge.

Day 1

Dairy intake: 4 shavings of Parmesan

Gluten intake: a few grains of couscous

Inedible bread substitutes: 1

Cheering cups of tea: 0

The first challenge is an educational one: what is gluten in, my husband Ed wants to know. I answer that it is in most grains. He looks nonplussed.

"Does that include potatoes," he asks.

The first breakfast is hard. We have always been a toast-butter-Marmite family. Having glanced with some disquiet at the nutritionally benign contents of gluten-free bread flour mix, I prepared a loaf. A heavy, flat cake, it is filthy bread but makes acceptable toast.

Life without dairy proves the greater hurdle. May (3) spits out her cornflakes with soy milk. Ed's vital morning cup of tea, now made with almond milk, stands glumly cooling as he glugs a can of Coke.

Having gobbled their gluten-free sausages at lunch, neither of the children will touch their soya yoghurts for pudding. Ed calls to ask if a couscous salad is okay. He flops audibly when I tell him that he can only eat the vegetable bits.

After I put the children to bed, wailing for milk, things look up. We eat a delicious Caesar salad with croutons made from the gf bread fried in olive oil with a little garlic. Then, guiltily, we cave in and have a few shavings of Parmesan.

Day 2

Dairy intake: 2 bars of chocolate

Gluten intake: 0

Packets of crisps: 4

A picnic lunch on a train is normally the most exciting meal imaginable for the children. I get up early to pack cold potatoes, ham, crudités and apples, all of which are consumed by 11.30. "Sandwich," demands Billy (nearly two).

I offer him more potatoes, which he refuses. "Sandwich," he insists. I give him a packet of crisps and vow to remember to carry rice cakes at all times. In the buffet car, our requests for gluten-free snacks are met with a blank stare. Eventually I give in to chocolate, as the family insist they are still hungry.

Ed, who puts away a basket of bread at the start of most meals, is beginning to panic and asks repeatedly what he can do about lunch tomorrow.

I make him a tub of quinoa tabbouleh. We put the children to bed, again wailing for milk.

Day 3

Dairy intake: 3 bowls' cereal with milk; children's milk drinks

Gluten intake: 0

pasta varieties rejected: 3

I can't face making the children fake toast. Instead, they devour a bowl of Rice Krispies with, yes, milk and chopped banana. By 11 they are starving. The problem is solved with home-made popcorn and rich gf lemon biscuits from Doves Farm. I can't face checking whether they are dairy-free.

Ed calls to report on his lunch. Delicious but embarrassing, it seems. He had to eat it in a meeting in a café with everyone else devouring paninis.

The kids, who normally eat pasta three or four times a week, are struggling with the gf substitutes. So far I have tried them on Bob the Builder rice and corn shapes, Doves Farm gf penne and brown rice fusilli. In each case, Billy sucked off the bolognese and spat the pasta back into the bowl. I can't face the evening wail for milk and give in.

Day 4

Dairy intake: Huge cheese plate; non-stop stream of children's milk and yoghurt

Gluten intake: dim sum (quantity unverifiable), 4 pieces sesame prawn toast

Cheering cups of tea: Ed, 5

Now that three-quarters of us are no longer bothering with the dairy-free part of the challenge, life is much easier.

Grown-up lunches continue to be an issue. I now have plenty of gf food in the fridge but today get stuck at meetings and end up eating a packet of crisps, a bag of beef jerky and a Bounty for lunch (coconut equals vegetable matter).

We meet up with my extended family in a Chinese restaurant. Across the table I see Ed digging into the dim sum while I stick sulkily to rice.

Continued on p36

Continued from p35

Day 5

Dairy intake: butter, yoghurts, cheese at lunch, milk with tea and for kids

Success of substitutes: good

Flatulence: 0

The children have mackerel fillets crumbed in polenta rather than breadcrumbs -- delicious. I also turn corn tortillas into pizza bases for them.

Lunch for me has now returned to my regular cheese plate with Rude Health's rice and multigrain crackers, and chilli jam. Because it's messier to eat than a sandwich, I sit down with the children rather than wandering about: a bonus.

Both Ed and I notice we are less hungry and less inclined to snack. Ed has visibly lost weight and appears to have stopped passing wind. This is something of a miracle.

A coeliac-suffering friend comes round for supper. Our normal starter of Middle Eastern mezze with pitta bread is replaced by gf pitta, just edible out of the toaster.

For pudding we have ice cream with Waitrose gf shortbread biscuits (delicious). The friend is astounded that we have been trying to get through the week without Genius bread, whatever that is.

Day 6

Excellent gf bread: 1

Brilliant gf cupcakes: 1

Success at children's party: Middling

I get up early and go to buy Genius bread. It looks and feels suspiciously like a normal loaf, and we fall on it with glee -- several rounds of toast ensue.

I then take the kids to a children's birthday party, armed with my own gf sandwiches and fairy cakes for them.

It is a little tricky manoeuvring them away from the table laden with party food, but I sit them down firmly in front of their own paper plates of my home-brought goodies.

As I am making our steak, baked potato and salad supper, I realise with a pang that our challenge is nearly over; it has been surprisingly fun.

Pasta has been a real loss, as has good bread, and it has taken a good deal more thought and planning than a normal week, yet we have sat down to more meals as a family.

Day 7

Dairy intake: butter, milk drinks, milk in tea, cake

Gluten intake: Plastic white bread, cake

Guilt-induced anxiety levels: high

Our last day. We visit friends for tea. The table is laden with carrot cake and soft, white-bread sandwiches. Irresistible.

As I reach for my first of many, I realise this is the end of it. A gluten-free diet just doesn't suit normal life. And I am powerless in the face of bread and cheese.

Irish Independent

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