The Gluten-Free Sausage Link between the GF Diet and a Healthy Diet: What to Make of It

I apologize y’all for being completely MIA as of late. Work has taken me for a grand tour of the Eastern Seaboard and all the way over to the beautiful green Ozarks in Arkansas. All for some pretty big music festivals. Ahh, the perks of my job.

And in the past three weeks, I’ve met a number of new people, seen some really great live music and, surely, faced a number of eating-on-the-road challenges. Which has all really got me thinking about the connection between eating gluten-free and trying to eat a diet that is healthy and fulfilling (especially when you are living in an RV for a week or making regular stops at Waffle House while cruising late night). Allow me to explain:

The following is a sample conversation that us gluten-freers have with our non-GF counterparts on an  extraordinarily regular basis. It is a basic model of the millions of versions of the same fundamental exchange that we endure at the gym, over coffee and at the grocery store check-out (and trust me, it is ALWAYS the same conversation in its missing-the-whole-point essence):

“Is gluten-free a healthy diet?”

-It depends. Eating gluten-free is usually not a dietary choice, but rather a necessity.

“What do you miss the most?”

-I definitely miss (insert favorite gluten-filled food here) the most. Nothing comes close the real thing, but I’ve had a couple gluten-free versions recently that are definitely tasty.

Followed shortly by: “Ooh, I bet that makes it easier to be healthy if you just can’t have it.”

-Well, not necessarily. Listen, it’s been great seeing/to meet you, but I’ve gotta run! (Not really in a rush, wink wink).

To all of you that have been on the answering side of this endless examination, you have my sympathy. And to those of you that may have asked these questions (or something along those lines), let me explain why the seemingly logical connection between gluten-free and nutritiously healthy is a fallacious one. No, most of us will never get mad or completely avoid this question; we are the missionaries that must spread this small bit of truth to naive diners the world over, deceived by the misleading baggage of the gluten-free trend that is blazing through gourmet circles like a wildfire right now.

Where to begin? A gluten-free beer first, and then I’ll carry on.

I’ll start with an example. Take an acquaintance I’ve made since I came to Atlanta several years back. She has embraced her middle age onset of Celiac Disease with welcoming, loving arms, and used this opportunity to drastically change her diet, regardless of everything the gluten-free switch entailed and began to exercise regularly. What does she miss most from the days of gluten ignorant yore? Pies, cakes and cookies. Growing up in the South planted sweetly decadent memories of desserts that are inextricably connected with her happiest recollections of childhood. Is she happier as a physical trainer, having trimmed off many pounds and made a career of being fit? Yes. Does she miss those happy memories, the distant dream of Grandma’s Key Lime Pie or strawberry shortcake? Well, yes, of course. I doubt that even the healthiest sugar-shunning nutrition guru out there, whether they would admit it or not, doesn’t occasionally miss the divine richness of a dark chocolate torte or the simplistic perfection of peach pie. But a healthy lifestyle, be it gluten-filled or gluten-free, tends to be much more fulfilling overall.

Yet, my friend here is a perfect example of why the gluten-consuming majority equates this restrictive diet with health. The false connection is made when everyone sees the pounds shed and muscles tone after a Celiac diagnosis. Just because we must stop eating everything with gluten in it doesn’t mean we magically are forced to start eating more green leafy vegetables and drink herbal tea instead of wine at night. I must admit, in light of all my rants about the elusive gluten-free desserts, the “healthy choice” is sometimes made much easier for us. Indulgence isn’t even an option when there is nothing indulgently gluten-free to thoroughly enjoy all the while feeling guilty and traitorous to a usually-strict diet regimen. But, as many of us know by now, there are still many options out there that are sans gluten and packed with calories, cholesterol, saturated fat, etc. etc. etc.

Now, myself. I can easily (and often do) watch friends devour pizza, pasta and cake without even a bit of desire or hint of gustatory jealousy. Flour tortillas, completely different story. Growing up in New Mexico, I was raised on breakfast burritos and enchiladas, flour tortillas being the conclusive wrap, both figuratively and literally, that holds many New Mexican dishes together. Whether filled with beans, green chile, calabacitas (squash, onions, chile and herbs), rice, carnitas (braised pork), chicken or really anything you want, this is a true staple of everything that was my childhood. And, yes, I love corn tortillas, don’t get me wrong. But it irks me to have to sit idly by at Mexican restaurants while everyone else mindlessly (seemingly, at least, in my emotionally-altered state of mind) chows down on flour tortillas. Avoiding the entire rack at the grocery store has become a sort of painful ritual to which I’ve become all to accustomed. But am I better off without the carb- and cholesterol-filled tortillas in the long run? If I were to eat hundreds of them a day, then yes. But I, like my southern belle marathon-running friend, have made a conscious choice, completely separate of my gluten-free eating restrictions, to be healthy. Yes, we miss the treats of our childhood. And, yes, it is impossible for us to eat them anymore. Yes, there are gluten-free versions of many of these things that are usually pretty good, sometimes even better, and tend to be on the expensive side. And, finally, yes, we will eat those things occasionally. But, NO, our gluten-free restriction has nothing to do with our choice to be healthy. It may indirectly make dessert cravings easier, as we all have come to know in the perpetual hunt for the ever-elusive gluten-free option at the end of the meal. What it comes down to in the end is that decision that we ALL must make: picking the salad over the french fries; riding the bike to work over eating donuts in the passenger seat of the carpool; training for a marathon over watching Harry Potter televised marathons in front of a bowl of popcorn.

Hopefully you get the point here.

In all, it seems like the gluten-free journey is just one of many that is intertwined with all the other paths we take and choices we must make. Being healthy and gluten-free have just been two positive and mutually beneficial (albeit distinct) paths in my life. But as I’ve said before, the occasional dessert or beer or whatever it is that brings you the sort of happiness that pre-workout wheatgrass juice cannot, is also a joyous experience. Life shouldn’t be diminished by denying yourself its sweet pleasures.

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