I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1997. Things were going well until three years after my diagnosis, my oldest son—then a toddler—began exhibiting many of the same symptoms. His eventual diagnosis was upsetting. I was concerned he’d miss out on the social aspects of eating. Who doesn’t enjoy breaking bread (or pizza) with their friends? And the holidays: He’d never get to have all those delicious cookies and pies. So I made it my mission to turn all of my favorite childhood recipes into high-protein, gluten-free classics, using flour replacements —which turned out to be healthier for the family, too.
I spent the next couple of years immersing myself in research—reading, sampling, and cooking up a storm. I created literally hundreds of recipes and kept them all in a big black binder in my kitchen. To make the recipes more accessible to family and friends, I created a blog, elanaspantry.com, where I posted my newest creations. This culminated in a book, The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook.
Read on for a sampling of what I’ve learned in the past 13 years living gluten-free and blogging about it.
The Science Behind Celiac
So what is gluten? It’s a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that, when used in baking, holds together cakes and breads and gives them a nice, spongy texture. But it’s also extremely toxic—in even the smallest amounts—for people with celiac disease.
In a person with celiac, gluten causes an immune reaction that damages the lining of the small intestine. When the small intestine is compromised, it cannot properly absorb food, resulting in bloating, diarrhea, and weight loss. It also sets off reactions that reverberate throughout the body, explains celiac expert Peter Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University and author of Celiac Disease A Hidden Epidemic . “Celiac disease is not just a gastrointestinal disorder; it is a multi-system disease that can involve any organ in the body, such as the brain, skin, joints, liver, and bones, just to mention a few,” says Green. Which is why conditions such as migraines, depression, and infertility can directly be attributed to celiac.
If left untreated, celiac disease can even lead to severe illness, says Robert Rountree, MD, a Boulder, Colorado–based integrative physician. He says osteoporosis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and even cancer can be tied to prolonged, untreated celiac disease. To that end, celiac is a serious disease that requires medical testing and ongoing follow-up with a physician.
Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Intolerance
Celiac disease isn’t the only reason to try a gluten-free diet. People who have “gluten intolerance,” also called Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), experience symptoms due to gluten intake, but don’t test positive for the genes or antibodies. Gluten intolerance symptoms include moodiness, fatigue, and digestive distress. It’s estimated that 1 in 7 people have NCGS, while 1 in 133 have celiac disease.
According to Bast, if your doctor confirms that you don’t have celiac—but you still experience symptoms—you should experiment with the gluten-free diet. She recommends discussing an elimination diet with your doctor or dietician so that proper nutrition is maintained. “Some will notice an improvement within just days and for others it takes longer,” she says. In the end, only you can determine the amount of gluten your body can tolerate.
For those with celiac disease, however, the only cure is abiding by a 100-percent gluten-free diet. And, no, it’s not as simple as avoiding bread. You have to be a meticulous reader of food labels and product ingredients. (Did you know there’s gluten in salad dressing and tamari?) Which is why the gluten-free lifestyle turned me into a scratch cook; I’d rather make everything from scratch than take the risk.
In Search of the Perfect Flour
I know now that flour is the key to great gluten-free baked goods—but it took me a while to learn this. I began my culinary journey with rice flour, which produced an odd, somewhat bitter, gummy taste and gritty texture. Next I tried bean, tapioca, and quinoa flours, which made my cookies crumbly and cakes super-dry.
Finally, after many years and numerous taste testers (trust me, kindergartners will spit out dessert if they don’t like it), I found my favorite flours. And luckily, the most delicious flours were also the most nutritious—helping people with celiac re-nourish and recover health and vital energy.
When using these flour replacements, I’m happy to let my boys have pie before dinner; little do they know the pie is full of antioxidants, protein, and fiber. For me, even though they’re gluten-free, the holidays are now happy again.
Popular flour replacements
>>Almond flour is made from finely ground, blanched almonds. It’s easy to buy online (I wouldn’t advise trying to make your own), and it has a rich taste and buttery texture—no strange gritty bits and funky aftertaste. It’s super easy to use, high in protein, and rich in healthy monounsaturated fats. For some, almond flour can be just a bit heavy, so one trick I use is to add a tablespoon or two of arrowroot powder. This can lighten up a cake or bread recipe quite nicely. (Cocoa powder also works.) Almond flour is optimal for cookies as well as breading fish sticks, chicken fingers, and piccatas.
>>Coconut flour is coconut meat that is finely ground after it has been dehydrated. Again, I would advise purchasing online, rather than attempting to make your own. Coconut flour is light and fluffy and full of fiber. Because of this it soaks up a ton of moisture and requires ratios of wet-to-dry that are extremely high (which makes some people think there are typos in my recipes). Coconut flour is best for cakes, muffins, and bread.
>>Chia flour is finely ground chia seeds. You can buy it at any health-food store or make your own in a high-speed blender. This flour is a superfood, high in protein and fiber. It is also one of the only vegetarian sources of omega-3s. I use chia flour in combination with almond or coconut flours to make deliciously nutty tasting, dense, European-style breads. It’s also a good binder in baked goods.
>>Flax meal is a nutritious powerhouse of compounds that are anti-inflammatory and prevent heart disease and lower cholesterol. When I want a recipe to have a nutty, “whole grain” type of flavor, I use flax meal. It’s fabulous in breads, healthy tasting crusts, and “bran” muffins.
Elena’s Note: Readers often ask if they can use their own recipes and substitute gluten-free flours for wheat flour, one-to-one. I wish it were that easy. There’s a science to using these flours; I’ve been known to test a single recipe as many as 40 times before I get it right. So it’s best to stick to gluten-free-specific recipes.
Check out some of our gluten-free recipes:
By Elana Amsterdam