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My Path to Gluten-Freedom (Plus an Almond Milk Yogurt Review and Vegan Lunch Boxes)

Posted Sep 09 2011 10:21pm

by Ali Seiter

As my first week of senior year nears a close, so too does the maiden voyage of my vegan lunch vessel (a snazzy black neoprene tote by Built). I highlighted the recipes I prepared on Sunday to ameliorate the panicked “What ever shall I pack for lunch tomorrow?” nightly self-inquiry in my last post, but how, you may ask, do I combine hummus, baked tofu, barley, and roasted beets to produce a satisfying and nutritious lunch? Answer: in a unstressful 10-minute assembly aided by fresh produce from the handy dandy refrigerator.

Take Tuesday’s lunch for example. Satisfying my tri-daily necessity of greens, I whipped out a giant kale leaf from the omnipresent bag of leafy vegetables in my fridge (courtesy of Driftless Organics). Shmeared with Sunday-made sundried tomato hummus and roasted beets plus a quick julienne of carrots from Harmony Valley Farm, a crunchy and deliciously messy kale wrap sat expectantly in Tupperware (my best friend), waiting to fall into my belly and fulfill its lunchtime destiny. A small container of sauerkraut (gotta love those probiotics), a slice each of my Quinoa Banana Bread and Almond-Hemp Banana Bread, and 1/2 an avocado accompanied the kale wrap to produce a hassle-free, quick, and yummy lunch.

Kale plus hummus...

...plus roasted beets and carrots...

...equals kale wrap! Culinary vegan magic.

Meal Checklist: Protein–hummus and avocado. Whole Grain–quinoa and oat flour in breads. Vegetables–beets, carrots. Leafy Greens–kale, cabbage (sauerkraut).

Perhaps a look at Monday’s lunch will offer a bit of insight as well: Harmony Valley salad mix, cooked barley, roasted beets, avocado, and balsamic tofu with shallots and cherry tomatoes layered in Tupperware in such an order with a side of sauerkraut.

Meal Checklist: Protein–tofu. Whole Grain–barley. Vegetables–beets, avocado, tomatoes, shallots. Leafy Greens–mixed salad greens, cabbage (sauerkraut).

Not one of this week’s lunches demanded more than 15 minutes of my precious homework/gymnastics/yoga/sleep time. Mission accomplished! I wonder what culinary aides to simplify the lunch-making process I’ll cook up (hey, a pun!) next week?

Onto my next thrilling topic of almond milk yogurt. Like so many vegan bloggers I’ve found, I ate a fair amount of yogurt before ceding dairy—greek yogurt, in particular. After the happy switch, I honestly did not long for a spoonful of thick creamy animal mucus (aka yogurt), even though it had played a common role in my daily lunches. However, in assimilation to the vegan diet, I explored a good chunk of the wide vegan product realm: tempeh, seitan, miso, soy milk, and soy yogurt. I easily warmed up to each of the first four…and immediately rejected the fifth. Perhaps I set too high of a standard, but the mock yogurt tasted incredibly sour, even for a fermented food, not to mention that most brands of soy yogurt contain sugar, evaporated cane juice, and the like. After shunning the vegan version of cultured milk for a full year, my Italian uncle bought me a large container of soy yogurt in an incredibly kind, though not particularly pleasing, gesture while I lived in Florence with him and my aunt. Humoring him and feeling obliged, I sampled the yogurt hesitantly…and didn’t spit it out! Why can the Italians produce all food infinitely better than Americans? In any case, I’ve slightly opened my negative mindset towards vegan yogurt, though remain skeptical.

Last week as I perused the Willy Street Coop, a small blue container in the refrigerated vegan foods section caught my eye—blueberry almond milk yogurt. A scan of the ingredient label introduced almond milk, blueberries, fruit juice, rice starch, locust bean (car0b) gum, pectin, and tapioca. Okay, no sugar, great. I mulled over the last few ingredients and decided they passed the non-chemical, natural test, though I didn’t feel wholly comfortable with any of them. I tossed the container in my cart on an experimental whim, won over by its probiotic content (I’m such a sucker for that good bacteria).

 

The verdict? Too sweet. Too gummy. Granted, I pureed the yogurt into a morning smoothie which may have muffled its true character, but its cloying sweetness still managed to shine through the kale, strawberries, and banana in the smoothie. Blech. Living on the Vedge reviewed Amande as well, mentioning its lack of calcium and protein. “You’d be better off drinking a glass of almond milk or snacking on a handful of almonds,” she correctly asserts. Perhaps Tempt will launch a new line of hemp milk yogurt or American soy yogurt will stop tasting disgusting, but in the meantime, I’ll rest content living a soy-and-almond-milk-yogurt-free life.

Now for the main point of discussion: a gluten-free diet. Barley, bulgur, durham, farina, graham flour, kamut, matzo meal, rye, semolina, spelt, and wheat all naturally contain gluten while the majority of processed foods do as well. Previously, only those diagnosed with celiac disease who experience intenstinal inflammation when digesting gluten severely restricted their gluten intake, though many health-conscious vegans and omnivores alike have recently begun to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle, such as Caitlin on The Vegan Chickpea, Michelle and Lori on Pure 2 Raw, and Allyson on Manifest Vegan (Allyson does have celiac, but her blog remains one of the most popular vegan gluten-free blogs around). They and countless others attested to poor digestion, fatigue, bloating, and weight fluctuations while including gluten in their diets, experiencing revelations once they shunned the seemingly harmless protein.

In my shockingly skinny days before adopting veganism, I severely restricted calories thus also diminishing vital nutrients including digestive enzymes. Experiencing daily bloating, constipation, and gassiness, I felt fat (even though my skeletal body resembled anything but) and therefore ate less, further inhibiting my enzyme intake. Six months later and twenty pounds gaunter, I began my vegan journey in an attempt to reconnect with food as a friend rather than an arch-enemy; if I could feel truly good about the food I ate with the knowledge that every bite nourished my body, perhaps I could eliminate the unnecessary guilt I associated with eating. My new eating habits abounded in the staple foods of a vegan diet: leafy greens, whole grains, and plenty of beans. Well…a large portion of leafy greens belong to the cruciferous vegetable family, all members of which contain high amounts of cellulose, rendering them incredibly difficult for the body to break down (especially raw). Beans don’t recieve their famous reputation of “musical fruits” for nothing, seeing as they require a certain enzyme not found in the normal human digestive tract—bacteria in the large intestine must break down this beany enzyme, producing gas. Finally, whole grains contributed potential gluten to my diet, a protein commonly associated with digestive issues, as discussed previously.

Lack of digestive enzymes: check. Frequent consumption of digestively unfriendly foods: check. To further worsen my already extremely prevalent tummy troubles, my doctor prescribed a regimen of power-eating (Read: 3,000+ calories per day) for me to gain back thirteen pounds and reach a healthy weight. An enormous amount of fiber-rich foods plus an already compromised digestive system equals lots and lots of undigested grossness clogging up the colon, not to mention creating one gassy, bloated, and downright irritable Ali.

After three months of suffering and constantly feeling like an eating machine full to bursting with food, I gained back the weight (saving myself honestly from near death), gained back my happiness, and gained back my life free of an unhealthy obsession with food. Not surprisingly, my digestion also improved: for one, my new non-restrictive vegan diet supplied plenty of digestive enzymes while for two, I didn’t have to cram food into my stomach to the point over-satiation anymore.

However, I still experienced unwanted flatulence and occasional constipation. Probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut and Kombucha flooded my intestines with bacterial flora to wash out the food-junk built up in there and greatly ameliorated the gas, but my stomach firmly complained after certain meals. Consulting my mother, she referred to a magazine article and warned that eating a diet very low in gluten can potentially cause a gluten intolerance, recalling my rare consumption of bread and gluten-rich whole grains (I immediately jumped on the quinoa, brown rice, and buckwheat bandwagons after becoming vegan). I began paying careful attention to the gurglings of my tummy depths after each meal, especially those containing gluteny foods, to uncover the gassy culprit. Indeed, a pattern emerged: I felt more discomfort after eating whole-wheat bread at restaurants, non-gluten-free oats for breakfast, farro (aka spelt) salads in Italy, and, most recently, barley in my lunch.

Thus, I’ve decided to drastically reduce my gluten consumption. As much as I adore them, I plan on straying from barley, kamut, and farro as my staple whole grains, reverting back to my affair with quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, and amaranth. I’ll also switch to tamari instead of soy sauce, or stick to my Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. Frankly, I don’t think I’ll find the transition too difficult seeing as I hardly ever eat wheat bread or white flour while I haven’t ingested processed junk foods (which often contain gluten) for over two years.

Yet, I’ll make a couple exceptions, seeing as I don’t have celiac disease and moderate amounts of gluten on occasion will only cause mild discomfort. 1.) Ceding my Cress Spring Bakery breakfast bars compares to a mother losing her newborn baby. A small dose of rye and barley once a week certainly won’t tamper too much with my digestion. 2.) I adore a good sandwich as a special treat when eating out (such as at Monty’s or the Mermaid Cafe), even though they only offer whole-wheat bread. 3.) Again when eating at restaurants, I often consider myself lucky if the eating establishment offers any sort of whole grain at all. I’d rather fill in the “whole grain” box on my checklist with the farro at Merchant than skimp on my meal preferences away from home.

I’ll keep you updated on my journey into the gluten-free world as a delve deeper.

Comment Provoking Questions: Have you ever considered going gluten-free? Have you paid attention to how you feel after eating gluten? Do you know anyone with celiac disease? How do you feel about soy yogurt?

Until next time, Ali.

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