Entering the Hummus Bar in midtown Manhattan, I knew this was going to be the most challenging moment of my weeklong gluten-free experiment.
I’ve been in love with hummus for years. When I lived in Tel Aviv, at least three times a week I ate a plate of the chickpea dish for lunch. I never needed a fork or a spoon — only a pair of fresh pitas, which I used to wipe the plate clean of my beloved dip. Unfortunately, while hummus does not contain gluten, the inevitable pita is a celiac patient’s worst nightmare. The woman behind the counter was not rattled when I asked if there were alternatives to go with my hummus. She offered carrot sticks or broccoli. I eyed the tray of freshly baked wheat delights and took the veggies.
Suppressing cravings and compromising desires turned out to be the theme of my gluten-free experience, which lasted seven days but felt like a month.
I didn’t do it for fun. I had recently learned I might develop celiac disease, a condition in which the lining of the small intestine is inflamed and damaged and can no longer absorb some important nutrients. Gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye, triggers the disease, causing weight loss, bloating and digestive problems. Over time, celiac can deprive organs such as the brain and liver of vital nourishment.
Last year, my mother was diagnosed with celiac. Though she had consumed gluten her whole life, only at age 60 did she start having severe stomach pains and bloating, which have abated on a gluten-free diet.
Because the children of celiac sufferers are 10 times more likely to develop celiac, her doctors said my siblings and I should have our blood tested and that we should be genetically screened for the disease, even if we were not showing symptoms. What turns on the disease in people with a genetic susceptibility is not known, but experts agree that excessive gluten consumption is a factor.
And so, even before being tested, I decided to get a taste of what the rest of my life could be like, without the familiar flavors of pitas, bagels and challah. In my regular diet, which is non-kosher and 90% vegetarian, I eat wheat products at least once a day. Typically, in a hasty break from work, I’ll grab a sandwich or two slices of pizza (sometimes three). But as I learned from Alessio Fasano, medical director of the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, gluten isn’t just in the obvious suspects. It’s added to a wide range of processed products, from ice cream to candies to schnitzels. “You add chicken or soy sauce to your meal, and you are eating gluten without even knowing it,” said Fasano, who charges the American food industry with overusing the protein. “The overall amount of gluten that you eat today is probably more than in the past.”
That might be contributing to the rising number of people with celiac, which has quadrupled since the 1950s. At least one percent of Americans has been diagnosed with the disease, and many more are undetected. According to a 2012 article by Fasano, it also seems to be spreading wherever Western lifestyles are adopted, though researchers aren’t sure why. A 2008 study by professors at the University of Tampere in Finland compared the incidence of celiac in two towns on the Russian–Finnish border, where the populations share the same ancestry and consume the same grain products, but live in completely different socioeconomic environments. The more developed Finnish town had a much higher prevalence of celiac patients.
“There is something about human development — the way we eat, the medication we take — that has led to increasing autoimmune conditions,” said Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, referring to celiac as well as to type 1 diabetes.