Food for thought
three Klang Valley-based families talk about why they opted for gluten-free meals for themselves or their children.
LINA Esa, 43, and her husband Rickard Oberg, 36, a Swedish software engineer working in Malaysia, started on the gluten-free diet about a year ago.
“What started it was very interesting as both my husband and I went through a detox period of two weeks, after which we flew to Sweden. There we had pizza and Swedish ‘sandwich cake’ that was made from wheat.
“Then he got really ill – severe headache and dizziness. He had to lie down almost the entire day. We made a quick Google search on the symptoms and suspected that he was gluten-intolerant.
“Then he was put on a gluten-free diet for several days. After that he took some wheat-based food. Again, he fell ill. So we sort of confirmed that he is gluten-intolerant,” she recalls.
Lina finds gluten-free meals are not that hard to whip up.
“The usual suspects such as bread, pasta, noodles, crackers, pizza and so on are obvious. The bigger problem is the ‘hidden’ ingredients in many semi-prepared foods. So we had to read up on how to understand ingredients and food labelling, and in so doing, found so much more about food that we would never have otherwise!
“We found out about the problems with MSG (mono sodium glutamate), aspartame, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), colouring, and many more things. Apart from avoiding gluten we also learned to avoid all of those things.
“In the end, it comes down to making home-cooked meals based on raw ingredients, rather than using pre-prepared canned food. As a rule of thumb, anything that has more than 10 ingredients is probably not healthy,” she says.
A typical meal for the family of five – including their three children aged 16, 15 and 10 – comprises meat (steaks, minced meat, bone parts, liver, chicken), seafood (prawns, scallops, white fish, some salmon) and various vegetables (asparagus, garlic, tomato, onion, some salad, bok choy or Chinese cabbage).
For flour, they use tapioca, corn and buckwheat flour. They avoid dairy as much as possible (as it contains a morphine-like component as well as a gluten-like substance), but they found that goat’s milk-based products are fine. They use coconut milk as a replacement for milk, butter and ghee instead of margarine and vegetable oils.
“With all this, there is an endless amount of excellent food you can make, and it won’t make you sick, obese or mentally unstable!” Lina says.
One of the family’s favourite recipes is chili con carne, which is minced meat with garlic, onion, capsicum, tomato puree, sambal, fresh tomatoes and baked beans. They also like buckwheat pancakes with salad on top, grilled salmon with hollandaise sauce and asparagus, and more.
“With what we now know,” says Lina, “my husband becoming gluten-intolerant was probably one of the best things that could have happened to us. Some people believe that gluten may cause (or trigger) many things, including chronic fatigue, joint pains, bloating, nausea, weight gain, tinnitus, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, autism, ADD (attention deficit disorder), depression, epilepsy, irritable bowel syndrome, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and so on.
“Gluten-sensitivity is like the body’s alarm system that says ‘Don’t eat this, it will kill you!’ For most people this alarm system has been turned off, as the body is so fatigued with autoimmune problems (joint pains, for example) caused by gluten and other things like dairy and sugar.
“When my husband’s body healed up enough because of the detox, it got enough strength to resist gluten once it was introduced again. That is definitely a good thing. We would not go back to our previous eating habits, and we are feeling much better now, as many of the things listed above (like joint pains and chronic fatigue) are no longer issues with us.”
Lina suggests reading up on the vast resources available online, particularly anything on the Paleo diet (which is a way of eating that follows how our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate – lean meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and nuts) as it explains quite well why gluten is a problem, and what to do instead.
Playing it safe
When Celine Yong’s only child Yan Kai was about one, he was very active. With her family’s history in autism, she started him on a gluten-free diet – just to be on the safe side – though usually autism is not diagnosed until a child is two.
“I could see the change immediately – he was more focused and stable after a few days into the gluten-free diet,” she says.
Yan Kai, now four, was on a strict glutenfree diet until he was two, when Yong was certain he wasn’t autistic. Between the ages of two and three, his diet was still mostly free of gluten.
“However, as he grows older, I want to expose him to a variety of foods, and he also started having lunch at his play school at three, so he is only on a partial gluten-free diet now. His follow-up milk is still glutenfree, as are most of his biscuits, cereals and pasta,” she says.
Yong, 40, an editor, reckons gluten-free cooking is not hard.
“In fact, if you are cooking a Chinese meal from scratch, with fresh ingredients and natural seasoning, they are mostly gluten- free. Rice is gluten-free. For breakfast, you can easily get a good selection of cereals from the organic store. Lunch and dinner will be mostly porridge and rice with vegetables, fish and meat. For Western meals, it will be gluten-free pasta in home-made tomato sauce,” she says.
Yan Kai’s snacks consist of mostly fruits. Yong is happy with the increased choices of gluten-free dried foods as compared to three or four years ago. But eating out is still quite a challenge.
“We used to travel with all his frozen food to Cameron Highlands and even to Cherating beach (Pahang).
“And when we eat out, we will pack his meal along, so I don’t think Yan Kai ever really ate out until after he was two-and-a-half. He only had his first taste of Oreo biscuits when he was about four!” she remembers.
When her son was diagnosed with autism at age three, T.S. Chong learnt from medical journals and the Defeat Autism Now (DAN) society the severity of two forms of protein in children who cannot digest them – casein and gluten. And usually, autistic children are the ones who lack the enzyme to digest these two proteins.
“We didn’t immediately do a casein-free, gluten-free diet for him,” says the 40-something mother of one, whose son is now 19.
“We started him on a gluten-free diet when he was five, and a year later, we also took out casein completely. Not only do the foods that contain these proteins not help them in their growth and advancement, but also bring harm to them.”
Fourteen years ago, finding gluten-free products on the shelf was certainly harder than it is now. Chong had to make extra efforts to make sure her son’s diet was such. She would pack his food if he was going out over mealtimes. Even when they went on holidays, she would bring a rice cooker to boil his food and pack snacks.
It was difficult as he had to forgo things like bread, biscuits, cakes and ice cream. But she says she was glad she started him young and instilled in him a certain discipline about food.
“It would be harder if he was older when we started the gluten-free, casein-free diet. Also, whenever he had cake, he would feel unwell, so he has learnt to avoid it as well.”
The meals Chong makes for him now contain mostly rice, rice noodles, porridge and gluten-free cookies she bakes herself, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and meat. The key is to have fresh food rather than processed food.
Since he’s been gluten-and casein-free, the boy hasn’t struggled much with health issues and allergy reactions. He is also calmer, happier and less irritable.
Healthy eating: Lina esa and rickard Oberg with their kids, darren azim, 10 (on Lina’s lap), Farah deanna, 15, and azfar daniel, 16. the family is feeling better with their changed diet.
Going gluten-free has helped celine yong’s son, yan Kai, to be more focused.