Sandra Pelland of Rockland is a princess — a “gluten-free princess,” to be precise. Or so it says on a T-shirt she wears proudly, in effect proclaiming that she has celiac disease and is finding healthy eating alternatives to deal with it.
Pelland is a member of the South Shore chapter of Healthy Villi, a support and advocacy group for New England’s celiac community. They meet at Whole Foods Market in Hingham on the fourth Thursday of each month at 7 p.m., to swap eating tips, talk about gluten-free living, and discuss where to find food that won’t wreak havoc with their digestive systems.
“I found this wonderful new flour, called Cup4Cup, but you can only get it at Williams-Sonoma,” Pelland said to the group recently. “It’s really good.”
Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune condition, with no known cause and no cure; sufferers can only adjust their diet to avoid symptoms. When people with celiac eat food containing gluten — a protein found in all forms of wheat, rye, barley, and triticale — it spurs the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine, damaging the villi, which are tiny, finger-like projections on the intestinal wall.
Once damaged, the small intestine doesn’t allow food to be properly absorbed. Sticking to a gluten-free diet allows the villi to recover.
I was diagnosed with celiac six years ago, and most recently had a scorching case of canker sores, which occurs every 15 or so years. A rheumatologist in Raynham told me that can be a result of my failure to stay on a gluten-free diet.
Meeting with the members of the South Shore chapter of Healthy Villi was most helpful in sharing ideas and commiserating on what it’s like to live with a disease that forces drastic changes in eating, which includes being careful about bread, pasta, cookies, and other items made of flour created from things like rice, corn, potatoes, and tapioca.
“There are a lot of support groups in New England for celiac, but we’re the largest,” said Lee Graham, president of Healthy Villi and a celiac sufferer, as she munched on gluten-free cookies and organic peanut butter cups at Whole Foods. “We provide something the little groups can’t, and they provide things we can’t. We’re all one family. We’re all in the same boat.”
I learned about places that cater to those with celiac, including Depot Street Market in Duxbury, where shoppers can buy complete gluten-free meals to take home.
Others include Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, grocery chains with extensive gluten-free offerings and a handout for shoppers listing them all.
There’s also Good Health Natural Foods in Hanover and Quincy, small, independent stores with a huge range of gluten-free and organic foods, as well as vitamins and other supplements.
The Hanover Good Health store is where I was recently advised to try a probiotic to help combat my digestive issues, and along with staying gluten-free, it has worked remarkably well.
Liza North’s children were diagnosed with celiac after she fought with doctors for more testing.
“I said, ‘This is ridiculous; something’s making them sick.’ My daughter wasn’t growing properly. She had digestive issues,” said North, a Norwell resident. “They blamed irritable bowel syndrome, upped her medications, and did other things. She was 9 — to go through all that was crazy.” Now North’s daughter and other children live a gluten-free existence, she said.
“You have to be your own advocate; you have to push back if you’re not getting anywhere,” she said.
Members of the group said an unofficial way of testing is to go on a gluten-free diet for a couple of weeks. If symptoms clear up, chances are you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, which should then be confirmed by medical diagnosis.
The group also discussed restaurants with gluten-free menus, including Not Your Average Joe’s.
Nearby was a restaurant that members of the group raved about, Burtons Grill in the Derby Street Shoppes plaza, which has the most extensive gluten-free menu I have ever seen, and where every few months, they have one night offering only gluten-free meals.
“We serve 100 to 150 meals a day just for people dealing with food-related conditions, and by far, most are gluten-free meals,” said the restaurant’s general manager, Stephen Slicis, adding that some diners who aren’t celiac sufferers still eat gluten-free because it’s healthier.
“When we find out a diner has celiac, we send a manager to them to discuss options and assure them we cook all gluten-free items in a separate area to avoid cross-contamination,” Slicis said.
I had lunch at Burtons one day and was happy to see a menu offering gluten-free pasta, a rarity even in Italian chain restaurants I’ve visited.
I had a delicious corn-flour dusted fried calamari ($12), a salmon BLT ($13) and gluten-free Redbridge beer ($5.25). The salmon came on a tasty toasted gluten-free roll that I defy anyone to differentiate from one made with wheat.
Awareness of celiac disease is increasing, and Healthy Villi is sponsoring a gluten-free expo on Oct. 21 at Four Points Sheraton in Norwood, where there will be 85 vendors doling out samples and selling gluten-free products, as well as workshops about gluten-free baking and nutrition, and traveling and eating out gluten-free, Graham said.
As awareness increases, so do gluten-free food alternatives. North said in the three years since her last child was diagnosed, “the number of places serving gluten-free food is amazing.”
“We can be picky now about where we eat,” Graham added, “where before we couldn’t.”