Intolerance to Gluten and Lactose

Imagine you are at a restaurant, hungry as a horse.  The menu options are immediately reduced from 15 dishes to 5 because many of the dishes obviously contain lactose, the sugar in milk, or gluten, the protein found in grains like wheat and rye. Three of the remaining dishes which begin to tantalise your taste buds are thickened with flour.  I could tell them it is not necessary to use wheat flour to thicken a sauce or stew, corn flour is a perfectly good thickener, or to simply reduce the sauce until it thickens.  I am sure my comments would not be welcomed so I force myself to keep quiet, leaving me with one, perhaps two dishes which I can eat. Now I have attracted unwanted attention, for a condition which many think is a figment of one’s imagination, “the invisible symptom attitude”.  If you cannot see anything wrong, there is nothing wrong.  How I wish the brain fog, mucus, weight-gain, lethargy, lack of concentration, bloating, along with a whole host of other negative effects were not real. It would make life a lot more bearable for my health and easier on bank balance. 

It began around 30 years ago. I saw a nutritionist who diagnosed me as lactose intolerant.  I gave up everything containing all traces of lactose; milk, cheese, butter yoghurt and cream.  Reading the labels on the packaging is when you begin to realise how much lactose is hidden in food produce, amongst other horrors which one begins to observe. There is an abundance of chemicals in processed foods, also, preservatives, colourants and flavour enhancers, not to mention the high salt and/or sugar content. 

Whilst I was beginning to feel somewhat better, I still did not feel in optimum health. After a few years of continuing to feel some of the symptoms of lactose intolerance, I went to a health centre which tested for a range of common food intolerances plus allergies to typical household products. I was a little anxious before receiving the results of the tests because the thought of eliminating another food item from my diet was daunting.  However, the impact of an intolerance on your well-being means one is not living one’s best life, the body is not functioning as well as it should, it is damaging your intestines. There is a tendency to live with a deteriorating body, believing it to be part of the ageing process. It is definitely worthwhile investigating further to see if a healthier body and mind is an option.  We deserve to be in the best health possible, despite the natural ageing process. 

The tests came back,’ intolerant to gluten’. I felt a little deflated. After a great deal of reflection, I eventually came to terms with the challenges I now faced. I could continue to feel defeated or I could embrace the changes. I began to seek alternatives for; bread, pasta, cakes.  There are items which obviously contain gluten, wheat flour, but there are other products which are not quite as obvious, like soy sauce, gravy powder, stock cubes, and soups. Soya sauce, being made of soya, does not immediately suggest it contains gluten, but it does, as do many other Chinese sauces, for which there are now many gluten-free alternatives available.  I have only just discovered that beer is often made with wheat, also that hops contain gluten.  I rarely drink alcohol but I used to enjoy a cold beer, on a shaded terrace, in the swelteringly hot Madrid summers.   I had brain fog after drinking beer which I presumed was because of the alcohol, it was not. Yet another pleasure has been cruelly extracted from my world. I still rarely drink alcohol but my new guilty pleasure is, “Tinto de Verano”, wine with lemon juice and slices of citrus fruits. 

In the ensuing years I became more serious about eliminating everything from my diet which could cause harm. The occasional  ice-cream was delicious in its moment but the consequences of that moment were beginning to take their toll on both my health and well-being. Suddenly, there is a need to question every food selection, plus suffering uncomfortable symptoms when the diet is not quite gluten or lactose-free. Many alternative products are now freely available, however, forty years ago that was not the case.  Even today, gluten-free products do not always taste great or have the correct consistency, bread often has a cardboard-like texture. Tasty Gluten-free pasta is one product which I have managed to find for a good many years. On one of many trips to Italy, I discovered that gluten-free pasta, macaroni and lasagne were widely available.  It makes perfect sense that one of Italy's staple foods would need a gluten-free alternative, but you need to be careful with the sauces if you need them to be lactose-free.  As in Spain, Italian families often dine out in huge groups.  This means, if one person in the group is intolerant or allergic to a food item but the restaurant cannot cater to those needs, the whole party will need to seek an alternative venue.  Businesses which are aware of this fact soon make options available for those who need an alternative choice, or want one, like vegans or vegetarians. Not everybody who chooses to eliminate gluten or lactose from their diet has food intolerances, many eliminate these foods from their diet for health reasons.

Eating out and finding snack foods has proved to be the biggest challenge. Awareness of intolerances has improved over the last forty years but knowledge of intolerances is still limited, unless the restaurant specialises in unique dietary requirements, this limits you to ‘tried and trusted’ venues. 

A dear friend of mine recently came to Madrid to meet her daughter, who had never been to Madrid.  We booked a table in a restaurant called “El Jacinto”, very close to “Plaza España”.   It was a cute restaurant hidden in the back streets of the old district of Madrid, built in the original architectural style,  a delightful place to eat. I was overjoyed to see my friend and meet her daughter. I had ordered mushrooms with cured ham as a starter, followed by lamb cutlets. I was disappointed with my dish. As well as having limited choices, I was given a plate of lamb cutlets with some rice, not a vegetable nor a sauce in sight. The dish did not correspond to its cost, which has happened to me so many times I now think twice before agreeing to eat at a restaurant.

My friend and her daughter ordered the Cocido Madrileño, which would have been my choice if I could have been certain the chorizo and the morcilla were gluten-free.  When the soup which is served with cocido arrived, I was reminded that it is sprinkled with noodles, which are not gluten-free.  Once we had finished eating I noticed there was a great deal of uneaten Cocido. I was going to take it home for myself because I had now been assured the chorizo and morcilla were both gluten and lactose-free, until the waiter pointed out that it had been cooked with a huge chunk of bread, which I may not have noticed had it not been brought to my attention. I could not bear the thought of the food going to waste.  I took the remaining food home for a friend, who really enjoyed it, and had never before tried this typical dish from Madrid.

Here we are, in 2024, too many years since the first intolerance diagnosis. Although a lot of progress has been made in creating products to cater for food intolerances, plus a much greater awareness, I still feel that eating in restaurants often leaves me feeling both hungry and cheated. 

I have completely changed the way I purchase, prepare and eat food. As mentioned earlier, one’s growing awareness of traces of food which you are intolerant to in processed food, plus, added toxins, sugars and salt makes one either eliminate the offending products from the diet or prepare everything at home. This leads me to share my journey with you.  I will be posting many delicious gluten and lactose- free recipes which I have adapted to my own personal taste.  There is no lack of available food in the world, my waste-line is living proof of this.  One needs to adapt the diet accordingly, though, which is never a bad thing in a world where processed foods are ever more common and freely available, killing us so slowly we are often not even conscious of our symptoms or their underlying causes.