Living was queasy until pair went grain-free

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      The holidays mean parties, which inevitably mean stuffing yourself with stuffing, not to mention mince tarts, chocolates, and gingerbread. Sounds swell, unless you happen to have a digestive disorder. For those with serious stomach problems, some foods induce nothing but frequent trips to the loo.

      Jodi Bager and Jenny Lass can relate. The authors of Grain-Free Gourmet: Delicious Recipes for Healthy Living (Whitecap, $26.95) know all about intestinal illnesses: Lass has celiac disease, and Bager suffers from ulcerative colitis. But they also both happen to love grub. For the Toronto pals, finding dishes they could consume without doubling over in pain was driven as much by the need for physical well-being as it was the desire to relish in simple pleasures. And the women claim that the principles around which their cookbook is based can help anyone with colon complications, even at Christmastime.

      Before discovering a nutritional approach that suited them, Lass and Bager both found themselves dreading meals. "Everything you put in your mouth becomes suspect," Lass says in a conference call from Toronto, explaining that food often resulted in uncomfortable symptoms. Bager jumps in: "Anything could cause a reaction or lead to undesirable effects, so you'd just rather not eat."

      Celiac disease is an autoimmune intestinal disorder in people who are genetically susceptible. The Studio City, California-based Celiac Disease Foundation explains on its Web site ( that an immunologically toxic reaction to gluten damages the small intestine's mucosal surface, resulting in an inability to absorb certain nutrients. Gluten is a protein found in cereal grains like wheat (including durum, semolina, and spelt), as well as rye, barley, and triticale. Lass regularly experienced cramps, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, and had low bone mass, a condition called osteopenia.

      Ulcerative colitis, meanwhile, involves the inflammation of the inner layer of the colon, or large bowel. Signs include severe and bloody diarrhea, painful cramps, fatigue, and loss of appetite and weight, according to Toronto's Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada (www.ccfc .ca/). Bager considered three hours without having to run to the washroom as a good stretch.

      The two had each tried eliminating gluten from their diets, with limited success. Eventually, they encountered the "specific-carbohydrate diet", developed in the early 20th century by New York doctor Sydney Valentine Haas, who specialized in treating people with celiac disease. The meal plan only became well-known a decade ago, when New Jersey mom Elaine Gottschall self-published Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet. As a toddler, her daughter was so ill with ulcerative colitis that she stopped growing, and their doctor urged the little girl's parents to have her colon removed. Gottschall refused. After she stumbled across the specific-carbohydrate diet, her child's health slowly began to improve. According to the Web site dedicated to Gottschall and the SCD (, the diet can help not only people with gastrointestinal conditions like diverticulitis (in which pouches in the colon become inflamed) and Crohn's disease (a chronic inflammatory bowel disease) but also those with autism and cystic fibrosis.

      The regimen incorporates only simple, not complex, carbohydrates. Followers cut out grains, starches, refined sugars, and processed foods, and the only milk product they consume is homemade yogurt. "That still leaves fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, protein, and honey," Bager says.

      "It's a nutrient-dense diet," Lass adds. "There's also a lot of fibre and calcium and vitamins. Spaghetti squash, which we use instead of pasta, is off the charts in vitamins A and C and it's also high in vitamin B.

      "We live in a grain-centric society," she continues. "Grains are great if you can digest them. But just because these foods don't have grains and are easy to digest doesn't mean they're gross."

      The secret to many of the duo's goods is simple: almond flour instead of wheat flour and honey instead of sugar. Lass is quick to reassure those who might worry about the nut's fat content. "You don't need to be terrified," she says. Almonds are high in monounsaturated fat (the "good" fat), plus they contain fibre and vitamin E.

      But if all this talk about healthy eating brings to mind a life lacking flavour, think again.

      "People who've tried this diet say they really get to taste the beauty of the food," Bager says. "You're not masking things. You can taste the nuts, fruits, herbs, spices, cinnamon, nutmeg; everything is natural. The ingredients are in your own pantry. We make minor twists on regular recipes."

      What's especially striking about the recipes in Grain-Free Gourmet is the inventiveness. Pizza and tacos show up, the former's crust made of almond flour, and the latter's shell formed by slices of provolone cheese. Pancakes are whipped up with grated apple, quiche Lorraine has a crust of zucchini and Parmesan cheese. The slippery things that show up in a "pasta" dish are actually pieces of squid, and burgers are served on "buns" made of grilled portobello mushrooms.

      For holiday treats, try anything from sweet and spicy squash soup to sand cookies, they suggest, or cranberry muffins, perfect for Christmas morning.

      Cranberry Muffins

      3 cups almond flour

      í‚ ½ tsp baking soda

      í‚ ¼ tsp salt

      1 tsp ground cinnamon

      1 í‚ ½ cups fresh or frozen cranberries

      í‚ ½ tsp pure vanilla extract

      í‚ ½ cup honey

      3 eggs

      Heat the oven to 325í‚ °F. Line a muffin tin with large baking cups. Combine almond flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a bowl. In a separate bowl mix cranberries, vanilla, honey, and eggs. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix well. Evenly fill each baking cup with batter. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes.

      From the book, Grain-Free Gourmet: Delicious Recipes for Healthy Living by Jodi Bager and Jenny Lass, published by Whitecap Books. Reprinted by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.