By Jennifer Solis
---- — Living a gluten-free lifestyle is sort of like being pregnant — because you can’t do it just a little bit.
And yet West Newbury author Beth Atkinson — whose latest book on the subject, “Gluten-Free in 60 Minutes,” is now available as an e-book — says she is continually amazed by how many times she’s heard people say they are trying to follow a “more gluten-free” diet.
“They don’t realize that it doesn’t work that way. You can’t just be gluten-free sometimes,” Atkinson said. “You can’t do it halfway. It’s a 100 percent commitment, and it doesn’t happen overnight.”
The writer’s primary focus has always been preteen fiction infused with lovable, slightly over-the-top characters who learn to embrace their quirkiness despite the dreaded peer pressures of their middle school years.
Popular with the “tween” demographic, her books “From Alice to Zen” and “I, Emma Freke” have won numerous writing recognitions and awards. Atkinson is currently working on her first story written from the perspective of a preteen boy.
After the publisher of her first nonfiction book, “Glee! An Easy Guide to Gluten-Free Independence” (2009), went out of business, Atkinson started receiving emails from people asking where else they might get a copy of it. This, coupled with her dismay over the amount of misinformation in cyberspace about gluten-free living, prompted her to take on what she describes as “a labor of love.” She simplified and condensed all the tips from “Glee” into one succinct manual, and she published it in an easy-to-access digital format.
“As a parent of a child with severe gluten sensitivity, I know firsthand how overwhelming — even paralyzing — the lifestyle can be when starting out,” she said. “So I wrote the book I wished I could have read the day my daughter was diagnosed.”
To make sure she is offering the most up-to-date advice, Atkinson approached two giants in the field — dietitian Tricia Thompson, a world-renowned expert in celiac disease, and Jennifer Iscol, president of the Celiac Community Foundation of Northern California. She asked them to review her content and to give her a sense of what people today wanted to know about the challenges and pitfalls of gluten-free living. What she learned is that people often feel like they just don’t have time to navigate the confusing maze of dietary and nutritional information required to stay gluten-free.
These days, gluten — a storage protein in wheat, barley and rye — is found in more than just breads and cereals. It’s also hidden in many types of seasonings, marinades, gum, mints and other packaged food products commonly found on grocery store shelves.
If you’re among the 1 out of 133 Americans with the chronic autoimmune disorder celiac disease, or if, like Atkinson’s daughter, you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, eating or drinking anything with gluten can have painful — and sometimes serious — repercussions.
“For some people, just smelling the air in a bakery can be a problem,” Atkinson said.
If left undiagnosed, people with celiac disease can become malnourished because they lose the ability to absorb vitamins and nutrients. They suffer severe stomach pains and can even develop osteoporosis. Going gluten-free can drastically improve long-standing health problems with their digestion, joints and sleep patterns.
Atkinson’s first book on the topic was originally a homemade one she devised seven years ago as a resource to empower her own child heading off to college. “Glee” was full of tips and food lists to help daughter Madeleine navigate the daily trips to the college cafeteria, as well as the weekend dorm parties or spontaneous stops with friends for a bite at the local burger joint without feeling sick afterward.
“She called it ‘Mom in a Pocket,’” Atkinson said.
Pretty soon, friends who also had kids going off to college were asking her if they could have a copy of the guide, too.
“Food is completely intertwined with our social lives, and for young adults with gluten sensitivity, that can be awkward,” she said.
Atkinson’s updated version is more for a general population — for families with gluten-sensitive kids or people whose elderly parents have the condition. It tackles the do’s and don’ts of gluten-free living, everything from knowing what to look for on food labels at the local supermarket, to tips for dining out in restaurants and eating exotically while traveling, to successfully setting up a “Home Sweet Gluten-Free Home.” Atkinson’s daughter has her own cutting board, utensils, pots and toaster, as well as separate shelves in the kitchen to store her food.
“Gluten-Free in 60 Minutes” was published by Nevertheless Press, a local publishing collaborative for authors that Atkinson recently co-founded with friend and fellow writer Nancy Crochiere, a former Daily News columnist and author of “The Mother Load.”
The Amesbury collaborative offers independent writers a range of publishing services, including a unique imprint and logo, editorial and design services, and full-blown media campaigns. Atkinson sees the collaborative as a way for writers to access a substantial network of publishing professionals and to support each other in the ever-changing climate of the publishing industry.
A die-hard bibliophile, Atkinson admits that she was initially skeptical of the whole e-book phenomenon. But she has come to accept the new technology as a way to create more opportunities for writers. E-books are cheaper to produce and result in higher royalties for the author.
“I don’t think books will ever go away, but it really does open up the literary world,” she said.
The e-book format is particularly effective for books like hers, which can be downloaded onto a smartphone and read while waiting at the airport for a connector flight or pulled out as a quick reference while standing in line at the deli counter. It’s a resource that’s mindful of how real people may actually be using it.
At the end of the book is an appendix of gluten-free support groups and websites, as well as some tasty gluten-free recipes. But Atkinson is quick to stress: “This book is not a cookbook — it’s a survival guide.”
“Gluten-Free in 60 Minutes” can be ordered at www.neverthelesspress.com, www.amazon.com or www.elizabethatkinson.com.
Beth Atkinson shares three of her family’s favorite high-fiber, gluten-free recipes for the chilly season.
Easy banana nut muffins
Makes about 15 muffins
3 small (or 2 large) ripe bananas
1/3 cup healthy oil (such as canola or sunflower)
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup honey
1 large beaten egg
2 cups gluten-free baking flour (we prefer Pamela’s)
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup gluten-free chocolate chips, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill muffin tin with cupcake papers.
Mash the bananas in a bowl until creamy. Add the oil, sugar, honey and egg, and beat 30 seconds. Sift flour and baking powder into wet ingredients, and gently stir to combine. Fold in nuts and chocolate chips, if using.
Fill cupcake papers two-thirds full. Bake 25 minutes. Cool at least 5 minutes before removing from muffin tin.
Hearty black bean chili
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onions or leeks
1-3 cloves of finely chopped garlic
1/2 pound very lean ground meat (beef, bison or turkey)
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/3 cup dry wine
1/4 cup water
Chili powder to taste (from 1-4 tablespoons)
Salt and pepper
1 bag of fresh spinach
Prepared black turtle beans (see instructions below)
Prep: Soak 11/2 cups dry (uncooked) black turtle beans in a large pot of water overnight. Drain in a colander. Return to pot and cover with 2-3 inches of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer and stir occasionally until tender (approximately 50-60 minutes). Drain and set aside.
In a large pot, saute onions or leeks and garlic in olive oil until tender. Add lean meat, break up with a fork and saute until thoroughly cooked. Add tomatoes, wine, chili powder, salt, pepper and water, and bring to a low boil.
Stir in fresh spinach, and reduce heat. Once spinach is fully wilted, stir in beans (and more chili powder if you like) and cook on low heat for an hour.
Optional: Garnish with grated cheese and/or low-fat sour cream.
Creamy wild rice soup
1/3 cup wild rice
1 cup water
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 cup finely chopped carrots
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup gluten-free flour
5 cups whole milk (or Lactaid if lactose-intolerant)
Pour the rice into the cup of boiling water; simmer until done, approximately 45 minutes. Set aside.
Melt butter in a soup pot, and stir in the onion, celery and carrots. Cover and simmer until tender (approximately 5 minutes). Uncover, add salt and pepper, and slowly sprinkle in flour while stirring until smooth.
Remove from heat to stir in milk. Return to low heat, and stir until the soup begins to thicken. Add cooked wild rice, and stir a few more minutes. Even better when reheated!