Woman teaches a gluten-free lifestyle can be easy
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — In the gluten-free world, Shirley Braden of King George County is an international presence, a pioneer whose blog has become "the hub of the online community."
That's according to Wendy Gregory of southeastern Ohio. She says Braden has spread her message about keeping a diet free from gluten--a protein in grains that can cause serious intestinal problems for those who can't tolerate it--across the United States, Canada and Europe.
Other bloggers describe Braden in the same glowing terms.
"She's a powerhouse," wrote Bernice Mast of New York City.
"In the Internet community, she is widely considered one of the best, and is looked up to, not just by her readers, but by other gluten-free bloggers around the world," wrote Elana Amsterdam of Boulder, Colo.
"We consider her the gluten-free Mom," said Tai Hain of Petaluma, Calif. "And that is exactly what she acts like. She is so welcoming and including."
Since December 2008, Braden has maintained her online journal called "gluten free easily," which averages about 25,000 page views a month. On her website, she shares hundreds of recipes she's tweaked to eliminate the flour that caused her so much misery.
During a monthly meeting in her home, she makes pizza without crusts and peanut butter cookies without flour.
And she's been invited by such big names as General Mills to offer her opinion of their gluten-free products.
"Those of use out here in the blogosphere absolutely adore her generous spirit and unlimited knowledge," wrote Melissa McLean Jory of Golden, Colo. "She's on a mission to increase awareness and is always there for others."
Braden, 54, does technical editing and quality assurance for a defense contractor in Dahlgren. She was diagnosed as gluten intolerant in 2003 after a lifetime of problems.
Growing up, she always knew where the bathrooms were--and spent way too much time in them. She had constant digestive issues, then had numerous surgeries.
She had her tonsils out in her early 20s, her gallbladder a few years later. She had a complete hysterectomy when she was 46.
Doctors repeatedly misdiagnosed the problem; one even told her she needed psychological help. Braden calls the physician who figured out she had food issues her "miracle doc" because of the way her life changed.
"Before gluten is out of your system, you're in constant pain," Braden said. "I didn't know how badly I felt for all those years."
Until 10 years ago, medical schools taught that gluten intolerance, which can lead to celiac disease, was rare and affected only children and young adults, according to the website celiac.com.
Today, the National Institute of Health estimates that celiac disease affects 3 million Americans. That's more than epilepsy, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis.
There's no drug to treat gluten intolerance. Those who suffer from it have to remove gluten from their diets.
Braden was scared to learn she couldn't eat the grains and cereals she grew up with. She mourned that she would never bake again, and baking--and entertaining--was a big part of who she was.
But as the King George woman started thinking about gluten, she realized there were a lot of products that didn't contain grains. Meat and fish, vegetables and fruit, eggs, nuts and rice were all fair game.
Braden tells people to think "BROW" to remember products with gluten: barley, rye, oats and wheat.
As Braden searched for baking mixes or products labeled as gluten-free, she found that the packages contained a lot of preservatives she didn't want to eat. And they were expensive.
So she came up with her own substitutes so she and her husband and son could continue eating the type of meals they always had.
She made pizza crust from cream cheese, parmesan and seasoning. For other baking, she mixed rice flour with cornstarch and added xanthan gum, a corn-based sugar that provides the same binding element as gluten.
She came to realize that a gluten-free lifestyle wasn't the horrible nightmare others made it out to be.
"My big push is to show people how easy it can be," Braden said. "Once you figure it out, that you can do it another way, why would you want to eat processed food that has all this other stuff in it that's not good for you?"
The Food and Drug Administration doesn't have a definition of gluten-free, so any producer could put the label on items, Braden said.
Because of her dislike of packaged foods, she was surprised when General Mills invited her to its Gluten-Free Bloggers Round Table, in Minneapolis last November. She was thrilled to meet other foodies she had connected with online and to see the Betty Crocker test kitchens.
But in the end, Braden said, she couldn't support the General Mills products because she said they contained too much gluten for her system.
So she'll continue to attend national conferences and share her quest to live gluten-free with easy, simple recipes. She'll let others know there is hope for those who've spent much of their lives in misery.
"YES, the joint pain goes away!!; and YES, you can go to the restroom like a 'normal' person--the restroom is no longer the room you live in," Braden writes on her website. "LOL (laugh out loud) and Hallelujah! Who knew that life could be so good?"