Exploring a Gluten-Free Diet

by Roki Prunali


Still fresh off the diagnosis of my son being on the spectrum of autism, I am in the “let’s try everything” mode to figure out what works for him. Besides the countless types of therapies we have already started, and not to mention the two countries we are trying to do them in, we are also implementing an alternative approach comprised of gluten-free (wheat, barley, and rye), casein-free (milk and dairy products) diet. This particularly spiked my interest after a myriad of studies that I found in my research regarding the deep connection between the gut and brain. So thus began the adventure of putting my bread/pasta/general carb addicted son on a gluten and casein-free diet.

Just for a little background before we plunge in: scientifically there is not enough concrete evidence to support the theory that a gluten-free and casein-free diet works. While there has been research, the results are not strong enough to say with certainty that there is a definite link between this particular diet and improvements for those undergoing treatment for autism or relief from symptoms of autism. However, I am a major believer in the correlation between the gut and the mind, plus the evolution of what has been engineered into gluten today has lead many people to develop intolerances and allergies.

One of the theories behind the gluten-free diet and casein-free diet is that children with autism have trouble digesting these proteins and in the presence of a “leaky gut”, their bodies absorb compounds which can lead to physical discomfort and thus behavioral symptoms.

I’ve had my trials and errors in the kitchen, and let’s get one thing straight – cooking gluten-free is hard! Because all of the dishes just seem to fall apart! In the face of this challenge, I prevailed and became a pro at gluten-free and casein-free lasagna.

Note: Kids on the spectrum tend to be very picky eaters and will avoid food based simply on their appearance or texture. Needless to say, picky eaters make a challenge all the more challenging with this restrictive diet.

If you are interested in trying out this path for your own children, or just because you would like to cut back on gluten or casein yourself, here’s my go-to recipe.

 

Casein- and Gluten-free Lasagna

Ingredients:
For the meat sauce
2 cups of finely chopped/minced onion
1½ cups of finely chopped/minced celery
1½ cups of finely chopped/minced carrots
3 cloves finely minced garlic
2 bay leaves
10 ounces of Italian sausage (without the casing)
1 pound of lean ground beef
6 ounces of tomato paste
28 ounces of crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon of dried oregano
1 cup of loosely packed basil, chopped

For the ricotta:
10 ounces of thawed spinach, dry – I liked to use fresh spinach that I would sauté on the side
1 pound of almond ricotta
¼ cup of aquafaba (canned garbanzo bean liquid)
Pinch of kosher salt
For the basic tomato sauce
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 clove of garlic, chopped
½ yellow onion, chopped
28 ounces of crushed tomatoes
2 10 ounce boxes of gluten-free lasagna noodles (I love the brand Cappello’s)

Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

For the Meat Sauce:
In a large pot over medium-high heat, add the olive oil, onions, garlic, carrots, and celery. Cook until softened, about 5-7 minutes. Add the sausage and ground beef and mix until completely broken up, about another 5-7 minutes. Once the meat is cooked, add the tomato paste, can of crushed tomatoes, fresh basil and oregano. Cover the pot and turn the heat low.

For the Ricotta:
I love to use fresh spinach, so if you want to sauté your spinach in olive oil until soft then pat dry when finished. If you choose to use frozen spinach for convenience, thaw the chopped spinach and squeeze out any moisture. In a bowl, add it to the almond ricotta and aquafaba. Mix in some salt for taste and set aside.

For the Basic Tomato Sauce:
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir the olive oil, garlic, and onion. After a few minutes and onions are softened add the tomatoes. Continue to stir until sauce is thinner, add salt for taste.

Use a 9 x 13 inch dish and layer first with the basic tomato sauce and add a layer of noodles on top (the noodles that I buy do not need to be pre-cooked). Next layer with the meat sauce and another layer of noodles. Then cover with the almond ricotta and some more noodles. One more thick layer of meat sauce and noodles. Top all your lasagna with the basic tomato sauce. I sometimes like to add shredded coconut mozzarella cheese on top. Bake at 400 with the dish covered with foil for 30 minutes. Slice and serve.

 

I am hesitant to answer whether or not I’ve seen results from this diet. In a moment when we are trying a plethora of things, it’s really difficult to pinpoint the reason for whatever is working. As a whole, my son has made great strides, and I credit it to the combination of these things.

It is rather easy to live a gluten-free life in Los Angeles, but coming back to Milan has been a bit more challenging. Restaurants are not as conscious of the epidemic of intolerances and allergies gripping more and more people. Since returning to Milan, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to abide by the strict gluten-free and casein-free rules I was following in Los Angeles.

However, I have noticed something even more interesting since we have been home. Again, it may be due to numerous things, but my son is so much happier since we have come back. I honestly attribute it to not being as strict with his diet. Don’t get me wrong, I still give him gluten-free pasta, but from time to time I will also give him a regular croissant or fresh handmade pasta. I have not noticed a dip or regression in his development, but a serious increase in mood, specifically his happiness. In the end, disorder aside, his joy is the most important for me and the best way to encourage in him.

 

Image Credit: Roki Prunali @roki_alltheprettybirds

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