Living a gluten-free life |

Living a gluten-free life

Shauna James Ahern's book is a guide for those looking to lead a gluten-free diet.

In the spring of 2005, Shauna James Ahern was sick. So sick, in fact, she could barely eat or get out of bed. Her stomach hurt all the time, and her body ached. At one point, the only food she could manage was a jar of baby food a day. One friend – a nurse – later told Ahern she thought she was terminally ill. Ahern thought she was, too.

Ahern endured numerous medical tests, but none of her doctors could figure out why she was so sick. Then, a friend called to tell her about a story she had heard detailing celiac disease. Ahern went to a naturopath, who gave her a blood test. This April marks the six-year anniversary of her diagnosis.

Celiac disease is an inherited, lifelong autoimmune condition. When people with celiac eat gluten, the immune system sets off a toxic reaction that causes damage to the small intestine and prevents food from being absorbed properly. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, even small amounts of gluten in foods can cause health problems, and damage can occur even when no symptoms are present.

Gluten is a protein found in certain grains. The celiac foundation says the protein is found in all forms of wheat – including durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, einkorn and faro – and related grains rye, barley and triticale.

Ahern said her diagnosis not only awakened her life, but her palate. She started taking pleasure in food again, and began documenting the gluten-free dishes she created on a blog. Her book, “Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food that Loves Me Back…And How You Can Too” was published in 2007. Her second book, “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef” was co-written with her husband Daniel Ahern, a chef who grew up in Summit County.

Daniel – who worked at Pierre’s Riverwalk Cafe in Breckenridge for years – said he never heard about gluten-free eating until about 2002. Now, he lives in a gluten-free home.

Shauna said awareness of the disease is growing. When she was first diagnosed almost six years ago, many people had no idea what she meant when she said the words “gluten-free.” Now, she said most people have not only heard of it, but seem to understand what it means. She said a fan recently e-mailed her to tell her Chex is advertising its cereal as gluten-free.

Both Daniel and Shauna said Summit County residents seem to be more aware of the diet, probably because of the health-conscious community. Shauna said she was shocked to walk into Food Kingdom in Breck and find a whole gluten-free aisle, especially for such a small store. Danny said MiCasa Mexican Restaurant and Cantina in Breckenridge – where they had a booksigning in November – has a gluten-free menu, with a staff very knowledgeable about the diet.

Tracey Roach, general manager at MiCasa, said they created a special menu after receiving numerous requests for gluten-free dishes. The restaurant even carries a gluten-free beer.

“It’s a way of life for millions of people,” Roach said.

Daniel Ahern said while many restaurant kitchens are aware of it, he wished more were. He said wheat is often used as a filler in items most people don’t think of – like bottled sauces or ice cream. He said gluten-free eaters should be specific about their needs, and not worry about being a pain.

“Be really, really persistent,” he said.

Shauna Ahern said it is estimated that one out of 100 Americans have celiac disease, and only 3 percent have been diagnosed.

Dr. Justin Pollack of Mountain River Naturopath Clinic in Frisco said symptoms can be varied, but can include abdominal pain and bloating. He said many people are often misdiagnosed with generalized disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. People who suspect they have the disease should receive an antibody blood test, and then eliminate gluten from their diet.

For more information about the Aherns, visit

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