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Kathy Smart provides tips on eating gluten-free food at expo in Toronto

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TORONTO - Kathy Smart was always ill as a little girl until she was diagnosed with celiac disease at age 12 and began relearning what she could eat to alleviate her symptoms.

As an adult she has become a nutritionist and chef and uses the experience gleaned from living with the disease and her education to teach others about gluten intolerance with a cookbook, television appearances and a website.

"At the time — I'm going to be 36 — it really wasn't heard of a lot. Celiac disease was not a common term. Gluten-free, glue-what? People didn't know what that was," she said in an interview ahead of the Gluten Free Expo taking place Sunday in Toronto.

"At the age of 12 when I changed what I ate, by eating healthy whole foods I made this connection that if you change what you eat, you can change your life. At that young age I started reading everything I could. I started recipe developing with my mom in the kitchen."

Gluten is a kind of protein found in wheat and its relatives, such as spelt, farro, emmer, Kamut, barley, rye and triticale. Those with celiac disease have a genetic autoimmune condition that damages the gastrointestinal tract and hinders the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Sufferers react badly to gluten, the protein component that gives elasticity to dough. Others have an intolerance and find it difficult to digest.

"You become malnourished so you'll have low iron which will give you fatigue, you'll have low (vitamin) B-12 which will give you fatigue and inability to concentrate," said Smart, an Ottawa resident.

Some people manifest it through really itchy skin rashes while others develop depression or anxiety "because they're not absorbing their nutrients so they're not able to thrive. For gluten intolerance, there's a huge list of symptoms, but the top five symptoms, I would say, are fatigue, a lot of bloating, a lot of stomach pain, joint pain and a lot of autoimmune issues."

Her passion is to help people who follow gluten-free eating "do it right and healthy because food is really your medicine so you need to give your body the healthiest ingredients possible. Just eat real food, so fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, seeds, nuts, legumes. Those are all naturally gluten-free foods and good for you."

She points out the trend toward people cutting carbohydrates from their diet in an effort to lose weight isn't healthy.

"Carbs are very healthy and very good for you and your brain needs them to function properly. So someone cutting out carbs and saying, 'I'm going to go gluten-free,' that is not a healthy balanced diet. If you're going to go gluten-free you want to always make sure you always have a healthy protein, healthy fat and healthy complex carbohydrates from gluten-free foods. It's all about balance."

Smart is a proponent of gluten-free grains or cereal grasses. Here are her top five nutrient-dense picks. They can be found in health-food stores or the health-food section of grocery stores.

— Teff. This tiny grain is often used in Ethiopian cooking to make the flatbread known as injera. "It's extremely high in minerals and it's extremely high in iron too and a lot of gluten-intolerant individuals or celiacs are particularly low in iron and they really need to make sure they're having high-quality minerals. So teff is an excellent way to really use food as medicine."

Teff can be ground into flour. "It's delicious with chocolate. Teff flour and chocolate go together like peanut butter and honey. It's just delicious. The teff flour really brings out the chocolate undertones and you can use teff flour to thicken soups or stews, to make gravy."

Smart cooks it in her rice cooker with almond milk, adds nuts, cinnamon and cardamom for a nutritious breakfast porridge.

— Black rice has a nutty robust flavour. Smart likes to add a handful when she's cooking brown rice. She also puts it in salads, noting it's extremely high in antioxidants.

— Quinoa is very high in protein and has an amino acid in it that helps fight cold sores, Smart said. Use it in side dishes and salads.

— Sorghum is high in minerals. Made into flour, it's her No. 1 choice for any type of gluten-free baking.

— Cavena Nuda is a recent addition to the gluten-free repertoire and is nicknamed "the rice of the Prairies."

"It almost tastes buttery. It's very high in fibre and iron, two elements that you want to look for in any type of gluten-free eating."

The Gluten Free Expo will be staged in Ottawa on Oct. 19 and heads to Vancouver in January.

Follow (at)lois_abraham on Twitter.

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Online:

Kathy Smart's website is a wealth of information about gluten-free food, www.livethesmartway.com.

Gluten Free Expo, www.glutenfreeexpo.ca/

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