One-on-One With Gluten-Free Girl Shauna James Ahern

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Special Diets
on May 7, 2013

Name: Shauna James Ahern (aka “Gluten-Free Girl”)

Claim to Fame: Think gluten-free diets have to be boring? Think again. Best known as the brainchild behind the wildly popular gluten-free cooking blog, “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef,” Shauna James Ahern is on a mission to guide others on a journey toward delicious gluten-free living. Shauna knows firsthand what it’s like to live with Celiac disease, the hard-to-diagnose digestive condition triggered by consumption of the protein gluten, which is primarily found in foods containing wheat, barley or rye. After years of suffering from inexplicable pain and lethargy, Shauna was finally diagnosed with Celiac disease at age 38 and found her salvation in a gluten-free diet. Proving that gluten-free cooking need not equal deprivation, Shauna’s blog showcases beautiful, mouth-watering dishes centered around inspired ingredient pairings: think pistachio-crusted salmon with edamame mash and pan-seared beef tenderloin with port sauce and balsamic onions. Narrated by her charming wit and keen eye for observation, Ahern’s blog is a beautiful celebration of life, health, food and love. Together with her husband Danny, a professional chef, Shauna has co-authored a series of best-selling cookbooks filled with innovative gluten-free recipes, including Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, which was named one of the best cookbooks of 2010 by The New York Times. Her most recent cookbook, Gluten-Free Girl Every Day, A Cookbook for Busy Families Who Love to Cook, is an approachable cookbook filled with easy everyday recipes for a hectic life.

Health Philosophy: “Be alive. Enjoy everything you can. Stop worrying so much about that bite of food you ate or the day you wish you had lived. Be here. Breathe.”

RELATED: 10 Gluten-Free Desserts 

Favorite Healthy Meal: “My favorite meal is what’s on the table. We eat real food in our house, not a bunch of boxed meals stuffed with chemicals. We try to eat in season, as much as we can. Everything tastes better when it’s fresh. Mostly, we like to play. We play with flavors and techniques. This morning, my husband pickled mustard seeds then made up a new dry cure for smoked salmon. So my favorite healthy meal? The one we’re making now.”

Biggest Inspiration: “My 4-year-old daughter is my biggest inspiration in nearly everything these days. She’s alive, that kid. She embraces the moment and skips through the sprinkler and loves us entirely. Because she’s 4. We lose so much of that energy as we get older. Having her in my life — and watching her dance, swim and eat good food with a deep appreciation — makes me realize just how much time I have wasted worrying about anything in life.”

Favorite Workout:  “I walk every day. I walk for nearly an hour every day that I can, with podcasts in my ear or music I love or Pema Chodron talks about how to live in the world awake. We have very busy lives, and I want to be with my daughter when she’s in the same room. Those walks are like sanctuary for me.”

Motivational Saying:  “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”  — Mary Oliver

RELATED: 3 Gluten-Free Kitchen Essentials 

Five Minutes with Shauna James Ahern

On your blog, you talk about the ways in which you didn’t used to feel “alive” prior to your Celiac diagnosis. Can you tell me a little bit about this? What sort of symptoms were you experiencing?

Right before I was diagnosed, I was really sick. Everybody knew there was something wrong with me—I was going in for MRIs and CT scans and ultrasounds, and none of the doctors could figure out what was wrong with me. I assumed I had some type of weird, rare cancer and that I was going to die. Even decades before that, I had been the kid who was always getting sick. I was constantly spraining my wrists; I had pneumonia six times before I was 26; I got bronchitis a few times. I just felt lousy all the time, and I didn’t know I could feel any better than that. That was my norm. When I was finally diagnosed with Celiac’s and stopped eating gluten, I thought, “Holy heck! I didn’t know I could feel this good!” That’s what I’ve told thousands of readers—it’s like a reverse. When you finally feel well, everything feels new.

How long did it take before you were correctly diagnosed with Celiac disease? Was this something that had even crossed your mind?

No. I had no idea what Celiac disease even was. I was 38 when I was diagnosed. That’s not atypical. Apparently, in America, it takes people on average 10 years to get diagnosed. Most people who have this disease are wandering around feeling lousy and don’t know why. It’s starting to get better. Just now, doctors in the medical community are beginning to understand that Celiac is not nearly as rare as they used to think it was. They used to think it was 1 in 5,000 people who had Celiac, that it was a childhood disease, and that you would grow it. But now they understand that it’s more like 1 out of a 100 people.

Was it a challenge learning how to eat gluten-free?

You know, it’s funny—it wasn’t a challenge for me. I had been so sick that it felt like a liberation to finally feel well. It was also a huge relief to find out I was suffering from a food-related issue, not some kind of scary cancer. I’ve always been a massive food lover. I adore food and the way you play with it. For me, it was like, “What can I eat?” That’s what I focused on first…I focused on what foods were available to me. Steak, peaches, arugula salad—there’s a lot of delicious food out there that’s also naturally gluten-free. Where I find it most challenging to maintain my lifestyle—and where I think most people struggle too—is when I’m in transition…when I’m in the airport or at a gas station or caught without a snack. But even that’s getting easier.

So you feel like a brand new person since you’ve eliminated gluten from you diet?

Absolutely. Before, I never had any energy. I was dragging all the time. I would need a nap every afternoon—I felt like a 2-year-old. My stomach hurt every time I ate before. I experienced all kinds of lovely digestive issues nobody ever wants to talk about. I had suffered from depression in my 20s, but it went away as soon as I stopped eating gluten because there’s a really amazing connection between the gut and the brain. If the intestines are damaged, the body can’t produce enough serotonin to keep you even-keeled and happy. After I changed my diet, there were a lot of enormous changes, physically and mentally. So yeah, I feel like a new self. It was a rebirth.

Your blog, Gluten-Free Girl, chronicles your day-to-day journey with Celiac disease. What inspired you to start this blog?

First of all, I had no idea anybody was going to read it in the first place. I was a writer, and I had a blog where I wrote personal essays about the day and shared little moments of beauty. When I was diagnosed and started feeling well, I was struck both by how much joy I was feeling and also by how angry I was—angry that nobody had ever told me Celiac disease could be a possibility. So I started writing another personal blog that was just focused on food this time.

Why are you so passionate about raising awareness about this issue?

There’s no reason for people to suffer. I suffered for a long time. I was 38, and it got to the point, as it does for many people, where I was so sick I thought I was going to die. And then you find out it’s just a matter of avoiding wheat, rye, barley and several other grains—it’s that simple. If you’re going to have an autoimmune disease, Celiac is the one to have. I mean, you cure yourself through food! Every time you eat well, you think, “I’m healing myself.” That’s a pretty amazing thing. There’s no surgery, no drugs, no chemotherapy. It’s all about changing your life for the better.

Some people have the common misconception that living gluten-free means deprivation, but the stunning food photographs on your blog prove this notion wrong. What are some of your favorite gluten-free meals to make?

It’s funny, I don’t think of my meals as “gluten-free” anymore—to me, they’re just “meals.” My husband is a chef, and he knows food better than I ever will. We eat gluten-free in our house. My husband, my daughter and I eat entirely gluten-free at home, but nobody thinks of it as deprivation. All I can think of is what my husband made for dinner last night: He roasted chicken with smoked paprika butter and served it alongside smashed organic purple potatoes and watercress. We eat very deliciously, and none of us see it as a special diet. That’s one of the main things I want to emphasize. People think that if they eat gluten-free, they will feel like they’re eating differently than everybody else. But that’s not the case. Whenever we invite friends over and cook for them, nobody talks about the fact it’s gluten-free—it’s just good food.

You have a new cookbook coming out, Gluten-Free Girl Every Day, A Cookbook for Busy Families who Love to Cook! Can you tell us a little bit more about this?

I’m very excited about it. Our first cookbook, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef: A Love Story with 100 Tempting Recipes, was a narrative cookbook, so it was really about the writing. It was a love story, a love story about my husband and about food. Back when we were first married, we would make meals at midnight. But then our daughter was born and our priorities shifted. So this new cookbook is very much an everyday book. It’s based on the true urgency of feeding people. I call it a cookbook for busy families who love to cook. It’s not about taking as few ingredients as possible and making a meal in the shortest amount of time possible. Instead, it’s about how to build up a pantry filled with good food so you can make something pretty quickly as long as you have everything at-hand. Every chapter is a different strategy for getting dinner on the table. It’s meant to be practical, it’s meant to be inspiring and it’s definitely meant to be delicious.

 Click here to learn more about or to purchase Gluten-Free Girl Every Day