January 22

Natural Foodie: The ‘stupid fad diet’ that changed his life

Chef Tony Lawless eliminated gluten from his daily menu and saw the excruciating pain of his rheumatoid arthritis disappear.

By Avery Yale Kamila

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Chef Tony Lawless tends the grill at his winter home at Sunday River in Newry. After suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for decades, he was surprised to find that giving up foods with gluten relieved his pain.

Tina Oddleifson photo

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The menu at the Whale's Rib Tavern on Deer Isle is about 80 percent gluten-free.

Contributed photo

“It’s changed my wife’s and my outlook on food and the food chain,” Lawless said. “You can pay more for good food and have that be your medicine or you can buy crappy food and take medicine.”

After his diet change, Lawless and the tavern’s chef went over the menu and discovered that roughly 80 percent of the dishes were naturally gluten-free.

The restaurant relies on local products and scratch cooking, which allows the kitchen staff to avoid many processed ingredients where gluten tends to lurk.

“We’re working on making our fish and chips gluten-free,” Lawless said.

The restaurant and inn will reopen for the season in May.

Being a chef certainly helped Lawless make the transition to gluten-free eating. Yet he points out that you don’t need special skills to cook gluten-free.

“If you’re one of these people eating processed food and you don’t really cook, yes it’s going to be difficult,” Lawless said. “But learning how to cook simple dishes so you can start cooking healthfully is really easy these days.”

Still, eliminating gluten (and all the foods in which it hides) has its challenges, even for chefs.

“I’m one of those people, I go into a restaurant and bread is my first course,” Lawless said. “Bread was one of the hardest things to give up.”

Recalling his former resentment of special dietary requests, Lawless said he hopes more chefs will become educated about the links between diet and health.

He credits the abundance of whole, local ingredients with making gluten-free cooking easy to achieve in Maine.

“Because of the availability of farm-to-table food, the chefs in Portland are doing a great job of keeping menus more real, making them more down to earth,” Lawless said.

These days Lawless is doing what he can to share his story as widely as possible in hopes that others with arthritis may find similar relief.

He knows that getting this information to others will be challenging because of skepticism (and often downright hostility) from doctors and the Arthritis Foundation to the idea that diet plays a role in the disease.

As he wrote in the email to family and friends: “I regularly tell my story with the hope it may help just one person avoid a life dominated by pain.”

Such a life is now just a memory for Lawless.


Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she knows many people who have healed themselves with food. She can be reached at avery.kamila@gmail.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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