Gray skies cast a cold darkness across Kansas City on a dreary February day six years ago. The weather matched the mood of my 16-year-old self.

As I sat in a quaint cafe, I looked across the table at my mother, Susan. We had just received news that I was allergic to wheat. Disheartened at the prospect of all my favorite foods being removed from my diet and in a scramble to comfort me, my mother suggested we dine at my favorite breakfast spot on the Country Club Plaza. What seemed like the perfect consolation quickly turned into a downward spiral. With one swift look at the menu, I began weeping. Embarrassed that food had such an e…ffect on my feelings, I held the menu close to my face in an attempt to hide my tear-stained cheeks. Reality sunk in as I realized that I could no longer order my favorite Belgian wafflˆe, and my head began to spin with thoughts of all the other sweet delicacies I likely would never taste again. If someone would’ve told me that day how the food market would change over the next half decade, I probably would have shed a few less tears—or maybe none at all.

Soon after, I began the specific carbohydrate diet, which is a close relative of the paleo diet. The changes were motivated by a diagnosis at age 11 of Crohn’s disease—a chronic, autoimmune, digestive disorder with few treatments available. By the time I was 16, traditional medical options were no longer eff…ective, and I turned to alternative treatments. It was 2012 and there was limited research available; testimonials said that following the specific carbohydrate diet would lessen inflammation and put my Crohn’s disease into remission. Following a restrictive diet is time-consuming and requires extensive self-control, but as a teenager my main worry was that I would not be able to find food that adhered to my new way of life and I would go hungry. This was especially a concern because there were few health-food restaurants on the scene at the time. So my mother made a promise to me that eased my fears: if I tried the specific carbohydrate diet, she would always have food ready and waiting for me.

Nearly a week after I changed my diet, my Crohn’s symptoms began to subside, and I regained my strength. I celebrated my sixth anniversary on the diet in April. My Crohn’s is still in remission, and I have a quality of life that once was only a dream.

Although no one else in my family has Crohn’s disease, they have realized the benefits of healthy eating and have adjusted their diets to resemble mine. However for my family and most other people, it is less about complete elimination and more about moderation. The changes to their eating habits have resulted in more energy, weight loss, and clearer skin.

There are slight di“fferences between the paleo diet and the specific carbohydrate diet, but the two eating plans have similar e“ffects. A 2008 study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute reveals that weight loss is the biggest benefit for healthy individuals who follow the paleo diet. For the average person, there might not be a need to permanently remove all the grains, sugar, and processed foods that I did, but as my family has discovered, less is certainly more.

Following a restrictive diet can be laborious, but having a mom who serves up safe dishes quicker than McDonald’s serves up Big Macs made it much easier for me. Rest assured that I’ve had my fair share of Belgian waffl—es since that fateful day in 2012. They might be made out of almond flour and honey, but now I get my fix while still feeling good.

This is the beauty of health-food restaurants springing up throughout Missouri. Now everyone has someone in a kitchen nearby, ready and waiting to make healthy eating more accessible.

Today, more restaurants are catering exclusively to special diets, and others are altering their existing menu to fit new demands. The result is an astonishing amount of dishes and desserts that meet restrictive dietary needs. These diets are more than fads. A recent rise in allergies and diseases is motivating people to change their diets. According to a study performed by FAIR Health—a national, independent nonprofit organization dedicated to transparency in healthcare costs and health insurance information—treatment of severe food allergy reactions increased by nearly 400 percent between 2007 and 2016. Columbia-based allergist James Denningho“ believes this alarming rise in allergies can be attributed to society’s eating habits.

“The increase in food allergies and food intolerances is specifically related to people’s diets and the food choices they’re making,” he says.

A general push toward better overall health has inspired foodies everywhere to seek more simplistic diets. Whether you are paleo, vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian, or just eating clean, you can still indulge at restaurants across Missouri. We’ve found spots in Kansas City, Branson, Springfield, Columbia, and St. Louis where you can satisfy your hunger and your inner health nut.

Kansas City

Evolve Paleo Pantry in Kansas City makes grocery shopping easier for people who have eliminated grains, dairy, refined sugar, and legumes from their diet.

Evolve Paleo Pantry

Paleo • Open Monday–Friday 7 AM–9 PM, Saturday–Sunday 10 AM–8 PM• 322 Southwest Boulevard #100

Evolve Paleo Pantry is a dream for every modern-day caveman who has said goodbye to eating grains, dairy, refined sugar, and legumes. Since the paleo diet calls for fresh, organic food, snacks are not always easy to come by. Evolve helps lift the burden of scrounging food between meals by packing their stores full of paleo-approved munchies, such as the Island Fire Trail Mix, which is a combination of almonds, cashews, apricots, mangoes, pineapple extract, and spicy seasonings. General manager Jessi Moore is aware of the struggles people on the paleo diet face, and she is dedicated to providing options. The store also sells baking mixes, protein powders, power balls, and sauces.

“It is hard for people to walk in a grocery store or restaurant and just order food, or buy food to fit those needs,” Jessi says. “There are a lot more people nowadays who have allergies to gluten and sensitivities to dairy, so it’s just easier for them to come in and know everything in here fits their needs.”

Café Gratitude

Vegan • Open Monday–Friday 11 AM–10 PM, Saturday 10 AM–10 PM, Sunday 10 AM– 9 PM• 333 Southwest Boulevard

At vegan restaurant Café Gratitude, each menu item name is an inspirational adjective. The staffŽ encourages guests to begin their order with the phrase, “I am.” When delivering the food, employees reaffi’rm customers by repeating their orders, beginning with the words, “You are.” So, the exchange for a request for Warm-Hearted, a spaghetti squash dish with puttanesca sauce, would go like this: “I am warm-hearted. … You are warm-hearted.”

Along with caring for your spirit, Café Gratitude’s well-stocked menu of starters, salads, sandwiches, entrees, and sides makes sure your stomach is also fulfilled. Everything is prepared with ingredients from local farms and other sustainable agriculture sources. Assistant general manager Jessica Johnson says the cafe’s food has a personal touch to ensure customers feel honored and nourished.

“Putting love into our food and everything we do at the cafe is really just shown in how mindful and intentional we are with the things that we do,” Jessica says. “So, when we’re prepping vegetables or we’re putting things together, we’re taking the time to have the intention of also serving love.”

Char Bar’s menu includes vegetarian items such as fried pickles, carrot-raisin slaw, kale salad, cheesy “hushpuppies,” and charred toast with pickled veggies and blistered grapes

Char Bar

Gluten-Free, Vegan • Open Monday–Friday 11 AM–10 PM, Saturday 10 AM–11 PM, Sunday 10 AM– 10 PM • 4050 Pennsylvania Avenue #150 

If you are gluten-free or vegan and find yourself craving some of Cowtown’s claim to fame, do not fret. Instead of having to revise an existing menu item at one of Kansas City’s many barbecue joints, take a trip to Char Bar in Westport, which has hefty options, including a gluten-free brunch, the full slab ribs, and the pulled-pork butt sandwich served on a gluten- and dairy-free bun.

Vegan eaters needn’t worry about getting left out of the fun. The smoked jackfruit sandwich substitutes meat with jackfruit, a tropical and nutritious Indian fruit that has a flavor resembling pork. According to general manager Erin McZee, Char Bar includes these options as a way to promote the restaurant’s overall mission.

“It’s the same reason we allow dogs. It’s the same reason we allow kids. It’s the same reason we have no problem changing anything we do for allergies,” Erin says. “Our entire basis as a company is to be all-inclusive.”

Springfield/Branson

Cafe Cusco

Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten Free • Open Monday–Thursday 11 AM–9 PM, Friday–Saturday 11 AM–10 PM, Sunday 11 AM–8 PM • 234 East Commercial Street, Springfield

Before Joe Gidman ever imagined opening his restaurant, a personal connection led him to explore Peru.

“When Joe was in college, his best friend, Rodrigo, was from Lima, Peru,” says Joe’s mother, Claire Gidman. “When they finished college, they went down and toured all of Peru, and saw the Inca Trails and Machu Picchu. It’s always been a soft spot in Joe’s heart.”

During his adventures in South America, Joe became inspired by his surroundings and decided he would one day open a Peruvian restaurant. Finally in 2013, Joe and Claire became business partners and opened Cafe Cusco. Serving South American cuisine to southwest Missouri, Cafe Cusco off™ers meals for gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian diners, serving all sandwiches on gluten-free buns. With options such as the chicken rojo sandwich, complete with crispy chicken in a honey beet sauce, and the bean quinoa, enjoyed by both vegans and vegetarians alike, Joe and Claire are happy to accommodate special diets and ensure gluten-free eaters are completely safe.

“We have a lot of people with celiac disease who come here, and they won’t go anywhere else,” Claire says. “At Cafe Cusco there’s absolutely no flour in the building at all, so it’s an entirely gluten-free environment.”

Sugar Leaf

Gluten-Sensitive Open Monday–Saturday 9 AM–5 PM , Sunday 11 AM–3 PM  • 2800 West 76 Country Boulevard, Suite 211, Branson

This bakery has a menu stocked full of mouthwatering items for the standard sweet tooth, and though there are no bakery items geared toward special diets, they have additional options for gluten-free gorgers. All sandwiches and salads can be made gluten-free, and both the quiche and chili have no gluten to start. Cashier Ethan Harding says Sugar Leaf labels its food gluten-sensitive rather than gluten-free to protect the health of their customers.

“The gluten-free options that we have technically are not completely gluten-free because we make them in an environment where we are around bread all day,” Ethan says. “We always dispose of our gloves and sanitize our equipment between making the sandwiches on our gluten-free wraps.”

The vegetarian combo platter at Vasken’s Deli includes baba ganoush, feta cheese, grape leaves, tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, hummus, olives, falafel, and tahini sauce with toasted pita bread.

Vasken’s Deli

Vegetarian • Branson: Open Monday–Saturday, 11 AM– 8  PM• 3200 Gretna Road, Suite 100 Springfield: Open Monday–Thursday, 10:30 AM–8 PM , Friday & Saturday, 10:30 AM–9 PM • 3522 South National Avenue

Vasken’s Deli brings Mediterranean meals to southwest Missouri with a special list of vegetarian sandwiches. Kitchen manager Tyler Pulley says options such as Vasken’s feta and veggie sandwich, stacked with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, feta cheese, olives, and a touch of mint, give veggies a chance to shine.

“We can’t just cater to only meat eaters,” Tyler says. “Like our feta and veggie: it’s a real simple sandwich, a couple of ingredients, but all of them together combined are really special.”

Columbia

The Nourish Benedict at Nourish Cafe & Mark et in Columbia consists of poached eggs topped with k alamata hollandaise sauce and roasted red peppers on a bed of quinoa balls and sautéed greens with onions.

Nourish Cafe & Market

Gluten-Free, Soy-Free, Corn-Free, Refined Sugar-Free, Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, Dairy-Free • Open Monday–Friday 7:30 AM –2:30 PM , Saturday–Sunday 8:30 AM –3 PM • 1201 East Broadway 

The entire menu at Nourish Cafe and Market in downtown Columbia is free of gluten, soy, corn, and refined sugar, and most items are organic. Additionally, menu items that are vegetarian, vegan, paleo, and/or dairy-free are also marked.

Kalle LeMone and Kimber Dean started Nourish to bring their passion to the plates of Missourians.

“We believe in the saying, ‘Food is the slowest form of poison or the best form of medicine,’˜” Kalle says. “It’s just something that we believe so strongly in, and it’s the way we eat at home. We wanted to bring it to our community.”

Various cold-pressed juices, smoothies, bowls, salads, sandwiches, and wraps comprise the clean-eating campaign. Nourish also off„ers a breakfast menu, snacks, and grab-and-go options.

Grilled salmon and oil-free sautéed vegetables grace Flat Branch’s paleo platter

Flat Branch Pub & Brewing

Paleo, Vegetarian • Open Monday–Friday 11 AM –midnight, Saturday–Sunday 10 AM –midnight 115 South Fifth Street 

A staple on the Columbia restaurant scene since 1994, Flat Branch Pub & Brewing has something for everyone. Although classics include catfish and chips or bratwurst and kraut, Flat Branch has not forgotten its paleo and vegetarian friends.

“People are asking for it,” bar manager Paul Huesgen says. “We’re not considered a health-food place, but we do try to accommodate as wide an audience as possible.”

In addition to vegetarian options, the restaurant also supplies the Paleo Platter, an entree complete with a selection of protein, paired with a side of oil-free sautéed vegetables. Although oil is allowed on the diet, Flat Branch opts to sauté the veggies in a vegetable stock that is slightly diluted with water.

Range Free

Allergen-Free • Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 8 AM –6:30 PM , Friday 8 AM –6 PM , Saturday 10 AM –2 PM • 110 Orr Street #101

Dedicated to serving mid-Missourians with dietary needs, this allergen-free bakery provides a menu free of wheat, gluten, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. Range Free’s mission is “to provide quality and convenient safe foods to the food-allergic and specialty diet population of Columbia and mid-Missouri.”

The bakery also marks items as paleo, vegan, or low-glycemic if they fit into such categories. Stop by the shop in the North Village Arts District for cookies, breads, pies, doughnuts, and cakes as elaborate as the ones seen on Food Network. Range Free customer Abby Mennemeyer has recently switched to a dairy-free diet. She struggled to find treats to satisfy her sweet tooth, but when she got the craving for a Mardi Gras King Cake, Range Free was there to accommodate her needs.

“You would have never guessed it was gluten, nut, or dairy-free,” Abby says. “I shared the cake with others without telling them it was specially made, and they were raving about the taste. They did not believe it was allergen-free when I told them after the meal.”

St. Louis

Raw fettuccine made from scratch with zucchini noodles is one of many vegetarian-friendly options at Frida’s in St. Louis. The eatery’s cuisine has no butter, sugar, or fried ingredients.

Frida’s

Vegetarian • Open Tuesday–Saturday 10:30 AM –9 PM Sunday 10 AM –2 PM • 622 North and South Road, University City

Proclaiming itself as “St. Louis’ Premier Vegetarian Destination,” Frida’s off„ers dishes such as raw fettuccine made with zucchini noodles. Tacos are filled with cheddar jack cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream, and vegetables including crimini mushrooms, red onion, scallions, avocado, tomato, and romaine. And instead of filling the brown rice tortilla with traditional beef or chicken, these tacos boast a protein alternative: sunflower taco “meat” made by soaking sunflower seeds and processing them into a pâté.

Beyond vegetarian cuisine, Frida’s makes sure people with other dietary restrictions feel comfortable dining there. All dishes are made from scratch with no butter, sugar, or fried ingredients.

Using environmentally friendly food production practices—including a recycling routine that leaves only one bag of trash at the end of each workday— Frida’s is considered a sustainable restaurant. Owner and executive chef Natasha Kwan-Rolo‘ says that being nutritionally aware and environmentally conscious go hand-in-hand because sustaining the earth is essential to producing nutritious food. “The people who have some type of restriction, whether it’s medically or personal choice restriction, I believe that they are more tuned in to their body and nutrition needs,” Natasha says. “And they’re more aware of what is going on environmentally.”

Lona’s Lil Eats

Vegan, Vegetarian • Open Tuesday–Saturday 11 AM –9 PM • 2199 California Avenue 

Lona Luo, owner of Lona’s Lil Eats in St. Louis, is from a tiny village in Yunnan. Inspired by the food of her home, Lona’s chefs use only the freshest ingredients to make aff‘ordable hybrid cuisine of Asian food with a soul food flair.

“Healthy food is expensive,” Lona says. “Most restaurants, you can get food that’s super expensive and healthy, or you can get junk that’s cheaper. I want everybody, poor or rich, to enjoy my food.”

Spring rolls, noodle bowls, and a multitude of teas make up the majority of the menu, but Lona’s crowning glory is the wraps. Known as “the home of the giant rice paper wrap,” Lona’s takes larger versions of the same wraps that are used to make fresh spring rolls and creates burrito-style eats. Most contain rice and some variation of protein, but customers can also customize their wraps.

Diners of all dietary restrictions can find something to eat at Lona’s with vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, diabetic, and paleo options.

Favazza’s

Gluten-Free • Open Monday–Thursday 11 AM –10 PM Friday & Saturday 11 AM -11 PM • 5201 Southwest Avenue 

Gluten-free dieters: Satisfy your next pasta craving at this Italian bistro in St. Louis’s The Hill neighborhood. The 40-year-old restaurant has gluten-free pizzas, pennes, and even classic Italian entrees such as chicken parmigiano.

“Since we’ve been doing this, we’ve been seeing so many customers that are coming in that have dietary restrictions, whether its celiac disease or just cutting back on their gluten,” says co-owner John Favazza. “There’s a need for it, and we’re more need-based than trying to market something. We’re trying to help our guests out.”