“Okaaaay …?!? So now what? What’s gluten? How do I get started? Where do I find answers? What’s safe to eat? Does it all taste like cardboard? How do I make sure I’m getting the proper nutrients and making healthful dietary choices? Does this mean I can’t eat out anymore?”
This can get overwhelming very quickly. So let’s give it some perspective, one step at a time.
First, know that you’re not alone … you, like many others when they’ve just been diagnosed or have been told to abstain from gluten, just haven’t found your rhythm (resources) yet. Answering the questions above will provide you with some helpful tips and valuable information to get you started on your new journey to being gluten-free, and being more comfortable in your new lifestyle. Knowledge is power. With time and practice, being gluten-free will become a natural, healthful, and nutritious way of life.
What’s gluten? Gluten is a type of protein commonly found in wheat, rye, and barley. For those with celiac disease, or who are gluten intolerant, gluten-containing products can cause serious health issues. 1 in 133 people are believed to suffer from celiac disease, though most have not yet been diagnosed. In celiac patients, when gluten-containing foods are eaten, the villi in the small intestine are damaged, resulting in poor absorption of vital nutrients. Many symptoms can be triggered, though in some people no symptoms are present. There is no cure at present for celiac disease. The only effective treatment is complete elimination of gluten from one’s diet. Some gluten-free grains are probably already familiar to you, such as rice, corn and oats. It was once believed that oats contained gluten, but it is now understood that oats are actually gluten-free but are usually cross-contaminated during processing. Gluten-free oats processed in a dedicated gluten-free plant are safe and available. For some, oats do still cause gastric issues, so proceed with moderation on oats until you know how well you can tolerate them. A few others you’ll want to check out include quinoa, teff, amaranth, buckwheat, and millet.
How do I get started? Many resources are available. Start by asking the person who diagnosed you. He or she may have suggestions for local gluten-free shopping, a helpful reference book or two, and possibly even a nutritionist to help you establish a sound dietary beginning.
Check out your local health food stores. If you are fortunate to have more than one in your area, you may find it helpful to visit a few different stores. Each store may have its own helpful and unique characteristics, such as shelf-labeling of gluten-free items for easier identification, a specific gluten-free section, or a particularly knowledgable staff. When you find helpful and knowledgable employees, be sure to utilize their expertise. Often you will find that they can help get you started with some everyday products that will make the initial transition easier…and delicious. Be honest about your tastes and what your favorite gluten-containing products have been in the past. This information will help them in suggesting gluten-free products with similar characteristics and flavors. Pay attention to these suggestions. Though everyone has different tastes, some products make the transition to gluten-free easier than others. And don’t be surprised to find over time that your tastes change and many items you found “questionable” in the beginning may become a perfectly acceptable choice later, without feeling like you’re compromising.
While you’re in the health food store, or specialty shop, you may find that you’re hit by another new reality … sticker shock! Yes, the prices for the “specialty” foods can be alarming. Understand that, while you may need to purchase certain items at health food stores, many items in your local supermarket are now gluten-free and can meet many of your needs just fine, and at a lower price point. You may want to choose just a few basic items at the specialty store to get you started. Before long, you’ll know which items are on your regular shopping list and at which location.
Shopping at your regular supermarket. When first diagnosed, it is easy and normal to assume that most, if not all, of your “old reliable” ingredients and products are off limits. You don’t want to make mistakes by eating the same items you’ve been eating, right? Not to worry. Once you’ve learned how to read the labels and what the “red flag” ingredients are, it is much easier to do most of your shopping at the local supermarket. Many manufacturers are now labeling items as gluten-free and/or are clearly stating what allergen ingredients are contained in their products. Be aware, however, that manufacturers do change their ingredients from time to time. This should be reflected on the label, but don’t assume that what you’ve purchased in the past will always be a “safe” item. Read your labels regularly.
Learn to read labels. There are many hidden “red flag” or “taboo” ingredients that are not obvious or readily identifiable. Having a list of these items in a quick reference guide with you when you shop, perhaps in an app (I use Genius Scan, mentioned in Daily Forage posting, “Now There’s an App to Make Shopping Easier”) or document on your phone, will make the process much easier. Especially when the gluten-free world is still so new to you. Generally, the less processed the food is, the safer it will be. Generally. Also, if you’re not sure about an ingredient, do without the product for the time being. You can always add it back into your diet if you learn it is safe. Better to be safe than sick.
Early in your gluten-free journey, stick with “pure” foods (meat with no additives, fresh vegetables and fruits, safe grains, etc.) as much as possible. Introduce only a few new gluten-free items at a time. This way, if you have an unexpected reaction to something, you’re more likely to be able to pin down the culprit. I would suggest trying a few different manufacturers, and possibly only one product from each, at a time. This allows you to find which manufacturer’s products you tend to like best, without ending up with too many products in your pantry that you’re not crazy about. I’ve found that if I like two or three of a manufacturer’s line, I typically have good luck with most of their products. Likewise, I’ve found that some manufacturers just don’t match up with my particular taste buds. Again, everyone is different. The point is, don’t go crazy buying too much until you know where your preferences lie.
Perhaps you want to schedule an appointment with a nutritionist. Sometimes getting started with a person who is well-versed and knowledgeable in the gluten-free lifestyle, or a dietitian or nutritionist, can be very helpful when you’re just starting out. Gaining knowledge that will help you establish safe and nutritious gluten-free habits from the beginning is very important, and can make the difference in your perspective on whether the gluten-free lifestyle is a positive change or a burden.
Establish “safe” cooking practices for your kitchen to prevent cross-contamination. If there are other members in your household, it will be important to educate them so the risks of cross-contamination are eliminated. Keeping the gluten-free products in separate cabinets or on dedicated shelves, labeling flours that have been removed from their original bags, and dedicating cookware and utensils for gluten-free cooking is especially important if your home has non-gluten-free members. Clearly identifying snack items for children who are gluten-free makes it easier, and safer, for everyone without bringing undue attention to snacking differences when friends are visiting.
Magazines, cookbooks, reference materials, and the internet can be great resources. Magazines target good information in a quick-reference format, while books can delve into understanding the chemistry and dynamics of being gluten-free with a more in-depth approach. If you’re looking for a good reference book, watch for one that includes a section on safe and taboo food additives. This can be very helpful information. Add a new cookbook to your kitchen. There are a number of cookbooks addressing gluten-free cooking now. And you can find just about anything on the internet. When you find a helpful website, be sure to bookmark it for regular referencing, such as Daily Forage – gluten free, for example.
Here are a few suggestions to get your library started:
– Delight Gluten Free Magazine
– Gluten-Free Living Magazine
– Living Without Magazine (targets many allergies and food sensitivities, including gluten-free
– Vegetarian Times Magazine (mentioned because they identify gluten-free and dairy free recipes, and how to create very nutritionally balance meals … you can always add the meat back in if you’re not vegetarian).
– Wheat-Free, Worry-Free by Danna Korn – comprehensive book containing a very helpful quick-reference section on safe foods, safe additives, and forbidden additives.
– Go Dairy Free by Alisa Marie Fleming – (if this applies to you) comprehensive reference and cookbook for those with milk allergies, lactose intolerance, and who are casein-free.
Get Out! Being gluten-free doesn’t mean you have to be held captive by your “safe” kitchen cooking area and pantry items. There are many restaurants (some have already been featured here at Daily Forage, and others will be soon) that offer worthwhile, sometimes even spectacular, gluten-free dining experiences. If you want some suggestions for your local area, check with your health food store. They will probably be a good source for this information.
When dining out, it is often helpful to call ahead and speak to the manager. Ask if the restaurant has a dedicated gluten-free menu or, if not, how the chef accommodates gluten-free (and allergy) dining requests. Ask them to identify one or two items that can be prepared gluten-free. If you hear key “red flag” phrases such as, “We don’t have a special menu, but I can prepare something without ‘wheat’ in it,” it may be your signal to try somewhere else. If the manager or chef sound knowledgable, check to see if the kitchen has a dedicated prep and cooking area, or how this is handled. Always be courteous and patient. If you find they don’t understand or fully “get it”, be sure to thank them for their time and let them know that you would be interested in dining with them if they develop a “gluten-free” approach in the future. The more educated you are, the better educated you can help your chef to be, or become in the future. If you’re going to be dining with other guests, it is advisable that you make reservations. Call ahead and speak directly to the manager or chef so the establishment is aware and prepared to accommodate your needs. This will allow for a “safe” dining experience for you, and an enjoyable time for all.
Get plugged in to a local celiac disease chapter or gluten-free support group or organization. This can provide you with other people in your community or neighborhood, and can also provide you with information on upcoming events and activities you may find of interest.
Be Patient. In this new gluten-free journey, there are so many aspects to assimilate. There is a wealth of knowledge ready and waiting to be accessed. In the beginning, it may very likely be that the more you learn about being gluten-free, the more you realize there is so much more to learn. It will all come with time, patience, and perseverance. It’s not the end of the world … it’s just the beginning of a new one. Thrive in your journey.