This question has been at the forefront of quite a few conversations I’ve been having with people over the past couple weeks, so I thought I’d write up a Gluten Free Beginner’s Guide, Laura-style.
***** Here’s my standard disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Nothing I say here should be used to self-diagnose. If you suspect you have a gluten allergy you need to talk to your doctor. You should also embark on dietary modification adventures with care; talk to a certified nutritionist for help! *****
I have the privilege of experience with gluten (and much, much more!) elimination diets because I seem to give birth to babies with Multiple Food Protein Intolerances. That means that my breastmilk basically poisons them until I strip away all of the allergens from my diet. The first time I did it was almost 4 years ago and man, was it rough! Not only because it just totally sucks not being able to eat anything you want to, but because there was hardly any support or awareness of food sensitivities back then! (I also had to eliminate way more than I am right now.)
This time around (I’ve been gluten free for about 6 months now), I am shocked by how widespread the common knowledge of food sensitivities has become. Lots of restaurants have specialized gluten free menus, or use special notation for wheat free and dairy free items. Waitresses no longer look at me cross-eyed when I explain my special dietary needs and ask “What is safe for me to eat here?” I no longer have to cobble together a meal for myself from the ingredients of several menu items! It’s great!
Not only that, but specialized grocery items have gone mainstream as well. I used to have to buy all of my special gluten free flours in bulk off Amazon because I couldn’t find them in stores. Now, just about any grocery store big enough to have a “natural foods” section will include a shelf or two of allergy-friendly baking mixes, spice packets, and ready-made snacks.
So, take heart! Going gluten free isn’t fun, but it sure is easier than it used to be! You’re in good company and have some excellent resources at your fingertips.
If you have your doctor’s go-ahead to eliminate gluten from your diet, here’s my advice:
Know your diagnosis
Have you had a positive test for celiac disease? Or has your doctor simply suggested you avoid glutenous grains in order to help with other gastro-intestinal issues? Celiac Disease is a serious digestive disorder where the body exhibits an allergic reaction to even minuscule amounts of gluten. Total elimination and scrupulous awareness of cross-contamination risks is necessary with Celiac Disease. If you are dealing with a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, your stakes are not nearly so high.
Don’t get overwhelmed
Change your mindset to “Wow! Look at all the stuff I can eat” instead of “Agh! I can’t eat this! Or that! Or X, Y, or Z!”
The truth of the matter is that the foods you’re supposed to be eating the most of are naturally gluten free already! :)
Fruits? Gluten free!
Vegetables? Gluten free!
Meat and legumes for protein? Hey, whaddya know - gluten free!
You get into muddy waters with processed foods. Anything in a box or a bag or a can, unless it specifically says certified gluten free, is suspect. You’ll be doing a lot of tedious label reading if you insist on maintaining a processed food habit! If you haven’t already, now would be an excellent time to start eating a more whole foods, plants-based diet!
Here is an excellent Gluten Free Guide for Families (links to a pdf file for download). It is aimed toward parents whose children have just gotten a celiac diagnosis, but it should be useful to most anyone. It gives an overview of Celiac Disease, defines gluten and its sources, and offers a gluten free shopping list.
TriumphDining.com also sells a Gluten Free Dining Guide if you feel like you simply can’t figure things out on your own. I’d suggest giving yourself a mourning and adjustment period of about 8 weeks before you spend any serious money on something like this. Most likely you’ll learn to adapt just fine on your own!
Prepare for withdrawal
If you have a gluten sensitivity or allergy, no doubt you are experiencing some pretty gnarly gastro-intestinal symptoms that you’re dying to be rid of. It’s likely that when you eliminate gluten from your diet, you’ll go through a withdrawal period. Some symptoms may include “food cravings, disorientation, irritability, sleepiness, depression, mental fogginess, fatigue, and/or shortness of breath”* and have been compared to opiate withdrawal! Usually these symptoms occur after you start feeling the remission of your gluten reaction symptoms, so just hang in there. It typically takes about 4-6 weeks for gluten to clear your system entirely, although you should start feeling much better by the end of week two!
Take it easy
Naturally, a lot of the focus on gluten free specialty items is baked goods - particularly cookies and cakes. Please remember that just because it is gluten free doesn’t mean that it’s any healthier for you than its glutenous counterpart! So just because you can get gluten free brownie mix at Trader Joes (it’s quite good, by the way!) doesn’t mean you should eat a whole pan in one sitting! It is very, very easy to indulge in another vice (ie: sugar) when you are going through withdrawals for something else. Just hang in there and control yourself.
There are many excellent online resources for gluten free living! Here are a few of my favorites (make sure you browse the blogrolls or link lists of the sites I send you to; you’ll find it exponentiates the resource list!)
Gluten Free Girl and the Chef - my absolute favorite GF blog! I cannot wait for their recipe book to come out! She has great recipes published on her blog and an excellent list of resources on her links page.
Celiac Teen - the recipe blog of a 17 year old girl with Celiac Disease. She makes up a lot of her own recipes and takes great food pictures.
Elana’s Pantry - she has some excellent recipes, but her baked goods mostly rely on almond flour so if you have nut issues (like we do, at the moment), you’ll have to make substitutions.
Fat Free Vegan - a great resource for me, as we are also dairy free here. I am not a big believer in “fat free” but Susan cooks up some excellent fat free fare!
Gluten Free Goddess - she has a whole section of vegan and vegetarian recipes that are gluten free as well!
There is a plethora of gluten free products for sale on Amazon. Just remember that the secondary goal of your new lifestyle change is to maintain a whole food, natural and unprocessed way of eating. So don’t get sucked in by just anything that has a “gluten free” label on it! Gluten free or not, if it’s heavily processed and full of artificial ingredients, it’s not good for you!
Let me recommend a few of my favorite gluten free items. (Remember, if you click through my links to purchase, you’re supporting my blog with a teensy little commission from Amazon!) :)
Tinkyada Brown Rice Pasta - one of the most widely available and best gluten free pastas. It’s not going to give you that opiate-high gluten effect, but it has a good mouthfeel nonetheless. It’s expensive, though, so if you are fortunate enough to shop at a Trader Joe’s, definitely pick up some of TJ’s gluten free noodles - they are an excellent substitute!
Let me give a shout out to Central Oregon local, The Cravings Place. Their facility is actually just down the street from my house! I have enjoyed many of their mixes; I think their Cinnamon Crumble Coffeecake Mix is the best, particularly if you stir in extra cinnamon and little apple chunks. They make a passable pancake mix, but I prefer Trader Joe’s for its authenticity.
Another local, new to the scene, is The Celiac Maniac. So far the Maniac is only stocking and shipping locally. I got their GF pizza dough at my local Whole Foods last week and it is fantastic!
I love Annie’s all natural boxed pasta dinners, and her Annie’s Gluten-Free Mac & Cheese is no exception. Now if only she would make a gluten and dairy free option; right now you can only get one or the other, so I’m out of luck! :)
Breakfast cereal is a huge weakness of mine. I eat a lot of Rice Chex (although most store brands are incidentally GF and a whole lot cheaper - so if you aren’t battling a true allergy and don’t need to be concerned about certified gluten free foods I recommend buying the house brand!). I also love Barbara’s Honey Rice Puffins.
Bob’s Red Mill has an excellent selection of gluten free flours and mixes. I don’t think I’ve ever used any of his mixes, but my pantry is stocked with Bob’s GF flours. I created an amazing GF muffin recipe using his Organic Coconut Flour. It has such a lovely, moist, cakey texture - a real feat in GF baking!
Live your life
Dealing with food sensitivities and dietary restrictions can really threaten your enjoyment of life. Food and our culture surrounding the meal table is a powerful part of most of our lives. Give yourself time to grieve the loss of life as you knew it. But after the initial depression lifts and you don’t feel so overwhelmed anymore, remember that you are depriving yourself only of that which has hurt your body and made you sick! You will find new ways to celebrate with new foods; soon you will be able to navigate the grocery store, the restaurant menu, the kitchen cupboards with ease. Look forward to having fun and eating well!
I would be remiss to not throw this out there for those who are suffering from any kind of food sensitivity. Our family (as well as others we personally know) have had excellent results with alternative medicine treatments for food intolerances. My preferred route has been NAET, an energy-based healing technique akin to Applied Kinesiology. There is no way to explain it that doesn’t sound hokey and verging on voodoo, unfortunately. Here is a concise presentation on the way NAET works, which then sort of devolves into a rather silly discussion of whether or not it is a “Christian” mode of healing (though you’ll be glad to know the author decides that it could be seen as more “Christian” than drug therapy, which is unnatural and created by men, not God). Anyway. My point is, it worked for us and worked for several other people I know. You have absolutely nothing to lose by trying it. Well, unless it turns out not to be “Christian” after all, in which case maybe you could lose your soul. ;) Jokes aside, I always feel compelled to share this information in hopes that others might find relief from their allergies.