Intro to the gluten-free diet: So you have to be GF, now what?
In this three-part series, Jenny Finke, creator of Good For You Gluten Free, shares how to adjust to life on a gluten-free diet after being diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. This is part 1 in the series – providing tips on how to adjust to a new diagnosis. Please consult your physician before making any changes to your diet.
I remember the day like yesterday. I was sitting in my car, in a parking lot, eating a Subway sandwich when my doctor called me with the results of my blood work. She told me I had celiac disease.
“Should I stop eating gluten now?” I asked, afraid of how she was going to respond.
She said, “Yes, now.”
Stunned, I tossed the remainder of my sandwich in the garbage and began to ponder – more like stress about – what a lifetime without gluten looked like.
If you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, you, too, will feel overwhelmed at the thought of a life without gluten. Gluten is something you’ve eaten your entire life and now, all of a sudden, it is your kryptonite.
Adjusting to those first few days, weeks and months on a gluten-free diet takes time, patience and, I’m not going to sugar coat it for you, a lot of hard work. It’s not easy being gluten-free, but it does get easier with time.
After the celiac disease or gluten sensitivity diagnosis kicks in, you will likely feel sad and emotional… it’s completely normal to feel that way. However, with anything in life, you need to pick yourself up and move forward. You cannot control what happened to you; you can only control what you do with the information you now hold. The good news is that you now know what has been making you sick, and for many of you, this diagnosis is exactly what you need to finally tame your symptoms and change the course of your health.
In this article, I share with you the four key things you need to do to get started on the gluten-free diet. I hope you’ll use this article as a roadmap to helping you successfully transition to a gluten-free diet, which may just be the best thing you ever do for yourself and your health. (Remember, it’s all how you look at it!).
(1) Ask, Learn and Apply
Learning to be gluten-free is like studying for a test. You need to ask a lot of questions, learn the information, and then apply what you learned to your everyday life.
Ask around to see if anyone in your circle of friends is gluten-free and would be willing to speak with you. Ask them questions about their favorite products, best restaurants, and biggest challenges. The answers to these questions will help you ease into your new diet. (When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease, my friend gave me a list of products she enjoyed, as well as ones that she didn’t like. It was very helpful!)
Another great way to learn is to read books (you can checkout many books on this topic at your local library). A good book, and one I wish was available when I started the gluten-free diet, is The Autoimmune Fix by Dr. Tom O’Bryan. Dr. O’Bryan discusses celiac disease, gluten sensitivities and autoimmune disease in a way that is completely understandable to anyone, as well as helps people transition to a gluten-free diet with ease.
The library also has a large collection of gluten-free cookbooks, which can be helpful in showing you how simple tweaks can enable you to enjoy your favorite meals again. When I first started on the gluten-free diet, I found myself checking out gobs of cookbooks and then photocopying recipes that looked good. Over time, I built quite a collection of meal ideas and inspiration all without spending a penny on expensive cookbooks.
Of course, the Internet is your friend, too. There are many gluten-free bloggers out there sharing gluten-free recipes, product reviews and health information. Find a few bloggers whose stories resonate with you and dig deep into their blogs. Many experienced and knowledgeable bloggers have made a wealth of gluten-free information and resources available to you, for free, on their sites.
(2) Learn to Cook a Few Safe Meals
One of the most challenging parts of the gluten-free diet is understanding what you can and can’t eat. Gluten is hidden in a lot of products; learning to read a food label is a must. However, even label reading is difficult, as our food supply is riddled with unpronounceable food-like substances. How are you supposed to know if maltodextrin is gluten-free? (Maltodextrin is a highly processed food additive derived from either corn, wheat, rice or potato – it is generally gluten-free because the gluten is removed during processing if wheat is used.)
The best thing you can do, at least until you get the hang of things, is to eat at home and as naturally gluten-free as possible. Meats, beans, eggs, rice, quinoa and every single vegetable and fruit under the sun is naturally gluten-free. Eat as “clean” as possible and you’ll find yourself enjoying very healthy and completely satisfying meals.
A few good clean, naturally gluten-free meal options might include:
- Grilled chicken, steamed broccoli and wild rice.
- Quinoa topped with black beans, chopped veggies, sliced avocado and lime.
- Tacos served with loads of veggies, shredded cheese (if you can tolerate dairy) and corn chips.
- A chopped salad topped with grilled chicken or salmon, sunflower seeds and dried fruit topped with homemade dressing (olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon squeeze and S&P is all you need).
- Chicken or tofu stir-fry with fresh vegetables and spices as well as gluten-free soy sauce (tamari) over a bed of brown rice.
- Egg omelet with a side of hashbrowns, sliced avocado, refried beans and pico de gallo (or salsa).
If you eat outside of the home, order meals that are as naturally gluten-free as possible – even after you’ve mastered the diet.
Gluten-free pizza, waffles, pancakes and toast are notoriously cross contaminated with gluten in restaurants. For example, gluten-free pizza is prepared on the same surface as regular pizza, gluten-free waffles are often cooked in the same waffle iron as regular waffles, and gluten-free bread is typically toasted in the same toaster used for regular toast. Don’t risk it. If a restaurant assures you that safe measures have been taken to prepare your meal, you can know for sure by testing your meal for gluten using your Nima Sensor.
As you adjust to the gluten-free diet, you can start to experiment with more packaged foods as well as baking with gluten-free flours. Remember, gluten-free baking is an entirely different process, so don’t jump into that until you’re feeling more settled into your diet.
(3) Set Up Your Kitchen
The safest place for you to eat will always be your home. That’s because you control what’s in your pantry and fridge, and you prepare your own food so you know exactly what’s in it and what surfaces it touched.
In an ideal world, you’d convert your entire kitchen to be a gluten-free kitchen, but for many people, this is not realistic. I shared my kitchen with my gluten-eating family for three years before we decided to officially make the kitchen a dedicated gluten-free kitchen.
Sift through all the food in your pantry and fridge, one-by-one, and sort into three piles: GF, Not GF, and Unsure. After sorting, wipe down all the surfaces of your pantry and fridge (in case any gluten crumbs are lurking in there).
Now, place all the gluten-free items on the top shelf (or shelves) of your pantry. You’ll want to claim the top shelf because gluteny cereal and other crumbs have a tendency to spill and can trickle down and ruin your precious GF food!
In the fridge, you’ll want to clearly mark items as GF. This is important! Even a crumb of gluten can make you sick. You’ll want to have your own tub of butter, as well as your own designated gluten-free jar of mayo, peanut butter and jelly, etc. When people spread these items on their toast, they often dip their knife back into the jar to grab more and therefore contaminate the entire tub of butter with gluten.
Furthermore, you’ll want to stock your kitchen with a few new items that will be used for preparing gluten-free foods only. The most essential items include a toaster oven (you don’t want your GF toast touching regular toast), a colander or strainer (pasta bits are always stuck in those – don’t risk it), a pot (have your own pot for making rice and GF pasta), and mixers (mixers can harbor hidden flour bits that, when turned on, will spew into your GF cookie dough).
(4) Ask For Help
Changing your diet after a medical diagnosis is challenging and there is no reason you have to do this alone. There are a variety of professionals that can help you – from knowledgeable heath and nutrition professionals like a dietician or health coach, or simply get help from a friend who has successfully changed her diet and is healthy (remember, get your nutrition advice from someone knowledgeable and healthy).
Above all else, be patient with and kind to yourself. It takes time to learn how to be gluten-free. The small steps you make over time with add up to big changes in your health. Remember what I said before… going gluten-free is not easy, but it does get easier with time.
In my next article, I’ll talk about how to navigate sticky situations every gluten-free eater inevitably faces at one time or another.
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About Jenny Finke:
Jenny Finke is a certified integrative nutrition and health coach and founder of the blog, Good For You Gluten Free. Jenny put her celiac disease symptoms into remission and lives a healthy, full life with celiac disease. She lives in Denver, Colorado.