Intro to the gluten-free diet: Navigating sticky GF situations
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 2 in the series – providing tips on how to navigate different situations you may encounter while on a gluten-free diet.
In my last article, I discussed some of the big things you need to do in order to successfully transition to a gluten-free diet, including how to create a few easy meals at home, how to set up your kitchen and where to find help.
Today, I want to address some of the sticky situations you might find yourself in as you navigate the gluten-free diet. I also will offer strategies for overcoming these sticky situations, too.
Sticky Situation #1: Nervous Breakdown at the Grocery Store
Grocery shopping for the first time while new to the gluten-free diet will feel like you’re visiting a foreign country for the first time. Everything will seem out of sorts, hazardous to your health and downright overwhelming.
To make grocery shopping a little easier, I highly suggest the following strategies:
Shop for naturally gluten-free foods
In my last article, I talked about eating naturally gluten-free things like meats, beans, eggs, vegetables, rice, quinoa and fruits. These foods are not only naturally gluten-free, but they are also some of the healthiest foods you can eat to help restore your damaged gut. An avocado or apple, for example, comes perfectly packaged for you to eat with no label reading skills required. Spend the bulk of your time in the produce section, stocking up on vegetables, fruits and plenty of fresh herbs.
Plan your meals
Trying to replace all your favorite foods with gluten-free varieties at once will have you feeling frustrated, defeated and in tears in the grocery store. But if you plan a few meals for the week, you can simply look for replacement items for those foods. For example, if you plan to make meatballs and pasta, you can look for gluten-free breadcrumbs and gluten-free pasta this go round … and maybe a few gluten-free spices, too. Shopping for two or three gluten-free things per grocery store trip is much easier than trying to replace everything at once.
Look for the Certified GF® symbol
Instead of having to get your master’s degree in label reading and ingredient decoding, you can simply look for the “Certified GF” symbol on foods. These foods have been verified by a third party, the Gluten Intolerance Group to contain less than 10 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, less than the FDA’s 20 ppm labeling requirement. Many replacement products, like gluten-free breadcrumbs, will bear the “Certified GF” label. (Look for the black and white GF with a circle around it and it must say Certified on top of the logo.)
Sticky Situation #2: Eating Out While Gluten-Free
Nothing can foil a gluten-free diet faster than eating out at a restaurant. In fact eating out is one of the few places I get accidentally glutened these days. The good news is there are ways to protect yourself from getting glutened.
Make sure the restaurant you’re going to understands that you cannot eat gluten – not even a little. Research online and sift through recommendations on popular gluten-free dining apps. You also can call ahead and have a discussion with the manager, and most restaurants post their menus online. To avoid a sticky situation in the restaurant, know exactly what you’re going to order before you go. This will make the process much easier and less awkward for all.
Have an open and honest discussion with your server about your diet, order dishes that are as naturally gluten-free as possible (i.e. gluten-free pizza is more likely be contaminated with gluten than a piece of grilled chicken, baked potato and steamed broccoli), and trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right to you, don’t eat it or inquire further. You have the right to get a satisfactory meal.
A lot can go wrong between the time you place your order and when your dish arrives at your table. Confirm with your server that you indeed got a gluten-free meal and ask, “How do you know for sure?” Look for clues to decode if this meal is safe for you.
Test your meal each and every time for gluten using your Nima. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Nima can give you more confidence that your meal is gluten-free (or not!).
Sticky Situation #3: Traveling
The dream of once traveling the countryside of Italy might be fraught with anxiety now that you’re gluten-free. I get it. I feel the same way.
However, many countries do gluten-free better than the U.S. and celiac disease prevalence is higher in many European countries than it is in the U.S. In fact, in Finland and Sweden, the celiac rate is triple what it is in the U.S. and five to six times as high in the Western Sahara in Africa. A lot of countries understand the gluten-free diet as much as or better than the U.S.
When traveling, pack plenty of non-perishable snacks and fruits, request a gluten-free meal on all international flights (yes, most airlines offer this!), research restaurants ahead of time (many countries have gluten-free bloggers that can help you navigate London, for example, while on a gluten-free diet), and search for a gluten-free safe dining card in the language of the country you’re visiting. You can find these by doing a simple Google search for “gluten-free dining cards.” I even found one in Hebrew when I visited Israel last year. You can get a free printable gluten-free safe dining card at Good For You Gluten Free, too. And, of course, don’t forget your Nima and plenty of test capsules.
Sticky Situation #4: Special Occasions and Events
Another challenge you’ll face while on the gluten-free diet is how to navigate special events. In fact, each event poses a different set of food challenges.
For weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, for example, the hosts are paying for you to have a meal. I think it’s perfectly okay for you to let the host know, during the RSVP process, that you would like a gluten-free meal, if possible. Many hosts will be happy to request a gluten-free meal for you from their caterer; after all, they’re paying their caterer for your meal. (And if they aren’t able or willing to do that, don’t sweat it, just eat beforehand and let it go).
However, if you’re going to a conference or luncheon and a meal is included in the fee you pay to attend that event, you should absolutely request a gluten-free meal – and do so at least one week ahead of time (sooner if possible). If they cannot accommodate you, ask for a refund for the meal portion of your ticket so you can purchase safe food for yourself. There’s no need for you to pay twice to eat that day. I have found, in my experiences, that all venues have been willing to accommodate me as they want my business (and money). I realize this may not be true for all, but it has been true in the vast majority of my experiences.
Sticky Situation #5: College
University students are often required to purchase a meal plan as part of their room and board fees; however, few campuses in the U.S. provide safe and nutritionally sound gluten-free meals for their gluten-free students. If your child is going to college, it’s important to have firm discussions with the campus dining staff about your child’s food and nutritional needs.
Please note that there is legal precedent set that requires universities to accommodate students with “food allergies.”
In October 2009, students at Lesley University sued the University for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 by failing to make “necessary reasonable modifications in policies, practices and procedures to permit students with celiac disease and/or food allergies to fully and equally enjoy the privileges, advantages and accommodations of its food service and meal plan system.” Source: ADA.
Sticky Situation #6: Eating at a Friend’s House
Just because you’re gluten-free doesn’t mean you can no longer eat at your friend’s house. When someone invites you over for a meal, you should graciously accept the invitation, and then take the time to be honest and upfront with your friend about your diet.
I usually offer to bring my own food, or several dishes to share so the host doesn’t have to worry about me; however, in most cases, the host is more than happy to make a gluten-free meal, and he or she only needs a little direction on how to do so safely.
In these cases, suggest a good recipe or two, ask him or her to check ingredient labels (and when in doubt, call you or don’t use it), and suggest he or she cook with naturally gluten-free foods as much as possible. Remind the host to wash hands often when preparing your meal, especially when also preparing things like bread or other foods that contain gluten and could inadvertently come in contact with you food.
Over time, the friends and family who care for you most will take the time to learn and understand your dietary needs. I have found my parents, in-laws and my dearest friends have become quite the gluten-free cooks and continually invite me over even though I require a little more preparation than others.
Standing Your Ground
Adjusting to the gluten-free diet takes time, and you will find yourself in plenty of sticky situations. Embrace these situations, tackle each challenge as they come to you, and don’t be worried if you fumble along the way. It gets easier with time, even if the challenges are always present.
Remember, always explain your dietary needs with the seriousness it deserves and stand strong and proud as a someone taking control of their diet and health. Eating this way is not optional for you – and helping others understand your plight will ensure that you, and others that come after you, will be able to eat gluten-free with little fuss or stigma.
In my next article, I’ll be discussing some of the physical and emotional challenges you’ll be facing as your body adjusts to this new way of eating.
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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.