How to Get Started with a Gluten-free Diet
Kari Hauger is the founder and blogger behind MinneCeliac, a blog about living gluten-free in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her blog also has restaurant recommendations, travel tips, and recipes. She was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in March 2017 and is passionate about sharing her knowledge with the gluten-free community.
I know what is sounds like to hear that you can never eat gluten again. I’ve been there! It’s a very overwhelming feeling. It sounds impossible because you think your life will never be the same. It will. It will just take some practice.
If someone newly diagnosed with Celiac Disease reaches out to me looking where to start, I supportively say to them “YOU CAN DO THIS!” It is going to be hard work, but if you stick to a 100% gluten-free diet 100% of the time, you will feel better! It probably took a long time to feel sick from the damage of ingesting gluten. It’s probably going to take some time to heal. This is totally common and shouldn’t deter anyone from continuing on a gluten-free diet.
Yes, extra label reading was foreign to me. It took a lot of fails in the kitchen and trying different products to find my favorites, but grocery shopping, cooking at home, and enjoying social gatherings and date nights at restaurants has become much easier. Every day is a learning process, just like everything else, but now this just feels like it’s the way it’s supposed to be. You can get there, too!
Here are a few tips to help you find your gluten-free rhythm and get on the right path to healing and feeling comfortable with this new way of eating!
Make your home a safe place to eat.
Eating a gluten-free diet is actually quite easy. Many restaurants offer gluten-free menus and the stores shelves are stocked with packaged products. It’s the cross-contamination part that is difficult for those with Celiac Disease. It may not be the right choice for your family, but I strongly suggest at least contemplating changing over to a 100% gluten-free kitchen. You should be able to feel safe in your own home, as it can be difficult and frustrating to eat out.
This will mean getting a new toaster, new baking sheets, and new cooking utensils, and making sure everything is always cleaned thoroughly and kept separate. Basically anything that has previously touched gluten should be replaced (if it’s within your budget).
If you’re not able to convert your kitchen, then I recommend at the very least creating a special area just for your food. And the one thing you should get a duplicate of is your toaster. You absolutely cannot share a toaster with regular breads/waffles/etc. I also suggest having a separate shelf in the cupboard for your gluten-free foods; this will need to be located on the top shelf so that no gluten crumbs fall into your safe food. You’ll also want to thoroughly clean all of your cupboards, countertops, floors, and cooking devices to make sure there aren’t any rogue crumbs left over.
I understand that it is a lot to ask your loved ones to also eat gluten-free in the home. It’s not going to harm your family members to eat gluten-free bread and pasta along with you. It will, however, continue to harm YOU if you are ingesting gluten through cross-contamination.
Get comfortable reading labels.
Reading and understanding ingredient labels will be your new super power. You’ll also most likely be constantly thinking about 20 parts per million (20 ppm). Celiac Disease Foundation has a good starting point about label reading and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Regarding 20 ppm, Celiac Disease Foundation explains:
“[FDA] adopted < 20 ppm gluten as one of the criteria for a food labeled gluten-free because the agency relies upon scientifically validated methods for enforcing its regulations. Analytical methods that are scientifically validated to reliably detect gluten at a level lower than 20 ppm are not currently available. In addition, some celiac disease researchers and some epidemiological evidence suggest that most individuals with celiac disease can tolerate variable trace amounts and concentrations of gluten in foods (including levels that are less than 20 ppm gluten) without causing adverse health effects.”
Another thing to remember is that even if the packaging says “gluten-free” there might still be a risk for cross-contamination. For instance, you can have an item that is naturally gluten-free, but if it’s processed on shared equipment with gluten then there is a risk for cross-contamination. This is something that will be indicated on the ingredients label.
I also highly suggest trying a gluten-free product more than once. After you get accustomed to the taste and texture of gluten-free foods, your like or dislike for it might also change. Give everything a chance, at least once!
Find support within our community.
Having a food restriction can feel very isolating. Find some friends in your local community, whether that’s in-person or online, to share your ups and downs with. The Gluten Intolerance Group website has a list and location of support groups they host throughout the United States. Facebook is another great place to meet others living gluten-free. There are tons of Facebook groups specifically for your city, certain travel destinations, and even for specific ailments (i.e. if you have other autoimmune diseases associated along with Celiac/Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity/or other health conditions).
One of the most helpful platforms I found was Instagram. I started by doing a simple hashtag search for things like #celiacdisease, #glutenfree, #glutenfreerecipes, etc. Then I followed people who I noticed were sharing their favorite products and recipes. It is a great (and free) way to feel connection with others just like you!
Of course, Google is not a suggested source for medical advice but it is a great way to hear from the real experts – those living with Celiac Disease or another condition requiring a gluten-free diet. Familiarize yourself with the lists of approved foods and those you need to avoid. Read other people’s stories to make you feel less alone. Peruse through gluten-free recipes and check out the gluten-free ingredients that are used in replacement of what you might be familiar with.
Start by visiting a few restaurants that you think might be safe.
One of the very best (FREE!) resources for dining out on a gluten-free diet is the Nima Sensor app, which shows the location and exact dishes that have been tested for the presence of gluten with the sensor. We’ll talk about that in just a bit.
Find Me Gluten Free is another awesome resource. It is a free app where other diners rate their experiences, but the great thing about it is that it’s just for gluten-free restaurants. Once you start to feel comfortable at a few places, and you have confidence in the questions you ask when dining out, then you can expand your list from there.
Have a plan of attack when eating out. Find the restaurants that offer the most gluten-free items. Look at the menu online before you go to get an idea of what foods might be safe for you. Think ahead of time about how you are going to present to the staff that you need extra care with your food. You can even call ahead to restaurants to ask about their food preparation processes.
Some questions you can ask when eating out include:
- Does the staff/chef understand what Celiac Disease is?
- Does this menu item contain wheat, barley, rye, oats, or any other gluten-containing item?
- Will the staff change gloves before preparing my food?
- Is the fryer for gluten-free foods separate from gluten containing items (ex. cooking french fries in the same fryer as a breaded items is considered cross-contamination and should be avoided).
- Will my food be prepared in a separate space away from the foods with gluten in them?
- Will my food be cooked in a separate pan, using clean utensils, and fresh condiments?
Ask the same questions each time you go, even if you’ve been to the restaurant before, because things can change.
And always speak up for yourself because you are your best advocate! You are in charge of your own health. If you don’t feel comfortable then ask to speak with the manager or even the chef. The restaurant wants you to be happy and healthy.
Convert your favorite recipes to be gluten-free.
Let me tell you, it’s easy to convert your current recipes to a gluten-free version. There are gluten-free alternatives for just about everything. Even if you don’t have access to a wide breadth of stores where you live, there are plenty of online stores such as Amazon, Brandless, and Thrive Market that provide an affordable and ample variety of gluten-free foods.
Yes, you will have some fails in the kitchen. You will also have some major wins! Pinterest has so many gluten-free recipes for you. Most of the bloggers making these recipes have been in your same shoes thinking, “Where do I even start?” They’ve done the trial and error part for you and come up with delicious gluten-free recipes that you can make at home.
Curate your personal arsenal of gluten-free tools.
So far, I’ve talked about ways that you can make gluten-free eating easier through your home, resources, and support from other community members. Another tool that has been invaluable in helping me to find my own rhythm in this new gluten-free world is the Nima Sensor.
After many months of researching, I decided that it was a good idea to invest in the device. Having the Nima Sensor does not change any of the other steps I take to make sure my food is safe to eat. It is just be an added step to confirm that my food is gluten-free (or not). Nima has been an absolutely invaluable tool for me when I’m traveling and eating out at restaurants.
As I mentioned previously, Nima allows its users to share their test results from restaurants and products with everyone. Anyone is welcome to view these results, which is just another tool to help you find places or products that have been confirmed gluten-free and safe to eat! You can read all about the Nima Sensor app here!
I hope that these tips help you start your gluten-free journey off on the right foot. And always remember, YOU CAN DO THIS!