In September 2012, I broke up with gluten. It wasn’t one of those messy break-ups with random midnight dalliances, or the “let’s try and be friends” phase. It was a cold turkey kind of deal. That should tell you how bad I felt at the time.
After years of life-disrupting stomach issues and parade float-style bloating (you don’t want details, I assure you), I discovered I’m gluten intolerant. I don’t have celiac disease (a more serious, sometimes life-threatening form of gluten intolerance), but I have very noticeable, lasting, adverse reactions to foods that contain gluten.
As a health coach, cookbook writer, and former restaurant publicist, food has always been a part of my career, not to mention my social life, my hobbies (cooking, eating, talking about cooking and eating) and just an overall happy place for me. While I was psyched to finally understand why I felt like crap so often, I was also kinda pissed. Cutting out an entire category of food, especially the category that includes bread, pasta, biscuits, cookies, and pizza, was pretty upsetting.
Immediately, I had questions: How is this going to affect my work? Will I be stuck eating salads every time I go out to eat? Is food still going to be an enjoyable thing in my life?
Once I got out of my own head and started talking with other gluten-free folk, I got the lay of the land and took it day by day. I learned a lot about how to make the transition easier and how to deal with some of the stickier situations that come up (these apply to food allergies of any kind, really).
I can’t tell you if you should be gluten-free; I’d need to work with you one-on-one and learn a lot more about your situation to be able to weigh in on that. But I know that whether you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, or you suspect you have a sensitivity to gluten and want to avoid it for a while, there are ways to do this so you don’t hate life.
Focus on what you CAN eat--not what you can’t.
You’re bound to feel a sense of restriction when you stop eating gluten, because the first thing you do is look up what foods you need to avoid. I immediately went into mourning for my mom’s Thanksgiving stuffing, birthday cake (yellow cake with chocolate icing, of course), and a good New York bagel.
Sticking around too long in that avoidance mindset sucks though. I pulled out of it by making a list of all my favorite foods that were still fair game: Fish tacos with homemade guacamole, blue cheese, baked and loaded sweet potatoes, whole roasted chicken, pistachios, fresh blueberries, homemade dark chocolate pudding...SO much good stuff!
Also up for grabs: ALL fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, cheese, and non-processed meats and fish. Making that huge list lifted any feeling of restriction. I started experimenting more, cooking grains I’d never tried, and introducing new veggies into my routine. I scooped up millet and black rice from bulk bins (look in the bulk aisle for a lot of the gluten-free grains), and baked ridiculously good cookies with almond flour. There are a huge variety of foods I can have, both at home and in restaurants, and focusing on those has made this a pretty exciting and damn delicious time.
Steer clear of gluten-free processed foods.
As tempting as it will be, stay away from the gluten-free aisle at the store, at least for the first month. Almost nothing there is what you'd actually want to eat. In most cases, the texture of these foods is drier, denser, and more crumbly than what you’re used to. They’ll be depressing and totally unsatisfying.
The taste is different too (not in a good way), and in an attempt to make up for it, food manufacturers cram a lot of sugar into these products. The rest of the ingredient list usually revolves around flours and starches that have very few vitamins and minerals. So, not only do the gluten-free processed foods taste and feel like a sorry excuse for the real thing, they’re often unhealthier and way more expensive.
I usually buy gluten-free bread and crackers and avoid the rest in favor of naturally gluten-free foods (all fruits, vegetables, non-processed meats, etc.). A cool thing I’ve noticed with this approach? I don’t crave the gluten foods that much anymore. Really! And I don’t think that would be the case if I were eating the lame, imitation version of those foods all the time.
Give restaurants and friends a heads up.
Social situations are some of the trickiest to navigate. I didn’t want to make my gluten intolerance the center of attention at the dinner table by asking a million questions about ingredients. But I also didn’t want to accidentally eat something with gluten and have to ride out the crummy effects for the next few days.
My solution is to let people know ahead of time. With restaurants, I call to ask if they have a gluten-free menu (you’ll be surprised how many of them do). If they don’t, I find out which dishes on the regular menu are gluten-free or can be made GF with easy tweaks. This way, ordering is an cinch once I’m there. If you don’t know where you’re going in advance, just have a conversation with your waiter. I promise, you won’t be the first person to say you’re gluten-free.
You may feel like you’re annoying them, but most chefs and restaurant staffs want you to have a killer experience while you’re under their care. Some have gone out of their way to make something for me, but at the very least, they’ll tweak one of their regular dishes.
If I’m invited over for dinner at a friend’s place, I give them a heads when I accept the invite. I make it clear that I don’t expect them to plan their menu around me or make anything special for me, and I always offer to bring a big salad or a meat and cheese plate. I know there’s some potential for awkwardness in that conversation, but it’s less uncomfortable than showing up for dinner only to explain why I’m not eating the lovely lasagna they slaved over.
Always pack a stash of snacks.
Airports and gas stations are notorious food deserts as it is. Throw gluten intolerance into the mix and you’re usually left choosing between a nearly expired yogurt, a tiny bag of peanuts, and a banana that hit its peak about four days ago. And that’s best-case scenario.
I always keep a stash on me now, especially when I travel. My go-tos are gluten-free crackers (LOVE Marys Gone Crackers), packets of Justin’s Nut Butter, fresh fruit, corn chips, hard-boiled eggs, Sabra Hummus singles, and a baggie of miscellaneous nuts, dried fruit, unsweetened shredded coconut flakes, and dark chocolate chips.
You will never regret taking a little extra time to have some snacks on hand in case your plane is sitting on the tarmac for four hours and all that’s available to buy is a gluten-bomb muffin.
So there you have it, guys! If you’re considering going gluten-free, I hope these tips help you with your transition. And if you’re not interested in this style of eating, I still hope you’ll invite me over for dinner. I’ll bring the salad!