Learning to Live Gluten Free

Chances are, if you walk around any grocery store, you will see signs of the gluten-free movement. Some stores have entire sections; others have bright, noticeable labels to help you find products free of wheat, barely, rye and other gluten ingredients. What you may not know is that these products are not just a side effect of the latest fad diet; it’s how millions of people around the country with gluten intolerance and celiac disease manage their condition.

I won’t go into terrible detail here on symptoms and diagnosis, or what it’s like to react to gluten. Gluten intolerance symptoms are very specific, not only to the person but also to the amount of gluten ingested, and many people’s symptoms also change over time. But for the curious, you can check out this pretty comprehensive list.

What I am more interested in explaining here is the “how.” How do you live without gluten and not hole up in your apartment, destined to never eat anything other than fruits and vegetables grown in your own backyard…? Fine, that’s a little overboard, but it really can be tough at first. However, it is doable and, with a little work, can easily become just another part of your daily life.

Do Your Research

You must do research in order to understand how to live with this disease. But don’t just go and scour the big bad west of the Internet without a bit of planning and a cautious eye.

There are many exaggerations, lies, and outright scams out there when it comes to anything medical (or, I guess, any topic created). This problem especially applies to gluten intolerance because it has become such a fad to not eat gluten. So instead, here are some tried and true resources to get you started on the right track.

There’s much more out there, and some of it is quite good. Just make sure it’s coming from a reputable source before believing it.

Learn to Love Food Shopping

Raise your hand if you like food shopping. If you’re like me, your hand is firmly plastered to your side because the idea of going into the grocery store at least once a week for tons of specific things is, well, akin to a dental appointment. I’m with you. I feel your pain. And I promise, it gets easier.

Food shopping is important because (1) you need to buy a lot of fresh foods to stay both healthy and gluten-free, and (2) that’s the only way you are going to eat anything that isn’t bland meat, fruits, and veggies.

Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Giant Foods, and Wegmans all have great selections of gluten free products—from pasta to breads to baking goods—it’s all there. Just make sure you also learn to read labels. Many sauces, oils, and even spices have gluten. If in doubt, ask an employee, or consult a trusted list, before you buy.

Cook? Yes, You’ll Have To Do That, Too

For some of you, stepping into the kitchen may bring pure joy. But if you’re the kind of person who prides yourself on your PB&J skills with a side interest in boiling water, then this may take a bit of extra effort. But it’s totally worth it.

There are many great recipe sites and books out there, sharing both original concoctions and plays on traditional meals with the right substitutions. You may not be very good at them at first. That’s fine. It will get easier, just like cooking does in general. Eventually, you will love how easy it is to make your favorite recipes without any gluten at all.

Pro Tip: If you share a kitchen with those who are blessed with a tolerance for gluten-y goodness, it’s good practice to have a separate set of cooking utensils, pots and pans, and baking sheets. Gluten contamination happens all too easily on these surfaces. Also be sure to extensively clean your kitchen counters and other prep areas before and after every use, and also thoroughly clean any shared plates, utensils, or cups. While those who are not as seriously affected by gluten may not find these small contaminations bothersome, those with full-blown celiac disease often get sick from even the smallest interactions. It’s a good habit to learn.

You Have to Be Pickier About Where You Eat Out

The good news is that you don’t have to give up restaurants, happy hours, and late night munching. The bad news is that your favorite spots may or may not still be viable for you. Many more restaurants and other eateries now cater to those of us who can’t eat 98% of their food anyway. Pizza places, burger joints, and sit-down establishments are now dedicating parts of their menus to us. But even then, there are few things to keep in mind.

Here’s how to find the best places that will handle your requests with ease:

Call ahead and ask for a manager. They will be able to tell you any accommodations they offer and how broad their options are. While some restaurants have dedicated separate menus, others just modify a couple of their recipes by substituting something for something else. These may be good options, but still be wary. Their kitchen staff may not be as attentive and you’ll need to be extra vigilant in making sure they do it right.

Try to be familiar with the menu beforehand. This will save you review time and allow you to more specifically handle working with the staff so that you don’t slow down the whole process. Also, it cuts down on surprises.

Tell your waiter or waitress as soon as you are seated that you have a gluten allergy. She’ll ensure you have the proper menu and will tell you if there’s anything you should be aware of. This will also give you more time to work out the details while the rest of your party has time to make their selections. Often, this will even prompt a manager to come over, who will likely be more familiar with the processes of the kitchen and handling food sensitivities. Some restaurants even make this a policy.

Be wary. I hate to say it, but no matter what, eating out is a risk for those with gluten sensitivity. Your food is being prepared in the same place as food with gluten, by a busy and sometimes overworked kitchen staff. While there is still a good chance you will have a perfectly fine experience, be ready for the possibility of contamination and side effects. If your symptoms are severe, be extra careful and consider ordering something entirely from scratch that you know will be gluten free. If the chef says that he can’t guarantee that there won’t be contamination, consider whether this will be okay for you. The risk sometimes may be too high.

If you’re not sure where to start looking for gluten-free friendly establishments, check out the Gluten Free Registry. (It’s comprehensive and covers most of the country.) While it is sometimes a bit outdated, and includes old restaurants or forgets new ones, it’s a great starting point and often will help you think of other places that haven’t even crossed your mind.

Learning to live gluten-free may seem overwhelming, frustrating, and downright unfair, but it will get easier. If you stick to your new habits, are extra vigilant, and are above all patient with yourself and those around you, then the habits and routines will fall into place naturally. Gluten-free living doesn’t need to be hard, it just needs to be done right.

Photo by Michelle White

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