The internet, the news, magazines; family, friends and co-workers…they all have advice these days. We are inundated with diet and health information: what is healthy, what isn’t, what to do, what not to do. It can all be overwhelming! What do you believe and what is just hype? Now add a condition that is “unknown to many doctors,” may have taken years to figure out, and is treated by diet alone. BUT WHAT A DIET!
Welcome to the world of gluten-related disorders (celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis and non-celiac gluten sensitivity). It is a relief to know what makes us or our child feel poorly and that there is something we can do about it. Yet the gluten-free diet can seem unmanageable. Avoiding a food or two is not difficult. But this diet is more than that. It’s strictly avoiding ALL foods that contain gluten, something found in far more ingredients and food items than one might expect. The list can seem endless. It’s no wonder people throw their hands up in the air, saying, “So what CAN I eat?”
Yes, there is a lot to know about foods, ingredients, and changes in lifestyle and cooking. This gluten-free diet is no easy thing to master in “one easy step.” So take one step at a time. Elaine Hartsook, Ph.D., RD, founder of the Gluten Intolerance Group, once used an upside-down triangle to illustrate the point that there are obvious things that make those with gluten-related disorders ill and there are the not so obvious things. Let’s use this upside-down triangle as a model to take one step at a time. Tackle the obvious things first, then fine tune more and more. Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day…no one expects you to know this diet all at once.
Thanks to increased awareness of the gluten-free diet in recent years, as well as to the passage of the gluten-free labeling regulation by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013, finding and identifying gluten-free foods has become easier. Yet it is still helpful to approach this dietary change “one step at a time.”
Step One – Omit the obvious problematic foods from your diet. These are foods that can easily be identified as containing the grains to be avoided (wheat, rye, barley and non gluten-free oats). Avoid traditional cereals, breads, crackers, pasta and desserts. Avoid non-gluten-free beers and ales. Try eggs, cream of rice and fruit for breakfast. Substitute rice cakes, rice, potatoes, or corn tortillas for the breads and pastas you have usually eaten. Have fruit or sherbet for dessert. Use vinegar and oil on salads. Drink milk, 100% fruit juice, coffee, or teas. This step may be a huge change from your “typical” diet. Now sit back and breathe! Yes, it may not be fun, but you can still eat. Now you are ready to move on to step two.
Step Two – Begin reading labels for less obvious sources of gluten in food. Learn what to watch out for by reading labels. (Find detailed information on label reading here https://www.gluten.org/resources/getting-started/label-reading/ ). Avoid anything you think is suspect for containing gluten. Keep in touch with a local support group, other contact person or the GIG office for support and information. Step two can be confusing. You will learn new words, and look at food and food preparation in a new way. It’s usually here that people will panic. This is a natural feeling. The reality of your situation is setting in. If need be, break this step into “baby steps.” Focus on label reading in a certain group of products, such as condiments or frozen foods. Carry a pen and paper with you. If you find a product that appears to be safe write it down. Once you have a few items in a category of foods add another to your list, so that eventually you have a number of foods you feel comfortable buying. You can quickly review the label each time you purchase it. You still don’t know it all, but you are closer and haven’t made yourself and those around you crazy in the process.
Step Three – Reach out and touch someone. Now it is time to try calling or writing to a manufacturer to inquire about the gluten-free status of foods you’re not sure of. In doing this, make sure you are using the proper terms and being very specific in what you are asking. You don’t have far to go.
Step Four – Continue to fine tune. Now start looking at the things you may have never thought of…medicines, mouthwash, and toothpaste. Consider cross-contamination issues – such as toasters, shared foods products like mayonnaise, margarine, and jam. What about your chewing gum or breath mints?
Step Five – Finally, begin to explore new foods that are naturally gluten-free. There are many gluten-free grains you may not have tried before, like sorghum, teff and buckwheat (which is naturally gluten-free, despite its name). Often when some doors are closed, others are opened. Look at your gluten-free diet as an opportunity to discover new gluten-free foods and cuisines. Get inspired by Mexican and Indian spices and ingredients. Corn tortillas, salsas, guacamole and beans are naturally gluten-free. Cook with traditional Indian ingredients like cumin, turmeric and lentils.
We never stop learning if we choose to keep our eyes and minds open. Be thankful for a diagnosis and someone to lean on. Take one step at a time and learn and grow healthy!
This article has been assessed and approved by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.