Tips for Starting a Gluten-Free Diet
Getting the celiac disease diagnosis was a massive step forward for my health, but it was a very small step in the grand scheme of things. (You can read my diagnosis story if you missed it!) I knew I had to eat gluten-free, but I had no idea what that actually meant. My transition was not a smooth or easy one — but I made it! I hope your transition can be an easier one than mine, so here’s my story and tips for starting a gluten-free diet.
I remember looking around my dorm room the day I got the diagnosis, assessing what in it I could still eat. Girl Scout cookies, crackers, cereal — none of it made the cut. I think I ate one last Girl Scout cookie, then threw the box of Tagalongs away. Since I needed something different for breakfast the next morning, I walked to the Whole Foods down the street and picked out a strange looking bag of hot gluten-free cereal. Besides plans for one last meal at the Cheesecake Factory with friends, I cut gluten out of my life right then and there.
At least, I thought I did. It was so much harder than I expected.
If you’re gluten-free, you’re probably used to hearing comments like, “that just means you can’t eat bread, right?” At first, I believed that, too. But it’s so not that simple.
I’ll never forget the first time I went on a full-blown grocery trip. I brought a print-out of all the ingredients with gluten I needed to avoid. Picking up item after item, I compared the list of ingredients to the list on the paper. I got lost somewhere in all the mono and diglycerides and had to start over numerous times. It was exhausting, and confusing, and I think I left with three things after a couple of hours and a few tears.
The first time I tried to eat a gluten-free meal out at a restaurant with some friends, I spent hours researching the options in my college’s town. This was long enough ago that most restaurants didn’t have allergen menus, and certainly not the one-off restaurants in my town. So I scoured menus and picked a restaurant I thought I could eat something at.
Before we ordered, a friend said, “This gluten-free thing must be no big deal if you can still eat anywhere.” It took everything I had in that moment not to cry (though I’m sure I did when I got back home). She didn’t know that the restaurant we were sitting in was the only one in the whole town that had seemed safe. And I didn’t know that I was about to “gluten” myself. I ordered sausage and potatoes without thinking about the gravy on the potatoes. Gravy, unbeknownst to me at the time, is made with flour. Flour was not good.
Tired of being in pain all the time, I had welcomed the change that would make me feel whole again. But I wasn’t actually feeling better. I kept unknowingly eating gluten.
I was dealing with the emotions of a diagnosis that would impact me the rest of my life, desperately craving pizza and all the foods I’d loved, AND I was still in tons of pain. All the relief of finally getting a diagnosis was long gone. Something had to give.
Tips for Starting a Gluten-Free Diet
A few changes finally helped my transition.
Since I was still living in a dorm at college, I met with a school nutritionist and set up a plan for eating at the dining hall. I had to stand in a certain area and wait for a man to bring me my special plate wrapped in Saran Wrap. It only contained a few variations: boiled chicken or gluten-free spaghetti, boiled broccoli or boiled green beans, and steamed rice or a boiled potato. The only source of flavor was the salt and pepper available on the tables.
It was so bland, and I just about lost my mind over eating the same thing day after day after day. But even if I hadn’t been restricted to a college dining hall, I think there was something valuable about cutting out nearly everything. It was a base from which to build. And the best part was, I slowly started to feel better.
The second change that made a huge difference originated from some advice from a vegan friend. We were at Whole Foods, and I was desperately trying to find something — anything — to eat that would feel satisfying. She told me to stop trying to replace all the things I loved and just eat what was naturally safe for a while. This is the number one piece of advice I would give if you’re just starting your gluten-free journey.Someday, you’ll appreciate gluten-free pizza for what it is. And someday you’ll forget what freshly baked, gluteny cookies taste like. But it won’t happen overnight.
So try not to raid the gluten-free aisle of the grocery store and pretend like your life hasn’t changed. It has, but it’s not the end of the world. Instead, go for the fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables. Load up on rice and potatoes. Try some quinoa. Cook it in olive oil (I still don’t recommend the flavor of boiling everything!). Find some new spices. There are so many delicious naturally gluten-free things you can eat, so eat those!
- After the potatoes and gravy incident, I kept going to dinner with friends, but I stopped eating. I ordered a root beer and enjoyed their company, but I ate my safe meal either before or after. Sometimes that beckoned lots of questions, but being pain-free at the end of the day was totally worth it. Even though there are lots of restaurants with allergen menus and gluten-free options now, I suggest avoiding those for a while. Slowly, I learned what restaurants to trust and what questions to ask, so I do eat out more often now. (I’ll talk about that in another post.)
It Gets Better!
I remember the morning after I got my diagnosis so clearly. I got out of bed, took a few steps toward the restroom, then tried to remember what happened the day before that was making me feel so weird. Suddenly, it hit me. Celiac disease. I would never put an item of food into my mouth again without thought or concern. I would never go on a trip or even away from my home for a few hours without carefully researched options and an emergency snack in my purse. A requirement of living that had always seemed to be about pleasure was suddenly a serious risk to my health.
Eating and living gluten-free is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. But it is possible. And what I know now is that even though celiac disease changed my life, it in no way worsened my life. It’s simply part of who I am.
Resources I Recommend
- Ingredients index. Take some time to learn what ingredients are safe and which ones have gluten.
- 4 ways to save on gluten-free groceries. Living gluten-free doesn’t have to kill your bank account!
- Our easy gluten-free recipes. We use mostly naturally gluten-free ingredients, which is perfect when you’re starting out on a gluten-free diet!
- Triumph’s Dining Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Shopping Guide. This guide was invaluable for grocery shopping when I was still struggling to understand what ingredients were unsafe. Gluten (or the lack thereof) is not always clearly identified on food packaging. This book will help you find some brands and items to get started.
Do you have any tips for starting a gluten-free diet? Please share!