When I was first diagnosed with celiac, and told I had to live gluten-free for the rest of my life, I felt elated. I had been so sick for years that I was thrilled to have an answer.
But my next reaction was confusion. What the heck is gluten? And what could I eat?
It took me three hours to make my way around the grocery store during my first shopping trip. I remember how excited I was to find a tiny bag of gluten-free pretzels for $4. There really wasn’t much labeled gluten-free available for sale then. Even so, I ate a lot of bad cakes and breads just to prove to myself that I wouldnt have to give up cake and bread.
And then I realized I just wanted good food.
Those first few months, I was scared, overwhelmed, elated at my new-found health, and kind of pissed off. My doctors gave me almost no solid information. The only facts I found online contradicted each other. One thing was certain from reading forums and articles about celiac online: I would never eat in a restaurant again. I would suffer. I would feel deprived.
Except, I didn’t believe them. After only a few days of living gluten-free, I started feeling better. Within a week, I woke up. My pain had diminished. It was as though my contacts were clean for the first time in my life. I knew it in my healing gut. This was going to be the best thing to ever happen to me.
Thats why I started writing this site in 2005. I wanted other people to not have to go through the confusion I found when I read the internet for answers.
One of you reading — if not more of you — is in that state right now. You have just been diagnosed with celiac, or gluten sensitivity, or you have figured out through process of elimination that gluten does you no good. What do you do first?
Say yes to this.
Why yes? Why not a string of expletives or sobs? Say yes because this is what is. You might like to change it, but your body cannot tolerate gluten. You could pretend it isnt true because you are so loath to give up the life you are living (is it really that great, that life, when you feel so rotten? are those grocery store hamburger buns worth that?). You could cheat when you’re in social situations, feel like crap for days, and go back to being good after you have recovered. You could ignore all this because you just don’t want to deal with it.
Say yes instead.
This is your life. This is your body. This is your new reality. If you wake up and decide you’re going to love it — you have no idea how much better you are going to feel without the gluten — then you will.
Accept it. Shout about it with those string of expletives if you want. Allow yourself to grieve. But do that all with clear eyes. This is your life. Accept it.
FOcus first on the foods that are naturally gluten-free.
See that carrot salad up there? No gluten in there. There’s also no gluten in a rib-eye steak, a peach in season, a raw kale salad with pine nuts and golden raisins, roasted chicken, soft mango slices that slither down your throat, carnitas for tacos with homemade guacamole, a steaming bowl of pho, yellow lentil waat, spring rolls with Thai basil and marinated pork, mashed potatoes, crunchy cornichons, lamb kebabs with sumac and lemon zest, hummus with smoked paprika and garlic, spring vegetable soup, poached eggs on asparagus, or smoked salt caramel ice cream.
You will not go hungry. I promise.
It’s natural to focus first on what you cannot eat. It’s a human tendency. You can see it around you, constantly. However, don’t do that.
Focus first on what you can eat. I promise you — everything will be better for this.
(It’s true of the rest of your life too, but I’ll leave that to you to figure out.)
So much of the food you already love is naturally gluten-free. Focus on that. Eat well.
figure out what gluten is and where it hides.
Gluten is the elastic protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Its elasticity is why French bread holds together, why angel-food cakes rise so high, and why H and H bagels in New York are so wonderfully doughy. Gluten is the glue that holds together baked goods and pasta. In fact, gluten comes from the same Latin root as glue. Think of gluten as the glue of wheat, rye, and barley.
Gluten or, to be accurate, gliadin and glutenin, the gluten that damages the small intestines of people with celiac disease, and makes life uncomfortable for people with gluten sensitivity, is also part of the genetic structure of spelt, kamut, durum, semolina, couscous, orzo, farro, einkorn, and triticale.
Spelt and kamut are ancient grains, wheat in its natural form, before it was hybridized. But they still contain gluten. This means that people who are allergic to wheat but not gluten intolerant or celiac can eat spelt.
If you can’t eat gluten, beware: hundreds of products advertise themselves as Wheat Free! but that doesn’t necessarily mean gluten-free. At least once, some well-meaning person is going to feed you spelt bread by mistake.
I’ve never seen triticale in my life. It is pretty easy to avoid. I love couscous but I can live without it. It’s pretty easy to avoid rye in this culture.
Barley is tricky, because it hides in places you might not think about, like beer. Or cornflakes. Or malt vinegar. You still have to think about barley.
Still, wheat is where you will find gluten 90% of the time in the American diet.
At first, you might focus on the foods that you think you can’t eat anymore, like pasta or pizza or bread. But take heart! It’s easy to make or buy great versions of each of those, plus chocolate sour cream bundt cake, whole-grain pancakes with blueberries, or breadsticks. Once you start baking gluten-free, you’ll find that it’s easy to eat gluten-free.
What is the hardest part, at first, is the foods where you might not worry about gluten, foods that actually contain it.
Here’s the good news. Things have improved dramatically for those of us who are gluten-free since I was diagnosed in 2005. Each of these foods might have some exceptions. There is gluten-free soy sauce now, as well as gluten-free tamari. (We prefer the tamari.) So, I’m going to label each of these as SOME. It’s up to you to check the labels.
(For our favorite brands that make some of these foods without gluten, please check About Our Sponsors.)
PLACES TO CHECK FOR GLUTEN
cornflakes and rice krispies
chipotles in adobo sauce
yogurt and other dairy products such as sour cream
some fermented kimchi
beverages such as sports drinks or iced tea mixes
oats (you must not eat anything with oats unless made with certified gluten-free oats)
NON-FOOD ITEMS THAT COULD CONTAIN GLUTEN
makeup and shampoos
filler in medications
NATURALLY GLUTEN-FREE FOODS THAT MIGHT BE CROSS-CONTAMINATED IN A FRYER
WHAT IS USUALLY GLUTEN-FREE BUT WELL-MEANING FOLKS WILL TELL YOU TO AVOID
white wine vinegar and all vinegars
So that’s the story of gluten. It’s microscopic and elastic. It’s hard to see and more potent and prevalent than I ever thought possible. There’s a real power, for me, in knowing just what it is and how to avoid it. As I have written in here, almost every day, I have never felt better in my entire life than I do today. All the detective work is worth it.
it’s going to be messy at times.
The first six weeks are the hardest. You’re going to stumble and wonder and think about eating your roommate’s pasta because it looks so good and this is just too hard. You’re going to grieve, thinking about all the foods you’ll never eat again. You’ll be confused and consumed by thoughts of what you can eat and spend far too much money on packaged foods that don’t even taste good. But they say gluten-free and you are going to eat a muffin. You’ll probably be so excited to find gluten-free cookies and frozen pizza and freezer doughnuts that you’ll assume gluten-free means calorie-free, for awhile.
You’re going to have moments when you’re raw with anger that the only place to eat on that road trip with your friends is a gas station in the middle of bleak nowhere and they have nothing to eat that’s gluten-free. Nothing. And you’re hungry, and you feel isolated, and you are tempted to crack open a bag of those inedible tiny crackers filled with salty processed cheese product.
Don’t do it. Don’t cheat.
Feel it instead. Let yourself feel lousy.
(Next time, pack better snacks.)
If you ever feel like this, read this kick-ass honest post by our friend Carol. She is not a complainer. In fact, she’d be the first one to flip the bird at anyone whining too much or being all touchy-feely about their pain. But she’s human, and she’s like us: sometimes you’ve just had enough.
It’s okay to have a tantrum once in awhile. And then you move through it and go back to good food.
Expect it to not be all pretty pictures of perfectly composed food. There will be nights you come home late and you don’t have anything left in the refrigerator and you can’t order a pizza and you’re left eating popcorn for dinner. (If you do, try popping it in coconut oil with lime zest, crushed red pepper flakes, fresh cilantro, and Maldon salt. You can thank me later.)
There will be times when, in spite of all your best efforts, you will get some cross-contamination. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re going to feel it within 5 minutes with a headache like a bullet through the head, stomach pains a few moments later that make you feel doubled over in your seat, and then an entire night in the bathroom. Expect to spend the next day in the bathroom, repeatedly. And by the third day, you might be depressed and anxious and as bleak as a young woman in her early 20s who iss convinced that one has to suffer to produce true art.
It’s not pretty.
(Did you know that 90% of the serotonin produced in our bodies is made in our intestines? If something is wrong in your gut, something is wrong in your mind.)
Let it be messy and raw and annoying as hell. There might be months, eventually, that you go without thinking about gluten, or you revel in your new baking skills, or you realize what a gift this all is because you feel well for the first time in your life.
And then there will be this horrible, no-good, terrible day in which you just want to poke out the eyes of someone who doesn’t get the gluten-free thing and asks, Wait, you dont want to eat glue? Or that arrogant waiter who brought your salad with breadcrumbs in it because he didn’t believe you were really going to be sick. Not that sick. Isn’t gluten-free just some celebrity diet fad? You’re going to want to kneecap him.
Take a deep breath. It will pass.
If you expect it to be messy instead of all sweetness and light, you will have a sense of humor about this. Believe me, you will need that too.
And then you’ll wake up one morning and realize you haven’t had a migraine in months. Or your joints don’t hurt. Or you go to the bathroom now without it being a struggle or a surprise. You’ll wake up and think: “I’m just changing my life. It takes time to make a new habit. I think I’m doing pretty well.”
And after six months of doing this, and especially six years, you’ll wonder that you ever ate gluten at all. Why would you be tempted to eat a grocery store cookie when you know it will run through you like Drano? That food is a little less tempting when you know, in your body, what it can do to you.
You’ll come to peace with this. You’ll survive. You’ll thrive.
This isn’t a death sentence. It’s a life sentence. Let it happen. Laugh about it. Let it be messy.
“What in this world is perfect?” Mary Oliver
find your community.
You need people on your side. When is that not true? Well, it’s especially true right now.
My husband supports me in this. He cooks great food with me. He thinks up recipes, dices and styles the food for these photographs, and cheers me on through every step of this process. And early on, he decided he did not need to live in a home with gluten. There’s not a bit of it here.
I hear from some of you here, wondering how to make it work in a kitchen covered in crumbs and stocked with gluten cereals pasta breads and everything else you think your kids need. Or your husband. Or wife. How about you convince them instead to take care of you? Try making the house gluten-free for a week. (Practice your best dishes without gluten first.) No one is going to die without gluten. That way you wont have to worry about cross contamination.
Let’s talk about cross-contamination.
I’ve had several friends who kept gluten in their kitchens for their families and cut their food on the same wooden cutting board where they made their kids’ sandwiches. But here’s the problem. Wood traps gluten. If your grandmother made pies, did you ever look at the white sheen on her wooden cutting board, the one that pulled out from the under the counter, where she made her famous pie dough? That white sheen is flour, trapped in the surface of the cutting board. If you have been using wooden cutting boards, wooden spoons, wooden salad bowls or utensils, and wooden rolling pins in your kitchen before you gave up gluten? Throw them out. Give them to friends. Away with them.
(It’s just an excuse to buy some new kitchen stuff.)
And then, think about where gluten could go. Don’t cook vegetables for yourself in the water where you cooked pasta for your kids. (They do this often at restaurants, by the way. You have to ask.) Don’t use the same scoop to get flour from the bag of AP flour to make pancakes for your family and then scoop into your gluten-free all-purpose flour mix.
How about you just make everyone gluten-free pancakes, by the way?
This is serious. Don’t play with this, people.
For many of you, simply going gluten-free might not be enough. Some people find that dairy irritates their systems, along with the gluten. Others discover multiple food allergies or intolerances when they are diagnosed with celiac or find they cannot tolerate gluten. (Sometimes going without gluten for 6 months to a year can heal the intestines enough that you can tolerate some of those foods later, however.) Some people realize, after a time, that all grains seem to make them feel bloated and unhappy. Many people who are gluten-free can eat everything but gluten. (I happen to be one of them, as far as I know.) But many have to eliminate gluten, dairy, corn, or soy.
You definitely don’t want to do that alone.
You need even more community now. You need friends who understand this, families who support you, and good people who let you cry on their shoulder when your relative says, Oh come on, its just a little flour. What harm could it do?
There are support groups in your area. Chat rooms. Forums. Conversations on Twitter. Questions on our Facebook page. Find them. Seek out people.
You’re not alone in this.
And you know what? It’s going to grow so much better. You wont believe how good you’re going to feel soon.
it all comes down to cooking.
If you already love standing in front of the stove, listening to the sizzle of onions in the skillet and the whoosh of steam that escapes when you add chicken broth and pomegranate molasses, you’re going to be fine. There will be a little shock, at first, as you realize some of your favorite ingredients have gluten in them, but you’ll adjust quickly.
If you don’t already love cooking, I have one piece of advice for you: learn to love cooking.
Cooking is your path to healing. It will be hard, at first, for other people to cook for you, mostly because they wont know the little places where cross-contamination happens. Eventually, when you feel strong and comfortable advocating for yourself, you can give your friends a list of specific guidelines. But for now, you’re going to want to cook your own food. Restaurants might be easier than you think at first, but you have to know how to order and how to ask the hard questions of servers and chefs.
And when you cook your own food, you start to learn more about food and where it comes from. Soon, you’ll pick up a package, and after staring at the 17 ingredients, figure out that it’s probably gluten-free. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll realize you don’t know what a dozen of those ingredients are. Or why a bowl of tomato soup needs all those preservatives. You’ll put down the package and gather the ingredients to make your own.
The easiest way to eat real food with good ingredients is to make it yourself.
Honestly, you want to start cooking.
“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.” Julia Child
Youll find your rhythm. Even if you are wobbly at the stove or awkward at chopping or feel annoyed or pressured to be perfect when you cook? Give it time. You’ll find it.
Cooking is connection. It’s not about impressing. It’s about pausing from the chopping to lean your head down toward the board and breathe in the released smell of fresh cilantro. (If you don’t like cilantro, make it basil.) Cooking is about concentrating with an intent focus on something that’s in your hands and your heart, instead of your head. You can slip the day from your shoulders when you cook. You can let it all go. Start slicing the garlic.
If you feel like you don’t have time to cook, because your life is so busy (and believe me, we know busy), take a step back.
Eating great food that you know is gluten-free is your path to healing. Cooking for yourself or your hilarious friends or your kids is a gift you give. Sitting at the table with people is where the stories emerge, the relaxation happens, the memories are formed. Why don’t you have time for this?
Your entire life is going to change because of this need to be gluten-free. You might as well allow it to happen fully. Arrange your life differently so you have a little time in the evening to cook.
You don’t want to miss this.
You won’t believe how much better your life will be soon.
Go ahead. Say yes.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO make YOUR FAVORITE recipes, gluten-free
We’ve done all the work so you don’t have to.
If you’d like to see more pieces about these ideas
If you are not comfortable planning and cooking a week of meals
if you’d like to try more of our recipes, here are our books