Let’s just get this out of the way at the start: eating gluten free is not easy. Shopping becomes a major chore, emergency meals on the go are dicey (at best) and eating out can be a headache. You have to avoid many traditional comfort foods or devise workarounds, and for many, that’s the hardest part. Delicious pizzas and even cheeseburgers come to seem alien.
For people who must avoid gluten for medical reasons, the consequences of a dietary slip-up can range from stomach pain to nutrient malabsorption – and if you suffer from celiac disease or gluten intolerance, eating the stuff can be life-threatening in the long term. But even people who don’t have a medical condition are getting into gluten free diets these days, for health reasons. No matter what your reasons may be, we bet you could use a few tips for how to eat gluten free in a world increasingly filled with cakes, cookies and truckloads of beer.
Eating Gluten Free Is Getting Easier
Gluten, a kind of protein found in certain grains, is an allergen for some people. Others can’t process it at all. But the food industry has noticed that there’s a demand for gluten-free foods generally: more and more people are learning the health benefits of cutting back on grain consumption. Manufacturers are beginning to market niche foods to target demographics, and organic living enthusiasts are psyched about all the new options (especially, we imagine, the recent explosion of gluten-free beers). Even your favorite local restaurants are starting to come up with creative ways to serve customers for whom eating gluten free is a necessity.
We’ve gathered some advice from a number of health professionals that will help you stick to what is, for many people, a difficult diet. Some of these tips are especially helpful for people who are just starting out. Some will shed light on problems that gluten-free dieters face regularly. But most of all, these healthy food tips will help you improve food safety at home, and they’ll show you how to avoid trouble when you’re eating out, too.
7 Ways to Make Eating Gluten Free Easier
1. Don’t give in to temptation. We know how tough it is to avoid your old favorites. A visit back home makes you crave Mom’s famous mac ‘n’ cheese, and your monthly business lunch seems like a fair time to indulge in some beer-battered onion rings. But if you’ve got a gluten sensitivity, you’ll want to consider the possible long-term effects of cheating.
Dr. Vikki Petersen, a nutritionist who specializes in gluten sensitivity, says that momentary slip-ups can have consequences beyond headaches and diarrhea: “We’re talking about increasing your risk of cancer, autoimmune disease and early death.” She cites a 2001 study that suggests a failure to stick to a gluten-free diet, even if only once a month, increases mortality rates 600% in gluten-intolerant dieters. “Whether you are celiac or gluten sensitive it is critical that you consume NO gluten,” she says.
2. Learn your limitations. The first thing that people associate with eating gluten free is eliminating wheat from the diet, but Karina Allrich, a gluten-intolerant author who founded Gluten-Free Goddess (a great recipe site), provides a detailed list of ingredients that must be avoided, including foods that are commonly contaminated. Rye, barley, spelt, semolina and triticale, among other grains, contain gluten. You’ll also have to exclude many common food products from your meals, including pizza crust, flour tortillas, graham crackers, seitan, pita bread and granola. Gluten is also sometimes hard to spot in processed or prepared foods like soups and yogurts. When in doubt, check, double-check, and check one more time!
3. Clear out your kitchen. It’s hard enough to throw out the contents of your fridge and pantry when you take up a gluten-free diet. But according to Shauna James Ahern, an author who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2005, to maximize food safety at home, you should also consider replacing certain kitchen tools.
“If you have been using wooden cutting boards, wooden spoons, wooden salad bowls or utensils, and wooden rolling pins” that you had before you went gluten-free, Ahern notes, it’s best to just throw them out or give them to friends. Gluten is notoriously tricky to clean completely from wood surfaces. Just picture Grandma’s old cutting board after she’d make biscuits. You’d have to scrub for days to get rid of all that flour, and it’s best to avoid letting any gluten from the past into your food today.
4. Make sure to take your vitamins. We don’t often think about the benefits of wheat when we give up gluten, but a modern bag of flour has been enriched with iron, B vitamins and other nutrients. In an interview with WebMD, nutrition consultant Shelley Case, RD, points out that you’ll need to select your gluten-free grains carefully to make up for the vitamins you lose when you give up enriched wheat flour. “Purchase gluten-free products with added vitamins and minerals, and look for items made with whole grain flour or bean flour to help you get the nutrients you need,” says Case, who offers other healthy food tips in her book “Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide.”
5. Try combining flours. Ricki Heller, an author who specializes in vegan and gluten-free recipes at Diet, Dessert and Dogs, mixes together several types of flour to get the best results when eating gluten free baked goods. Heller varies her mixes based on the unique needs of whatever she’s baking – muffins benefit from a higher percentage of dense grains like quinoa or sorghum, she notes, while cookies are best with a bit of bean flour in the recipe. She also includes several all-purpose flour blends, which you can buy online, that deliver rich, complex flavor.
6. Make some emergency food reserves. We’d all like to cook fresh foods from scratch for every meal, but after a long day at work, it can be tricky to put together a gluten-free meal – especially if you have to go shopping to stock up on ingredients. Still, even dedicated organic living advocates need quick, easy and comforting meals every now and then.
Alta Mansch, who writes about gluten-free and dairy-free recipes, suggests making gluten-free meals in bulk for convenient reheating later. “Just an hour or two in the kitchen on a Sunday can save your sanity on a busy Wednesday night,” says Mansch, who recommends making large batches of muffins, porridges, soups, jams and salsa. You’ll get most of your washing and slicing out of the way in one big session, early in the week.
7. Prepare for life on the road. Sometimes food emergencies are caused by more than just a lack of initiative in the kitchen. We’ve all run into situations during a vacation or a road trip where we had to stop at a gas station or McDonald’s to get something – anything – in our belly. When you’re eating gluten free, though, such stops won’t usually pan out. At best, the options aren’t going to be healthy.
Ellen Allard, a holistic health coach and a gluten-free dieter since 2005, says that you can avoid these potentially dangerous situations by bringing your own stash of snacks. Allard includes gluten-free snack bars like Larabars, fresh fruit, gluten-free granola and peanut butter as potential ways to avoid junk food as you travel. For hotel stays, Allard also suggests packing a few simple utensils that you can trust will stay clean, including a can opener, a cutting board, a small knife and a sponge.
Eating gluten free, consistently, is a tricky endeavor, but these suggestions will help ensure food safety at home and on the go. And even though a gluten-free diet is often something you arrive at out of necessity, with a little creativity, care and perseverance it can be a great health booster. There’s a lot of overlap between sustainable produce, organic living and gluten-free eating. Just think of this as one more challenge on your road to eco-friendliness and personal well-being, and remember that you can find support out there. People everywhere are looking for ways to be healthier, and many of them have decided that abandoning gluten is the right move for them. Check out their blogs!
What are your favorite gluten-free suggestions, tips and tricks? If you comment below, others can learn from your experience!