Going Gluten Free in 10 Easy Steps

Perhaps you’re facing a new diagnosis. Or you want to drastically reduce inflammation and increase health. Or you just wanna be like the cool kids. :) Glad you’re here!

Learning to live without the G <<gluten, if you're new at this>> can seem a little daunting at first. Actually, that's probably stating it a bit lightly. It can seem like your social life is over (bye bye going out to eat), like you will always be hungry, like nothing will be easy...ever again. Amiright?

Well, I understand. I felt like that at first too. But you know what else I felt when I learned I had Celiac? I felt so grateful to finally learn what was wrong with me - all the seemingly unrelated things that had been piling up actually were related. Praise Jesus for answers! And then, to learn that this Celiac "disease" is totally manageable simply by what I ate...well dadgum, I could handle that! And so SO grateful that it wasn't something truly terrible, like a terminal illness. When you think about it like that, we can totally get through this little hiccup of having to change our menus, don't you think? And just in case you need one more positive thing to focus on in this whole gluten free shenanigan, having to look carefully at labels and think about what is in your food is going to drastically improve your health. If you are anything like me, you'll start to think, "Wait, what even IS modified food starch?" or other such ingredients you'll find on pretty much every food label. And what's crazy is that you'll actually begin to care! Being aware of and discerning about what you put in your body leads to all sorts of benefits including better nutrition and a decrease in what ails you. 

So here we are. Either you've done the research and diagnosed yourself, or your doc has diagnosed you with Celiac disease, Hashimoto's, IBS, PCOS, UC, a gluten sensitivity, Alzheimers, Autism, diabetes, or the like. The real question is, now what? My doc handed me my test results and said, "Yeah, so here's the celiac-sprue website. You may also want to consider a multi-vitamin. Good luck!" Um, ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!?? Needless to say, I was feeling lost. So I went home and started researching. I read websites, forums, blogs, visited online support groups, tried every GF substitute product on the market, which back then was like 10, and poooooooouuuured over recipe books. It took me 3 hours to go grocery shopping the first time after my diagnosis because I had to read EVERY FLIPPIN' LABEL. But that was 4 years ago, and even in that short amount of time, there are so many more resources for us now! And all the GF'ers said amen!

With all that in mind, here's how I'd start if I could do it all over again - laid out all in one place. The first steps are a little on the tough love side. They address mental hurdles I struggled to deal with in the beginning. The rest are action items to help you as get started with your gluten free <<read: healthier>> life.

1. Make a list of all your symptoms. Even things that seem unrelated; put down everything that ails you. Post them on your bathroom mirror where you can see them every morning. You are going to see them disappear one by one, and it's going to feel so good! You need this little bit of inspiration to keep you going, because...step 2.

2. Put on your big kid panties and decide you can do this and that you aren't going to complain about it. Decide that this is going to be a good thing. Because it IS!! I’m serious. If you don’t, you will kill your own progress before you even begin. Commit right now  to going G-Free 100%, and to living a healthier life. Start using the word "glutanic." I totally made it up, but it helps me keep my happy face on. [gluten + satanic = glutanic, because gluten is the devil] Tell yourself you are going to do this and that it’s not that hard, because let’s face it - it isn’t! Dealing with diabetes and all the ramifications from it your whole life is hard. Getting sick all the time and not having a social life because of too many bathroom issues is hard. Fighting cancer is hard. Not eating that cookie at the office? Easy! You decide what goes in your mouth and what doesn’t. Even just one little pinch of that bagel will derail you, so decide not to eat it. Your body is going to go through a healing process, and every time you cheat your body will have to start over. And it will take so long to see your symptoms improve. Not worth it. There may be times you accidentally get gluten'd anyways, and that's enough to put your body through...don't do it on purpose! So let’s all agree right now to stop the whining about it being “hard” and start focusing on how good it feels to be getting better. You can do this.

3. Allow me to preach a little here because you need to hear it. Accept that things will be different. Your lifestyle will be different. Your menu will be different. Make peace with change. Kick, scream, have a long cry, do a little tae-kwon-do...do what you gotta do to get all your angst about it out. Then embrace it. There will be a period of mourning for crackers, waffles, and flour tortillas. That's fine, but you've gotta get over it. You are now on a journey of living a new way. You won’t go back to the old way, no siree! Trying to replace all the stuff (i.e. crackers, waffles, pizza dough) from “the old way” is only going to keep you captive to poor choices and poor health. Replacing the stuff that got you in this predicament won’t help on your road to healing! You’re going beyond just replacing the bad stuff with less bad stuff. Instead, you are going on a journey that will teach you new ways to nourish your body through food, so you can’t keep thinking about food the same way. Your relationship with food will change, for the better. It will take time, but it will happen. Be patient and let it.

4. Don’t even think about going down the "this is going to be so expensive..." road. It really doesn't have to be, and it’s not a good excuse not to take hold of your health! I guarantee having surgery to have some of you colon removed or content prescriptions needing to be filled is more expensive. Let me explain. You will be tempted to go out and buy every box and bag of stuff labeled “gluten free,” because at first you will crave those old carb-ridden junk foods, and you will just HAVE to try every single GF substitute you can get your hands on. Not only is that going to be really expensive, because all the GF substitutes are like 8xs the price of the old glutanic stuff, it’s not going to help you with your health. Now, I actually spend about the same, sometimes more/sometimes even less, at the grocery store. I pretty much only buy super-high quality meats, raw (or at the least minimally processed) organic dairy, quality produce (I try to do mostly organic but always buy non-GMO), and some bulk stuff- like nuts and dried fruit. Packaged foods are pricey, go really fast, and have little nutritional value. Eliminating those and replacing them with higher quality and fresh items is pretty much an even swap monetarily speaking, but pays huge dividends in health and healing. I promise once you stop buying the GF pre-packaged foods, your budget won’t suffer and you will be so much better off. It's really just a re-allocation of dollars.

**Now for the action items. Do this at the beginning - before you even go shopping one time after your diagnosis. If you’re farther in the process, do this stuff ASAP!

5. Prepare to start reading food labels. It's critical to your success. Gluten hides in almost EVERYTHING processed, so you really have to be careful. After a few months, you'll be able to spend way less time doing this because you'll have the hang of it. Till then, check, check, and check again for glutanic ingredients. Or better yet, just stop buying processed items. :) If you do want to buy something packaged...Aside from the super-obvious bread-y things like pizza, buns, pasta, cakes, and crackers, be aware there are a ton of things you would NEVER think would contain gluten that actually do, like soy sauce, marinades/sauces/gravies/condiments, salad dressings, chips, beer, granola bars, candy, vitamins, medicines, ice cream, lunch meats and other prepared meats, soups, seasoning packets, and so many more. Below, I've compiled a quick list of some glutanic ingredients to watch for on labels. It's not exhaustive, so if you aren't sure what a particular ingredient is - google it! Shopping with your smart phone handy is going to be the new normal. (I highly recommend reading this list from Celiac.org - it's long but really gets into things to think about you wouldn't normally consider.) As if this weren't tricky enough, the FDA does not require food manufacturers to list "gluten" as an allergen - although it does require them to list "wheat" - so even if a label says "wheat free" on it, that doesn't necessarily mean it's gluten free. Grr! Read those labels and watch out for these common offenders:

<< wheat, wheat starch, barley, barley malt, rye, triticale, spelt, millet, durum, semolina, graham, kamut, einkorn wheat, emmer, farina, farrow, malt (including malted barley, malt extract, malted milk, malt flavoring, and malt vinegar), buckwheat, caramel color (if not made in the USA - which how would you ever know that unless you contact the food manufacturer?), oats (unless it specifically says they are certified GF), brewer's yeast>>

Feel free to copy and paste that list and the link to celiac.org's list above and keep it in a note on your smartphone. Super handy.

6. Discover the cross-contamination factor, and get radical about preventing this. This one totally threw me for a loop at first, and really hindered my healing process until I got cray-cray about making sure all forms of cross contam had been eliminated from my diet. When you are going 100% GF, it's not like becoming a germ-o-phobe. You can't "sterilize" the gluten off of things. Gluten is sticky. It's a food particle that is neither alive nor dead...it's either there or it isn't. You can't kill it. For this reason, gluten sticks to lots of stuff in the kitchen and contaminates it. A tiny crumb-sized piece of it is enough to set your body into contamination reaction mode (read: bloating, puking, running to the bathroom episodes, with the other fun side effects that linger for days later like headaches, itchiness, brain fog, moodiness, insomnia, etc.), so we've got to get all that stuff as far away from anything going into our mouths as possible. There's a two-pronged approach for preventing cross-contamination in your kitchen. 1. Those old cutting boards (especially wooden ones), toasters (still keep your old one for use by guests and other gluten eaters when needed), cookie sheets, oven racks, pizza stones, casserole bakers, pasta spoons, colanders/strainers, dish scrubbers, and even forks and eating utensils probably all contain trace amounts of gluten, and they will KILL your progress if you don't replace them or scrub them like 80 times before you use them again. (Again, I recommend this list from Celiac.org to help you weed out the offenders). I went to Bed Bath and Beyond with my stash of 20% off coupons and loaded up on new big utensils for cooking, cutting boards, a strainer, and toaster to start. I put the old ones in a box in my pantry and I pull them out when I'm cooking for gluten-loving guests, so my new stuff always stays nice and G-Free. Which brings us to 2. Not only do old utensils harbor gluten, but previously opened food items do too. Already-opened jars of jelly, tubs of butter, soy sauce, marinades, salad dressings, mustard, mayo, ketchup, nut butters, butter/margarine, pasta sauce, salsa, hummus and other dips, etc. may have touched something glutanic like crackers, or have bread crumbs in them, which means they are a no-go! Get rid of them! For this reason, I hardly ever cook anything with gluten for my family - it's too hard to keep it all straight. Which brings me to #7 and 8…

7. Clean out your pantry, fridge, and freezer. Get rid of all the cross contaminated and glutanic junk that is going to tempt you while you are new at this, and give it to a neighbor. Read all the labels, and get rid of all those bottles of sauce, beer, condiments, seasonings, bags of pasta, cake mixes, chips, malted vinegars, croutons, prepared frozen dinners, etc. I don’t care if they are brand spankin’ new. You don’t need them sitting there on the shelf and reminding you of the old way of life - it will just frustrate you and plain make you mad. Get that stuff outta there.

8. Enlist your family to go G-Free with you - at the very least until you get the hang of doing this for a while. I've got two little boys, and neither of them have Celiac. My husband can eat gluten without showing signs of an issue. My boys LOOOOOVE mac and cheese, grilled cheese, hamburgers, chips, goldfish...all the usual glutanic stuff that kids love. But I don't cook it anymore, or even serve it to them. And you know what? They got over it real quick! They didn't die. They didn't even cry. I try not to serve the substitutes (like mac and cheese), but if I do, I give them the G-Free version. We eat hamburgers without the buns. Goldfish are nothing but empty calories with literally ZERO nutritional benefits anyways, and we've found other snacks that they go nuts for that actually nourish them. (Lara bars, raisins, high-quality beef jerky, apple sauce pouches...the list goes on.) The last thing you need is to learn how to cook G-Free, which is time consuming enough, and then have to make another meal for everyone else on top of it and risk cross contaminating yourself in the process! Stirring the pot of kids' glutanic pasta, then using the same spoon to stir your own will make you sick! Using a knife to make PB&J with Wonder Bread, then using that same knife to make your own on GF bread will still make you sick, and now you've contaminated the peanut butter to boot! Truly. It's just not worth it until you are REALLY humming with this new GF thing, and even then, proceed with caution.

9. Don't expect everyone to understand, but inform them none the less. People need to know what your needs are, and that you can't just "cheat this one time" to make it easy. Because the fact is there is an opportunity to cheat for convenience's sake every single day. Family and social gatherings can be the most challenging, so plan ahead. If you are all deciding on a menu, suggest easy ways for them to accommodate you with specific recipes or gluten-free brands of products they can use in meal preparation. Call ahead to restaurants and talk with the manager about what on the menu is safe. That way you can order exactly what you need without having to send the staff back to the kitchen 2 and 3 times to check on things for you. Worst case, when you can't control any factors, eat before you go or BYOS - bring your own snack -so you aren't left just watching everyone else eat!

10. Do some reading! Learn as much about this new way of life as you can. I recommend the following: 

  • The Maker's Diet, by Jordan S. Rubin
  • Grain Brain, by Dr. David Perlmutter M.D. 
  • It Starts With Food, by Melissa & Dallas Hartwig

You can totally do this! And you can start today!