Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Some Tips for Beginners on the Gluten-free Diet

A couple of weeks ago I was grilling a steak and making my roasted vegetables for a friend when he made a confession to me: his doctor suspected that he might have a wheat or gluten sensitivity and recommended that he go on a gluten-free diet.

I was overjoyed. I have to admit that I get a sense of schadenfreude when my friends have to go on a gluten-free diet. Selfishly, I want more people to commiserate with. More importantly, I want people to do what I did: to figure out what is making them feel bad, and find an elegant solution to their problem.

In honor of my friend, I immortalize a few of my tips for those who are just starting on the gluten-free diet.

Find a gluten-free friend. They will know where the safe places are to eat in your area, the good products to buy at your local store, and the the stuff to stay away from.

Take it easy at first. You may have to cut out additional foods - don' t let that get you down. You may be able to re-introduce them later. In the mean time, focus on clearing your system. When confronted with a bland recovery meal or a limited restaurant option, think about how your foods are going to make you feel in two hours and in two days as you're eating. You're going to feel good.

Inform yourself of the things you will need to stay away from. Fortunately there are fewer things on this list now; I told my friend the other day that blue cheese wasn't safe. It turns out that it often is. If you don't cook at home, you may need to take a crash-course in what ingredients you need to stay away from. Read labels religiously.

Figure out your new restaurant persona. You will no longer be the one to order quickly and be done with it. You will have to be the one to ask your server questions. Experiment with different methods for going about it and find what suits you best.

Get over the cost of gluten-free food. It's more expensive. It's worth it. The sooner you figure out how to fit that into the budget, the less stressful the change will be.

Make a list of foods you already like that are naturally gluten-free. When you're feeling sorry for yourself because you can't eat some silly pastry product, indulge in one of the foods on your list. My not-so-guilty pleasure is steak.

If you are into baking, you're in luck! Do you realize how much effort you have expended to avoid "developing the gluten" in your batters? You never have to worry about that again! Quick breads (muffins, scones) will be a cinch for you. You just get to spend some time familiarizing yourself with some new grains and flours. Get into it!

Read up. Your doctor may not know everything there is to know about your condition. Take responsibility for your care. Make your doctor visits count for all they can by being prepared to ask the most pertinent questions at the beginning.

Talk to everyone about being gluten-free. When I first started on the diet, I had this customer who would bribe my staff and me with these delicious chocolate cookies. I wouldn't try them, assuming they were full of gluten. After weeks of constant bribing, I found out that the customer was on a wheat-free diet, and the cookies were gluten-free all along! He never brought them in again, and I really missed out. If I had just told him about my relationship to cookies early on, I could have enjoyed them and also made a new gluten-free friend. It pays to talk about it: everyone knows someone gluten-free, even if they aren't GF themselves. Treat your diet as a lifestyle, not a disease.

Don't worry about it so much. You're going to be better than fine. If this diet really works for you, you're lucky. You've just figured out how to treat your condition without medication or surgery. Bon appetit! Your food is your cure.


Todd Brown said...

Thanks, Gina! This is a good and encouraging intro to a gluten-free life. So far, it's not been so bad, though I am missing my normal beer options!

Rebecca said...

Does a gluten-free lifestyle (GFLS) have to cost more money? I mean, there are plenty of cheap starches you could substitute for flour, such as potatoes and rice.

I liked the part about becoming a difficult customer at a restaurant. Heh heh.

Good article, Gina!

Gina said...

Rebecca - you would know about questioning your servers, being a vegetarian! The way I see it is that vegetarians have blazed the trail for others on restricted diets. You won't find a restaurant in Portland that doesn't have a vegetarian option, and the servers are used to getting asked about the meat content of the food. Now they will get used to being asked about gluten, right?

Yes, the gluten-free diet costs more. I hear that the price of wheat has gone up significantly in the last few years, but it has always been the cheapest and most abundant food to buy raw. Factor in additional constraints like not being able to buy from bulk bins doe to cross-contamination, and you limit your cheap options.

Eating gluten-free is usually more expensive at a restaurant. The cheapest things on the menu are usually dishes like pasta. Sometimes the only gluten-free items are salads or meat-and-potato dishes. I think salads are fairly expensive, especially per calorie! There are ways to go cheap, but that restricts an already limited diet even more. I'll do a post on gluten-free frugality one of these days.

Todd - I may have more news on the gluten-free beer front soon!

Emilia said...

That was a really good list; I especially liked the emphasis on taking responsibility for your own health.

l'actrice said...

I agree, Gina! There are so many possibilities. I actually miss nothing:-)

Gina said...

Thanks for the feedback, everyone! I really miss very little, and I'm working on those minor cravings. You can look forward to a gluten-free croissant recipe one of these days;) One thing that makes the gluten-free diet really reasonable is that wheat is just a grain, and can be substituted out for other grains. In a dairy-free diet it would be much more difficult to find replacements for things like cheese and yogurt. The same rules apply to that situation, though: just focus on what you can eat, and you'll stop craving most things.

I Am Gluten Free said...

What a good idea! Find a friend who is GF and you can commiserate (or conversely celebrate) together. Thanks for the gentle reminder - always good to revisit lists like this that remind us how fortunate we to have figured out how to be healthy.


Jen said...

This list is wonderful...I'm a fairly new GF eater, but the most important item was the one that told me not to worry so much. I have had dreams about eating something like a cookie or a piece of cake that wasn't gluten free. I really worry about this too much, I needed to read your list.

Gina said...

Ellen - Having a GF friend makes things a whole lot easier! We always share restaurant and product tips.

Jen - I have been on the gluten-free diet for almost three years now, and I still have those dreams. My new GF friend I wrote this post for told me that he accidentally ate a burrito the first day of his diet, not even thinking about the tortilla. I probably rolled my eyes, but then I had a dream that I did the same thing, and felt really silly about forgetting. So the dreams don't go away, but eating gluten-free in real life becomes much easier over time.

Thanks for the feedback everyone!