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I am repeatedly asked how to start a gluten-free diet and with the recent buzz surrounding hidden sources of gluten, I thought it might be a good time to write another blog post on outlining how to get started and things to keep in mind when moving over to a gluten-free lifestyle (It really is a lifestyle and not a diet).

Here are the basics:

  1. Get back to basics by eating healthy whole foods that are nutrient rich. You hear nutritionists talk about shopping the perimeter of the grocery store as that’s where all of the fresh foods are – They’re correct! One thing that I was not aware of when starting my gluten-free journey is that there are gluten-free products that contain a lot of sugar and carbohydrates. I know for me I gained weight after going gluten-free and was recently diagnosed with Diabetes.  Two amazing trusted resources I’ve found in the gluten-free community to help guide me in this area are Carolyn from All Day I Dream About Food and Amy Green of Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free. There are healthy alternatives to sugars that are plant-based, as well as a way to keep your carb load down eating gluten-free.  These two ladies will show you how so make sure to check out their blogs!
  2. Be your own advocate & food researcher:  You are responsible for the food you put in your body and in doing so it’s in your best interest to know exactly what your consuming.  You have to research ingredients and that means moving beyond just reading the nutritional labels.  Pick up the phone or send an email if there is a questionable ingredient you’re not sure about.  Most food manufactures are very helpful and willing to educate consumers.
  3. If you’re not sure and/or are unable to substantiate if a product contains gluten just don’t eat it.  It takes 3-6 months to recover from a gluten exposure.  Regardless of the amount of gluten you ingest, if you have celiac disease, your small intestines are damaged every time your exposed to gluten, causing further atrophy/damage to the villi – See diagram from the Mayo Clinic

Just because something states it wheat-free does not mean it’s gluten-free.   Here again you have to read the labels.  Many foods contain gluten, as well as hidden sources of gluten.

Here is a list of foods that contain and/or may contain gluten:

  • Wheat, Rye, Barley (malt, malt flavoring and malt vinegar are usually made from barley), Semolina, Triticale (a cross between wheat and rye) and Farro.  Other flours to avoid include:
    • Bulgur
    • Durum flour
    • Farina
    • Graham flour
    • Kamut
    • Spelt
    • Oats – Certain grains, such as oats, can be contaminated with wheat during growing and processing stages of production. For this reason, doctors and dietitians generally recommend avoiding oats unless they are specifically labeled gluten-free (Mayo Clinic).
  • Beer (unless labeled gluten-free.  There are new gluten-free beer entering the market every month).  Check with your local grocer to see what they carry
  • Dressings (hidden gluten in the form of modified food starch)
  • Gravy’s & Sauces (hidden gluten in the form of modified food starch and/or use of flour as a thickening agent – Many sauces are started traditionally with a Roux which is a mixture of flour and butter).  This includes Soy Sauce which is 50% soy and 50% wheat.  A tasty gluten-free alternative is San-J’s Tamari, as well as they have several other gluten-free sauces and dressings to choose from.
  • Candies (hidden gluten in the form of modified food starch and/or cross contamination)
  • Cereals – There are some great gluten-free cereals out there. Nature’s Path is one of my favorites
  • Cookies and crackers
  • Croutons
  • French fries (cross contamination usually fried in same oil as products containing gluten)
  • Imitation meat or seafood (hidden gluten in the form of modified food starch)
  • Pasta (there are so many delicious and nutrient rich pastas that are gluten-free on the market – Check Whole Foods as they carry several brands.
  • Rice Mixes (hidden gluten in the form of modified food starch)
  • Soup (hidden gluten in the form of modified food starch and/or flour as a thickening agent)
  • Chips (hidden gluten in the form of modified food starch for use in seasonings)
  • Energy Bars (hidden gluten in the form of modified food starch and wheat germ as an ingredient)
  • Breading Mixes
  • Sour Cream – Light & Full Fat version contain gluten so be sure to check the label
  • Cosmetics, Shampoo & Conditioner (hidden gluten in the form of wheat germ and/or oats that have been subjected to wheat during processing)
  • Medication & Nutritional Supplements (Prescription & Over-the-counter)
  • Syrups
  • Alcohol – All distilled alcoholic beverages are gluten-free, as well as wine and other hard liquor (Thanks to Cocktail Wizard Bill Norris for this education)

It’s always important to read the nutritional labels and again if you’re not certain it’s gluten-free, don’t eat it.  When eating out, same rules apply. Look for foods that are naturally gluten-free first.  Politely check with your waiter and/or Chef and ask about cross contamination (e.g. do they use the same cutting surface, utensils and cooking tools as they do with food that contains gluten?). It makes a difference, even if you have a gluten-intolerance.  Many restaurants have gluten-free menus and are taking steps to ensure they don’t cross contaminate in the preparation of your meal.  Ultimately it’s your responsibility as a consumer and someone with a food allergy to ask the necessary questions.

I recently had a conversation with a local restaurant owner here in Austin who’s making end roads to providing allergen-free options (soy, gluten, nuts, dairy) to their customers. “We are excited and want to provide allergen-free options to our diners, as it’s important to us as a company to be able to meet the dietary needs of those with food allergies.  However, we have individuals that come in who will order a gluten-free option for example and then order a shake that contains cookies – Do they really have Celiac Disease or are they just not educated as to what contains gluten?  We can tell by the questions our customers ask who’s just eating gluten-free due to it being seen as the latest diet trend.”  This is a perfect example of where the gluten-free community gets a bad wrap! It’s not a diet people, it’s a lifestyle.  Again, remember be courteous when asking about ingredients and food preparation.  It’s about being genuine and usually it will result in a pleasant dining experience.

Remember to talk to your doctor before starting a gluten-free diet, as it’s not for everyone.  Use the checklist from the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness and  take into your doctor if you or someone in your family is experiencing any of the symptoms.

Gluten-Intolerance and/or Celiac Disease is not a death sentence (as we all think it is when first diagnosed).  It’s a lifestyle change, but one that will be for the better. Sure you’ll still crave the things you used to eat, but as my friend and cookbook author Karen Morgan says “it’s about making gluten-free better than what came before.”  It’s so true, with so many great options out there you can eat luscious meals that are 100% gluten-free and not feel as though your missing out!

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