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How To Start a Gluten-Free Diet: Tips For Beginners (Part 1)

*Disclaimer: Please be sure to consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet. This information is for educational purposes and is not intended as medical advice.

In a previous post, we discussed what gluten is, and why it causes health problems for some people. For celiacs in particular, it is necessary to remove all sources of gluten from the diet (including beverages). Even consuming small amounts can have serious health consequences.

20 years ago, when I first got the news I had to go gluten-free, I was devastated! I had never even heard of celiac before; it wasn’t common knowledge like it is today in 2023. How could I completely cut it out of my diet? It seemed that gluten was present in almost everything I was used to eating.

Back then I stumbled around, trying to figure out what I could and could not safely eat. I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, and would sometimes inadvertently eat something containing gluten, even if I made it myself at home. Then I would end up feeling sick for several days, or weeks, after.

Today, though, there is more awareness of the gluten-free diet, and many restaurants have gluten-free options. Thankfully, now I don’t get as many confused looks when I ask questions about how a food is prepared, or its ingredients!

Gluten can be hidden in things you might not suspect, and we’ll talk about what to watch out for. We’ll also discuss the importance of reading nutrition labels on products. Last but not least, I’ll tell you about how food that is gluten-free can become cross-contaminated.

First things first

Before we get started, let’s get our mindset right on this whole thing! If you’re anything like me when you were told you had to cut out gluten, your first thought was probably How in the world am I going to be able to give up all the foods I love? It’s going to be awful, and life won’t be fun anymore.

These were my thoughts, and I can tell you honestly that I went into a panic as I thought about everything I would have to give up. I was pretty depressed for quite some time, until I finally learned how to substitute gluten-free foods for my favorite everyday staples I was used to eating.

From scarcity to abundance

My depression at the beginning was due to a feeling of scarcity; I envisioned all the foods I loved being taken away from me, and this made me sad. But, as time went on and I learned how to make delicious gluten-free meals, a whole new world of food opened up to me!

My mindset began to change, as I experimented with new foods that I had never tried (or heard of) before. With all of the new additions to my diet, that feeling of scarcity was replaced with abundance. I looked forward to eating once again, and each meal became a fun adventure.

Even though I got off to a rough start, I can honestly say that I am grateful for where this gluten-free journey has taken me. If I hadn’t been forced for health reasons to give up gluten, I probably wouldn’t be as adventurous with food as I am today. I would be missing out on all of the wonderful foods that are a regular part of my healthy and delicious gluten-free diet!

What foods contain gluten?

three loaves of dark wheat bread, with a stalk of wheat, on a dark background
Regular bread usually contains wheat, barley, or rye

The starting point for beginning a gluten-free diet is determining what foods must be avoided, and what foods are safe to eat.

The troublesome grains

The 3 grains containing gluten, which must be avoided are:

  • wheat (and all varieties/derivatives, such as: Kamut, spelt, einkorn, emmer, durum, semolina, farro, farina, and graham)
  • barley
  • rye

In addition, these must also be avoided, as they are made from the above grains:

  • Triticale (a cross between wheat & rye)
  • Malt extract, and malt vinegar (both derived from barley)
  • Brewer’s yeast (usually a by-product of beer made from wheat, barley, or rye)

*note: nutritional yeast is most often gluten-free, as it is made from de-activated yeast (a fungus)

Hidden sources of gluten

It can be a bit easier to avoid the more obvious foods containing gluten, such as most bread and other baked goods, pasta, crackers, cereal, etc.

But there are lots of other foods that also commonly contain gluten:

  • pancakes, waffles, and crepes
  • croutons
  • breaded/battered foods (deep-fried items)
  • sauces & gravies
  • beer
  • flour tortillas

I thought I was gluten-free, but because I didn’t understand how gluten “hides”, I was unknowingly still consuming it.

A big thing to watch out for is the “sneaky” gluten that hides in products that you might not suspect contain gluten. It is best to always read nutrition labels on everything that is processed (basically, any food sold in a package, can, or bottle)!

Here are some of the top suspects:

  • soy or teriyaki sauce
  • soups
  • salad dressings
  • marinades
  • seasonings
  • licorice
  • certain types of vinegar (fermented, rather than distilled)
  • some mustard & ketchup
  • most meat substitutes
  • deli meats
  • sausage
  • imitation crab
  • french fries
  • pickles

*For a complete list of 38 items with full explanations, see this article from the Gluten Intolerance Group

Read nutrition labels carefully!

Because of the fact that many packaged foods contain hidden gluten, reading nutrition labels is critical. Early on in my gluten-free journey, I didn’t realize that so many processed products contained gluten, without it being obvious.

When I was just starting out without much knowledge, I assumed it was only “the biggies” I had to stay away from. I thought if I cut out regular bread and other baked goods, pasta, cookies, etc, I would be safe. Not so, as I unfortunately found out!

My first 6 months or so of going gluten-free were very frustrating. I would have a few days of relief from the unrelenting bouts of abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea I had suffered from for years. But then I would be hit with symptoms again, seemingly out of the blue. I thought I was gluten-free, but because I didn’t understand how gluten “hides”, I was unknowingly still consuming it.

Learning how to properly read nutrition labels was a total game-changer for me! It is my #1 tip for newcomers to the gluten-free lifestyle. In order for our intestines to fully heal from gluten damage, it is imperative to be sure we are not consuming any gluten. The best way to accomplish this is to know for sure the exact ingredients of the food we are eating every day.

Check out these resources for more tips on reading nutrition labels:

Gluten cross-contamination

People enjoying festive dinner with snacks at garden table with candles burning
Be careful with utensils & cooking equipment

What is gluten cross-contamination (or cross-contact)? It just means that a gluten-free food or product has come into contact with something that is not gluten-free.

This can occur in food manufacturing facilities, in the fields where grains are grown, at home or social gatherings, or in restaurants. This is another reason why it is so important to read labels carefully, ask questions, and be aware of how your food is prepared and served.

At home

We do have more control over things in our own homes. If you happen to live alone, it is certainly much easier! But if you do live with others who eat foods with gluten, it is important to take precautions so that your gluten-free foods don’t become contaminated.

  • be careful with utensils, plates, containers, and equipment; don’t use the same ones for both GF and gluten foods
  • store GF food separately from foods containing gluten; in the refrigerator and pantry, try to keep a separate GF shelf
  • when grilling, take care not to use the same cooking surface used for gluten foods
  • for deep-frying, cook GF foods separately in fresh oil, as gluten particles can float in the oil. (Here is an interesting study on this from 2021, for more info)
  • be mindful of shared containers, such as peanut butter, mustard, and ketchup. Bread crumbs can be transferred easily with utensils

Restaurants

It is so much easier to eat at home when following a gluten-free diet! But of course, we all like to go out sometimes for a meal. It is riskier, though, because there’s always a chance that we might accidentally eat something containing gluten.

These are the things I do to ensure (as much as possible) that I steer clear of gluten at restaurants:

  • do research to look up menus online; knowing ahead of time what I can eat saves me a lot of anxiety
  • call ahead if you’re unsure whether they can accommodate you. Sometimes even if a restaurant doesn’t have anything specifically GF, a creative chef can prepare something for you that will be delicious and GF
  • ask plenty of questions about menu items, such as how the food is prepared, ingredients of any sauces/condiments/garnishes
  • be specific with the server, so they understand that it is a health issue, not just a preference

Social gatherings

It is best to be prepared in social eating situations, because we can’t always guarantee (or expect) that others will understand our dietary needs.

  • offer to bring a GF dish to share at a potluck or party; if there isn’t anything else GF, you will still have something safe to eat. Plus, it is fun to share a favorite recipe with others!
  • ask questions beforehand if possible, and try to get an idea of what kind of food will be available, and how it will be prepared
  • bring a few snacks with you, in case you need to supplement what is offered
  • be careful of shared utensils and kitchen equipment

Most people want to see that their guests enjoy themselves at an event, especially when it comes to the food. Nowadays, it is common for hosts to inquire beforehand if anyone has dietary restrictions. This makes it so much easier!

If they don’t ask, though, following the above tips helps ensure against accidentally consuming any gluten, while still being a considerate and gracious guest.

See this article from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more information about gluten cross-contamination. There is also an excellent discussion regarding what to look for on the label when purchasing gluten-free grains (including oats).

Summary

Finding out that you need to cut gluten completely out of your diet can turn your whole world upside down! It’s very upsetting to realize that you will have to make so many adjustments to the way you eat. What used to be so easy now feels very difficult and inconvenient.

I promise you, though, as time goes by it will get easier! Once you know the ground rules, with lots of practice it becomes second nature.

In this post, we have learned:

  1. How to approach our new way of eating with a sense of abundance and adventure, rather than scarcity
  2. Which grains contain gluten (wheat, barley, and rye)
  3. How to read nutrition labels to find hidden gluten in products
  4. What cross-contamination (cross-contact) is, and how to avoid it at home, at restaurants, and at social gatherings

I hope these tips have been helpful to you! After walking this gluten-free road for many years, it is my desire to make it easier for others to adapt to these dietary changes.

I am excited for you to experiment, and find new foods that you will enjoy even more than your old favorites!

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I will tell you about all the many delicious foods you get to eat on a gluten-free diet.

Please leave comments below, and feel free to ask any questions you may have about going gluten-free.

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