Thinking about going gluten free or know that you need to do it? Before you become convinced by anyone that going gluten free has magical powers and will poof away all of your woos, I’ve got a few words of advice to share that you probably won’t read anywhere else.
A gluten free diet isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Honestly, it’s a mixed bag of both wonderful and simultaneously annoying experiences that are hard, confusing, frustrating, liberating and exciting all at the same time. And you know what else? It’s not easy (unless you live in a very gluten-free-friendly location where you’ve got a ton of options).
Don’t get me wrong… I love being gluten free because of all the many improvements it’s brought into my life, however I would be lying if I told you that it’s all peaches and cream every waking moment of the day. There are still some experiences that drive me crazy and make me mad, but I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t allow them to ruin my entire day.
And unfortunately too many people try to go gluten free (who really need to go gluten free) as if they’re test-driving a new car… not fully committed. This is a recipe for disaster. I can’t tell you how many emails and calls I’ve received from readers lamenting that either they don’t even know where to begin in going gluten free or that they can’t seem to stay “on the gluten free wagon” longer than a day or two.
That’s why I wanted to put together this honest list of things that you should know before you go gluten free based on my years of experience teaching and coaching women to go gluten-free as well as living gluten-free since 2008. This is “the list” I wish someone had told me before I took the plunge years ago and it would have saved me a TON of headaches.
10 Things You Need to Know Before Going Gluten-Free
1. Get tested for celiac disease.
If you want to test drive a gluten-free diet for a couple of weeks and see how it goes, cool. But if you find that you actually feel better, then you need to bee-line it to a doctor (preferably a gastroenterologist) to get tested for celiac disease. This is critical because IF you have celiac, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by the ingestion of gluten that destroys the microvilli of your small intestine causing systemic, lifelong health issues, you have an dramatically increased risk of developing other autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Sjögren’s Syndrome.
Oh, you saw a functional or integrative medicine doctor who told you that you’re gluten sensitive? Cool, but now you need to demand that they test you for celiac or refer you to someone who will. I’m not sure why there isn’t a bigger push within functional medicine to get people tested for celiac being that the risks of autoimmunity are well-known, but ultimately you’ve got to be an advocate for yourself no matter what type of practitioner you see.
I never got tested for celiac because I was never directed to do so and I was gluten free for much too long before I eventually learned about the disease. It’s one of my greatest regrets as now I live in limbo with no idea of the risks that I may have and I’m not willing to eat gluten for six awful weeks in order to figure this out.
The point is… get tested if you find that you DO react to gluten even if it’s signs and symptoms beyond tummy troubles.
2. The downsides to gluten free food products.
While food companies have certainly made huge strides in taste, texture and variety when it comes to gluten free options, there’s two big problems that you should know.
First, gluten free food products tend to be very high glycemic (causing blood sugar spikes) due to their use of rice, tapioca, potato and corn flours and starches which make up the base of gluten free flour blends. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that brown rice pasta is somehow healthier than the white rice version. It’s pretty much a total wash with very little fiber, lots of sugar, and some not so pleasant binders like xanthan gum.
And no, gluten free bread is not good for you either even if it says it’s multigrain or made with whole grains (and here’s why).
Secondly, they are expensive. I was able to demonstrate in my book The Savvy Gluten-Free Shopper: How to Eat Healthy Without Breaking the Bank that gluten free food products tend to be nearly 2 1/2 times more expensive than their gluten-filled counterparts. So if you just switch everything in your grocery cart, be prepared to spend quite a lot more at the store if your diet revolves around gluten free food products.
3. Paleo books and websites aren’t always the best spots to learn how to be gluten free.
While the paleo diet is gluten free, it’s focus is not on carefully avoiding gluten. I know this because I’ve interviewed many paleo celebrities and reviewed plenty of their books to know that the effort to avoid gluten isn’t as important as is helping you follow paleo principles such as eating locally grown food or avoid grains and legumes. I’ve found that many are more casual in their avoidance of gluten.
Yes, there’s a ton of great paleo recipes out there (and they’re typically more nutritious than gluten free ones), but if you’ve got to go gluten free, following the paleo lead to avoid gluten rather than knowing how to spot and craftily avoid it will get you into trouble and keep you from getting better.
An example of this is in The Paleo Kitchen book by Juli Bauer and George Bryant. While the book is great and has a ton of fantastic recipes, they recommend you shop in the bulk bins at the supermarket to help reduce your grocery bill. I’m not saying this to “call them out” because this isn’t the first and only time I’ve seen this type of direction from people in the paleo world that’s not in line with safe gluten free eating.
If you don’t know, bulk bin shopping is a total no-no for someone who needs to avoid gluten because there’s a huge risk of cross contamination. For someone eating paleo without serious health problems or much of a sensitivity, this might be okay because they aren’t overtly eating a huge chuck of gluten. But for someone pretty sensitive or doing an elimination diet, this is a total fail.
If you want the right guidance to get you from zero to 100% gluten free compliance, I can help with that.
4. Pinpoint your favorite gluten weaknesses.
The things that tend to throw people off track when going gluten free are the things that they LOVE to eat and feel like they can’t pass up (right now). Make a list of gluten-filled foods that you love and start looking for alternatives that are safe. For example, if you love having a cold beer while watching football, then you better start looking for a gluten free version that you can at least tolerate (my husband says that there are a few that are pretty good!).
While I’d love to tell you to be strong and pass on stuff that’s loaded with gluten, I’m also a realist and have worked with enough clients to know that if you don’t give someone a bridge from point A to gluten free, they might not make it. And an important part of that journey is figuring out the swaps that will keep on 100% compliant.
5. Just because you don’t have “stomach problems” doesn’t mean you aren’t sensitive to gluten.
One thing I didn’t understand before going gluten free was that the food I ate impacted my health even if I didn’t get gas or diarrhea after eating them. Many people tell me that there’s no way that they are sensitive to gluten because they don’t have any “stomach issues.”
Guess what? Gluten sensitivity is largely believed to affect the brain and can show up in a bunch of different ways that you might not connect with your digestive system. It can affect your mouth, skin, thyroid, and immune function to name a few. For a great list, CLICK HERE to see the most unexpected ways gluten sensitivity can show up that don’t involved feeling sick to your stomach.
6. A gluten free diet isn’t a cure-all with magical fairy powers.
Yes there are plenty of success stories out there from people who’ve gone gluten free and felt a world better (if you’ve not checked out my journey and startling before-and-after photo, CLICK HERE). But there are also people who have not fully felt better and some have even felt worse (even though they were sensitive or have celiac disease).
If you jump into a gluten free diet with the notion that it will cure all of your aches and pains, you’re likely to be disappointed. Many find after going gluten free that while it certainly improves things, it isn’t enough. If you’ve been feeling crummy for quite some time, multiple food sensitivities could be to blame. I took gluten out, but it wasn’t the “magic bullet” I thought it would be. Turned out I was also sensitive to dairy, eggs, and veggies in the cruciferous family.
And it may take time for your body to start feeling better. While I experienced improvement in a matter of days, some don’t feel better for two to three months after being 100% (no slip ups) gluten free.
7. Gluten pills aren’t a license to cheat.
I don’t care what sort of fancy, crafted marketing lingo is slapped on the packaging of the various gluten pills and enzymes. Taking gluten pills does not make it ever okay for you to knowingly ingest something with gluten. Nor are they meant to be used to eat food that you know is contaminated with gluten (like gluten free pasta cooked in water used to cook regular wheat pasta).
All of the claims these companies make have not been evaluated by the FDA and I have yet to receive any conclusive study or scientific data from any of the companies that produce these products to prove to me that they actually work (yes, I’ve made requests to some of the most prominent brands and they either have avoided sending me documentation or claim it is proprietary).
If they work (and that still remains to be determined), they are intended to be taken as a fail-safe so that if you happen to eat something that was contaminated, the pill or enzyme will hopefully be able to prevent gluten from affecting you greatly. Again, no company has ever provided me any proof that their product works and I’ve heard too many stories of people using these products and then becoming extremely ill after a meal (which could mean that they may have finally eaten a contaminated meal and the pill did nothing).
Take these products at your own risk, but do not assume that you’re safe. Be incredibly skeptical of all products that claim that you can eat gluten without any of the side effects. And if you have celiac, it’s my understanding that you aren’t sparing the damage done by gluten simply by using these products.
8. Ingredients can lie (by omission).
One big rookie mistake is to pick up a product, check the ingredients and assume it’s gluten free because no wheat or other gluten-containing grains are listed on the packaging. (Here’s an acronym to remember where gluten is found.)
Unless a product is clearly marked “gluten free,” or “certified gluten free,” OR you call the company can double check with them that something they produce is indeed gluten free, you cannot solely rely on scanning the ingredients and looking at the allergen warning of the food label to know a product is safe. There is an official FDA rule in place now for what “gluten free” legally means to which food companies (and restaurants) should comply if they use it. While some including myself would argue that understanding the safety of gluten free products and meals is unfortunately quite nuanced and requires some stealthy, questioning skills, you’ve got to look for that “gluten free” label first.
The reason scanning the ingredients come second (and not first) is that derivatives made from gluten-containing foods such as wheat or barley are typically listed as names that you won’t recognize and still contain gluten. And “gluten” isn’t a food allergen, so if the derivative is made from barley (which isn’t one of the top 8 allergens required to be listed as part of the allergen warning), you’d never know that gluten was in there.
9. Gluten hides everywhere.
Make sure that everything that goes on, in or near your mouth is gluten free. This includes all of your medication, supplements, toothpaste, floss, lipstick and other lip, makeup, and bodycare products.
Spend an hour and thoroughly clean out your kitchen properly (Here’s how to do it!) to halt gluten-exposure in its tracks even if you live with others who will continue to eat gluten long after you and gluten part ways.
Ask questions of everyone trying to feed you food including waitstaff at restaurants, well-meaning friends and family, and even food companies to ascertain if something is truly safe. If you don’t know what to ask, how to advocate for yourself (or are totally uncomfortable doing so), or either are too trusting or at times lazy to ask, then you’re likely to eat more gluten than you think. That’s problematic when you consider the immense financial, time, emotional and physical burden you’ll continue to carry around as your health doesn’t improve.
Going gluten free can change your life (because that’s what improved health does), but only if you do it right. Cheating every weekend and constantly eating contaminated food isn’t being gluten free. While I commend the effort, I also believe that efficiency and commitment towards feeling better and getting your life back is more important which underscores why it’s important to do the right way this time around.
10. The first two to three years tend to be the most difficult when going gluten free.
My first three years were rough. Yes, I felt so much better and was incredibly excited about living gluten free (at first). But I come from an italian family and was a former pasta and bread addict. After about a year of trying my hardest to stay gluten free, I found more and more reasons to cheat even though I’d end up rushing to the bathroom with painful diarrhea (multiple times), feel sick for days afterwards, or my face would break out in a scaly, dry, red rash.
I definitely knew better, but I honestly was more interested in that momentary fix, convenience or feeling like a part of the group than I was in making a commitment to myself and my health. I know that I wasn’t alone because of the clients with whom I’ve worked and the many emails I get daily from readers who confide that they just can’t seem to stop cheating and “stay on the wagon.”
An interesting stat I often think about comes from one group of women with whom I’ve worked (all of whom knew they needed to go gluten free). Out of the group, the average amount of time that the 35 participants had spent “trying” to get to 100% compliance was 5 years and they still weren’t there. One woman had been trying for 10 years!
The point is that many may be embarrassed to admit that while they need to go gluten free, they aren’t doing it well or strict enough to see the health improvements that would allow for their various ailments to resolve. You might want everyone to think that you’re gluten free while you sneak bites of something with gluten in it when no one’s around.
I’ve been guilty of doing that myself in my initial years and it was something that I had to get support with in order to stop cheating because I wasn’t eating in line with what would stop my chronic diarrhea multiple times each day (especially the many embarrassing trips to the bathroom (trying not to run there!) while out with friends), resolve the chronic headaches I had for close to 15 years, or the intense bloating, horribly embarrassing and painful gas, and weight gain to name just a few.
Let’s stop glamorizing and beautifying the process of going gluten free. It can be a hard, emotionally-draining experience that leaves you frustrated and ready to throw in the towel if you don’t have the right support to get there efficiently. But once you learn to ride this proverbial bike, you’ll actually find that it’s a lot easier to maintain and enjoy than you currently believe it to be.
NEED MORE HELP?
If you feel like you’re at your wits’ end and fed up knowing what to eat… Or you feel like food is your enemy now that you’ve gone gluten-free and you’re feeling deeply overwhelmed with the process of ridding your life of gluten… I have a really neat opportunity for you so keep on reading!
I decided that I want to talk to you!!! So I’m hosting a special webinar (that’s totally free) where I’m going to talk about the process and myths of going gluten-free as well as how I (and my clients) have gotten to a place of feeling like the lifestyle and diet are a piece of gluten-free cake. If you’ve been GF for less than 2 years, are still struggling to “stay on the wagon,” or haven’t even started going GF yet… this is for you.
To register for the Kick Gluten for Good Q&A –> CLICK HERE to register for Wednesday 4/13/16 at 8pm ET
Think of it like you and I sit down for a cup or tea (or coffee)… you can pick my brain, ask me your burning questions and I’m going to dish on what’s worked for me and my clients. Plus I’ll have a special surprise for you at the end! BUT please be aware that I will not record this event so if you miss it, then you’ve missed out.
I’ve never done this before and I don’t know if I’ll offer something like this again due to time constraints (school starts again soon)… so pick the time you can commit to and make sure to register for this FREE event. See you there!