A brief introduction to going gluten free

Whilst I mainly blog about the lesser-asked questions of the gluten free world, and issues that get my goat, I’m still often asked by friends and family for advice when people they know are faced with the need to adopt a gluten free diet.

I often send an email with some helpful links and things to consider as a starting point – there is so much information out there now it must feel very overwhelming if you’re new to the diet! Here’s that email, in case it is helpful for you. It’s by no means a complete guide, but contains some initial practical advice and resources to get you started.

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Firstly

Did you get tested for coeliac disease? If you suspect you might have a problem with gluten, it’s important to get tested before you go gluten free otherwise they can’t pick this up. There are other implications for your health and diet if you do have coeliac, so it’s important to at least exclude it. Ask your GP – it’s just a simple blood test in the first instance.

Useful Reading

If you’ve been diagnosed with coeliac disease, I heartily recommend this slim, but very thorough book: Coeliac Disease: What You Need to Know by Alex Gazzola. Otherwise Living Gluten Free for Dummies is also good introduction.

You don’t have to buy a book though! The Coeliac UK site has all the basic info you need when you’re new to the gluten free diet.

Food Shopping & Reading Labels

You will need to get used to reading labels: legally if a product has wheat, rye or barley it has to be highlighted on the label in the ingredients (usually in bold); but there are foods that might not be obvious that contain gluten. As well as the obvious bread, pasta etc. You typically have to avoid:

  • sausages
  • burgers & stuffing
  • beer/lager
  • soy sauce
  • malt vinegar
  • Marmite
  • most stock cubes/gravy or sauces
  • many soups, crisps, breakfast cereals (e.g. most Kellogg’s have barley malt in).

You can get GF substitutes for all of the above though, and some of the ‘normal’ versions are ok too, and availability is loads better than it used to be (e.g all M&S sausages are gf). Coeliac UK produce a directory and app for members which has all of the suitable ‘normal’ products listed in it.

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It is your call whether you also avoid products that have ‘may contain’ type warnings on them. Personally I do as there is a high likelihood of those items containing trace amounts of gluten which coeliacs react to. You can read more about this here.

Staple Products

Oats are considered gluten free, but some people with gluten issues feel they react to them too as the proteins are similar. Most oats, however, are contaminated with wheat from processing. You can get pure oats in the free from aisle but they are quite expensive. Personally I eat them, but sparingly. If you have a dietitian they can advise you further on this, coeliacs are often advised to remove them from the diet at first until your health improves and gut heals. Other breakfast cereals (even things like corn flakes) often have barley in, so you may find the free from aisle is the best starting point whilst you hone your label-reading skills.

The bread question… Gluten free bread is not as bad as you might think, but there are certainly no lovely fluffy crusty fresh options in the main shops (yet). Those you can buy in the supermarket are expensive, and to be honest filled with extra fat, sugar, and preservatives to make them taste ‘normal’ so don’t have a brilliant nutritional profile. Personally I don’t eat a lot of it, and stick to naturally gluten free options instead. I have a loaf in the freezer for toast now and then.

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If you can’t go without your sarnie, it’s very much a personal preference so I would suggest trying a few to find the one you like. For what it’s worth I think the Newburn Bakehouse ones are pretty good, they do wraps which are decent, and their products are one of the few that are fortified with vitamins and minerals like standard bread. I also sometimes make my own with mixes which are much better though don’t last long without the preservatives of supermarket loaves. (I have found Bakels to be the best).

Gluten free pastas are generally pretty good now- you can’t much tell the difference in taste/texture with normal; as a rule you tend to find Italian brands are the most like standard pasta (no surprise!).

It may surprise you that lots of your ‘normal’ packaged products like sauces and seasonings will be naturally gluten free, you don’t always need to buy the more expensive ‘free from’ version. It’s back to those label-reading skills again…

Cooking for yourself

Coeliacs have to be super careful about cross contamination e.g. We have separate wooden spoons, chopping boards and toasters etc. I wouldn’t eat chips in a restaurant that have been fried in the same oil as something with breadcrumbs or batter. I think if you don’t have coeliac its your call how careful you need to be.

In practice we find it easier to eat the same gluten free meals as a family to save on effort and minimise the washing up! But if you chose to prepare different meals, then make sure you prepare and keep the gluten free options separately free from contamination. We had a big clear out and cupboard clean when I was diagnosed, and use stickers to label things like butter which have been contaminated.

Cake recipes mostly work fine with GF flour (like Doves Farm blend) if you reduce the quantity of flour a bit (or add in 1 tbsp yogurt) because the flours hold a lot of moisture. Pastry and bread can be a little trickier so it’s worth investing in a good gluten free cookbook if you are a keen baker – the skills needed are a little different from normal baking. Naomi Devlin’s book is considered the authority by those in the know!

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Eating Out

Don’t be afraid! Most of the chains have GF menus these days so it’s pretty easy, and all food outlets have to be able to tell you which of their dishes have gluten in. Outside of that Indian restaurants and steak places offer the most options, Chinese the hardest because soy sauce is in most things. There are various sites with directories of gluten free restaurants, but my experience is that it’s best to google and find a coeliac blog for the area you are interested in to get the most detailed information, as many of the directory sites just have paid-for listings from major chains.

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Nutrition

Since being diagnosed, in practice I have found it better (and cheaper) to focus on naturally gluten free foods and cook from scratch most of the time- so lots of fruit & veggies; meat, fish & pulses; gluten free grains like rice, quinoa, millet & buckwheat. It has helped me to learn about ingredients, as well as contributing to improved nutrition to help my body recover from the damage done by coeliac disease.

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The challenge is this can be time consuming, you may not like eating this way, and it could result in losing weight you don’t need to if you don’t watch that you are getting enough calories and macronutrients etc. If you have a dietitian they should be helpful here. (If not, ask for a referral to one!)

Be aware that a gluten free diet can end up being lower in fibre than a normal diet, so it’s something to watch. As GF products are also often organic they aren’t usually fortified like normal versions with iron etc.

I hope you found that useful. I’m very responsive on twitter (@gfreeb) if you have follow up questions.

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