Living gluten-free for almost three years now has taught me a lot about food and its role in our social lives, society and individual well-being.
It became quickly apparent to myself and my husband after my diagnosis in 2010 that for the sake of my health, we needed to keep a completely gluten-free household. Making gluten-free food became a challenge for us to overcome and we decided to have fun with it. There were recipe flops and successes. Corn pasta, for example, became a staple and a frequent dinner backup plan.
Processed gluten-free foods can be expensive and not the healthiest option, although it was a necessity when navigating the new diet for a short time. Eating foods made from scratch reduced the potential for contamination when all of the ingredients were naturally gluten-free. All fruits and vegetables are gluten-free!
If a processed food was required, one of the first things I learned was to read labels. Products containing the label "made in a facility that produces products containing wheat" may or may not be a problem for you depending on your allergy (i.e. airborne).
Products containing the label "made on shared equipment with products containing wheat" should be avoided. Wheat is one of the five allergens required to be listed at the bottom of the ingredients by the FDA on all processed foods that contain it. But, gluten can be found in other places, such as rye, spelt, or barley, which are not always listed, and thus making label reading an absolute requirement when food shopping.
Once I got the hang of gluten-free ingredients and cooking, eating out became the most challenging aspect of maintaining a gluten free diet. You can't read every label, you can't inspect every utensil, and it can be stressful knowing that your well-being is in the hands of a person wearing a white coat behind a window or a wall, their knowledge of the definition of gluten-free unknown. The tricky part about eating out is asking all of the right questions at the restaurants that don't serve naturally gluten-free cuisine.
Some tips for maintaining a gluten-free diet outside of your kitchen:
n Call ahead and ask your questions so that when you get there, you won't have to interrogate the waitstaff, who may not know the answer. I also recommend calling ahead for weddings and other catered events. Most chefs and staff will do everything they can to accommodate you if they are given plenty of notice. For a recent restaurant-hosted family event, I dropped off my own gluten free pasta with contamination-avoiding instructions to the restaurant prior to the event. The other guests had no idea that what I was served was any different from theirs and I didn't get sick.
n Always ask before you place your order about the ingredients in salad dressings, glazes, sauces, soup broths, etc. I had one waiter refuse to give me the house salad dressing at a restaurant because he knew another waiter had accidentally spilled croutons into it earlier that day.
n Don't be embarrassed! The most important thing to realize living gluten-free is that there is nothing wrong with you. When out with friends for dinner, and everyone is getting delicious desserts, but there aren't any gluten-free dessert options, skip it! Sneak a piece of candy into your purse, or save a dessert for yourself to enjoy when you get home.
n There is not a dinner host in the world who wants to hear that someone got sick from eating their food. One of the most challenging aspects of having a food allergy are dinner invitations at friends and families' homes. Talk to your host about your food allergy when you are invited and offer to bring something to add to dinner as a back-up plan.
My daily life has certainly changed on a gluten-free diet but my health has improved so dramatically, all of the label reading, phone calls and restaurant questions have been worth it. I make mistakes and get myself sick on rare occasion, but I still live a normal, food-loving, active life.
My husband and I had a 100 percent gluten free wedding. We host dinner parties, and go out to eat often with friends. For my health's sake I am very careful about my diet, and now that my husband and I are expecting our first child soon, my vigilance is even more important to make sure the baby gets all the nutrients it needs from the food I eat. We won't know if our child will also need to be strictly gluten-free until she is about a year old, but we look forward to embracing that challenge next if we need to.
Ann Peters lives in Catskill, N.Y. and is diagnosed with celiac disease.