One thing is for sure: Life will never be the same after getting a new diagnosis of celiac disease. Old habits and traditions in which wheat-derived foods and drinks played a starring role – Sunday morning bagels, beers over Monday night football, pizza night with the kids – are necessarily changed. Many patients assume that the new gluten-free life that lies ahead will be somehow diminished, deprived or inferior compared to their previous one.
My experience – both personally and professionally – however, suggests otherwise.
Going gluten-free may not be easy at first, and it will likely require more thought and planning about food than you're used to. But it also may offer some surprising benefits as well. Once you've learned the ropes of gluten-free living, you may be surprised to find that your diet – and quality of life – is better than ever. If you've digested your diagnosis and are ready to start living your best gluten-free life, here's how:
• Remember: Every cloud has a silver lining: Ironically, I've found that my patients without any food restrictions have some of the least varied diets imaginable! They can eat and tolerate any food on the planet, but they default to the same old wheat-based staples day in and day out. Cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner. Yawn.
[Read: Food Intolerance: Fact and Fiction.]
The silver lining of a celiac disease diagnosis is that your diet is about to get a whole lot more varied and interesting. You heard me right – a common side effect of restricting gluten from your diet is that you may feel compelled to explore a diverse new world of foods and cuisines in order to fill the void.
When's the last time you had buckwheat soba noodles? A South Indian dosa? What about baked quinoa polenta fries? Ever have a warm bowl of cooked sorghum with cinnamon and maple syrup for breakfast? Or a teff peanut butter cookie as a bedtime snack?
There's no better excuse to broaden your culinary horizons than a diagnosis of celiac disease, and if you're willing to venture beyond the comfortable staples of potatoes, rice and corn, these delicious, nutritious foods (and many, many others) may become regulars in your new, gluten-less diet.
[Read: Great New Foods for Restricted Diets.]
• Ready, set, pin! So you're ready to break out of the gluten-centric sandwich-and-pasta-food- rut. Where to begin? Log onto Pinterest. Create a new board called "Gluten Free Goodies." And then start googling your head off to find alluring, gluten-free recipes for all the foods you thought you'd never eat again (or local restaurants that offer them on their gluten-free menus.)
Search for pumpkin muffins and banana pancakes; see what the buzz is on the best spot for gluten-free pizza in your neighborhood; seek out a gluten-free cupcake recipe for your sister's upcoming birthday. Get to know the gorgeous blogs of celiac foodies like Shauna James Ahern (Gluten Free Girl and the Chef), Karina Allrich (the Gluten Free Goddess) and Silvana Nardone (Silvana's Kitchen); these ladies have some serious kitchen credentials and have elevated gluten-free home cooking to a whole new level.
Search for recipes that resemble childhood favorites, gluten-free versions of traditional holiday treats and ideas for how to fill the gap left on your brunch plate or cocktail party menus. Once you have completed round one of this exercise, review your board – brimming with enticing photos of delicious food – and get excited about all the amazing new tastes you've got on your to-do list.
• Create new traditions: My first gluten-free Passover was miserable, as I was still wallowing in my diagnosis. Bowls of my mom's matzoh ball soup bypassed me as they made their way around the table, and I was despondent. But the experience compelled me to take on a series of gluten-free matzoh ball experiments that resulted in the most awesome culinary innovation: "quatzoh balls (quinoa matzoh balls). Not only have these delicious dumplings graced our family's Passover meal annually since their inception, they've also become tradition in the homes of countless others who found the recipe on my blog.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and there are thousands of fellow celiacs online who have similarly taken it upon themselves to come up with new ways to experience old traditions. Borrow one of theirs, or create one of your own!
• BYOC (Bring Your Own Cake): I'm through feeling sorry for myself when invited to birthday parties at which I can't enjoy a piece of cake. Now, I bring my own little gluten free treat to enjoy after the candles have been blown out. If I happen across a particularly yummy-looking gluten-free cupcake, muffin or cookie in my daily meanderings, I might buy it to stash in the freezer until an appropriately festive opportunity presents itself. If I'm feeling particularly ambitious, I may even volunteer to bake a batch of gluten-free cupcakes to share with my fellow partygoers.
• Take charge of group dining decisions: Whether it's an officemate's birthday party, a girls' night out or a family reunion, organizing the group dinner is a pain in the behind. This is why your colleagues/friends/relatives will be thrilled when you volunteer to pick the restaurant, make the reservation and handle RSVPs.
Your ulterior motive, of course, is that you control the venue and can steer the clan toward a gluten-free-friendly option – either a joint with a dedicated gluten-free menu, or a cuisine that offers loads of naturally gluten-free choices, like Mexican, Indian or a steak house. If someone else beats you to the punch, however, don't hesitate to speak up and let your needs be known, preferably by directing them toward a list of cuisines or restaurants that are most likely to offer at least a few good options for you.
As a newly diagnosed person with celiac disease, of course, the best part about your new gluten-free life is that you're protecting your long-term health and preventing the chronic bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, migraines or other miserable symptoms that eating gluten visited upon you.
Hungry for more? Write to email@example.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.
Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.