"Help! I'm new to...being Gluten Free!"
A big dietary change, like removing gluten or dairy, can be a daunting task. Where do you start? What do you need to know?
Because I remember how it felt when I first began to tailor my diet to my body’s reactions (exciting, challenging, a little scary to face life without good bread), I decided to create a new series called: “Help! I’m new to…” where we discuss new diets and how to approach them.
Today we’re tackling what to do when you’re beginning a gluten-free diet: the pros, the cons, the potential pitfalls.
Buckle up, this is going to be a detailed one!
What is a gluten-free diet?
A gluten-free diet is exactly what it says on the tin: a diet without gluten! Keep reading to find out where gluten is found, what symptoms a gluten intolerance can cause, and how to avoid it.
These days a gluten free diet much easier to follow thanks to the plethora of food substitutions in supermarkets. Plus there are plenty of starchy carbs (think rice & potatoes) that are naturally gluten free.
What is Gluten and what is it in?
Gluten is a protein (well, group of proteins, plural) found in certain grains. It’s most commonly found in wheat, barley and rye and their derivatives, but here’s a full list for your perusal.
Gluten is found in:
In and of itself, gluten is not a ‘bad’ thing; it’s a binder, and is what gives wheat bread dough its wonderful stretchiness. But in some people gluten can cause a whole glut of uncomfortable and painful symptoms (which we’ll list further on in this post).
What is the difference between gluten intolerance and Coeliac Disease?
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune issue – when gluten is ingested, the autoimmune system sees a foreign invader, which it then prompts the digestive system to get rid of by creating
Coeliac can often be diagnosed via a blood test or endoscopy, but there aren’t any current diagnostic tests for gluten intolerance – instead you simply have to cut gluten out of your diet and track the symptoms.
Gluten intolerance (sometimes called Non Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity or NCGS) isn’t thought to be an autoimmune response as the damage to the gut is more limited – but there isn’t really enough research yet to clarify exactly what it is.
Recent research has looked into the possibility that the symptoms some people with NCGS experience are actually caused by a different protein in wheat called Amylase-Trypsin Inhibitors (or ATIs) that can cause inflammation and all manner of havoc throughout the body.
And research from the early 2000s showed that people with a self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity produced as a high level of something called Zonulin as people with coeliac itself when they ate gluten-containing food. Zonulin helps protect the gut against harmful bacteria by essentially triggering a ‘clear out’ of the gut – e.g. diarrhoea – so it’s clear that gluten-containing foods can still produce a painful reaction in those that aren’t in the 1% of diagnosed coeliacs.
But still, whether your reactions are caused by gluten or ATIs or other parts of the wheat…and whether you’re diagnosed coeliac or have Non Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity, the only way to stop the painful symptoms is to stop eating it, period.
What are the common symptoms of Coeliac disease?
I’m often asked ‘what happens when you eat gluten?’ and even though I literally do not care and will give you all the graphic detail you like, most of the time I just respond with, “have you ever had stomach flu?” and when the person nods the affirmative, will respond “well it’s like that, times 20 and plus mouth ulcers and eczema.”
That usually ends that conversation nicely.
But for your education, the most common and well-known symptoms of gluten intolerance or coeliac disease include:
Sudden weight loss
Excess gas and wind
Nausea and vomiting
Stomach cramps and abdominal pain
Then there are these symptoms, which are a little less well-known:
Issues with tooth enamel
Neurological problems, such as poor coordination or balance, or numbness and tingling in your hands and feet.
Having a history of eczema, hay fever or other autoimmune issues.
How to go gluten-free
On the simplest level, you remove any gluten-containing ingredients from your diet! Ah, it sounds easy, but there can actually be sneaky places where the gluten can get you. In the early days you often think you’re doing great, and then, BAM! There’s the gluten, and there’s the loo.
But don’t worry, we’ve got some great information on where it’s likely to be hiding, and what to watch out for when you first start this diet.
Without further ado, here’s our tips for removing gluten from your life:
Chuck out these foods
Of course, what you’re going to do is get rid of any packaged food that includes WHEAT, BARLEY or RYE, so bread, pasta, pastries and cakey-things made from wheat are out of the cupboard. Don’t fret! There are so many great substitution products you can get these days that taste pretty great, if not just as good as the glutenous thing, and if you can’t get them there are some fantastic recipes to create your own – all these resources we’ll link to at the bottom of the post.
However, there are a few other commonly-eaten foods to especially keep an eye out for”
- Soy Sauce
Did you know soy sauce is usually fermented with wheat? Yep. Soy sauce itself is off the table, and you want to watch out for its inclusion in other sauces and meals.
Chinese and Japanese food is an obvious minefield when eating out, so watch out for that, but also keep an eye on the ingredients in things like salad dressings and similar, because Soy Sauce is often used to give that good umami taste. If you’re in a restaurant and not sure if soy sauce is lurking in a dish, ask the waiter to check with the chef.
What you want to purchase instead for your cupboards is TAMARI – a gluten free soy sauce that you can substitute for the regular stuff and still make everything taste delicious.
- Stocks, sauces and spice mixes
Wheat flour is used to thicken up many a gravy and sauce, so always, always check before you tuck in to a sauce-containing meal. Specifically watch out for meat gravy and white sauces, because these are most commonly thickened with wheat flour.
Packaged meat stocks and stock cubes can also sneakily contain wheat. In the UK, Knorr is a very good brand to use for gluten free stock (and I believe their stock pots don’t contain onion or garlic, so they’re good for low-fodmap followers too!).
And the cause of my personal sadness: neither Marmite nor Bovril is gluten free. I used to have both interchangeably in my gravies (so Northern) and on my toast, so this is devastating to me. Though, we heard Tesco now do a gluten free Marmite-style spread, so if you’re in the UK better get yourself to Tesco!
Additionally, always read the back of the packet when it comes to pre-made spice mixes (e.g. taco seasoning, Bolognese seasoning, etc.), because wheat and barley malt may also be lurking in the seasoning.
Oats are definitely one to watch out for. Oats themselves don’t contain the same ‘gluten’ protein as wheat and barley – what they have instead is a protein called Avenin that can produce a similar negative reaction in a small number of the population.
However, the main issue with oats often isn’t their ‘gluten’ content, it’s their processing that’s the problem. Oats are often processed in factories that mill other grains, meaning cross-contamination can easily happen. A big no-no for your gut! However, most supermarkets carry gluten free oats that are safe to eat.
Crisp flavourings often contain barley malt (boo! Hisss!!), so be sure to check for that. Oh, and if you’re about to Google this – speaking from experience – Maltodextrin, despite the ‘malt’ in its name, is gluten free!
The cheaper the meat, the more ‘filler’ it will have in it, and that filler is often wheat flour. So, unfortunately being gluten free means more expensive sausages and sandwich meat, but it also means better sausages and sandwich meat, so I think we win this point.
Over the counter Medicines
Yep, gluten is even sometimes used to bind tablets together.
Watch out for mix-ins like cookie dough or brownies – always check the label.
Pick ‘n’ Mix and sweets
This is for the Brits out there – Woolies may no longer exist, but pick’n’mix sweets can still be found in supermarkets and the cinema. Most of them contain gluten, and not only that, but those little scoops are passed between all the different little sweet buckets all day long. So, risk it for a biscuit if you must, but be aware that gluten lurks within!
While you may think that Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes are safe, please always check the back of the packet: most cereals contain some form of barley (including the aforementioned Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes), so they are unfortunately off the breakfast table for you. There are often gluten free versions of these cereals available in the Free From aisle though they are, sadly, much more expensive.
Phew! Quite the list in addition to getting rid of your pasta, cakes, pastries, etc! Essentially, if you’re not making it yourself then always, always check the back of the packet. Even if you previously enjoyed eating that particular thing, check the back of the packet anyway – businesses often quietly change recipes and ingredients and you don’t want to be caught out.
Watch out for cross-contamination
Okay, you’ve nixed all gluten-containing ingredients from your cupboards and stomach. Good work! But one thing you also need to watch out for is cross-contamination.
This is when your meal can be contaminated with gluten when it’s being cooked or prepared in the same place as gluten-containing ingredients. Think: chopping boards, pans, knives, wooden spoons, ovens and frying oil.
At home the best way to go is to get your own set of utensils, chopping boards, wooden spoons, etc. If you’re cooking for someone who eats gluten, do not stir their meal with your spoon (if you’re cooking pasta, for example!)
When you’re eating out, be sure to ask the wait staff how the food you’re choosing is prepared, because while your fries may be made from potato, they may also be rolled in flour or fried in the same oil as other battered and floured food. Gluten free pizza bases are likely cooked in the same ovens as wheat flour pizzas, and so on. The longer you continue on a gluten free diet, the more pronounced your symptoms will become during future glutenings, so cross contamination will eventually be a priority issue for you.
Be firm when eating out
I have learned the hard way that there is no standardization for explaining gluten on a menu, so always ask! Don’t be embarrassed: it’s your health that’s important, not the waiter’s opinion of you or your diet.
Always clarify that you want the gluten free version of something when you order. Once I was in a pub over a bank holiday that had LOTS of gluten free choices – I was so excited! I was less excited a few hours later, throwing up like a champ, when it twigged that ‘gluten free option’ meant ‘ask us for the gluten free version of this dish’. So that’s a mistake I definitely won’t be making again…
And this may be a little daunting if you’re not yet a regular cook, but it really does help to know the basic methods of creating certain dishes so that you can ask the waitress specific questions. I’ve found that sometimes that wait staff don’t have too much knowledge about where gluten is found (e.g. the soy sauce and stock cube issues tends to be less well-known), so being able to ask about specific ingredients in a dish or preparation really helps.
Track your body’s reactions in a food diary
This one is a no-brainer. While you’re going gluten free, whether it’s an elimination test or whether you already have a solid coeliac diagnosis, always keep a food diary to track of what you’re eating and how your body is feeling in response.
While we’ve given a decent list above of places gluten can sneak in, it’s by no means exhaustive, and it helps to be able to pinpoint the foods you ate, or places you ate at, that cause a reaction so you can avoid them or be more careful in the future.
It’s also incredibly pleasurable to note down how much better you’re feeling from day-to-day as your body heals!
Eating Out: Top UK chains to eat gluten free
We do a semi-regular series about top places to eat gluten free, but they are all location-specific and mainly focused on more independent restaurants and cafes.
For the sake of helping a gluten-free newbie who may be out and about and not sure where to get a safe meal, here are a few of my favourite restaurant chains to eat at in the UK. A few of these may be more London or Yorkshire-centric, but they’re all ones I have had consistently excellent experiences at:
- Wahaca: get your Mexican food fix safe in knowledge that their teams are super clued up about cross-contamination, and you’ll receive a gluten free menu that points out specifically the items you can have if you have a coeliac-level reaction to gluten, or what you can have if it’s less severe.
- Zizzis: always a good one for gluten free pasta or pizza, their menus are clearly marked and their staff always seem happy to help.
- Nandos: Nandos, high street kings of peri peri chicken, are always my go-to in a pinch. Not only are the restaurants everywhere, the chips are gluten free, the chicken is delicious, and I never have a worry about cross-contamination.
- Pho: Pho is absolute noodle and rice heaven for me, plus the vast majority of the menu is gluten free! Gluten-free noob, you’ll soon realise that having more than 2 choices in a restaurant (one of which is always a salad) is the greatest feeling ever.
- Chipotle: A great place for lunch – pile that burrito bowl high, and just make sure they change their gloves before serving you!
- Leon: this place is the gluten free, dairy free, veggie kween we all know and love, with options up the wazoo. I have often blessed the day Leon popped up, making an impromptu lunch that much easier.
- Honest Burgers: No other burger chain will have my heart like Honest Burgers and for excellent reason. Not only do they have the best gluten free buns that don’t fall apart like all the others seem to, they also make their incredible specials gluten free PLUS those frieds and onion rings? Safe as houses for you my coeliac friend!
- Whetherby Whaler: this is a smaller chain of Fish & Chip restaurants based in Yorkshire, but I love them because they have dedicated fryers to do fish and chips ALL THE TIME. No ‘Mondays only’ because they just changed the fryer oil… nope! Any time you want some delicious fried fish and potato sticks, the Whetherby Whaler’s got you. Also they have gluten free vinegar to go along with it – because what’s fish and chips without vinegar? Heaven.
Favourite online gluten-free resources
There are plenty of fantastic recipe sites out there that provide you with myriad ideas for dinner, breakfast and everything in between. I tend to find myself going back to the same ones again and again, but also as I’ve gotten better at substituting, I find it much easier to adapt a ‘normal’ recipe to tweak it to be gluten free (e.g. using tamari instead of soy sauce, corn flour instead of wheat flour for coating and thickening, and gluten free breadcrumbs instead of wheat, etc, etc).
Gluten Free on A Shoestring – for all your gluten free and often dairy-free baking needs, especially bread-based products!
Ambitious Kitchen - a health-focused food blog with incredibly delicious recipes, including my favourite baked oatmeal [https://www.ambitiouskitchen.com/strawberry-banana-chocolate-chip-baked-oatmeal-recipe/].
Minimalist Baker - for the vegan and gluten free out there. Dana’s recipes are a fantastic way to up the veggie quotient in your diet.
Pinch of Yum - not all of Lindsey’s recipes are gluten free, but they can often be made so with very little effort. May I suggest you start with the incredible garlic basil chicken with tomato butter sauce?
BBC Good Food - This treasure trove can always help turn up something tasty for dinner and features recipes from all the household chefs you know and love.
Cotter Crunch Lindsay’s gluten free and incredibly beautiful recipes are well worth getting to know – they’re gluten free, healthy and delicious!!
Is this a thing? These are people who have some of my favourite instagram feeds and blogs about being gluten free (i.e. they chat about more than just the good recipes).
Gluten Free Alice: Alice is also dairy free, and I love her weekly shop insta posts (which is me being a bit nosey but I do find it interesting!)
Gluten Free Suitcase: Alexandra writes from the perspective of a frequent gluten free traveller, and it’s always fun to read her posts and get excited about the day I might be in the same city, trying her recommendations!
Becky Excell: Becky writes about her gluten free diet from the perspective of managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and is a literal treasure trove of tips, recipes and relatable experiences. (And even once included our diary in a list of top lifesaving tips for coping with IBS in a piece for the Metro! Thanks Becky!)
The Tummy Diaries: Lottie’s also gluten free thanks to IBS, and not only gives some cracking recipes, is just a general ray of sunshine to boot.
Other online resources
Online you’ll also find great resources for the coeliac/gluten free community in general where you can find more information about living gluten free and talk to others in a similar position to you:
Gluten free Pinterest
And of course, don’t forget to follow us on Pinterest for lots of gluten free recipes!
Phew! That is the end of our epic “new to gluten free!” post, so if you’re still with us- thank you! And hopefully this is a helpful primer for anyone beginning their gluten free journey.
If you have any questions, ask us below, or get in touch on instagram!