It is the holiday season, and I am sure you have started thinking about all the delicious things on your menu and where you may eat. Your social media pages are likely flooded with mouthwatering holiday goodies; for most people, it brings up happy feelings.
For me, it starts to create some anxiety because I can’t have a lot of those goodies. Why, you ask? Well, I am one of the more than two million Americans who have been diagnosed with celiac disease. Some studies have shown that as many as one in every 133 Americans have it but may not know they have it. November is Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness of the problems gluten can cause and the diseases connected to gluten and educate the public about gluten-free diets.
What is celiac disease? According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, “Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. “
In addition to celiac disease, some people don’t tolerate gluten and have a sensitivity to it.
What is gluten? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (a combination of wheat and rye).
So, what does that mean for people with celiac disease? We can’t eat gluten; it damages our small intestine, and we do not feel well when we eat it.
I remember when I was first diagnosed, the dietitian was giving me pages of handouts with all the foods that had gluten in them. It was overwhelming. I was shocked to learn gluten wasn’t just in foods but also in non-food items like cosmetics, shampoos, lotions, medications, Play-Doh, etc. Here are some things I have learned along my journey:
- Read labels. Look for the label “certified gluten-free.” If it isn’t labeled, look for some of the obvious terms and the not-so-obvious. Here is a good list to look at.
- Look at the manufacturer’s website or contact them if it isn’t clear if something is gluten-free.
- Try and stick to naturally gluten-free foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts (in unprocessed forms), unprocessed lean meats, eggs, and low-fat dairy products (read labels for any hidden sources)
- Remember, there are some tasty gluten-free options/substitutes. Gluten-free offerings have come a long way even in the short time I have had celiac disease, but just because you find a gluten-free substitute, it doesn’t always mean it’s healthy. So, limit processed gluten-free items because they can have a lot of calories and sugar. Moderation is key.
- Before going to a restaurant, review the menu ahead of time.
- If you are going to an event, ask the host if there are gluten-free options. If there aren’t, offer to bring a gluten-free dish or eat ahead of time.
- Educate your family and friends. Share your experience and educate people about why you must avoid gluten. Some people don’t understand the severity of the disease and how sick people get if they get cross-contamination.
- Be mindful of potential cross-contact places. This means a gluten-free food comes into contact with or is exposed to a gluten-containing food. This can make it unsafe for those of us with celiac disease to consume and cause us to get sick. There are obvious and not-so-obvious places where this can happen. Things like toaster ovens, condiments where a utensil used on a gluten-containing food goes back in the jar, countertops, etc. Read more about some of the potential scenarios for cross-contact here.
- Talk to a registered dietitian (RD). They can provide many valuable resources about gluten-free diets.
- Find support! It can be overwhelming and isolating to have celiac disease; the good news is there are a lot of support groups out there. I have found some good ones on social media like Facebook and Instagram (type celiac support, and you should get several choices).
- Get involved. Look at clinical trials, advocacy, and other opportunities here.
- Be patient. I have had some recipe successes and recipe failures. I have been frustrated. Just remember to be patient along your journey with a gluten-free diet.
As we embrace Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month, let’s amplify the voices of those living gluten-free, ensuring their stories are heard and understood. While gluten-free has become quite trendy, let’s remember some people must live this way due to celiac disease. It’s a month to celebrate, learn, and stand together in creating a world where gluten-free isn’t just a diet but for those of us with celiac disease necessary for supporting a happy gut and healthy life. With that, cheers to awareness, appreciation, and a sprinkle of gluten-free magic.