It's not unusual when you're first starting the gluten-free diet to fear food a little. You probably aren't confident yet in your ability to choose gluten-free foods, and you may still feel ill. But some people get so worried that they fail to eat (or fail to eat enough) because they can't find anything they believe is safe. Others get scared because they keep having symptoms, and they don't know if they're glutening themselves or not.
It's normal (obviously!) to pay closer attention to what you eat when you go gluten-free. But don't be scared to eat you need that food to feel better! Here's a series of steps I recommend to people who are new to the gluten-free diet and who are having trouble finding foods they can eat.
- Start with the absolute basics foods that aren't processed. Learning to identify gluten on food labels can be really challenging, and you'll inevitably make mistakes (and pay the price). If you stick only with very minimally processed foods fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats/fish with no added ingredients, plain yogurt (if you can have dairy) and plain rice (preferably a reliably gluten-free brand like Lundberg) you should be safe. Check out my list of gluten-free food for details on how to choose produce, meats and dairy products. I don't recommend sauces or other condiments at this stage, although you can add a little salt and pepper (and maybe some fresh herbs) to flavor your food. Just steer clear entirely of anything that comes in a box, a bottle or a can with a long list of ingredients.
- Once you've eaten only minimally processed foods for a week or more (preferably much longer) with no reaction, you can try adding in some gluten-free-labeled products, such as gluten-free bread, gluten-free sauces and gluten-free pasta. I recommend starting with those that are certified gluten-free, since that means they may contain less trace gluten (most foods labeled gluten-free contain a little gluten). Go slowly eat a cookie or two instead of the entire box to see what you can handle. If you have a reaction (here's what a glutening feels like), then put that food aside until you're symptom-free and then try again (or try something else).
- Wait until you're largely symptom-free before trying foods that aren't certified or labeled "gluten-free." People with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can have very different reactions to tiny amounts of gluten (for more on this, see my article How Much Gluten Can Make Me Sick?).
- You may be among the most sensitive or you may not notice gluten cross-contamination at all ... it takes time to figure out where you fall on the sensitivity spectrum. (If you know, take the poll: How Sensitive To Gluten Are You?). Some people can't handle processed foods that have more of a risk of cross-contamination, and so they restrict themselves only to gluten-free-labeled foods. A particular product may be gluten-free even without a gluten-free label, but it may be processed in the same facility or even on the same lines as gluten-containing products. Since manufacturers don't have to note this (see: Do Food Labels Require Disclosure of Gluten? for more details), you won't know unless you contact the company. There's no question that these products represent more of a risk, so move very carefully on foods that aren't certified or labeled gluten-free.
- If you get glutened, go back to your baseline of minimally processed foods. Anytime you take a chance or try a new product that doesn't work out, your system probably will need a few days to recover my article on recovering from a glutening has some tips that may help. To make sure you don't add insult to injury with additional gluten cross-contamination, you should return to your "safe" food list of fresh produce, meats/fish, yogurt (if you can handle dairy) and rice for as long as it takes you to feel better.
Going gluten-free involves a huge learning curve, so don't beat yourself up if you make a few mistakes along the way. It happens to all of us (and some of mine were incredibly stupid!). But please don't fear food. There are plenty of foods out there you can eat safely and that shouldn't cause you symptoms.