There's no getting around it: Holidays in our culture revolve around food. Therefore, the holidays tend to be one of the toughest times of the year for people who have celiac disease or who follow a gluten-free diet, especially if they're newly diagnosed.
It can be painful to sit at the holiday dinner table and watch your friends and family enjoy foods you no longer can have, and it can be hard to shake the feeling that you're being left out. However, it does get easier over time, and there are some things you can try to make it easier, even if this is your first year celebrating gluten-free.
1. Hold Gluten-Free Holiday Celebrations at Home
If you hold your major holiday celebration at home, you can control the food — enabling you to remove or limit gluten-filled goodies.
This is my favorite gluten-free coping strategy — I always prefer to serve completely gluten-free meals at home than to stress over potential gluten cross-contamination (and to stare longingly at those chocolate-iced shortbread cookies I used to love so much).
2. Try Some New Gluten-Free Recipes
If you do like to cook, the holidays represent a great time to try out some new gluten-free recipes. You potentially can adapt some of your old favorites using gluten-free flours, or you can venture into entirely new cooking approaches.
Since I eat few grains, I especially like recipes from Elana Amsterdam's Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook (which shows it's possible to create amazing gluten-free baked desserts and entrees without any grains at all), but there are dozens of other potential gluten-free recipes available to try.
3. Don't Focus So Much on the Food
Ignoring holiday food might seem impossible, especially with Christmas cookies on every desk at work, constant school parties and even samples in the supermarket. Yes, it can get discouraging — in my town, even the annual holiday parade involves candy tossed to the children.
But one of the best ways for coping with the holidays gluten-free is to plan holiday activities that don't involve food. Try a holiday concert or show (local ones cost less and can be excellent), or take the family ice skating for the afternoon (at an indoor rink if necessary). You also can attend a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony or Hanukkah festival. You might not escape the food entirely, but you can find places where it's not the focus of the entertainment.
4. Remember to Feel Joyful for Good Health
Many people with celiac disease feel dramatically better when they adopt the gluten-free diet. I miss some of the foods I used to eat, but I'd much rather prefer to have excellent health than a wheat cracker.
If you've just been diagnosed, you may not feel particularly good yet — but you hopefully show signs of improving health. Rather than dwelling on what you no longer can eat, focus on how much better you feel gluten-free. One friend of mine, who was incredibly sick at diagnosis, now is able to perform athletically with better times than what she had 20 years ago.
When I feel sad because my diet is limited (which does happen around the holidays), I reflect on how good I feel compared to a few years ago. It's not a cure, but it helps.
5. Whatever You Do, Don't Cheat on the Diet!
Cheating on the gluten-free diet potentially can really harm your health, even if you don't get terrible symptoms when you ingest gluten.
It might be tempting to figure "just this once" and indulge in some of your old favorite foods, but resist the temptation. Not only do you run the risk of a bad reaction that could ruin some of your holiday plans (many people's reactions to gluten worsen the longer they remain gluten-free), you also risk long-term damage to your health. Don't cheat!
Instead, focus on what you can eat during holiday celebrations, give thanks for your improved health, and create some new gluten-free holiday favorite foods you and your family can enjoy for years to come.