If you're diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you'll need to learn how to eat gluten-free. Or, you may decide to try a gluten-free diet even without a diagnosis — you may believe gluten-free may help you lose weight or improve another health condition you have.
But what does it really mean to "go gluten-free"?
Regardless of your reasons for choosing a gluten-free diet, this can be a tricky diet with a massive learning curve, especially at first. But if you follow these nine steps — preferably in order — you should be well on your way to safely eating gluten-free.
Before you can start the gluten-free diet, you need to clean out your kitchen and get rid of everything you no longer can eat. Dispose of all baking mixes, segregate or give away other gluten-containing products, and buy yourself some new condiments. Donate unopened packages, jars and cans to a food bank or hand them over to a friend.
Since it's possible to get symptoms from the tiniest morsel of gluten, you'll need a new toaster. You'll also need new plastic and wooden utensils and non-stick pans, if you use them. (See more on that in Equipping Your Gluten-Free Kitchen).
For some people, this is a difficult, emotional process — you may find yourself mourning the foods you used to enjoy. If that's the case, it can help to focus on the positive effect the gluten-free diet will have on your health.
Many people think they simply need to drop wheat from their diets — or even just bread — in order to go gluten-free. But it's unfortunately a lot more complicated than that.
Gluten appears in foods ranging from soups to sauces, and it's not always obvious from the ingredients. (Here's some more information on What Foods Contain Gluten?)
To avoid making mistakes, I strongly recommend you limit your diet to unprocessed foods at first. Fresh fruits and vegetables don't contain gluten, nor do fresh meat, poultry and fish.
Eat as simply as you can, using only fresh herbs, salt and pepper to season your foods. Try grains such as corn in serious moderation, and don't introduce packaged foods — including those labeled "gluten-free" — until you have a better feel for the diet and how it affects your system.
This article will give you plenty of detail on what's safe and what's not: Gluten-Free Food List - What You CAN Eat
Once you've mastered the basics, foods clearly labeled "gluten-free" represent the best way to start expanding your gluten-free diet.
Just be careful not to go overboard with the gluten-free-labeled products, since many people find they experience renewed gluten symptoms when they eat too much of these products.
In some cases, symptoms could result from unhealed damage in your intestines. However, in most instances the culprit is the tiny amounts of gluten still present in the "gluten-free"-labeled foods (read more about this here: Foods Labeled Gluten-Free May Still Contain Some Gluten).
If you start experiencing renewed (or even new) symptoms, or if you just don't feel particularly well, cut back on these products, especially anything you've added recently. You may also want to check out this article: How Much Gluten Can Make Me Sick? It's often a lot less than you think!
To really expand your diet — and to figure out which of your old favorites you might be able to include — you'll need to learn to find gluten on food labels.
In fact, you'll probably become a bit of a detective, learning to search for the meaning of various terms you'll find on different products. You'll also get quite an education on the different ingredients that make up processed foods.
Just remember: Manufacturers can label something "gluten-free," but food labeling laws do not require disclosure of gluten-containing ingredients on food labels. If something has no obvious gluten ingredients listed, but doesn't carry a "gluten-free" label, it might contain barley or rye, or be subject to gluten cross-contamination at the food processing facility. (See more about that here: What Does It Mean When A Product Has No Gluten Ingredients?)
In addition, keep in mind that wheat-free does not equal gluten-free, so don't be fooled by foods labeled "wheat-free" — they're probably not safe.
If you have an iPhone or an Android phone, you might want to consider getting one of the various gluten-free apps on the market to help guide your choices on processed food products, ingredients and restaurants. Here's the list for iPhone: Gluten-Free iPhone Apps, and many of the same apps are available for Android.
Several apps provide lists of gluten-free products you can access while you are in the grocery store. A subscription-based app lets you scan a product's UPC code to determine if it's gluten-free or not.
If grocery shopping seems too difficult, you also can find apps that will help guide you to the nearest restaurant with a gluten-free menu. Prices are all pretty reasonable — free and up.
You'd probably think you should focus on making your kitchen gluten-free ... and you'd be right, at least at first. But as you get more skilled in following the gluten-free diet, you should consider removing sources of gluten that lurk elsewhere in your home.
For example, many hair products contain gluten. If you've ever gotten shampoo in your mouth in the shower, or if you touch your hair and then your mouth, you should consider getting gluten-free shampoo and other hair products. Also, check out your toothpaste and make sure it's on the list of gluten-free toothpaste options.
Cosmetics and prescription medications also frequently contain gluten, and can cause major symptoms if you're not careful. Even art supplies and common household building materials can contain gluten — I've been badly glutened several times by drywall dust. Here's a list of gluten-free craft supplies, and some more tips on making the rest of your home gluten-free.
Once you go gluten-free, it's likely that friends and relatives may try to cook for you. Don't let them — realistically, unless you trust that person to avoid all gluten ingredients and cross contamination (i.e., unless they're also eating gluten-free or they hold professional chef or dietitian credentials), you're better off bringing your own food to social events. As you know by now, this diet has a ridiculously steep learning curve — it's not something a friend can master overnight.
I started bringing my own food to social gatherings years ago, and I've found it allows me to focus on the company rather than on my fears of getting glutened. If you want, bring a dish to share, but fill your plate first, since cross contamination from other guests can be a risk (most people wouldn't think twice about using a spoon from the bread crumb-covered casserole in your safe vegetable dish).
You can find additional tips (and some emotional support for this, since it's really hard to manage!) in my article on gluten-free food made by friends or relatives.
Until you feel confident following the gluten-free diet — and ideally until any symptoms have largely disappeared — you should stay far away from restaurants.
But once you have a better idea of how to eat gluten-free and where gluten can hide, restaurant dining won't present as much of a challenge.
Gluten-free restaurant dining can be tricky — many servers and even some chefs aren't very familiar with the gluten-free diet, and mistakes are (sadly) pretty common.
Initially, you may want to stick with restaurants that have gluten-free menus, since they're likely to have spent time on staff education. Still, be careful letting your guard down — take a look at my article on How to Dine Out Gluten-Free for more tips and advice.
You also can try gluten-free fast food options — just be aware that you'll risk more cross contamination at a fast food chain.
You'll absolutely make mistakes as you learn to navigate the gluten-free diet, and you'll probably pay the price for them in terms of a day (or two, or three) of symptoms. Unfortunately, once you go gluten-free, your body will be primed to make a big deal out of any little bit of gluten you consume.
It will take some time — months, probably — to learn your individual level of tolerance for gluten cross contamination, and what you can eat without getting symptoms. I've been doing this for nearly 10 years, and I still make mistakes sometimes.
It's tempting to beat yourself up for those mistakes mentally — especially if you're miserable physically. I've done that plenty of times myself, too. But if you can manage it, try to view them as a learning opportunity, and focus on avoiding making that same mistake twice.
If you're wondering what it feels like to get glutened, this article explains: What Does A Glutening Feel Like?. And if (when) you do get glutened, here's some tips to help you recover more quickly: Coping with Glutenings: What Works and What Doesn't? And, you can browse through Readers' Best Ideas on Recovering from a Glutening.
Good luck! Going gluten-free is a major lifestyle change, but it's one you can manage. If you want to keep up with the latest in the celiac disease/gluten sensitivity world -- sign up for my newsletter, connect with me on Facebook and Google+, or follow me on Twitter - @AboutCeliac.