How Do I Start a Gluten-Free Diet?

The quick and simple answer is: just commit to eat gluten-free.  At least that is how I did it:  I just, did IT.  But that’s just me;  I tend to be a bit intense.  If you are the kind of person that gets an idea in their head and sticks to it like a pit-bull, then do it my way. 

However, if you are like most people, it will take some easing into, like adjusting to the water in a pool.  Either way, you need to pick an approach that will ensure your success.  There is no wrong way, except the way that doesn’t meet your needs.  My mother and my journey to becoming gluten-free are two very different stories.  I was more like the pit-bull and she the tortoise.  Allow me to explain….

The Pit-Bull


The pit-bull latches on to an idea or a way of doing something and clings tenaciously to it.  She is an all-or-nothing kind of gal; there are no baby steps with her, only big leaps.  Her commitment is only rivaled by her unbridled enthusiasm.  When a pit-bull goes gluten-free you’d better move out of her way and by golly don’t go near her with a doughnut!  She has made up her mind that she is going to do this and there isn’t anything that is going to stop her.  She tends to be obsessive and  research crazy; constantly reading everything she can get her hands on about her fixation of the day: gluten, gluten-free food, gluten-free recipes…. you get my drift.  And when she isn’t reading about gluten, she is yakking away about it to anyone who will listen.

If this is the type of personality you identify with, then by all means, go for it!  Throw out all of the gluten in your house, or give it away to your friends, neighbors, or local food bank. While you are at it, scour all of your pots and pans, counters, cupboards, and utensils to remove all residue of gluten.  Heck, toss the toaster and the bread box out altogether and start fresh.   The sooner you rid your life of all traces of gluten, the better!  Let your friends and family know that you are going gluten-free and that in order to be successful, you need their support.  Let them know that there will be no more gluten purchased and brought into the house.  Warn them now that this change is a whopper, so it will be your discussion topic of choice until you have gotten the hang of your new diet.  Invite them to embark on the journey with you, but do not get your feelings hurt if they decline.  Know now, that there are people who do not believe that gluten, or any food, can have such a profound influence over ones health.  Do not engage them  in a debate over food.  Instead, convince them with your actions.  When they see how much better you look and feel, they are much more likely to rethink their position.  If you can, find a buddy or a group that will support your effort, especially if you’re getting static at home.   Set extra time aside for grocery shopping because you will be busy reading each and every ingredient on every item you pick up; sometimes twice. 

There will likely be a day when a loved one will inadvertently “poison” you and it will make you very angry.  You will have explained gluten to them repeatedly, but for whatever reason (most likely an overlooked barley ingredient), they still won’t  quite get it.  Forgive them and move on because their intentions will be good.  Also, you will be suspicious and terrified of all foods that you do not make yourself or that are not “certified gluten-free.”  You will confirm and re-confirm with the server at the restaurant about your food needing to be gluten-free.  You trust  no one and expect  that you will invariably be “poisoned.” And let me not forget the times when you will accidentally “poison” yourself.  It will suck, but don’t beat yourself up.  Remember, what you are doing takes time to master, and each mistake and setback is not only an opportunity to learn, it is a step closer to mastery. 

The Tortoise

Much like in Aesop’s fable, you are slow and steady, but once you decide to go gluten-free, your success is certain.  My mother who also has autoimmune disease would qualify as a tortoise. I (being a pit bull at the time) drove her crazy for a year about my gluten-free diet.  To get me to shut up, she decided to try it.   Within a week, she felt better and was convinced, but her transition was much different from my own. 

First of all, she took baby steps. Rather than purging her house of gluten, she finished off the foods that had already been opened and began only purchasing gluten for my dad.  If she had a large amount of something like flour, she offered it to her neighbor or tossed it if it was nearing the end of its shelf-life.  Unopened foods were either used by my dad or donated to the food bank, depending on how often she used them.  For instance, bread was a staple so even the loaves she had stored in the freezer she used.  However, she gave things she used on occasion,  like cake mixes and unopened bags of flour, away.  The process of transitioning her kitchen to a gluten-free one is still in progress two and a half years later,  but since she’s done it at her own pace,  her changes have become a way of life.   

There was a period after my mother had gone gluten-free when I would not eat anything from her kitchen (sorry Mom) because I was afraid of cross-contamination.  For months after her switch, she would overlook my dad’s  gluten-y bread crumbs in her margarine tub!  Like most of us, my mother did not appreciate the importance of preventing cross-contamination until she and I both “poisoned” ourselves accidentally in her kitchen.  Since learning her lesson the hard way, my mother has become diligent in keeping her gluten-free foods separate from all gluten.  She uses separate cutting boards and has designated gluten and gluten-free slots on her toaster.  She even keeps separate margarine containers to prevent cross-contamination.  Gluten is always prepared separately from gluten-free items, and work surfaces and tools are thoroughly cleaned after every use.  Although it is not visible, gluten is actually very sticky.  It took a few months for my mother to master cross-contamination prevention, but it is now just a normal part of life at my mother’s house.  I don’t think she even thinks about it anymore, it has become habit.  I eat at her house now and no longer worry about being “poisoned.”

Unlike a pit-bull, a tortoise may not require the moral support (or absolute submission – lol) of those living with her.  My father is still transitioning to living gluten-free (not sure he is even aware); my mother has been gradually switching his foods for two years.  She has patiently worked around my father’s reluctance to follow her diet changes and has been very successful.  If she had forced herself or my father, they would have given up long ago.  But because she was willing to take her time and go at her own pace, she not only has been able to transition herself, but my father,  and most likely my brother as well (shhh, don’t tell him).  Despite dismissing my mother for several months, my dad has been gradually allowing his gluten-y bread and snacks, to be phased out.  He still indulges in imported sausages, specialty breads, and Chinese food now and then, but has come to accept and even respect my mother’s dietary changes.  He will even take my mother out to restaurants he knows are sure to offer gluten-free selections. 

I am very surprised and impressed by my father’s evolution over the last few years.  He was very set in his dietary ways.  I never thought in a million years he would support my mother’s decision to go gluten-free.  In fact, I believed that my mother would be unable to make the switch because of my dad’s perceived unyielding closed-mindedness.  I am not one to bring religion into the mix, but when I think of my mother and the way she has dealt with my father, I can’t help but be reminded of the  verse in the Bible that goes….

“4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”   –That’s I Corinthians 14:4 for all of my Christian readers.

My mother never demanded or even asked my father to join her in going gluten-free.  She knew he’d say no, so she made the choice to switch on her own.  Over time, my dad witnessed my mother’s health and appearance improve.  She wasn’t sick all the time anymore. I have to believe that caused him to take notice of what she was doing differently, and caused him to become more receptive to dietary changes.

Unlike Superman, Kryptonite Won’t Kill Us

Like me, my mother got a hold of gluten a few times before mastering the lifestyle Those slip-ups and accidents confirmed for us that we were really not meant to eat gluten.  The reactions we suffered were terrible.  Gluten is my kryptonite and will send me into a full-body-bind flare that will last at least two weeks.  My mother’s reaction is bad, but it doesn’t make her wish for death like me.  Once I realized just how sensitive I was to it, I would do just about anything to avoid it.  I became obsessive because I feared the pain and the cage that accompanied it.  Essentially, it wasn’t so much my personality that made me a pit-bull, it was self-preservation!

The good news is that a gluten-free lifestyle becomes as natural and automatic as the life you live now.  It becomes second nature.  You learn how and what to eat, and what to avoid.  Moreover, if you are indeed gluten sensitive, you will know after your first slip.  If you have a severe reaction, take comfort in knowing that once your body is given time to heal, your reactions will not be as brutal.  In fact, my own goals include becoming healthy enough to eat at one of Chef Ramsey’s restaurants and return to Philadelphia to have a bite of cheese steak without any adverse reaction.  Some would say that these are unrealistic goals for someone like me, but I don’t believe it.  The body is capable of recovery and healing on levels that medicine hasn’t even begun to understand.  I am not convinced that I have achieved my best yet.

As long as you approach going gluten-free in a way that works for you and your family, you are sure to be successful.  It can be an instantaneous overhaul of your life, a gradual transition that takes months or even years, or somewhere in the between of these two extremes.  Finding what works best for you will largely depend on your personality, your current lifestyle, and how sensitive you are to the gluten.  Best of luck =)

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