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How to start a gluten-free diet: a step-by-step guide for coeliac and gluten-intolerant individuals

Step 1: Understand Gluten and Its Implications

Ali Walsh holding gluten-free cereal
Do you know what's gluten-free and what isn't?

Before launching into a gluten free diet (and it often feels like a launch from a massive cannon), it's essential to know exactly what gluten is and how it affects people (such as those with coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance). Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.


If you didn’t do domestic science at school (erm, I didn’t either – not a 60s kid), you may wonder what part gluten plays. In short, it contributes to elasticity and texture in foods like dough. For some people (and I’m one of them), ingesting gluten triggers adverse reactions such as damage to the small intestine - leading to malabsorption of nutrients - and gastrointestinal distress (e.g. horrendous bloating, pain and subsequent diarrhoea), rendering a gluten-free lifestyle necessary. I mean, let’s face it, who’d willingly go through all that and still eat gluten?

Step 2: Learn to Identify Gluten-Containing Foods

The transition to a gluten free diet requires vigilance. And patience. And probably a spot of trial and error in discerning which foods contain gluten. Common sources include bread, pasta, pizza, pastries, cereals, cake, biscuits, cookies and beer. However, gluten can also lurk in less obvious products such as soups, sauces, and processed foods.


As you start your journey, you’ll need to familiarise yourself with reading food labels. This can take a-g-e-s but sometimes you’ll find a gluten-free certification symbols on products, which definitely helps shorten a shopping trip. One word of advice: be cautious of hidden sources of gluten, especially outside the UK where labelling laws may differ from other countries.


You’ll also need to avoid oats unless they’re gluten-free oats because of the problems with cross-contact (read more here if you’re not sure what this means).

Step 3: Explore Gluten-Free Alternatives and Staples

Thankfully, there are plenty of gluten-free foods available to support a nutritious and enjoyable diet. Don’t be afraid of gluten-free grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and millet. With the right recipe, they offer excellent substitutes for pasta, couscous, and porridge. And it helps to stock your cupboards with gluten-free staples like GF bread, crackers, and snacks. If you can embrace naturally gluten-free products such as fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins (like chicken and egg white), and healthy fats (e.g. enjoying foods like avocados and olive oil and basically avoiding anything deep-fat fried).

Step 4: Master Gluten-Free Cooking and Baking

One of the joys of a gluten-free lifestyle (and I promise there are some!) is experimenting with recipes and techniques to create delicious, satisfying meals. There’s nothing quite like nailing a delicious recipe to encourage yourself that life isn’t so bad. It may take time but you can gather a collection of trustworthy gluten-free recipes, being mindful of potential pitfalls, like thinking gluten-free flour will work in the same way as wheat flour (it doesn’t; it’s often more thirsty and you’ll need to add extra liquid into your recipe).


But I really recommend persisting. When you explore gluten-free baking, trying alternative flours (think teff, sorghum, coconut and buckwheat) may be the answer. And soon you’ll come to perfect your favourite treats. Trust me, once you’ve conquered a recipe, you’ll find your confidence soars.


Step 5: Learn to Navigate Dining and Social Situations

Adopting a gluten-free diet involves adapting to different settings, including eating out and attending social gatherings. Arm yourself with knowledge about gluten-free menu options and equip yourself with questions to ask restaurant staff regarding ingredients and preparation methods.


Reach out to friends and family members to educate them about your dietary needs. It’s always great to have a few supporters to help you out when you’re finding things tough. As long as people truly understand your needs you should have an easier time of things (so they don’t think if you don’t know it’s in something, you won’t suffer). Make it clear you’ve not chosen this diet and deviating from it will make you ill.


And remember, it may be hard for others to think of what they can provide for you safely, so offer suggestions for gluten-free dishes or snacks that you can safely enjoy.

Step 6: Join the Gluten-Free Community

Please don’t feel you’re alone; countless people are in the same situation and (hurrah!) have paved the way, creating resources and communities to support one another in a gluten-free lifestyle. Connect with local or online gluten-free Facebook groups to swap recipes, tips, and encouragement. You’ll find websites, blogs, and people to follow on Instagram to deepen your understanding of coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. And if you’re wondering where to find them, start by looking on Instagram @lifeonaricecake and see who I champion and follow. It won’t be long before you’re finding inspiration.

Step 7: Maintain a Balanced, Nutrient-Rich Gluten-Free Diet

As you rid your meal plan of gluten-containing items, it’s vital you ensure your gluten-free diet remains balanced and provides essential nutrients. I came a cropper twice for being deficient in vitamin D and fibre. Others have found they need to boost their iron or calcium intake. But the most important thing is you don’t try it alone: get the help of a registered dietitian and incorporate nutrient-dense staples like gluten-free whole grains (e.g. brown rice, buckwheat and quinoa), legumes, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables.


Also, be mindful of new dietary supplements or alternative treatments being promoted for coeliac individuals. Anyone who tells you coeliac disease can be cured is either a quack or has a wonderful new drug from the future we’ve not yet heard of.


If it feels too much, remember that optimising your gluten-free nutrition is vital to help avoid future health issues (trust me, my backside and I know from bitter experience about lack of fibre).

Step 8: Stay Informed About Advances in Gluten-Free Living

Finally, it really helps to be proactive in monitoring news, research, and innovations relating to the gluten-free world. Twitter is a great place to start (just search the hashtag #glutenfree). As research and awareness around coeliac disease and gluten-intolerance grow, there will be new advancements, products, and therapies that might help improve your quality of life. As well as that, variations can be made that might directly affect you, so stay informed about any regulatory changes like food labelling in the UK to ensure that you continue to make safe and informed choices.


It seems like a lot to take in!

I get it. It can all feel overwhelming at first. But once you get the hang of things, it gets a lot easier.


Print out this as a check-list and tick everything off as you go:


·       adopt a gluten-free diet;

·       understand the implications of gluten and what it means for your health;

·       identify gluten-containing foods & find alternatives;

·       master cooking & baking;

·       navigate dining situations;

·       join the gluten-free community;

·       maintain a balanced diet; and

·       stay informed.


With commitment and consistency (yup, this one you’ve got to keep up), you can successfully have a fulfilling gluten-free life. And yes, you can empower yourself to thrive despite your dietary restrictions. Just reading this post is your first step to getting there.


Hi! Great to have you here...

My name's Ali and I help people on gluten-free diets have a better, easier and healthier lifestyle. 

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