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The impact of coeliac disease on mental health at Christmas

What does Christmas mean to you? Are you gearing up for a joyous whirlwind of Christmas parties and family gatherings? Or are you dreading the season?

A gluten-filled Christmas

For those of us with coeliac disease, the prospect of navigating the gluten-filled goodies of Christmas meals can be incredibly stressful. Sometimes it can seem easier not to join in at all.

What others see: the aroma of freshly baked goodies like stuffing and gingerbread wafting through the air, the pull of a beer lever and the laughter of loved ones as they eagerly tuck into an amazing meal. Sounds magical, doesn’t it?

Here’s what a coeliac sees: some delicious food they can’t have (again). Crumbs spread everywhere. A drink they didn’t want. The laughter of others...and they can't join in.

If they did just sneak a bite of that gingerbread or a quick sip of beer, that could send their body into a tailspin of discomfort, digestive issues and fatigue.

And it wouldn’t be the first time. I myself have been glutened had 3 out of the last 10 Christmas holidays...and I'm super careful. Once was a mislabelled product (thanks, T K Maxx), once was cross-contact and the other time...who knows? When people insist they've made something gluten-free and you take them at their word, it's a bit like Russian Roulette.

Coeliac disease and mental health

While the physical symptoms of coeliac disease often include bloating and pain, the toll it takes on our mental health is frequently underestimated. The holiday season, with its emphasis on communal dining and shared meals (usually in someone else’s kitchen) can pose a tricky set of challenges for those managing coeliac disease.

First and foremost, the stress of navigating a gluten-free Christmas can be overwhelming. From scrutinising ingredient lists and allergens to double-checking cooking methods, people with coeliac disease often find themselves in a constant state of vigilance. The fear of accidental gluten exposure can lead to heightened anxiety, making festive gatherings the opposite of fun.

Then there's the emotional side. Picture being surrounded by a table laden with mouth-watering dishes and being told all of them contain poison. Yet everyone else in the room has an antidote so they can enjoy it all. Does that seem fair?

Missing out on shared experiences can contribute to feelings of isolation and sadness, especially during a season that emphasises togetherness. Yet it's meant to be the one time you can be with your family and relax!

Mental health: coeliac-safe food can be stressful

Let's not forget the social dynamics at play. Explaining dietary restrictions can be tricky, especially with well-meaning relatives or hosts who don’t fully grasp just one crumb of gluten can lead to excruciating pain. The fear of being perceived as a burden or a “picky eater” can add an extra layer of stress.

So, what can we do to make the holidays more inclusive for our friends and family managing coeliac disease? How can we create a Christmas celebration that caters to everyone?

Managing coeliac disease

For starters, it’s really important to communicate BEFORE the event. Reach out beforehand to discuss menu options. Consider incorporating gluten-free alternatives into traditional recipes or choosing naturally gluten-free dishes that everyone can savour. That way, no-one has to worry about cross-contamination. (And the coeliac can have a coeliac Christmas that isn't at the expense of their mental health.)

Gluten-free diet tips at the main event

The good news about much of a traditional Xmas is that it’s naturally gluten-free. Look below and you'll see goose*, roast potatoes, honeyed carrots, red cabbage in a sherry glaze and steamed sprouts.

*turkey's fine, too!

Gluten-free Xmas dinner
A totally gluten-free Christmas dinner!

Understanding gluten

Sometimes people just don't realise gluten's hidden in something. Check Aunty Jean doesn’t dust the potatoes in semolina before baking. Make sure you've looked at condiments like jars of mustard. Many extras need to be made with care (like using gluten-free stock cubes for gravy and cornflour as a thickener).

You don't have to make everything from scratch

If you can, find a fun "trimming" to make people smile and reduce time in the kitchen. Last year I found reindeer stuffing in Aldi...

Gluten-free apply & honey pork reindeer stuffing
Gluten-free reindeer stuffing!

The Xmas pud

I made my own last year but I was using someone else's steamer and the pud was a bit underdone when I removed it. (Although I must say I rather liked it that way.)

If you don't want to make your own, you can always get a mini gluten-free one from the supermarket to microwave in its own separate dish to keep it safe. And the options to go with it are usually safe for coeliacs – custard, cream, brandy butter…or all three!

Homemade gluten-free Xmas pudding
Homemade gluten-free Xmas pud (a bit squidgy but delish!)

The same goes for mince pies. And if you're serving gluten-free ones to a coeliac, let them unwrap the pack so there's no cross-contact with other mince pies (or fingers that have touched them).

When it comes to chocs, get a selection box the coeliac(s) can enjoy like Quality Street, Bendicks or Booja Booja where all the treats are gluten-free.

And start a new tradition if you fancy it. Egg-nog is naturally gluten-free. Why not make it a specialty?

The other meals

Apart from eating endless turkey, there are obviously other meals to consider during the holiday season, but usually they're not fraught with as much tension or insistence you attend. So if it'd make you less anxious, find a gluten-free place nearby serving food you really like (go to a local Facebook group for the area you're in and use the search tool to find places they recommend). I found a chippy serving gluten-free batter at Xmas once. They were really clued up about cross-contact and my daughter loved the mini Xmas trees they had on the tables. The only problem? Finishing the enormous chip portion!

Gluten-free fish and chips
Fish & chips at Xmas? Why not?!

If you're catering for little coeliacs

Have a conversation beforehand about what it will be like to see food they can't have. How will that feel? Identifying experiences beforehand may mean there's less of a meltdown if the situation arises. And it's important to be practical. Ask your children what could be done if it does happen. Children often come up with surprising answers or good ideas. One of my coeliac friends said her mum would carry around a special box. Any time there was party food she couldn't have her mum would produce the box and she loved it because it made her feel special.


1. Children can be really upset if they think things aren't fair. If you're going to buy snacks like crisps or an edible Father Xmas, go for brands that are gluten-free so everyone has the same. Most Kettle Chips are fine, Walkers aren't. KitKat Santas are suitable for coeliacs (contrary to what you might think) but an actual KitKat isn't.

2. If you're visiting Father Christmas, check the gifts are either non-edible or ones that are gluten-free. Last year I took my children to a nearby kids' party in a village hall and at the end there were surprise chocolate stockings, which weren't all suitable.

Father Xmas with gluten-free sweets
A sweet treat from Santa that's gluten-free!

3. Always check for may contains, especially when you think it should be fine (like chocolate coins). Last year I found some suitable ones in Superdrug (much to my surprise - I'd gone in for some shower gel!).

Gluten-free chocolate coins
Chocolate coins without gluten as a 'may contain'

Do you really have to go?

Has it crossed your mind that not going to the Xmas meal would be preferable? If you immediately think, "I could NEVER not go!" then I'd ask you to explore that thought and weigh up alternatives. Write down a list.

Does it have: "I really want to see my family and they live miles away; they do their best but they're not very clued up about cross-contamination."

Or does it have: "I have to see my family. They expect me to travel. They won't come to me because they say it's too far. They'll be really angry if I don't show up."

The first statement sounds like you have a lovely family and it'd be fairly straightforward to negotiate ways to make your food gluten-free. But the second sounds like obligation over pleasure. If they're not budging about things that aren't anything to do with food (like travel) then it doesn't sound like they'll be particularly flexible about your diet.

Looking at your reasons, how much of it is about people-pleasing? If you find it difficult to set boundaries, this is something I cover in my 'Setting Boundaries' course for coeliacs where we look at the ABC approach, which is particularly relevant to Xmas. Click the link below to see what it's all about.

Finally, when you’re gathering around the Christmas tree to bring people together, it means exactly that. If you can possibly ensure there's no gluten, that really will help the coeliac in the family feel included.

What are you doing this Xmas to make it easy for coeliacs? I'd love to know below!


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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