Going gluten-free is easier than ever these days—supermarkets prominently label gluten-free products, restaurants provide gluten-free menus, and there’s an ever-widening array of gluten-free foods you can choose.
That’s the good news, but there’s bad news, too. Ironically, the ease with which you can adopt the gluten-free diet today means those who go gluten-free because they’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity actually may be more prone to gluten-free diet-related mistakes. The reason? It’s not as simple as it can seem to eat gluten-free.
In some cases, those dietary mistakes may deliver a nasty glutening (which probably will make you less likely to make that same mistake again). But in the worst-case scenario, continually making these same errors could make your small intestine less likely to heal from the damage of celiac disease.
To help you move beyond the gluten-free diet learning curve and become a confident gluten-free diet practitioner, here’s a rundown of the top seven mistakes people commonly make when they first go gluten-free. If you can avoid these problems, you’ll be well on your way to better health.
Starting the Gluten-Free Diet Before Doing Your Homework
It’s pretty simple to cut bread and wheat-based cereal and cookies from your diet. But there’s a lot more to a strict gluten-free diet than just avoiding those three foods (and others like them).
For example, did you know many canned soups contained gluten? (There are some good gluten-free soup choices, but you have to know where to look.) Did you know most soy sauce brands have wheat in them? (Some soy sauces are gluten-free.) And did you know the vast majority of beer is made with barley, which is a gluten grain? (Yes, there is safe beer, too.)
Failing to do their homework on the gluten-free diet is the number one mistake people make when they’re handed a diagnosis of celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity—and it’s a major reason they don’t feel better as quickly as they’d like. Sadly, making major mistakes also can quickly lead to a bad glutening.
Don’t let this be you—study up on how to go strictly gluten-free, and make sure you understand the many places gluten can hide.
Failing to Get Up to Speed on Food Labels
Many people start the gluten-free diet by scanning the labels of their favorite foods for “wheat” or “gluten,” and simply omitting those that fail the scan. But sadly, that’s just not a good enough strategy to avoid gluten in the processed foods you eat.
Legally, manufacturers don’t need to list all gluten-containing ingredients (just those that contain wheat, considered a top allergen). They also don’t need to disclose instances where a product has no gluten-containing ingredients but is produced on shared lines or in a shared facility, a situation that makes gluten cross-contamination much more likely.
So what can you do? Your best bet would be to stick with only products that are labeled gluten-free or certified gluten-free (an even stricter standard). But if you decide to venture outside the safe zone of gluten-free-labeled foods, you’ll need to get up to speed on the names of ingredients that mean gluten (there’s a long list) and learn the risks of eating “no-gluten-ingredients” foods.
Loading Up on Gluten-Free Junk Food
It’s tempting as you start the gluten-free diet to simply replace all your old junk food favorites with newfound favorites that are, well, still junk food, but happen to be gluten-free junk food. Don’t give in to the temptation.
Sure, it’s simple to find gluten-free candy, crackers and all forms of gluten-free snacks on grocery store shelves. You even can find some gluten-free fast food options. But if you’re going gluten-free because you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, your health is already an issue.
In fact, if you’ve just been diagnosed with celiac disease, you may be somewhat malnourished, so this would be a good time to hone in on healthy foods with tons of useful nutrients, not to find a new brand of corn chips with a gluten-free seal on the package.
Sure, you can enjoy some gluten-free snack foods on occasion (and some are even good nutritional choices). But if you focus your efforts on staying gluten-free and on eating healthier, your body will thank you for it.
Clinging too Hard to Convenience Foods
There’s just no getting around it: being gluten-free means actually cooking more… in some cases a lot more.
If you were pretty dependent on convenience foods before (Domino’s pizza, anyone?), you may be in for a fairly nasty shock: You won’t be able to simply order pizza or Chinese. (Domino’s gluten-free pizzas are prepared in the same areas as the company’s regular pizzas, placing them off-limits for those with celiac disease. Meanwhile, Chinese food restaurants have their own set of issues for those who need to eat gluten-free.)
Yes, you can find gluten-free frozen pizzas and other gluten-free frozen dinners (Udi’s Gluten-Free, Saffron Road, and Amy’s Kitchen all make good options). But they’re pretty expensive, and not all stores stock them.
So you’d best prepare yourself to get out your pots and pans when you go gluten-free… cooking from fresh, healthful ingredients is better for you anyway (even if it admittedly is a lot more work than clicking the Domino’s app).
Not Being Assertive Enough in Restaurants
It’s heartening to see the many chain restaurants that have gluten-free menus and to know that many of your local eateries also say they can make you a gluten-free meal. But don’t let your guard down, since it’s often not that easy.
As the gluten-free diet has gotten more and more popular, lots of people have started eating gluten-free who don’t really need to do so. And it’s not unusual to see them demand a gluten-free meal in a restaurant, but then order a beer or the gluten-y cake for dessert. This has the unfortunate effect of discrediting everyone who needs to eat gluten-free for their health.
So what can you do? Well, you’ll need to stress to your server (and potentially to a manager or the chef) that your food must be extremely gluten-free or you’ll get sick. Emphasize (nicely, of course) you’re not making this request as a lifestyle choice—you really need it for your health. This hopefully will lead them to take extra precautions with your meal.
By the way, the same reasoning goes for food made by friends and family—in most cases, you just can’t trust them to make you safe food, and you’ll need to steer clear.
Planning a ‘Cheat Day’ (or Taking Unnecessary Chances)
If you and your doctor have traced your health problems to celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you’re actually pretty lucky: You don’t need expensive medications or procedures since your condition is completely treatable through diet in most cases.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t cheat on the gluten-free diet since cheating could expose you to some significant health issues.
But those risks don’t stop many people from cheating: One study found one-quarter of people diagnosed with celiac disease don’t stick with the diet well enough to prevent possible complications.
Don’t let this be you—cheating on the diet can lead to complications that range from vitamin deficiencies to cancer. With so many delicious gluten-free foods on the market these days, there’s no real reason to gamble with your health.
Believing the Gluten-Free Diet Will Solve All Your Health Problems
If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you should expect to feel much better once you go gluten-free—your digestion should improve, you might see some headaches lessen, and you’ll most likely have more energy.
But the gluten-free diet isn’t a miracle worker—don’t expect it to solve all your existing health problems. For example, although some people lose weight gluten-free, not everyone does by far—and many people actually gain weight.
Also, don’t assume any new health problem you develop is just a symptom of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Sure, gluten has been implicated in everything from digestive problems to neurological issues, so it’s easy to think it’s all related. Easy, but not the best idea.
Every stomach ache doesn’t mean you were glutened (it could be stomach flu or food poisoning). And if you have a persistent problem—for example, stomach pain, diarrhea, or headaches—despite a careful gluten-free diet, you absolutely should talk to your doctor about getting some additional testing to make sure nothing else is wrong.