Like a small, fresh-out-the-womb newborn, my gluten-free diet was birthed on January 1st 2018. I knew something was up with my stomach over Christmas; nothing felt like it was digesting properly, I was exhausted all the time and the stomach cramps were getting more and more painful. I hadn’t been able to touch beer for most of 2017 as it had me keeled over within minutes of consumption, but this reaction started to extend to my favourite breaded snacks, and, God forbid, even oats. Even before Christmas, I was well aware that half of my dad’s family are coeliacs, and that it developed for each family member when they were in their early adulthood. But for me, it took until Christmas to I realise I might have a problem.
Fast forward to the third week in January, and everything I thought must happen to everyone when they digest food had stopped. No more burping myself like a baby before I went to sleep. No more keeling over on the tube after I’d had a bottle of Camden Hells. When I needed to poo, I just… had a poo. No more twenty-minute toilet escapades where I felt like I was unintentionally excavating my bowels in the process. Whilst I desperately missed the sandwiches in Pret A Manger and any food featuring the word “doughnut”, the improvement in my health was persuasion enough to quit gluten permanently.
From leaving the metaphorical womb to taking my first steps, I’ve learned a lot. I think I’ve even forgotten the texture of real bread, which is probably for the best as the gluten-free stuff kind of crumbles in your mouth as you chew it. For anyone else starting this journey too, I thought it might be worth sharing a couple of the things I’ve discovered that make my new-found life a little easier and less daunting, especially as someone who has had trouble with food restriction and diet in the past.
Let me clarify: I am not a coeliac. If I eat a cheese straw, I am not going to get osteoporosis. All of my learnings are as someone who does not have to ask for her food to be prepared in a non-contaminated kitchen, or worry about sharing a breadboard with my granary-eating housemates. Everything I write here applies to gluten intolerance, but some of what I recommend might not be suitable for those with a severe gluten allergy. So my coeliac friends, please check before following any of my advice and keep yourselves safe!
What Is Gluten?
I won’t lie, the first couple of months were really hard. I’ve given up alcohol and sugar at various times in my life, and I’d say that gluten was nearly as difficult to quit. At one point I cried in a supermarket because I was in a rush and couldn’t find anything I could eat. Even the crisps had barley in them. However, over time I have learned where I will and won’t be able to find gluten-free food, and how to ask in restaurants without freaking them out and telling me I can’t eat anything on the menu. Surprisingly, there are so many people who still don’t know what gluten is, and either assume I’m vegan or that I’m allergic to everything.
So to clarify: gluten is a mixture of two proteins that can be found in wheat, barley, spelt, rye and barley. To put that into context, those ingredients are used to make bread, pasta, baked goods, cereals, beer, thick sauces and soy sauce, among other foods. To avoid getting “glutened”, I need to avoid all of these foods and foods which contain these ingredients. I’ll be honest, it’s long af.
What I Actually Eat
Let’s talk bread. So far, I have yet to find a gluten-free bread that tastes exactly like the real stuff. It’s the saddest part about gluten-free life for me; I’m happy with a substitute pasta or cereal, but the texture of bread just can’t be emulated. There are some that do come close, however, and I would confidently vouch for the M&S gluten-free Bloomer loaf and the Warburton’s gluten-free tiger bread. I think perhaps the most frustrating thing about gluten-free bread is how expensive it is – I’m a proponent of the idea that vegan eating is cheaper (obviously taking a lot of factors into consideration, especially nutritional knowledge and cooking ability) but I fail to see how a gluten-free diet could ever be affordable for a standard family. The average loaf costs more than three pounds, and from that you are rarely getting more than eight slices of bread. However, there has been a recent light at the end of the tunnel: sourdough. I was too scared to try it for the first seven months, but last week I bit the bullet and bought a loaf. Low and behold, I digested it absolutely fine. It’s still more expensive than normal bread, but for convenience, I’m relieved that there is another option for me.
Pasta-wise, it has all been relatively smooth sailing. I think that gluten-free pasta tastes pretty much the same as normal pasta, so long as you salt the water as you cook it. I’ve not developed a loyalty to a particular brand; all of them seem to work well for me. It is useful to note that most traditional Italian restaurants I’ve been to offer a gluten-free pasta option, in Italy and also in London. They also pretty much all understand what gluten is and how they can help you avoid it, which means you avoid having to whip the Big Book Of Allergens out and watch your server scour through it as your dinner companions get increasingly bored.
On the Italian food note, it’s worth mentioning that the best fresh pizzas I’ve found are from Franco Manca and the best frozen ones are by Morrisons. My boyfriend even took a bite of the Morrison’s offering and then checked the packet to make sure it was actually gluten-free, which to me is the ultimate sign of success.
Now then, the important part: treats. When I first realised my body was working really well without gluten, I started to panic about all of the foods that I didn’t eat day-to-day, but enjoyed once in a while. I had a long, hard look at the gluten-free ranges in various supermarkets, and realised that there wasn’t too much I had to rule out after all. Pretty much everywhere sells at least one type of biscuit, and probably a rocky road or Cherry Bakewell too. I have yet to find a good croissant, but I recently found some frozen cinnamon rolls which has fulfilled my pastry desire for the time being. Honestly though, you can probably find something you are craving in one big supermarket or another. I even managed to find Cornettos one time… that was a big win.
On the savoury side, my late night cravings have been satisfied by the Amy’s Kitchen range of frozen delights. I’m such a fan of their microwave burritos after a night out, they’re the perfect amount of beige carb to keep me going. And let’s just take a moment to thank the Amy’s mac and cheese, which deserves the upmost respect. You can find the products in the frozen section, and there’s a huge range of good ready meals for when you need something speedy and tasty.
One Year On
It’s been just over a year since that final slice of bread, and I’m finally feeling confident in my diet again. With each month that goes by, it feels less and less restrictive. I discover more and more restaurants I can go to, and there’s always a new product popping up in the gluten-free aisle. As with any dietary change, it has been a challenge, but I finally feel like I’m finding my gluten-free feet.