How to live gluten-free, joyfully
By Shauna James Ahern, guest contributor
“You cannot eat any food that contains gluten, ever again.” That’s your doctor talking to you, the one who has been unraveling the mystery of you for months.
You’ve been unwell, perhaps for years. You long for the ability to eat without a stomachache, or energy to make it through the day without a long nap. A life without joint pain, migraines or sudden-attack rushes to the bathroom sounds unimaginably free.
But no gluten? No baguettes slathered with butter? No warm doughnuts at your favorite local bakery after a long bike ride? No big bowls of cacio e pepe with your best friend from college?
This feels terrible.
But wait. Breathe.
Then, reframe that story.
Right now, the idea of a life without gluten sounds impossible. Your brain is shouting that this is an alarmed emergency.
That’s because humans are hardwired to see uncertainty as dangerous.
In this moment, you cannot imagine how you will ever feel well again. That feels like a mirage, shimmering in the distance.
Right now, embracing life without gluten feels like deprivation.
If that story sounds like yours, I understand. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2005 (an autoimmune disease where eating gluten can cause damage to the small intestine, affecting an estimated 2 million people in the United States), I had been sick for months on end. Having an answer was a deep relief. But in the first month of being gluten-free, I fixated on the idea that I would never be able to eat a flaky, buttery croissant in Paris again.
Now, from the distance of 16 years—and hearing from thousands of people through my cookbooks and my former food blog, Gluten-Free Girl—I have some knowledge of how to live gluten-free, joyfully.
Step one: Accept this. After all, this is your body. If it’s built that way, then embrace it. Over time, this will change much of how you see yourself in the world.
Step two: Everything you thought about food you could eat? You have to change that. Yes, this is difficult, especially if your daily habits relied on anything from pizza and pasta to vegetarian sandwiches in whole-wheat wraps to cookies.
Be kind to yourself.
Sure, there are now a plethora of gluten-free baked goods, breads and frozen pizzas on the market. The grocery store looks entirely different than it did for me in 2005.
However, emphasizing convenience foods in your diet is not the ideal nutritional path even when they don’t contain gluten. Try to make those foods an occasional treat. (Editor’s note: Click here for a guide to gluten-free nutrition.)
Instead, flip the switch on this story. What CAN you eat? Make a huge list of foods you love that are naturally gluten-free.
Eat a peach so ripe that the juice dribbles down your chin. Make a salad of arugula and chicories, with soft goat cheese, pistachios and dried cranberries, dressed with Sicilian lemon dressing. Fry up some eggs until they’re crisp on the edges, with enough ooze in the yolk to spill over the sauteed spinach in the bowl. Top with smoked salt. Or try creamy yogurt with savory toppings, currently my favorite breakfast (recipe below.)
Every time you eat great food without gluten? You’re healing yourself.
Step three: You have to resist the temptation of eating gluten to fit in. Oh, a little can’t hurt me. Yes, it can. Every time you eat something with gluten, if you’re not supposed to eat it for your health, you’re damaging yourself.
Now, because my body knows how sick I get from accidentally eating even ¼ teaspoon of gluten, I think of traditional cakes and pies as a bottle of Drano. They’re lovely, of course, but they’ll eat a hole in my intestines.
Stand up for yourself.
Step four: Eventually, when you do start to feel better after living gluten-free, you’ll KNOW why you’re doing this. Eventually, this will become muscle memory.
In the meantime, get curious.
Instead of feeling sad because you can’t have that croissant, ask why that baked good means so much to you?
It’s human. No one wants to be thought of as an outsider. Remind yourself—uncertainty feels like danger. You don’t have to get stuck in that feeling, though.
Get curious about why you need to feel like you belong, and what constitutes taking care of yourself.
Here’s the secret—getting curious, staying persistent about taking care of yourself, embracing your body, and exploring everything you can do instead of focusing on what you can’t have?
Shifting to this mindset will affect the rest of your life, too.
So give yourself a week to feel sad. Have a goodbye gluten party. Feel it fully. Then, get curious about the foods you may not have discovered yet.
Have you ever tried umeboshi plum vinegar? Fermented salsa? Arepas? Chicken adobo? Vietnamese salad rolls? Pistachio meringue cookies? Creamy polenta with pork ragu? Kabocha squash congee?
Truly, the possibilities are endless.
You’ll return to loving food again, in an even more grateful way, when you let go of the gluten and advocate for yourself.
Oh, and that Parisian croissant I mourned for a month? I haven’t been able to travel back to Paris since 2005. But the next time I do go, I’ll hit one of the dedicated gluten-free patisseries first.
Everything changes. Help yourself by embracing this change.
Savory yogurt with kimchi, tamari-roasted almonds and gomasio
Makes 1 serving
You can go gluten-free joyfully when you try new foods and combinations of flavors that wouldn’t have occurred to you before. Savory yogurt may be unfamiliar, but once you try it, you’re going to want more.
The key is to think about texture and flavor. Creamy yogurt? We’re used to topping it with fruit. Instead, try a little mound of spicy kimchi. Instead of sweetened granola, try any chopped nuts you like. And salt the food with another flavor. Try gomasio, a Japanese sesame seed salt (we like a version that also includes seaweed; PCC carries both the plain and seafood seasonings).
With just four ingredients, this dish offers surprise and delight.
½ cup full-fat yogurt
¼ cup chopped kimchi
2 tablespoons chopped tamari-lime-chili almonds (or other nuts to your taste)
½ teaspoon gomasio
Spoon the yogurt into a bowl. Top with the kimchi. Strew the chopped almonds, then sprinkle with the gomasio.
Other combinations that work well together:
- Yogurt, sauerkraut, pistachios and smoked salt.
- Yogurt, pickled red cabbage, garlic-roasted cashews and rosemary-lemon salt.
- Yogurt, grated pickled carrots, toasted sunflower seeds and Cajun spiced salt.
Shauna James Ahern is the author of several books, including “Gluten-Free Girl Every Day,” a winner of the James Beard Cookbook Award for Focus on Health, and the memoir “Enough: Notes from a Woman Who Has Finally Found It.”