Getting Started

Foods you can eat and avoid gluten

You’ve got a diagnosis, and they said “Don’t eat anything containing wheat, oats, barley or rye – avoid all gluten”.

OK – but what does that mean? What can you eat?

Your first thought might be ‘oh, that’s not so bad – only four things to avoid’ but after a trip to the supermarket, and looking at some labels, you might be thinking ‘I’m going to starve’.

Luckily, the truth is in-between, and you may end up with a healthier diet than when you were eating gluten, because you’ll probably eat more fresh and home-prepared food.

So – what can I eat?

  • Cereals and grains: rice, millet, maize, quinoa, tapioca, sago, buckwheat, teff and sorghum
  • Meat fish and eggs: all are basically fine – just check any coatings, sauces and spices you add, and check wafer-thin meats too (sometimes wheat flour is added to make them ‘peel apart’)
  • Dairy products: milk and most cream, cheese and yoghurt – check any added ingredients, and check ready-grated cheese (sometimes wheat flour is added to stop the slivers of cheese sticking together)
  • Flours: rice, corn, potato, maize, gram, soya, chickpea, sorghum, tapioca and chestnut flours are all OK
  • Fruit: all fruits are naturally gluten free – check ready-made pie fillings, though
  • Vegetables: all vegetables are naturally gluten free – check any coatings, sauces and spices
  • Fats: you can eat butter, margarine, oils, lard and dripping (if you want!) but avoid suet and check low-fat spreads
  • Breakfast cereal: tricky one – check carefully, and avoid any containing wheat, oats, barley or rye. You might also want to avoid malt extract
  • Bread, crackers and crispbreads: avoid all the conventional ones, and eat only those labelled as gluten free, or those you’ve made yourself and know to be gluten free
  • Cakes, pastries, cookies and biscuits: avoid all the conventional ones, and eat only those labelled as gluten free, or those you’ve made yourself and know to be gluten free
  • Pizza and pasta: avoid all the conventional ones, and eat only those labelled as gluten free, or those you’ve made yourself and know to be gluten free
  • Soup and sauces: check every time, in case wheat flour has been used to thicken a soup or a sauce
  • Pies, quiches, flans and tarts: avoid all the conventional ones, and eat only those labelled as gluten free, or those you’ve made yourself and know to be gluten free
  • Puddings and desserts: check every time – meringue, jelly and most icecreams and sorbets will be fine, but unless specifically labelled gluten free, cheesecakes, pies etc will not be good for you
  • Snacks: nuts, raisins and seeds are all naturally gluten free, but check any added coatings and check all packets of crisps (chips) and other savoury snacks – we’ve been caught out by these before, especially when the recipe is changed
  • Sweets (candy): check every time – chocolate is usually OK to eat, but not if it covers a biscuit! All sorts of unexpected sweets contain wheat, such as Smarties, here in the UK, and licorice
  • Alcohol: wine, spirits, liqueurs and cider – avoid real ale, beer, lager and stout (unless specifically labelled as gluten free)
  • Soft drinks: coffee, tea, juices, cocoa, fizzy drinks and most squashes – but check that they don’t contain barley or ‘cloud’, and don’t drink from vending machines
  • Spices and seasonings: pure salt, pepper, herbs, vinegar – check spices and mustard powder for added flour.
  • Spreads and preserves: jam, marmalade, honey, Marmite (UK only – check in other countries), nut butters
  • Pickles and dressings: check every time
  • Cooking ingredients: yeast, bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar – check baking powder for added flour

There – that’s not so bad, is it? Lots to choose from, and you’ll soon get in the habit of checking food labels and asking for the recipe. The next thing to worry about: cross-contamination. More on that soon …

What’s that gluten thing you’ve got?

Newly diagnosed?

You may have been so bemused by the announcement – or so deep in the ‘brain-fog’ that can come with a diet full of gluten – that you didn’t quite catch the words the doctor used. Or perhaps you need to explain it to someone else … again. We had just that experience over Christmas, when a relative who can use the word cancer quite freely about himself couldn’t manage to talk about our daughter’s health. Or perhaps he’d just forgotten.

The condition is called coeliac disease here in the UK, or celiac disease in the US, and it is pronounced SEE-lee-ak in both cases (emphasis on the first syllable). Sometimes it is known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy, or coeliac sprue, but it is all the same thing, and not fun at all.

Sometimes people debate the term – is it desirable to call it a disease when its not contagious, and (when it is properly controlled by diet) you feel perfectly healthy? An alternative is to say coeliac condition, but that can sometimes sound a bit vague. Another issue is the ‘suffering’ word. Do you say ‘I suffer from coeliac disease‘? Again, this may not be true, if you are maintaining a strict diet, as you may not be suffering at all. Apart from doughnut deprivation, of course.

We tend to go for ‘she is a coeliac‘ if the situation comes up – along the lines of ‘he’s a diabetic‘.

Occasionally, people call it coeliacs, as in ‘I’ve got coeliacs‘, which I understand, but which grates on me personally – but that’s just the pedant and the proof-reader coming out in me. ‘I’ve got pedantics‘.

Is bread making us ill?

A professional baker for 30 years, Andrew Whitley, believes it may be, and explains why in his new book Bread Matters.

He says that the bread we eat has changed, and that this has given rise not only to the rise in diagnosis of coeliac disease, but also of wheat intolerance and even candidiasis, which is a yeast problem.

50 years ago people started making white bread, and fixed any problems with the product with chemistry. In 1961, apparently a new breadmaking method (known as the Chorleywood process) was developed using lower-protein wheat, additives and high-speed mixing to reduce time and costs, and over 80 per cent of UK bread is now made using these techniques. He writes:

“The standard breadmaking manuals of the pre-war period (Kirkland, Bennion etc) give recipes for sponge and dough fermentations using a ratio of compressed yeast to dough weight of around 0.5%. The Master Bakers Book of Breadmaking, published in the 1980s, prescribes up to 1.75% yeast in doughs made by the Chorleywood process. Could it be that by trebling yeast dosage and greatly reducing fermentation time, modern bakers have unwittingly laced their loaves with undesirable yeast residues?”

Interestingly, he says that a home breadmaking machine can make a decent loaf with stoneground flour for less energy than the making and distribution of the industrial version consumes. So there’s the green argument for the breadmaker – get it out from the cupboard under the stairs right now!

I am concerned that the article in the Yorkshire Today about this says that diagnosed coeliacs could eat Mr Whitley’s organic bread made with traditional varieties of wheat – because even if a coeliac didn’t demonstrate immediate symptoms, there would be hidden intestinal damage, with increased risk of other unpleasant diseases. I hope most diagnosed coeliacs would have more sense than to deliberately eat wheat …

How to survive the first year of living gluten free

Just been diagnosed? Here are some tips to help you get through that first year of being gluten free …

1. Be brave – and optimistic
. It will be difficult, but you will feel better as your intestine heals.

2. Clear out some cupboard space, dedicated for your gluten free products. They can be very bulky, especially if, like me, you have to buy everything you see ‘to encourage them’ to keep making/stocking it. If you have gluten products in the house that nobody else in the house eats – bin them. Don’t eat it ‘to avoid waste’.

3. Join the local support organisation, even if you’re not a natural joiner. Here in the UK, it is Coeliac UK. They will have advice, tips and other helpful material. CUK produces a list of manufactured foods that are acceptable for coeliacs to eat – with updates every month. If there are local meetings – go to them! And talk to people, no matter how shy you feel.

4. Read every label. On everything. If you’re not sure, don’t eat it – and contact the manufacturer to ask if it is OK. Working out what you can and can’t eat will become easier as you learn what can instantly be discarded, leaving you to concentrate on the things that might be OK.

5. Learn as much as you can – even if you end up knowing more than the local doctor does. She, after all, has to know something about a lot of things. You can concentrate on what affects you. Then you’ll be able to assess whether you will be able to eat codex wheat, lactose, oats …

6. Find other people in the same situation. We went to local meetings but when there wasn’t a local support group for children, we set one up. It helped us a lot in the early years to talk to other parents in the same situation. If there isn’t a local group, then these days there is the internet. I’m always recommending the message board, because it is a great source of support.

7. Don’t ever be persuaded
by people saying “just one [cream cake, doughnut, slice of quiche] won’t hurt”. It will, even if you can’t feel any difference. It will be eating away at your small intestine, and set your recovery back. Don’t do it.

8. Do be prepared to explain it often, and sometimes over and over again. No it is not a fad, yes it is a medical requirement.

9. Be prepared to be pushy
– you will have to ask what is in dishes, and double-check if necessary. But do be polite. You don’t want them just to pick the croutons out of your portion of soup and give you the same bowl again!

10. Read every label again. Sometimes manufacturers change the recipes of your trusted favourites, so don’t assume it will be OK.

11. Do avoid cross-contamination. Some people set up dedicated ‘areas’ for gluten free preparation – with dedicated chopping boards, knives, pans etc. Even if you don’t go this far, do think about a dedicated toaster (or buy lots of foil for the grillpan), your own breadbin and even your own pots of butter, jam etc. It only takes someone to dip a knife with gluten crumbs into the butter for you to spend the night in the bathroom.

12. Do plan ahead for festivities and celebrations. From Valentines Day to Mothering Sunday, Thanksgiving to Christmas, conferences to an impromptu birthday cake at work, celebrations involve food and drink. Plan ahead – what will you eat?

13. Consider travelling and days out – an emergency travel pack of gluten free snacks can be invaluable, especially if it is a gluten free child you are travelling with!

14. Don’t forget drinks – these can contain gluten too, whether they are alcoholic or soft drinks. Be careful.

15. And at the end of the year – celebrate! (With something gluten free, obviously).

12 gluten-free breakfast suggestions

Like all of us, my coeliac daughter’s favourite breakfasts seem to go in phases, so something will be the best-ever breakfast for a while, and then it will be something else. If you’re just diagnosed, though, working out what you can and can’t eat can be difficult. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Gluten free breakfast cereal. Favourites at the moment are Doves Farm Chocolate Stars – but we’ve also had Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise, Whole Earth Organic Maple Frosted Flakes and Nature’s Path Crispy Rice. We are avoiding cereals that contain barley malt – no matter how little the cereal contains.

2. Gluten free toast. Don’t use the same toaster as everyone else, unless you use a Toastabag, because of the risk of gluten crumbs from normal toast. Toastabags are available from various places, including Amazon. The best ones I’ve found, though, are from Lakeland Ltd. You can, of course cook toast under the grill – but please be sure that your grill pan is clean, to avoid cross-contamination.

3. Eggs. Boiled eggs are a favourite here, with soldiers made from gluten-free bread. Other options are scrambled eggs, fried eggs, omelette or poached eggs. Poached eggs are wonderful on bread spread with Marmite.

4. Pancakes. My favourite recipe for pancakes (English style) is 4 oz of gluten free flour, one egg and 10 fluid ounces of milk. Beat these together until there are no lumps left. Often people say you should leave a pancake mix for at least half an hour – but we never have time in the mornings, and it doesn’t seem to matter much. Heat a buttered pan, and tip in enough mix to cover the base of the pan. Leave it for a few minutes until the top begins to set, and you see small bubbles – then you can flip the pancake over and cook the other side. My girls like this with sugar – I like to add a little lemon juice too.

5. Waffles. If you’ve got a wafflemaker, it will have instructions – but Lakeland have a recipe for waffles

6. Bought-in breakfast goods, such as croissants or danishes, bought from somewhere like Lifestyle. My daughter likes the chocolate croissants, and their pain au chocolat. Not cheap – but for a special treat, why not. Sometimes the other children complain – why does she get chocolate croissants, it’s not fair, she always gets the good stuff (etc., repeat till fade)

7. Grapefruit – or other fruits. Mix and match to your heart’s content. Just remember that fruit alone may not be very filling.

8. Porridge. Recent research indicates that adult coeliacs can have some non-contaminated oats every day. If you are catering for a child, or if you are super-sensitive, you might want to be careful about this. Please check the CUK list of acceptable foods for providers of non-contaminated oats. At the moment, these are available here in the UK from Mornflake, Rabbi E. F. Kestenbaum, Spoff and Tilquhillie Puddings. Oat-free and gluten free versions of porridge are produced by Barkat and Orgran, among others.

9. For meat-eaters, there is always the bacon or sausage option. Daughter 2 loves a sausage sandwich, like her father, but these only ever happen on very special occasions. Do check that it is a gluten free sausage.

10. Yoghurt. Obviously not with added biscuit bits or with gluten cereals in – but standard fruit-flavoured yoghurt should be fine.

11. Eggybread – sometimes known as French Toast. Beat an egg with a little milk, and then soak a slice of bread (or maybe two slices, since gluten free bread slices are often very small) in the mix for a while. When it is all soaked in, fry the bread gently in a little butter. It should puff up slightly – then turn it over and cook the other side. Probably 2-3 minutes a side, but this will depend on how hot your pan is. My son likes this with golden syrup – or maple syrup.

12. Or simply abandon the usual breakfast menu, and have whatever you feel like eating. After all, why be constrained by tradition? How about a gluten-free scone and jam? Or a ham sandwich? Or soup?

Whatever you feel like, do eat something – breakfast is an important meal, and shouldn’t be skipped altogether.