Hi, I’m Emma, Founder of Delicious Alchemy. As part of our ‘behind the scenes’ series, I’ll be sharing my advice and tips on how to get started on your restricted diet.
From planning meals in advance to navigating the weekly shop – here’s how I manage my restricted diet.
Step one: Find out what condition you have, and therefore what foods to avoid
So you have been to a doctor and either they have told you that you have Coeliac disease or they have ruled it out.
If they have ruled it out, you realise that you are suffering with either a gluten allergy or a gluten intolerance and you need to cut out those foods that are making you unwell. Either way, you have decided to go on a restricted diet and you don’t know where to start – don’t worry, we’re here to help!
The first thing you should do is to work out what you should restrict. If you have Coeliac disease, that’s easy – start with gluten, but if you are still having problems you may need to cut out a few more allergens for a while.
Did you know? Wheat, gluten and dairy are the biggest problem allergens/irritants for the UK’s population; it differs country by country. For example, if you know that eating bread upsets your stomach, it could be Coeliac disease, a wheat allergy, a gluten intolerance or even a dairy problem because many loaves contain milk in some form.
If you are unsure, it’s very much worth trying to find out what your problem really is by trying different things. For example, spelt bread does not contain wheat but does contain gluten so if you eat that and feel fine, then it could be that only wheat is your problem. If you eat it and feel awful then it’s likely that gluten is your problem … but don’t rule out the possibility of wheat – I’ll get onto that in a second.
Going partly vs completely Gluten Free – what’s the difference?
If wheat is your problem, you’ll need to go on an almost exclusively gluten free diet to avoid it day to day. (Although you’ll be allowed spelt bread, which makes me very jealous of you!)
A wheat problem means that you may not be able to eat the many gluten free foods with wheat derived maltodextrins and glucose in them. So if you think you are reacting to foods that are labelled gluten free then bear this in mind.
Foods that contain wheat based maltodextrins and glucose in them are gluten free in accordance with the law, but they contain small amounts of highly refined wheat derivatives that a body called EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) has assessed for safety. EFSA has determined that these substances are not likely to cause severe allergic reactions because they only contain very small traces of the protein due to the manufacturing process. Therefore, they have an exemption under labelling law and do not have to be identified as containing wheat.
However, the guidance specifically says that they are not likely to cause a reaction so if you have a wheat allergy, depending on how severe it is, you may react to them. This is worth keeping an eye on because many people do react to them and were constantly sick before they realised why this was.
Wheat allergies and maltodextrins – be careful!
If you have Coeliac disease, you may also have a wheat allergy – like me and many other people. This means that you need to be aware of maltodextrins and glucose (as above) but also that you cannot have products made from Codex wheat starch. Codex wheat starch is a wheat ingredient that has had the gluten removed from it to the legal limit of 20ppm. However, it’s impossible to remove the wheat so those of us with wheat allergies must avoid it. This ingredient is banned in gluten free foods sold in UK supermarkets but it is available in gluten free products available on prescription and in other retailers so beware!
Knowing what is at the root of your problem is very important because it could really widen your food choices and make your life more enjoyable and easier in the long term. As an extreme example, it would be such a shame if you gave up all dairy and gluten long term only to find out years later that it was just gluten causing your problems. Think of all the ice cream you’d have missed!
My tips for starting your new diet
Plan your meals in advance
So to start with, planning is key – if possible, choose a week in which you can plan and control your meals and are not travelling.
Decide what you are going to eat each day and buy the ingredients for it.
You will need to become obsessive about reading labels. If you are going gluten free, our ‘Yes Please/No thanks’ gluten free food guide can help. If you are going dairy free then apart from the obvious ingredients like milk and cream, you need to know that products like ghee and paneer contain dairy. You also need to know your dairy derivatives so watch out for any ingredient with the words ‘whey’, ‘lacto’ ‘casien’ or ‘casienate’ in them.
On a gluten free diet, grains that you must exclude from your diet include barley, rye, bulgar wheat, couscous, durum wheat (mostly found in pasta), einkorn, emmer and kamut, pearl barley, semolina, spelt, triticale and, of course, wheat. Some of these, like einkorn, emmer, kamut, spelt and triticale may be new to you. Most are ancient grains rarely used in this country, others are hybrids of wheat and other grains. It’s handy to know the names if you’re travelling abroad.
The good news is that the list of grains, cereals, flours and seeds you can eat is much longer than the ones you can’t. Potatoes are fine and very versatile, as is rice and corn (maize). Chickpea flour (also called gram flour) is naturally gluten free and features in many Indian dishes. Polenta, quinoa (a South American grain) and millet are all naturally gluten-free and very nutritious.
Online supermarkets are your new friend
The supermarkets are absolutely full of food that you will not be able to eat so my next tip is to only do online shopping, if you can afford it, because it will be psychologically easier on you. You can check the ingredients and allergen status of food online and it saves you upsetting yourself by walking down aisles and aisles being constantly reminded of the food you cannot have.
It will also prevent the temptation to ‘just’ have that one thing you know is bad. In the early days, before I knew I had Coeliac disease but I knew wheat was upsetting my stomach, I was walking around a supermarket smelling the in store bakery. I absolutely HAD to have a croissant. I bought one and it was gorgeous but within an hour and a half I was very sick indeed. I’ve never had another one but that time the temptation was too strong and I fell off the wagon! Urgh.
Start cooking from scratch
Cook from scratch where you can – keep it simple at the start. Grill some meat and do some vegetables for example. Stews are fantastic because they are hearty and you can take them into work and reheat them. Get some new recipe inspiration so that your week becomes enjoyable.
‘Stewed’ by Alan Rosenthal is a great stew book. I found that where there is gluten or dairy present, they are easy to remove or replace without affecting the quality or taste of the end dish. Alan also now has a range of one pot meals on sale at a few locations and I’ve noticed that they are gluten free – even the ones with sausages in them! steweduk.co.uk
However there are dextrins and glucose present which may be derived from wheat – you’ll need to ask him if wheat is your problem.
Another great recipe book to get is Ottolenghi The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Again, there is little gluten or dairy in the main meal recipes and where it’s present, it’s easy to replace. These recipes are more for the summer – they make for a great BBQ.
Stock up on some frozen ready meals, just in case
If you cannot cook or don’t have time or just need a few stand-bys in the cupboard or freezer, just in case, here are some ready meal suggestions:
Ilumi do a large range of ready meals that can be stored at ambient temperatures, which is really handy for travellers like me. The recipes are very nice as well!
All of Kirstys Meals are gluten and dairy free.
Have a look!
Stay social – you can still eat out
Another challenge to managing your new diet is socialising. If you are going out to a restaurant then ring them in advance to tell them what you are restricting. If you are going to an event like a wedding, call the caterers in advance or else you might not get anything to eat.
If food is scarce then watch out if you are drinking! It could get messy! Don’t feel pressured to eat the same as the group.
If you have to then bring your own or follow my rule: ‘If in doubt, eat before you go out!’
I once forgot to warn caterers and I ended up eating two chicken breasts from a Sainsburys Local in a toilet cubicle! I was really fed up with myself but at least I didn’t go hungry.
Don’t let people get you down
Unfortunately, another thing you will encounter is hostility towards you and your diet. I find it incredible that some, very rude, people think they have the authority to judge how another person is feeling and unilaterally decide that they should not be on a restricted diet.
In the last week, I’ve been challenged twice by people for being on a gluten free diet; once by a senior medical professional. Neither knew anything about me or my health or my reasons for doing it – they just waded in with their ignorant opinions. When you come across people like this, just ignore them and continue to do what makes you feel better.
There are some excellent social media groups if you need support or a rant about people like this. Try ‘Gluten free and Me’ on Facebook to get you started!
It’s tricky, but you can do it
Going on a restricted diet will be a difficult adjustment to make but the way to make it manageable is with planning and preparation. Get to know your labels and read recipe blogs for inspiration, there are some incredible gluten free recipes out there to try if you embrace it.
Why not throw a gluten and/or dairy free dinner party for your friends and family? This way, you get to practice some dishes and educate your nearest and dearest on the type of foods you now eat so they can be prepared for future too.
If you feel better on your restricted diet then they need to buy into it too. However, if after a week or two, you are not feeling better then go back to the doctor and have another chat about what might be going on with you.
I know this has been a lot to take in. Try not to get too overwhelmed and look at the information as a way of empowering yourself to get better. Although it doesn’t feel like it now, believe me, when you start to feel better, your life will change in many, many positive ways.
Good luck with it and let us know how you get on!