Gluten Free Guide for Hosts

I frequently get questions about what to buy, what I can eat, etc. when we’re traveling or visiting someone else’s home.  In an effort to make things easier on anyone looking for this type information, I thought I’d put together a post to help out the non-celiacs that want to play host!

The Basics and What Contains Gluten?

If you’re hosting someone with celiac disease, or a non-celiac gluten intolerance you need to be aware of what gluten is, and all the shady places that gluten hides.  Gluten is wheat, rye, barley, oats or foods made from them such as flour, bread, pasta, pancakes, flour tortillas, pastries, breaded or battered foods, croutons and oatmeal.  It’s not just in breads and pastas but also in things like beer, alcohols, some fat-free sour creams, blue cheese, salad dressings, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, root beer, vitamins and medicines — it loves to hide. It can be in peanuts, in boxed rice mixes, EVERYWHERE.

Cross-Contamination

A gluten free lifestyle isn’t always easy for your guest to follow, and one of the hardest things for outsiders to understand is that even a portion the size of half a crouton is enough to make most celiacs sick. It’s difficult for celiacs to eat anywhere outside their home and feel completely comfortable.  Even the most careful hosts can have difficulties making food that is 100% safe.  Something as simple as handling bread before switching to another dish could completely contaminate the dish for your celiac guest.  Here are a few things to be on the lookout for in your kitchen:

  • All surfaces coming in contact with food need to not only be clean, they also should not be porous.  Stick to stainless steel cooking utensils, as plastic, wood, and non-stick surfaces can absorb gluten over years of cooking and render a carefully prepared gluten free dish unsafe.
  • Never put gluten free food directly on a cooking surface you’ve been using for many years (i.e., oven racks, toasters).  On a similar topic, if you’re frying food it is not safe to fry anything gluten free in the same oil you’ve used for something containing gluten.  For example, french fries cooked in oil used for battered chicken would cross-contaminate the fries, even if they are just plain strips of potato.
  • Cooking utensils should not be transferred between dishes, the second a utensil touches gluten, it makes anything else it touches no longer gluten free.

Safe Bets

  • Fresh meats, poultry, and fish.  They can be seasoned with plain spices or marinated in gluten free sauces/dressings
  • Steamed or roasted vegetables, again, seasoned with spices.
  • Rice — NOT the prepackaged side dishes, you’ll have to get plain white or brown rice and season it yourself.
  • Homemade mashed potatoes — again, the prepackaged stuff is NOT safe to eat, it almost always has gluten.
  • Scrambled eggs.
  • Fresh fruits.
  • Homemade salads with fresh veggies

**if you couldn’t tell by now, just about everything is fresh. I probably go to the grocery store twice a week to get everything**

Sneaky Gluten Hiding Places

  • Processed foods such as cheeses, meats, bouillon, and packaged broths.  It’s important to always check the ingredients in these things, it might shock you what’s been added in!
  • If you see any of the following on a product label, it is likely NOT safe: malt, food coloring, natural or artificial flavorings, modified food starch, ANYTHING followed by flour.  When in doubt, either check with the company, your guest, or find another product.
  • Anything labeled as a seasoning needs to be verified that it’s safe, while spices are raw and safe for celiacs, seasonings can sometimes contain gluten, especially McCormick seasoning packs — most of them are full of gluten!
  • Be extra careful anytime you use condiments (i.e., jelly, peanut butter, butter — spray or squeeze butter is the best because it won’t be contaminated), anytime a utensil is dipped in a tub or jar condiment, touches gluten, and is placed back in the container it is no longer safe for a celiac to consume.  Your best bet is to use squeeze products, and eliminating the risk of cross contamination.
  • If it’s been processed in a plant or on equipment shared with gluten, it most likely is not safe.  This one however depends on the person, for example, I can’t eat anything from a shared facility without having a reaction, but others can.  Check with your guest to see how sensitive they are, and what else you need to look out for.

Above All Else

If you remember nothing else from this post, please remember this one thing: Don’t EVER think you are bothering your guest by asking them about ingredients or cooking/preparation plans.  If you doubt anything or have any questions, I speak for all of us when I say we’d rather have you ask than find out later when we’re doubled over in pain and suffering.

I took the pledge!

In honor of Day 5 for Celiac Awareness Month, I’ve taken the pledge!!  The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) invites you to take the pledge, promising to take a proactive approach to managing your health in just three easy ways.

Join the NFCA and Take the Pledge

Personally, I’ve use my blog as a great resource to educate, empower, and advocate for celiac disease awareness.  Not only is it a great pledge to make to yourself, but the NFCA also makes resources available to anyone taking the pledge.

My Celiac Running Crew

Learning to live with celiac disease can be both challenging and frustrating, especially if you don’t have a great support group.  I totally lucked out, and hit the support group jackpot!  My sister introduced me to two of her friends that both have celiac disease, Liz and Amanda.  Though I had only met them a few times, I reconnected with Liz (her blog here) at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night walk.  I hadn’t been running seriously in years, but really wanted to get back into now that I felt my celiac disease was under control.  To refocus my running, Liz talked me into training with Team in Training (TNT), which supports the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  Although we didn’t always make it to the team runs, we put together a great group of girls that get together on the weekends for training and fun runs!  The best part is, four of us are living with celiac disease!  These runs have become something I truly look forward to on a weekly basis.  We gripe about the latest frustration or glutening (glutening explained here), talk about local restaurants that can safely prepare gluten free foods, and gush about new recipes we’ve found.  There is nothing better than a fifteen mile training run spent catching up with other celiacs that “get it,” and yes, I said fifteen miles (Liz’s blog about our run)!!

Thanks to the support of these girls, I am happy to say I finished my fourth half marathon last weekend.  I ran the Nike Women’s Half in DC with my TNT team, Out for Blood (check out my race recap here).  This was the first race I’d run in over two years, and truly shows how far I’ve come since my diagnosis.  I had such a blast that I’m joining TNT again for the Marine Corps Marathon this coming fall, which will be my first ever full marathon, and has been a goal of mine for a long time now!

So what’s the tie to celiac disease with this post? I’m glad you asked… celiac disease patients with ongoing intestinal damage have a higher risk for lymphoma than those with healed intestines.  Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that begins in the lymph system, and can eventually spread to other parts of the body.  The following is an excerpt from a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“This study included more than 7,600 people with celiac disease who had follow-up intestinal biopsies six months to five years after their diagnosis, and were then followed for roughly nine years.

At the time of their follow-up biopsy, 57 percent of the patients had healed intestines while 43 percent had ongoing intestinal damage, according to the study, which was published in the Aug. 6 issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Overall, the patients with celiac disease had an annual lymphoma risk of about 68 of 100,000 people, which is nearly three times higher than the general population’s risk rate of about 24 of 100,000.

Meanwhile, the annual risk for patients with ongoing intestinal damage was about 102 of 100,000 people, compared with 31.5 of 100,000 for those with healed intestines.”

That’s definitely a startling piece of information, and just one of the many risks that come along with having celiac disease.  In its 25 years, TNT has trained more than 570,000 participants for endurance sports, and investing more than $875 million in blood cancer research.  Help me declare that cancer ends with me!  Support my next run with TNT for the Marine Corps Marathon by donating to my fundraising page, linked in the TNT graphic below.

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What Not To Say

We’ve all heard them before, to continue my Celiac Awareness Month fun I decided to compile a list of what not to say to a celiac.  Feel free to add your own gripes in the comments section 🙂  Here goes!

5.  It must be so easy to eat gluten free with all the products they have out now.

– No, actually it’s not that simple.  Thanks to so much misinformation out there, it’s not a simple as it seems.  Trips to the grocery store take extra long as I continue to read all the labels before things go into my cart.  Companies don’t always stick to the same recipe, and I’ve actually caught products that are no longer safe, even though they previously had been.  Just because an item does not have gluten in its ingredients does not mean something wasn’t processed in the same facility or even on the same equipment as gluten.  To someone with celiac, those little details matter…it’s the difference between a normal day and spending the night on the bathroom floor!

4.  I could not survive without bread, that must be so hard.

– Is it hard for you to buckle your seat belt?  What about crossing a busy street without looking?  Would you drink twice your weight in alcohol?  NO! Of course not!  These things are seriously unsafe, unhealthy, and could possibly KILL you!  Gluten has a very serious affect on my personal well being, and if that means I can’t eat certain things then so be it.  I’d much rather be healthy and adapt to the restrictions.  If I want bread, pasta, or beer I have options.  There are plenty of products out there that allow me to enjoy the typical gluten filled food that I miss, and ways of making things like bread or pizza dough on my own.  Do I still have days that I miss being able to eat without thinking, I’d be lying if I said I don’t.  But that does not mean I feel my life is hard, or that I can’t handle it.

3. Oh you’re gluten free, I tried that diet once.

– How many times do we have to explain that this is not a diet?  A dietary restriction due to an actual medical condition, yes.  This is not some Hollywood fad diet like the Master Cleanse, South Beach, Atkins, Cabbage Soup, or so many other ridiculous trends that come and go.  Please stop referring to gluten free as a diet, for celiacs gluten free is far from a conscious choice!

2. Well it’s not that bad is it?  Just a little gluten is ok, right?

– No, a little gluten is not ok.  In fact, the risk of cross contamination stresses me out more than the risk of actually gluten.  It hides everywhere, and a shared kitchen can be a nightmare for me.  Think of gluten as arsenic.  If just a little smidge got into your dinner, would you eat it?  Before you go off about bacteria and whatnot in food, please let me stop you and refer you to my page What is Celiac?  pay close attention to the long term health effects, and what undiagnosed or untreated celiac can lead to.  Even the smallest amounts can trigger reactions both visible, and not.  Personally, I don’t want anything listed on that page…so even the littlest bit of gluten is not welcome on my plate!

Drum-roll please…the number 1 worst thing to say to a celiac is….

1. So what can you eat?

– For the love of god please stop saying this to us! I can eat just about anything if it came from an animal, is a fruit or vegetable.  What do I eat? Steak dinners, with mashed potatoes and roasted broccoli.  I have bagels in the morning (thank you Udi’s!), make pizza on a semi regular occasion, and thanks to my bread machine, I can have sandwiches whenever I want.  I enjoy grilling out in the warm weather…chicken, kabobs, hot dogs, burgers.  My favorite sides are anything from roasted Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli to my summertime favorite of corn on the cob.  Don’t pity me, I eat very well thank you very much!

Last nights dinner: Brown rice pasta, ground turkey, tomato sauce, veggies, and Udi’s french baguette.

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Dropping the Allergy

I’ve had celiac disease for nearly three years now.  It’s been a long and sometimes very challenging road, but I am healthy and feeling great!  Over the years, I’ve gone through my fair share of hiccups…some making me swear off half the restaurants and fast food joints I know.  But I’m learning to live with the disease, and learning to live my life despite the restrictions it places in my path.  Recently I was out to dinner with a group and the most liberating words came out of my mouth…”I have celiac disease.”  I went on to explain the full story, I can’t eat gluten, I’m very sensitive to cross-contamination, please be sure to check with the chef.  For the past three years, I’ve had a habit of telling restaurants that I have a gluten allergy.  You and I both know that’s not the case, but allergies are taken seriously, and my health is not something worth risking.

Telling places and people that I have an allergy has started to bother me though, I’m doing myself and everyone a disservice by not telling them the truth.  My friends and family may know that I have celiac disease, but there are so many people that still don’t know what that is.  The month of May is celiac disease awareness month, so I’m making it my mission to never again tell that little white lie about my condition.  I have celiac disease.  I’ve been living with it for three years.  Ask me about it and I’d be happy to share my story with you!  If we can’t talk about it honestly ourselves, how can we expect others to understand?  Join me in promising to tell restaurants, servers and chefs from this point forward, “I have celiac disease!”