Thursday, 8 November 2012

What Can I Eat On A Gluten Free Diet?

Back in 2009 this was the question that I was constantly asking myself. What can I eat? I'd spent two years in a pitiful state of zombie-like existence and once I knew that the gluten free diet would change that I embraced it fully. This didn't mean it was easy though, embracing it and understanding it were two very different things.

My natural inclination was to head straight for the free from aisle in my supermarket, if I said it was gluten free I could eat it, right? I ended up with biscuits and a couple of meals in pouches that you just poured boiling water into, I vividly remember getting tins of Orgran Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce. With hindsight, a nutritional nightmare, at the time, a few weeks spent eating flavourless foods that were of terrible quality. I still can't look at a tin of that Spaghetti without wincing.

If I were to be able to go back in time and advise the old me at the time of going gluten free, this is what I would tell myself...

Firstly, I'd advise against the free from aisle to begin with. Go straight to the natural produce, fruits vegetables, meat and fish. Buy nothing that isn't in its natural state, for instance, pork ribs are fine, pork ribs covered in barbecue or any other kind of sauce probably isn't. Fresh fish is great, fish in batter or breadcrumbs or any kind of sauce is not.

In writing this, as I'm processing all the information that I want to get across I'm thinking to myself how the hell did I get to where I am now, this is all so complicated! How did I cope back then? Truth is, having spent two years constantly feeling like I was about to die, when I discovered that a gluten free diet would help me I just got on with it and learnt as I went along. There were many mistakes.

Let's look at what can I eat the basics:

  • Raw meats - buy nothing that is in a sauce or has been marinated, just plain raw meat that you will prepare and cook yourself. All meat is naturally gluten free.
  • Fish - All fish is naturally gluten free, buy only plain fish with no coatings or sauce.
  • Shellfish - Crab, lobster, oysters, clams, scallops, prawns, shrimps, all naturally gluten free. Never buy dressed crab or any shellfish that has sauces or coatings just shellfish that is in its natural state. I've written extensively about this subject, you can read it here.
  • Vegetables - So long as you stick with unprepared fresh veg and there's a wealth to choose from. All vegetables are naturally gluten free.
  • Fruit - Stick with unprepared fresh fruit, all naturally gluten free.
  • Eggs - Fresh eggs in shells make many a meal
That's where I would start on the basics. Obviously you get cravings for things you can no longer eat, mine was and still is puff pastry. I'm yet to find a worthy substitute. Most things however can be substituted by products from the free from sections or by following tried and tested adapted recipes.

About the gluten free products on shelves:
  • In a regular supermarket you will probably find that there are more sweet gluten free items than savoury. It's easy to load up on biscuits and cakes but you need more than stodge to keep you going.
  • I highly recommend buying DS Gluten Free Ciabattas. They come in packs of 4 and are perfect for freezing. I'm yet to come across any gluten free bread that is better than these (I believe that in other parts of the world the brand name is Schar).
  • You'll find a selection of nice breakfast cereals.
  • Buy a gluten free flour, you can make lots of delicious things with it (check out the recipe section for inspiration)
  • Never ever under any circumstances buy a product called All Purpose Crumbs, trust me, this stuff will haunt your dreams. It's gluten free but also comparable to what I imagine the bottom of a birdcage tastes like.
  • Instead buy Hale and Hearty Breadcrumbs, they are totally wonderful.
  • Mrs Crimbles makes great snacky products.
About the gluten free frozen section:
  • Buy the DS Gluten Free Salami Pizza. The crust is wonderful, the toppings are sparse in typical Italian fashion but you can easy add your own toppings to make it more like an American style pizza if you wish to.
About the gluten free stuff elsewhere in store:

To begin with I had no idea that you would find gluten free products on general shelves. Obvious things like the basics stated above yes, but things like crisps and sauces, I had no idea. 

Something which becomes apparent when first going gluten free is how much longer it takes to do a food shop. Idly picking things off of shelves and throwing them in the trolley are no longer, you become an ingredient list obsessive and that's a good thing. Reading labels and allergen warnings means the difference between a successful gluten free diet or days spent in the bathroom.

It's not practical to pick up everything and examine all in one go, that's why when I started being gluten free there were hundreds of searches for the likes of is soy sauce gluten free? (only if you buy the kind called Tamari), is cheese gluten free? (yes if you stay away from blue cheese, blue cheese is only gluten free if naturally matured, it's a bit complicated but see here if you want to know more) are baked beans gluten free? (yes, at present).

On and on it goes. Sometimes you'll get the answer straight away other times the answers aren't so clear. If in doubt find the contact information on a brand website and ask. Some brands have fantastic customer service some utter cr*p. If I don't get a satisfactory reply I won't buy that brand again.

Nestle UK have a very good gluten free list for reference. If only more brands did this, it would make gluten free life a lot easier.

There's so much more to the gluten free diet than what you can eat, tomorrow I'll write about cross contamination. Finding out about that was a painful process, literally. Hopefully this has pointed out the basics to anyone new to a gluten free diet. It is complicated but it does get easier.

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