November 18, 2022
How to navigate the holidays while being gluten free
Before coming up with a plan to support yourself during the holidays, take a moment to celebrate the steps you are taking towards health! Even if you haven’t made any changes yet, gaining awareness around what you put in your body is an important part of wellness. Remember that change can feel uncomfortable and overwhelming and that these feelings also indicate growth.
The holidays can be challenging for those of us who have dietary restrictions. It can be difficult to maintain boundaries around others who do not have the same restrictions or have not had the same experiences we have around food and wellness. I can’t count how many times people have told me I’m just being picky, or that they’re certain I wouldn’t notice if I did eat a little gluten. When this happens, I try not the take it personally, and I maintain trust in my body to tell me what it needs. I know that I am severely gluten intolerant and that I feel better when I am careful around food.
What makes the holidays different, is that there tend to be more events and group food settings where it is difficult to know what happened to your food before it got to your plate. Added on to that, there is social pressure to eat what everyone else is eating. If you are someone who primarily cooks in a home that is already completely gluten free, it can be a big shift to eat food made by someone else in a kitchen where there might be cross-contamination. So take a deep inhale and exhale, and keep reading!
Know your tolerance level
Each person’s reaction to gluten is different and tolerance level can change over time. It really depends on if you have Celiac versus Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity or if you just feel a bit better when you avoid gluten. If you have Celiac, even small amounts can cause a chain reaction in the immune system that can cause big problems down the line. In this situation, it’s important to be more strict in when defining your boundaries, especially related to cross-contamination.
Cross-contamination means that while the recipe itself did not contain gluten, the food that you are eating came into contact with gluten at some point. This can be from processed foods that are manufactured on the same equipment as gluten-containing foods. To avoid this situation, look for foods that have packaging that says it was made in a completely gluten free facility. Remember to check the ingredients for oats. Some items, especially baked goods, are marked as gluten free even though they contain oats.
Outside of commercial situations, if a kitchen is not completely gluten free, a few problem areas are cutting boards, especially if they have been used to slice bread, crumbs from baked goods, or using the same bakeware with gluten containing and gluten free items, even if it has been washed. Bakeware is tricky because batter can stick to cake pans and muffin tins and can be hard to wash off after it’s been baked. This can be avoided by using silicone liners for bakeware. Another potential area is utensils or cooking surfaces that aren’t washed in between use. For instance, using a skillet to heat up a flour tortilla, and then immediately using it to heat a corn tortilla. Appliances that are not easily cleaned can be another source. Toasters or waffle irons are common culprits. It’s better just to avoid using them, unless you know they are dedicated gluten free appliances.
If you are someone who can tolerate cross contamination, that’s great! This might be the time of year to experiment a little with what’s ok in your body and practice being kind to yourself if you do eat some gluten. Keep in mind that reactions can build over time and when the holidays are over, you may need to recommit to your boundaries.
If you are like me, and cannot tolerate cross-contamination, do what you need to in order to maintain boundaries and keep yourself healthy. If you do make a mistake, again, be kind to yourself.
Practice stress reduction and boundary setting
There’s an analogy that I return to frequently, called the two arrows. It’s from Buddhism and it has to do with how we relate to ourselves. The first arrow is the suffering that everyone experiences, that’s life. The second is how we relate to suffering. The first arrow is unavoidable, the second arrow is not.
The suffering of needing to make changes and not eat foods you once enjoyed isn’t avoidable. How you interact with this new eating pattern and the boundaries you set around it can alleviate that second arrow. How you talk to yourself if you do get sick is also a second arrow.
I recommend thinking about what your boundaries are before you attend a holiday party or family gathering. It’s easier to start with stricter boundaries and slowly remove them than it is to increase boundaries later. If you don’t feel comfortable eating food that someone else made, that’s totally fine! Do make sure to either eat before you go out or bring food with you to share. It’s worth practicing what you will say with a friend before the party. Food is a social experience and it’s unlikely to go an entire holiday season without being offered something glutenous. I usually try to make it clear that the food looks amazing and I would absolutely try it if I could. It’s a decision about your body, not a judgement on the host. Sometimes people feel judged when you say no, but that’s really about their relationship to food and boundaries, not about you.
Try to incorporate some stress relieving techniques into your day before you go to an event. Stress can impede digestion and it can make immune system reactions worse. If you arrive and eat in a relaxed fashion, this will help your body process food better, which is especially important if you do eat some gluten, or other allergens.
What if you do eat some gluten?
First of all, forgive yourself! Try to see it as information. What were your symptoms, how long did they last, did anything make you feel better? These will all help you create a plan for when you get exposed to gluten. Was your reaction as bad this time as it what last time? This gives information on how much your body has healed.
Don’t use it as an opportunity to shame yourself. Shame is a second arrow. We all make mistakes, and we all make poor decisions. This is just life! Use it as an opportunity to see what went wrong and how you can adjust next time.
If you do eat some gluten, make sure to drink plenty of water to flush it out. Take time to rest and let your body recover. Eat simple, nourishing meals that you enjoy. Bone broth, fresh juices, and hot tea are my favorites when I’m not feeling good.