I have been living the food allergy lifestyle for what feels like forever. When I was initially diagnosed with sensitivities to gluten, dairy, and eggs, the Apple iPhone hadn’t been invented and there wasn’t a “gluten-free” aisle in the grocery store. Almond milk was watery and the coconut oil craze was still at least 10 years away. Yes, we are talking prehistoric days lol. I have learned a lot and have seen the food industry and restaurants make huge strides in offering more items to those of us who can’t eat “regular” foods. This weekend, I found out my friend was diagnosed with Celiac’s disease and him and his wife were texting me for tips and advice. I have been meaning to write a blog on tips for those who are just starting out on their food allergy journey, and now I have even more reason to move this up to the top of my blog schedule.
Below are some tips to help you start your journey living with food allergies or sensitivities. I know it’s so overwhelming at the beginning, but I promise it gets better. As you start to eliminate your problem foods from your diet, you will start to feel better. I still miss real bread and pasta but luckily I’ve found really good alternatives so I can still enjoy these foods.
1. Breathe. You Will Survive.
After your initial diagnosis, you probably left the doctor’s office with a lot of information. You may have gotten in your car and had a little bit of a freak out. Your whole life is changing just because your body rejects certain foods. It’s super overwhelming. I remember I got a binder full of materials that explained my test results, had lists of foods that were safe and forbidden, how to eat healthier, a list of vitamins to buy, and lots of blank pages for food journaling.
Whenever you are feeling overwhelmed, remember to breathe. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths. You will feel better, I promise. Remember that you are not in this alone. Hopefully, you have a supportive family, spouse, and friends that will help you as your navigate these unchartered waters. I was lucky because my family went above and beyond to help as I was figuring everything out at first. My mom made copies of several of the handouts I received so she could modify her recipes and made sure she had safe foods for me when I came to visit.
2. Learn All The Terms For Hidden Allergy Ingredients and What Foods are “Safe”
Now that you have taken a few deep breaths, the hard work begins. The first thing you need to do is educate yourself on all the different terms used to describe your food allergy. For me, I had to learn all the different names for gluten, dairy and eggs. I created a list with all of the different terms and took that with me to the grocery store to make sure I wasn’t buying something that really contained gluten, dairy, or eggs.
Visit the Hidden Ingredients page on this blog to learn all the different terms for gluten, dairy, and eggs. You can even download these lists to keep for reference. Knowledge is power!
3. Learn How To Read Labels
Now that you know what foods to avoid, the next thing is to learn how to read labels. There are a lot of naturally gluten-free and dairy-free foods out there, but lots of times food manufacturers will add gluten or dairy as binders or preservatives. If you are trying to avoid soy, you will see that in everything! Below are a few examples of labels with hidden ingredients.
4. Do A Kitchen and Pantry Purge
Now that you know hidden ingredient terms and know how to read labels, now is the time to purge your pantry. This can take several hours, so make sure you have set aside a morning or afternoon to accomplish this task. It’s also a good excuse to reorganize your pantry. Pinterest has tons of tips and ideas for pantry organization if you need inspiration.
Start by completely emptying out your pantry. Group foods together by type, like what you find in the grocery store. Read every label, even if you think it’s safe. Anything that hasn’t been opened and is non-perishable, put in a bag to donate to your local food bank or bring to your friends or family members who don’t have food allergies. Anything that is open and isn’t allergy-safe, either throw away or gift to family that won’t mind accepting foods that are open.
Once you have read every label, reorganize your pantry in a way that works best for you and your family. I like the OXO air-tight POP containers and wire baskets. I’m a Type A personality, so I like things organized with labels.
Next, move onto the spice cabinet. You shouldn’t have any issues with spices that are single-ingredient spices like garlic powder, rosemary, oregano, and basil. Any spice that has more than one ingredient, you need to read the label. Packaged taco seasonings usually have maltodextrin, which is a form of gluten, and soup spice packets usually contain dairy, gluten, and some even have MSG. Throw away or donate any spices that contain any of your allergens. Some spices will not contain any food allergy ingredients but if you are worried about cross contamination, you may want to throw away spices that are manufactured in facilities with gluten, dairy, or other food allergens.
After the spice cabinet, move onto the refrigerator. Using the same process as the pantry purge, remove everything that isn’t homemade. Read every label and dispose of anything that contains your food allergy. Throw away anything that is past its expiration date. Wipe down the drawers and shelves both inside and on the door. Finally, replace your box of baking soda to help keep your refrigerator fresh. Put back all your food items that are safe to eat.
Another area of the kitchen that needs to be purged is your baking flours. If you like to bake, then you have to replace all of your flour with gluten-free flours. My recommendation is to get rid of your baking flour and spend some time researching gluten-free baking. You will need a lot of different flours to get the same results from wheat or white flour. I could write several blog posts just on that topic…
This can be a very daunting task. It’s a little scary to see how much food you have to get rid of but it’s worth it. Remember, these foods are making you feel less than stellar, so it’s good to get rid of the temptation to cheat.
5. Make A Grocery List
You are probably thinking, what am I going to eat now that I have basically thrown out everything in my kitchen? There are so many recipes that fit into your new diet. Pinterest is a great place to start or you can do a simple Google search for an allergy-free version of your favorite foods. If you like cookbooks, order one or two from Amazon and try a few of the recipes. Once you have found some recipes to try, make your grocery list. You will also need to buy substitute items to replace your pantry staples.
6. Download an App To Help You When Grocery Shopping
Today, there are several apps that help with determining if foods at the grocery store are free of your food allergens. Spend some time researching the apps and download a few to try. There are a lot of apps to help live a healthy lifestyle – you just need to find the one that works best for you.
When you setup your profile, there are five sections to complete that will make the app work the best for you and your needs. You can include the foods you want to avoid, such as gluten, wheat, or milk; indicate if you have any health conditions you need to manage such as high blood pressure, osteoporosis, anemia, or diabetes; indicate if you want to shop for foods with things like fiber or low sodium; and you can also indicate if there are things you don’t want in your foods such as high fructose corn syrup, sodium or trans fats.
When you are in the grocery store, simply open the scanner and scan the barcode. The app will give you a result and let you know if the foods contain any of your allergens.
7. Give Yourself Plenty of Time at the Grocery Store
When you make your first trip to the grocery store, give yourself lots of time. You may be going down aisles you may have never ventured down before or discovering the aisles you usually frequent are no longer part of your diet. Don’t get discouraged or sad when you see all your favorite treats that no longer have a home in your pantry.
I like to shop the perimeter of the grocery store then make my way down the aisles. For your first trip to the grocery store, I would start in the produce area, then make your way across the store. Go down each aisle and read every label before putting it in your shopping cart. Remember, even if you think a food is “safe” it’s better to double-check at the store than to get home and realize it has something you can’t eat. You will learn what brands are safe to eat and what brands or foods to avoid.
If you like sliced deli meat, most everything from Boar’s Head is gluten-free. I personally like the Boar’s Head Maple Glazed Turkey Breast. If I’m looking for a healthy snack, I will eat a few slices with a pickle spear. Boar’s Head gluten-free, dairy-free desert hummus is amazing! Have it with sliced strawberries or bananas to help curb your sweet tooth.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Usually, the grocery store clerks can’t answer questions about what is inside a product, but they can direct you where to find items. If you see someone in the gluten-free aisle and you are just feeling lost, ask them for help. For the most part, those of us that have been dealing with food sensitivities and allergies are more than happy to help. We have been where you are before and understand what you are experiencing.
8. Join A Food Allergy Group (or Two or Three) on Facebook.
Facebook didn’t exist when I was first diagnosed with my food sensitivities (but it came into existence not that long after, so I’m not that old!). It has become a platform for people from all around the world to come together to share their stories and experiences. I joined several food allergy groups when I launched this blog, and I wish I had known about these sooner. The groups really are a great place to get help and support from others. Many of us have been dealing with food issues for years and are happy to give advice or share recipes. The groups are moderated, so no negativity or bulling is allowed.
Here is a list of the food allergy groups I belong to with links to the pages:
- Gluten-Free Support Group
- Gluten + Dairy Free Living | Recipe Sharing + Support
- Dairy, Gluten, Soy Free, Paleo, organic, allergy friendly and more
- Gluten-Free Living and Recipe Share
- Easy Gluten-Free Recipes
9. If You Drink, Learn What Alcohol is Gluten-Free
Going gluten-free doesn’t mean you have to give up alcohol. There are a lot of options for you.
- Wine – made from grapes, so it’s gluten-free.
- Beer – wheat is the main ingredient, so this is no longer allowed. But, there are several gluten-free beers available and ciders are another option.
- Vodka – triple distilled is best to ensure any gluten remnants have been removed. If you experience reactions, try vodka made from potatoes. If you like flavored vodka, watch out for added gluten. It may be best to add your own flavors to ensure you don’t accidentally consume gluten. I personally don’t get a bad reaction from flavored vodka.
- Rum – made from sugar, rum is considered to be gluten-free; however, watch out for flavored rums, as the added flavors may contain gluten.
- Tequila – look for tequila that is made from 100% agave to ensure it’s gluten-free.
- Whiskey and Bourbon – there is a lot of debate over if whiskey and bourbon are gluten-free. Some say yes and others say no. If you like whiskey and bourbon, you will need to have these drinks and see if you get a reaction. Some with Celiac’s have reactions and others do not.
- Hard Seltzer – most brands are gluten-free but make sure to read the label before buying.
- Malt Beverages – this goes without saying, it’s a no-go. Malt is made from gluten, so brands like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice are all off limits.
10. Have a glass of wine to reward yourself for getting through the first week of living with food allergies.
Congratulations! You made it through the diagnosis and initial period of learning about food allergies! Now that you have a better understanding of your food sensitivities or allergies, have prepared your kitchen for your new diet, and went grocery shopping, you are ready to move forward with your new lifestyle. Carpe Diem!