When Food Becomes An Obstacle
Sometimes in life we are challenged with obstacles that get in the way of eating healthy and enjoying food. My greatest healthy eating obstacle has been my diagnosis of celiac disease which is a medical condition where the small intestine is damaged by gluten - a protein found in wheat, rye, triticale, and barley. The only treatment is to follow a gluten free diet for life. Even with my knowledge, my first thought after the diagnosis was that I was going to miss out on all of my favorite foods. This was heartbreaking as my love of food was what drew me to become a dietitian! Once I got over the initial sadness, I made a plan for how I would manage this new way of eating.
Here are some steps I took that I hope can help others faced with any major diet-related change.
Don’t do it alone.
As a dietitian, I had background knowledge of a gluten-free diet, but even I had to seek support and education since I did not practice in the area.
• The gluten free diet can be challenging to follow and there are also certain nutrients like fiber, iron and B vitamins that can be harder to get. Patients requiring a gluten free diet or who are diagnosed with another medical condition like high blood pressure, diabetes or allergies should be referred to a Registered Dietitian with expertise in the area. Dietitians strive to help clients understand, embrace and enjoy food! Dietitians can be found by visiting the College of Dietitians of Alberta or Dietitians of Canada websites.
• The Internet is full of information about the gluten-free diet, but learning to separate myths from fact is key. Albertans can use trusted websites from the Canadian Celiac Association, Alberta Health Services and Dietitians of Canada for information on celiac disease and other healthy eating topics.
• Many find comfort in connecting with a local support group. The Canadian Celiac Association has over 20 local groups with peer support across Canada. There are similar groups available for allergies and other medical conditions.
Set your kitchen up for success.
My husband and I decided to make our kitchen gluten free to avoid the risk of cross-contamination, meaning gluten ending up in my food. Crumbs matter – even one gluten-containing crumb on the cutting board or in the corner of a baking dish can cause intestinal damage for someone with celiac disease. Still, many households living with someone with the disease decide to manage without creating a completely gluten-free home. They do this by following practices like: having a separate gluten free toaster, having a cutting board that is only used for gluten free foods, and by having a separate jar of peanut butter, margarine, etc. for the person with celiac disease.
Start with the basics and focus on what you can eat!
First, I made sure the staples like spices, stocks and condiments in my home were gluten free. Although I had to remove some foods that were no longer safe, I focused on what I could eat:
• Vegetables and fruit are naturally gluten free, so having an assortment of fresh, frozen and canned was an easy way to make the transition to a gluten free diet healthier.
• I became more familiar with and stocked up on gluten free whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat. Oats are often contaminated with gluten when they are processed, but most people with celiac disease can safely eat pure, uncontaminated oats labelled as gluten free. This makes a whole grain breakfast an easy option!
• Pulses like dried and canned lentils, black beans, and chickpeas are especially great for someone with celiac disease because they are high in fiber, which a gluten free diet can often be low in. I just need to read labels and avoid products with statements like ‘may contain wheat’. For anyone less familiar with cooking with pulses, check out the Healthy Eating Starts Here website for some great recipes.
Plan with some simple swaps.
Taking one day a week to plan meals can make things a lot easier. I know it has for me! I started by thinking of what I would normally make. If it wasn’t already gluten free, I thought about simple swaps to make the meal gluten free. For example, my homemade chicken noodle soup recipe could still work great with a gluten free chicken broth and rice.
I tried to turn my diagnosis into a ‘lemons into lemonade’ type of situation by having fun experimenting with different gluten free recipes. For example, my love of pasta introduced me to risotto which I find just as delicious and a “win-win” because it is naturally made with rice. I found a risotto recipe that includes white beans (the pulses come in handy again!) and it is quickly becoming a new favorite.
Learn the language.
Learning to read food labels is important. At first, it can seem daunting - like learning a new language, but it gets much easier as you practice. Not only do those with celiac disease need to avoid gluten ingredients, but there are also concerns about the nutritional quality of packaged gluten free products. They can be high in fat and sugar, and are often low in fiber, iron and B vitamins.
Learning to read food labels would help anyone looking to eat healthier. The AHS Healthy Eating Starts Here website has a section on label reading for anyone looking for some help.
These steps helped me get ready to face my challenge. How did you face yours?
Join the conversation, and be inspired to think about your wellness!
Share what balance looks like to you, using #AHSwhatsyourbalance on social media. Or visit to download the Wellness Scorecard to get started on your path to finding balance.
Disclaimer: Please note the ‘What’ your balance?’ blog posts are views of the authors only, and should not be considered as formal advice and instruction. Readers should consult with appropriate health professionals or dial 811 for Health Link on any matter related to their health and wellbeing.