I love carbs. All the carbs. Pasta. Cookies. Bread. And not just squishy white bread — all manner of grainy wheat bread too. And pizza.
My husband has chronic allergies, and when our physician assistant friend mentioned that going gluten-free often helps, even if you’re not technically allergic to gluten, he laughed. We couldn’t possibly live without bread, we thought! But we came around and decided to try it for six weeks as an experiment.
I was skeptical of the gluten-free phenomenon at first, but even in the first few days I found that I felt lighter, even when I ate pretty heavy food. I got headaches less often, and I felt less draggy in the afternoons. I felt like I had more energy (although, for full disclosure, I’ve also been better about moving my lazy self around since the new year). I didn’t understand why, but I liked it.
We ultimately decided not to stay gluten-free — it had only a marginal effect on hubby’s allergies — but I’m leaning towards consuming less gluten than we used to. First, it’s just better for you, because eating less bread forces you to eat more fruits and vegetables and unprocessed food. Second, it was actually pretty easy to put tasty meals together. I found that I didn’t miss food containing gluten all that much.
For those of you interested in reducing or eliminating gluten from your diet, here are five tips that helped me, a carb lover to the core, survive and actually enjoy our six-week experiment.
1. Focus on what you can have.
You know what you’re not going to miss out on when you go gluten-free? Literally all Mexican food. As long as you opt for corn tortillas, there is like zero flour ever in Mexican food. As a native-born Texan who could eat her weight in enchiladas, this makes me a happy camper.
I made a list of food groups and dishes that do not contain gluten and referred to it frequently. Whenever I got bogged down in self-pity that I couldn’t stuff my face with Panera mac and cheese, I would go back to that list and be reminded of all of the yummy things I could eat instead.
For example, the following items from my go-to recipe binder were already completely gluten-free: my above-mentioned world-famous enchiladas, red beans and rice, posole, pot roast, frittata, stuffed bell peppers, carnitas, one-pan Greek chicken and veggies, chili baked potatoes, most soups, stir fry (with tamari instead of soy sauce), and migas. Not to mention every salad ever and every combination of meat/fish, rice/potatoes, and veggies ever.
Also my mom’s Christmas fudge, which could be the only dessert I eat for the rest of my life and I’d be pleased as punch.
2. Make simple substitutions.
You don’t have to find all new recipes, although that’s always fun. I bet if you flipped through your recipe collection you could find a few that are way easy to adjust.
For example, my jambalaya couscous recipe can be made gluten-free by switching from couscous to quinoa (I tried it, and it’s just as delicious!) or rice. As mentioned above, you can use corn tortillas instead of flour for your Tex-Mex fix. You can substitute corn starch or corn meal for flour breading. And with gluten-free pasta, my list of eligible recipes nearly doubled. Banza chickpea pasta is actually delicious (plus loaded with protein)!
3. But don’t buy gluten-free things just because they’re gluten-free.
I first read this recommendation on The Penny Hoarder, and it was incredibly helpful. It’s easy to feel like you have to buy a lot of new products to make your pantry gluten-free, especially in the overwhelming gluten-free aisle of the grocery store. But you don’t need seventeen kinds of flour and crackers made out of weird grains you’ve never heard of. (What is sorghum anyway??) Not only do those foods cost a lot more than their gluten-full twins, you often just don’t need them.
I recommend starting out with “regular” food. Eat like you would normally eat, just without bread or pasta. You won’t miss gluten as much as you think you will! And when you do, you can add in gluten-free replacements as you need them a little at a time.
For example, here’s what I ate on our first gluten-free day. Scrambled eggs with sausage and bell peppers and an orange; tacos, chips, and guacamole; and broccoli beef. No weird fake flours here.
We regularly bought only four gluten-free alternative products.
- I missed having toast for breakfast almost instantly and found a gluten-free sandwich bread I liked.
- We added in lentil chips for lunchbox snacks…
- and rice crackers as vehicles for hummus or almond butter when we got tired of chopping vegetables.
- We tried a few kinds of gluten-free pasta and settled on Banza as our favorite. Even then, we only ate pasta occasionally.
You don’t need a total pantry overhaul.
4. Buy lots of fruit and vegetables.
I’ve always loved fruit, but before going gluten-free I admit I focused more of my grocery shopping on the snack aisles than I should have. During our experiment, I doubled the time I spent in the produce section and made sure I picked up at least four or five fruits and vegetables each to have on hand during the week. That way we would have no excuse for moaning and groaning about having “nothing” to snack on.
Having extra vegetables handy also helps make more flavorful and interesting salads. Bored with lettuce? Top it with grilled chicken, crumbly cotija cheese, a jillion extra vegetables, a handful of chili powder, and some kind of salad dressing with lime, and you have yourself a delicious southwest salad.
5. Get your vitamins.
I am not a health care professional and this should not be construed as medical advice. But one thing that came up several times in my research was calcium deficiency, which can be a problem for people with Celiac. Most wheat flour is apparently enriched with calcium and other vitamins, and missing out on that is no bueno. Just to be on the safe side, I made sure we always had milk, orange juice, and other vitamin-filled items on our grocery list.
If you’re concerned that you might not get enough vitamins, please talk to your doctor!
There you have it. These five tips helped me tackle six weeks with no gluten — and while I’m back to eating it occasionally, it was a valuable experiment and I definitely got into some healthier eating habits along the way.
Have you thought about going gluten-free? Gluten-free friends, what other tips do you have for carb lovers like me?