Surviving the Holidays Gluten Free

The holidays are around the corner and for most, this means overindulging on traditional holiday fare. As families gather around the dining room table, the intestinal discomfort one may feel might not be triggered by a second (or third) helping, but rather, by an undiagnosed food allergy.

One of the most common digestive conditions is celiac disease, affecting about one in 133 Americans. Celiac is more prevalent in those of Jewish, Italian and Irish descent; however, many people don’t know that they’re affected or at risk.

In addition to typical GI discomfort (gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel), other symptoms experienced by those suffering from celiac or gluten intolerance include attention deficit, asthma, skin rash, hypothyroidism, joint pain and fatigue.

From lasagna to matzo balls to soda bread, for those allergic to gluten, the temptation to eat the foods you love, but can no longer have, can be extremely overwhelming. Diagnosed with celiac disease in my mid-thirties, I understand these difficulties all too well and have mastered the avoidance of food hazards. Try these tips to help survive — and enjoy — the holidays, without offending well-meaning hosts and hostesses.

Communicate

Communicate your dietary restrictions ahead of the event. Explaining the medical necessity of being gluten free is a great start. Just as one wouldn’t ask a diabetic to eat sugar, one should not ask a celiac to eat gluten-containing products. If this doesn’t get your point across, blaming the doctor is always a good fallback. One can always say, “My physician is requiring me to be on this program.”

Educate

It’s important to tell people how severe reactions can be. For example, if someone is negatively exposed, they will almost immediately have a severe GI reaction and be stuck in the bathroom; if the exposure is severe, they could have an asthma attack and can wind up in the hospital. In some cases, the thought process may be impacted and it could take up to two weeks to think clearly again and be rational. In addition, depending on the severity of the allergy, cooking utensils may need to be sanitized appropriately between cooking gluten and gluten-free meals. Most people, when they hear this, start to understand. Again, it’s important to communicate this well in advance, so others understand that you may opt not to eat something if you have a concern, due to the severity of a potential reaction.

Stand Your Ground

It’s best to be up front and let people know that you’re on a gluten-free diet. Let them know that this means that you cannot eat anything with flour in it. A statement like, “Please don’t be offended, but I cannot eat any cake, cookies, bread, pasta, pizza, bagels, waffles, pancakes or just about anything else out of a package unless it is marked ‘gluten free’” is a terrific way to clarify the situation. You can take it a step farther by proactively suggesting, “I’m happy to bring along a gluten-free dish if that would make things easier for you.” Alternatively, if this is someone you don’t know well (or at all), it might be easier to let the host know that you have a very restricted diet and will be bringing your own food.

Make a Dish

Offer to make a gluten-free dish that you love. While grocery shopping for ingredients, it’s important to remember to read every label. New federal requirements are on the horizon that will soon make it easier to identify what is and is not gluten free, but in the meantime, always read carefully and never assume. In addition, by staying on the perimeter of the store, you’ll be more likely to come across whole foods (i.e. foods that look like themselves and are not processed including fruits, vegetables, meats, etc.), which are more likely to be gluten free.

Dr. Wendie Trubow is board certified in obstetrics and gynecology with more than 20 years of medical experience. 

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