While I have been blogging as My Gluten Free Guide (@myglutenfreeguide) for years now, I have still not written my own personal diagnosis story. So when Coeliac UK approached me to ask if I could share my experiences, I was happy to! My story is part of their ‘Tales from a Gluten Free Christmas’ series – #gfchristmas. Visit coeliac.org.uk/gf-christmas to find out more.
I was diagnosed with coeliac disease in late 1999, in the run up to Christmas. Having been coeliac for over 20 years now, the difference between that first gluten free Christmas and my Christmasses now is vastly different!
Read on to discover how I was diagnosed, what my first gluten free Christmas was like AND my top tips for thriving at Christmas now as a coeliac. I like to think I have mastered the art to a successful gluten free Christmas dinner (and have dozens of gluten free Christmas Recipes), so hopefully I can help you all to have a wonderful gluten free Christmas this year :).
I thrived as a baby, so when I started to get poorly at around 7 years old no one suspected that it could be coeliac disease. Our GP wrote it off as anxiety and growing pains, despite my parents knowing that it wasn’t the cause. They were frustrated that the doctor wouldn’t even go down the route of testing me.
As the years passed I became severely underweight, in regular pain, completely exhausted and really struggled to function. I remember sitting at school, trying to gather up the strength to go to my next lesson. Every day tasks were a struggle. Many people assumed I was seriously ill or had an eating disorder (by the time I was 14 I only weighed 6 stone) and I remember being so frustrated at not knowing what was wrong.
Then one day we had a lucky break. My regular GP was on holiday and we were seen by another doctor that day. She decided to get my bloods done, which revealed severe anaemia. Some more tests and one painless upper GI endoscopy later I finally received a concrete diagnosis of coeliac disease, a lifelong autoimmune condition that can only be treated with a strict gluten free diet.
The relief was immense – finally getting a diagnosis and knowing what was wrong with me. I had never really heard of a gluten free diet before let alone coeliac disease, but an NHS dietician talked us through it all and off we went. I quickly gained a stone, then another stone until I was finally a healthy weight for my age and height. I now had boundless energy and truly felt like a new person. It took a few months for my gut to repair itself but everything was soon back in full working order.
Coeliac disease of course has its struggles, and twenty years on I think I have come up against pretty much every awkward social situation, accidental glutenings and rookie gluten free error in the book. Pizza parties at university, welcome lunches at new jobs, kind colleagues making me a gluten free birthday cake then unwittingly topping it with (gluten-containing) Smarties, me not realising that soy sauce contained gluten, etc. These days I consider myself to be a gluten free pro, but it has certainly been a journey of (often painful) discovery getting to this point.
My First Gluten Free Christmas, the Challenges and What We Did Wrong!
I am lucky as my mum is a pharmacist and she knew that I could get various gluten free products on prescription when I was diagnosed. Coeliac UK proved to be an amazing source of advice and it felt good to be connected with other coeliacs too, knowing I was not the only one! We quickly set to adapting to gluten free life and it was soon time for my first gluten free Christmas…
…and I certainly did not get it right! I made a lotttt of mistakes in my early days of being gluten free (and, I’ll be honest, probably until my early 20s). Rather than hiding from those mistakes I am going to lay them aaaaall out here, and hopefully help you guys avoid making the same errors!
- Do not have a day off gluten free: no no no no no. Don’t cheat on your gluten free diet. I found my teenage diary and cringed at the entry where I can written about me being allowed to eaten gluten as a treat for my first Christmas as a coeliac. Now I understand the importance of ALWAYS sticking strictly to my gluten free diet, having a “day off” can cause a lot of gut damage and it is really not worth the risk or the pain.
- Remember sneaky sources of gluten: it took us time to learn some of the sneaky sources of gluten you tend to encounter at Christmas – gravy granules, stock cubes and even sausages. We searched high and low for gluten free sausages back in 1999, eventually finding them in Marks and Spencer. Back then finding easy gluten free substitutes was not easy so we tending to go for naturally gluten free alternatives instead, such as thickening gravy with cornflour.
- Forgetting to pack snacks: my dad reminded me of the time we were out Christmas shopping and could not find anything gluten free to eat. Shops, restaurants, cafes – absolutely no one could provide anything safe for me to eat. How times have changed! But I often take gluten free snacks with me, even now, as it iiujs always good to have a back up.
- Not understanding cross contamination: you can ruin a lovely gluten free meal by accidentally using a tray or spoon that has been used for something gluteny. Wash everything really well and use foil to lined well-used gluteny trays, to help minimise the risk.
- Beware double dippers: I now know not to touch a dip if someone has dunked a breadstick or gluten-containing crisp into it, but I didn’t catch on to this for a while. The same goes for jars of jam and condiments, you should only use a jar that you know is completely gluten free.
- Don’t feel pressured: most of all, do not let yourself feel pressured into eating food that is not safe. If you cave, you will be setting an example that is very hard to come back from. It takes time and patience to get people to understand why coeliacs need to be gluten free, but play the long game and it will pay off in the end. If your host is not willing to cook gluten free food for you, bring your own alternative and volunteer to make a pudding. Then at least you know there will be something you can eat :).
How To Have the Perfect Gluten Free Christmas
Gluten free Christmas now is a doddle for me compared to how it used to be. There will still be those tricky social situations, of course, and it is always easier if you can host Christmas dinner yourself. I appreciate that my family and in-laws are all wonderful and fully understand the importance of me eating gluten free – sadly not everyone has this experience.
I have written another post about Catering For Gluten Free Guests. This can be a great little reference document for you to share with family and friends who are catering for you. Or even for you to have a read of if you are newly diagnosed. It covers all the important things you need to remember in detail, but let me summarise them here below:
- Check your ingredients
- Consider Making Naturally Gluten Free Dishes
- Beware Cross Contamination
- Take a Trip to the Free From Aisle
- Pick Products that are Suitable for Everyone
- Steer Clear of the Toaster
- Wash Your Hands
- Make Sure the Dish is 100% Gluten Free
- Remind Other Guests not to Double Dip
- Open New Jars and Packets
- Invite Your Guest to Bring Their Own Dish
Here’s my quick low down on how to make the perfect gluten free Christmas dinner. You can make the whole thing gluten free and no-one will ever guess, here’s how:
Turkey – meat is naturally gluten free, simply double check if you are choosing a pre-stuffed or marinated bird. Read the ingredients list to ensure there is no sneaky gluten in there. Marks and Spencer and some of the other supermarkets have gluten free stuffed birds this year, which can be a great time saver if you do not want to make your own.
Ham – I don’t know about you, but I love a Christmas ham. Try my slow-cooked honey roast ham recipe for a guaranteed crowd pleaser. You can prep it the day before and then it only needs a final 30 minutes in the oven on the big day.
Nut Roast – if you are veggie, check out Clive’s nut roast or even the mini nut roasts from Aldi this year. You need not miss out on a main just because you are a gluten free vegetarian.
Roast Potatoes – use a standard recipe, as potatoes are naturally gluten free. If the recipe calls for them to be dusted with flour, simply use gluten free plain flour or corn flour. There will be no difference and you’ll be munching on golden roasties in no time.
Gravy – if making from scratch, make as normal and use corn flour to thicken it instead of wheat flour. If using gravy granules, check the label as many brands are not gluten free. However you can get alternatives in the supermarket and even Bisto do a gluten free variety now, as well as a Morrisons own brand gluten free gravy granules, to name a couple. For premade, I’ve tried a Morrisons turkey gravy this year, which was very nice – have a search in the normal ranges as you should find one or two that are naturally gluten free.
Stuffing – if making from scratch, simply follow your normal recipe and use gluten free breadcrumbs. I’ve a yummy stuffing log recipe, which is a great festive savoury showstopper. There are plenty of gluten free packet mixes in the free from section (Mrs Crimble’s do a good one) and you’ll even find ready made stuffing lurking in the main lines. Have a scan of the fridge section – M&S, Asda and Morrisons all have gluten free stufifng this year.
Bread Sauce – available premade from Marks and Spencer and Morrisons this year! Or make from scratch using gluten free bread.
Pigs in Blankets – there are dozens of gluten free varieties in the shops, but always check the label as there will be a couple of wheat-containing lines in amongst them.
Party Food – I’ve a huge guide rounding up all the festive gluten free party food this year, have a read of it to discover some real treats.
Desserts – you will find mince pies, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding in all the free from sections in supermakets. If you want to try making them from scratch, try my mince pie recipe for a lovely gluten free shortcrust. As for Christmas cake and pudding, simply use a regular recipe and sub in gluten free flour. For other desserts, such as cheesecake, pecan pie and chocolate cake, check out my recipes section as you are bound to find something you like. My lemon meringue yule log is always a crowd favourite…or try my brand new salted caramel chocolate yule log – it’s incredible!.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my coeliac diagnosis story and found my tips useful. One of the perks of blogging is being able to share the lessons I have learnt with other coeliacs. I will never be able to go back and help my younger self, but hopefully I can make life a little bit easier for some of you this festive season.
Have a wonderful Christmas!