Chronic Illness · Chronic Pain · Eating with Dietary Restrictions · Personal · Recovery

Living Gluten-Free and/or Dairy-Free? Here’s How to Make It Work

The weird thing about gluten and dairy is that sometimes, people have subclinical sensitivities to them and don’t know it. They have digestive discomfort and can’t put their finger on why. Sensitivity indicates less severity than allergy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t unpleasant. An estimated 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity and the number for casein sensitivity (one of the major proteins in dairy) is unknown.

I happen to be one of the super #blessed people who have both, which means that my relationship with food can be complicated at best. These are some of the pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned over the last 5 years of doing my best to respect my body while eating at restaurants, grocery shopping, and cooking at home. I’ll be sharing a more specific post soon about some of my favorite FODMAP-friendly recipes and how I’m making such a restricted diet work out well – this post is a more general guideline for folks who hopefully have fewer restrictions than I have at the moment!

Note: Isn’t this super expensive? It’s definitely more expensive than eating without dietary restrictions. It sucks. I’ve learned to look for coupons by store and from products offering cash back on Ibotta before I get to the store. And yet it’s as expensive as you make it. You can eat simply by just cutting out things like dairy and bread (for example, having a lunch meat sandwich, no cheese, on lettuce pieces instead). Or, you can buy substitutes for what you’re avoiding, such as gluten-free, dairy-free bread, desserts, butter, and so on. Save yourself a little money and headache by becoming a pro at reading ingredient labels (see shopping tips below).

Also, if you have sensitivities rather than allergies/intolerances, you won’t have to buy certified gluten-free products for naturally gluten-free foods like oats because small amounts of cross-contamination through processing won’t affect you as they would someone with celiac disease.

I swear, people sometimes think food sensitivities and allergies are a joke. This “Cat and Girl” comic is actually funny, whereas people thinking you’re just being unfortunately picky are not.

When eating at restaurants:

  • Asian restaurants tend to be safe because they don’t use dairy nearly as much as we do and because they serve noodles made of things other than wheat (rice, bean, etc… yum!). Be careful with soy sauce and “house special sauce,” though: There’s more wheat than soy in soy sauce, so ask for gluten-free soy sauce. Most places supply this; you can call ahead to ask. Some of the safest choices include Thai, Indian (though watch out for yogurt bases), Japanese, and Korean foods.
  • Google or ask around for which restaurants people with dietary restrictions usually frequent.
  • Consult smartphone apps such as “Find me GF” or “Healthy Out” that are specific to your restrictions.
  • Ask for allergen-specific menus, such as a gluten-free menu. Many restaurants have them.
  • If a restaurant doesn’t serve gluten-free bread or pasta, no problem – you can get whatever you were going to get served on top of rice, potatoes, quinoa, or salad instead. Most places are happy to make the substitution without charging you extra.
Photo by John Legrand on Unsplash
  • Always ask for your food to be prepared whatever-your-allergen-is-free, even if it’s not an item that would seem to have that allergen in it. You’d be surprised by how many dishes have random and unexpected ingredients in them.
  • If you have an allergy rather than a sensitivity, make sure to specify that.
  • Don’t expect to eat dessert while you’re out. Unless they have a sorbet or fresh fruit platter, you’re likely to be out of luck. Appreciate the rare occasion it does work out.
  • Gently let your friends know that you will find something on the menu for yourself to eat and that you don’t need their help (unless you do). In my experience, people start to feel sorry for you and say things like, “I can’t imagine living without bread and cheese!” No kidding. I didn’t want to, either. It just makes me feel awkward to hear things like that.

When grocery shopping:

  • Look up coupons and products offering cash back on Ibotta before you go.
  • Major grocery chains have begun selling lovely gluten-free and dairy-free products! Here’s a list of how various supermarket chains stack up and who even has lists of products online. I also love Targets with grocery sections for this purpose.
  • Look up what you should buy in store and what you should buy in bulk online.
  • Before you go for the first time, print out a list of foods that have gluten and dairy. You might be surprised by many of the foods present. It’s a LOT more than just wheat, barley, rye, and milk.
  • Allergy labels just became your best friend! Always check for wheat, rye, barley [gluten]; and milk (milk solids, too), dairy, and casein protein [dairy]. These can be found under the ingredients list on nearly any food in the store.image
    Note: Know that dairy-free is not the same thing as lactose-free. People who are entirely dairy-free should avoid all foods with casein or whey proteins, which you can read more about here. All foods that are dairy-free are safe for people on lactose-free diets, but not all foods that are safe for people on lactose-free diets are safe for people on dairy-free diets. This is because lactose is the culprit in lactose intolerance; here, you can eat dairy without a problem as long as you take lactase enzymes, the enzyme that breaks down the sugar, in pill form or eat foods that have lactase enzymes supplemented in them.
    Another note: Some people who are dairy-free are vegan (meaning that they don’t eat any animal products, including meats and eggs), so products might be labeled “gluten-free and vegan” rather than “gluten-free and dairy-free.” You’re in the clear there, too.
  • Get to know all different types of substitutes for dairy products and wheat products. Experiment with different vegan milks, such as almond, coconut, and soy, and different types of gluten-free pasta, such as quinoa, blends, rice, and corn. There will be some you like and some that you don’t!
  • Find some good snacks that you don’t have to make yourself – for example, fresh fruits, chips, and so on.
  • Get good, simple ingredients. With good ingredients, it’s easy to end up with a good meal.
  • If something’s on sale that’s allergen-free, you should probably stock up.
  • Be careful not to load up on soy products to replace gluten and dairy if you can avoid it. About half of people with gluten sensitivity also have a soy sensitivity.

When cooking at home:

  • Invest in gluten-free, dairy-free, allergen-free, and other “healthy” cookbooks. Cookbooks for other diets, such as vegan, FODMAP, and paleo, may serve your needs as well. Look up which ones have great ratings.
  • Or you can look recipes up on the internet, too! There are tons of blogs with delicious recipes that are often healthy as well, such as Gluten-free Goddess, Gluten-free Mommy, and Pure Ella. I’ll be sharing some of my favorites soon.
  • Invest in different types of gluten-free flours if you like to bake (or, if you’re like me and like quick and easy desserts, buy box mixes). Some cookbooks will use many different types of flours and xanthan gum (a binding and emulsifying agent); some cookbooks will use all-purpose gluten-free flour, which is already blended for you and often has xanthan gum added to it so you don’t have to. Oftentimes, with all-purpose gluten-free flour, you can substitute it 1:1 into your long-time favorite recipes. Look on the side of the box for instructions for how to do this; oftentimes, you need to add more water.
  • Use olive oil instead of butter, vegan milk instead of milk, and so on. Look up conversions and substitutions for common ingredients, print them, and put them where you can easily find them.
  • Try to make a significant portion of things at once so that you’re not constantly having to cook.
  • You can choose to do things as simply or as complicated as you like. You can have meats, a carbohydrate source like rice or quinoa, and veggies and cook with oil and there you have it – a gluten-free, dairy-free meal. And slow-cookers are great, too! Or you can get more complicated – it’s all up to you, your skill level, energy level, and money you have to invest in your food.

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