Down the ‘Free-from’ isle: life as a vegan coeliac

I’m definitely in a rare bracket when it comes to dietary requirements. I’m a gluten-free vegan. Being vegan is a choice I make for ethical reasons, so I don’t feel irritated at facing the occasional minor obstacle to act upon my ethical beliefs. However, upon finding out from my GP that I was allergic to gluten, the news was a lot hard to accept (or digest, if you will). It wasn’t my choice and I immediately panicked, thinking of all the things I now could not eat. My usual breads, pasta, cereals, porridge, and cakes – all off the menu. Gluten-filled products like these had made up a large portion of my diet, as they do for most people.

I began to not only feel upset at not being able to eat some of my favourite food any more, but also fearing judgement from others and the awkwardness of explaining the now extra-unusual diet that I follow. I had previously been confident in briefly explaining that I chose to not buy animal-based or animal-tested products because it did not fit my ethical-moral beliefs. My intolerance however, felt more embarrassing to address.

“Don’t make any logical assumptions about whether things contain gluten!”

My family and friends were very supportive and shared my frustration too. My mother took me out to explore the free-from ranges in local supermarkets; reassuring me that there would be plenty of replacements and they wouldn’t be much more expensive. It turned out mother doesn’t always quite know best.

Tip number one when trying to buy gluten-free: Don’t make any logical assumptions about whether things contain gluten! There are some cheeky little ingredients that appear when you might not be expecting them. Gravys, pork sausages, tortilla chips and beers are classic examples of foods which you may not realise could be off-limits for a coeliac. Read the labels carefully, look out for: gluten (obviously), barley, wheat, spelt, semolina, graham, rye, malt-(anything), brewer’s yeast and wheat starch.

“Once their curiosity has been satisfied, people are usually happy.”

A quick google search can clear up any uncertainties about ingredients or queries about GF substitutes. When buying things to eat and cook at home, it is easy to check the labels for gluten. But when the labels can’t be checked, what do you do? How can you avoid gluten then, if it can be so easily hidden? In most restaurants nowadays, menus have allergens labels, or allergen information is available upon request. It is also often not a problem to ask for meals to be prepared differently or adapted. For any service-based business, the priority is customer satisfaction and providing a painless, pleasurable experience. So, don’t be afraid to ask.

“You needn’t avoid social events that involve food and drinks.”

When it comes to family or friends’ houses, or attending social events where food and drinks are available, this might be a little harder. If you’re going to a friend’s house or a family gathering, the easiest thing to do is speak to the host and explain that you would love to make a contribution for the table. Most people are touched when you offer to help out with the catering. I always try to make a big batch of something that I know other people may enjoy and fit with the theme of the event. People are likely to ask you questions, simply because what you are eating is a little different. Just explain that is an intolerance which can be irritating at times, but that you are doing fine and enjoying your food! Once their curiosity has been satisfied, people are usually happy.

Some ideas that I love include curries for winter parties; or pasta salads for summer events (using corn pasta). For barbeques, you can easily pick up some gluten-free meat or veggie burgers or sausages to take along and even gluten-free bread rolls. The point is, you needn’t avoid social events that involve food and drinks.

When I first began thinking, meal planning and shopping with my new gluten-free goggles on, it seemed that in order to make my usual meals coeliac-friendly, I would need to fork out more money on specialist products. I began to re-evaluate and decided that instead, I would look to try new things. Now I have tried various different types of rice, rice noodles and quinoa. I have also discovered buckwheat, which can make a great porridge or can be mixed with other grains as savoury carb base. I have also incorporated more sweet potatoes into my diet. They are healthy, cheap, and versatile; enjoy them as jackets, roasties, mash, hash browns, or (my favourite) chips.

This change in my life initially felt like it was probably going to be very inconvenient, but actually, I really enjoy trying out new foods and I feel far more functional. I would encourage anyone in a similar position to take this perspective; it makes life a lot easier when you view a challenge positively. You will probably find that after a week or two you are no longer missing old favourites. As my mother always says, “Variety is the spice of life”.

Lucia Amoroso

Images courtesy of Yuichi Shiraishi and Ruocaled via Flickr, license here

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