It is the best of times, it is the worst of times ... to be gluten-free: There are so many GF products available now that it's never been easier to find GF snacks, breads, and baking flour.
But gluten-free being a cool trendy diet has really disadvantaged people who are gluten-free out of medical necessity (like due to an intolerance or celiac disease): foods that are completely safe for the trendy dieter or the person who feels a little tired after a giant bowl of pasta at Olive Garden (don't we all) are not often safe for the person who has an intolerance or celiac.
Nothing brings more communal sharing and bonding over food than the holidays, and for a gluten-free eater, nothing brings more stress. Here are 12 things that gluten-free eaters wish you knew about how they feel during holiday gatherings.
1. We WANT to eat it too.
Believe me, we don't want to turn down Grandma's pecan pie, or have to ask inconvenient questions about the sweet potatoes and then have to forgo them anyway because we're not sure they're free from cross-contamination. We're really aware that we're missing out. However sad you are about the fact that you can't just share a bite of pie with us, trust me, we're sadder.
2. No, we can't have "just a bite".
Celiac is a serious autoimmune disease where—when a person eats gluten—their body attacks their small intestine and destroys the villi, the parts of the small intestine that absorb nutrients.
People with celiac have four times the risk of developing certain types of cancer, higher likelihood of developing diabetes and multiple sclerosis, lymphoma and other autoimmune disorders, and a variety of other issues such as anemia, osteoporosis, anxiety, rashes, and nervous symptom problems.
Even just the smallest ingestion of gluten will trigger this response and make us feel sick for days—not even counting the damage done to our small intestines that could take weeks or months to recover from again.
This means even just a crumb of glutinous bread can have a severe long-term health impact. And gluten is so prevalent and invasive that even the most religiously gluten-free people ingest some amount of gluten on a regular basis: even FDA approved GF foods are permitted to contain some amount of gluten.
So it's even more important that we avoid the gluten we know is there, because no matter how careful we are, there's a high risk of accidentally getting exposed at some point anyway, and we need to minimize that impact.
3. Just being "GF" isn't enough: Cross-contamination is a biiiiiiitch.
We can't "just eat" the pie filling or the outside of the stuffed turkey. Even gluten-free mashed potatoes become gluten-contaminated when the serving spoon from the gravy is put in the potatoes. Any food that risks cross-contact with gluten isn't something we can take a chance on.
This is obvious when it comes to having gluten-free cheese and glutinous bread on the same plate: of course that's not safe. Or a turkey stuffed with traditional stuffing: of course that's not safe. But it's less obvious when it comes to you having chopped your GF veggies on a cutting board you used last week for bread, or having cooked your potatoes in a cast iron pan that you've used with flour. If there's a chance of the food having been exposed to anything with gluten, we can't eat it.
4. Refusing you is stressful: We don't WANT to say no.
If you SAY it's GF but we're not SURE (did you know to not chop your sweet potatoes on a cutting board used for bread?) then our options are to either offend you but be safe, or eat it and risk getting sick. We can't cheat. We're already aware we're coming across as the annoying high-maintenance or picky eater. There's a statistically high chance that even "gluten-free" foods made by non-gluten free relatives contain gluten, and there's nothing worse than having to refuse a gluten-free meal made especially for you by a well-meaning but not-fully-informed relative who is now offended by your rejection of their specially made dish. It's not us who's picky, it's our very real autoimmune disease. Please believe us: if we didn't have to inconvenience you, we wouldn't.
5. Skin sensitivity is a thing.
Some people with celiac or non-celiac gluten intolerances are so sensitive that they will break out in a rash if gluten touches them. It's called dermatitis herpetiformis and it's extremely uncomfortable and easily avoidable. Please wash your hands after you get up from the table to avoid causing someone discomfort.
6. Please encourage our questions!
If we're asking questions about the food—it's because we want to be able to participate and eat it! If you can, please receive our questions graciously or even encourage them: we're doing our best to participate and keep ourselves healthy at the same time despite pressure (internally or externally) that we're being annoying and inconvenient.
If you support us in this effort by being happy to answer our questions and take it seriously, we'll be SO appreciative.
7. Offer to ask the questions yourself.
If you ask Aunt so-and-so about whether her sweet potatoes are gluten-free yourself, we will be so happy. We have to deal with asking these questions on a daily basis—the social isolation and stress of managing a serious chronic illness is part of the reason celiacs are more likely to experience anxiety and depression.
You shouldering this stressor—even for just one dish, or one dinner—takes an immense psychological load off our minds.
8. If you want to make something for us, you'll make our day.
We don't expect you to make something gluten-free to the extent that we need it. But if you're willing to do it—it means so much! Please ask us how you need to keep the dish safe for us; it will help us feel more secure in the safety of the dish. We field these sorts of questions all the time and if you want to make this effort, we'll feel so happy and included.
9. We're happy to provide GF dishes.
It'll help us stress less to know there's at least one or two dishes that we can safely eat.
10. Let us eat first.
If there are gluten-free options safe for us, cross-contamination from other foods or serving utensils is still an intense stressor. Letting us serve ourselves first helps eliminate the concern over eventual unavoidable cross-contamination.
12. It IS easy to make GF Thanksgiving foods.
Thanksgiving is one of the easiest holidays to do gluten-free!
Turkey, when it's labeled "gluten-free" or "no broth added" is totally fine. There are gluten-free stuffings and recipes available: or you can just make the glutinous stuffing on the side. Cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes—as long as you check the label for hidden ingredients or "processed in a facility that also processes wheat"—is often gluten-free. Rolls aren't GF, but you can either get gluten-free roll options or simply serve them separate.
Whether your food sensitivity is gluten or something else, the holidays are a stressful time. Having family and friends who understand that holiday gatherings are a source of stress (as well as joy!) for us can go a long way in making them more enjoyable for everyone involved.