Wishin’ for a Wheat-Free Wonderland

Holiday feasting with gluten-free guests: setting a safe, delicious table for everyone. 

It’s an important rite of passage: your turn to host a big Holiday dinner. Friends and family have been waiting all year to sit down together with everyone’s favorite foods of the season. There are expectations, of course, and last thing you want is a curve ball. So it’s with sheepish self-consciousness that I admit to being “that guy” with special dietary restrictions this year.

This column is for all of us with a frequently misunderstood condition who dream of safely celebrating the holidays in comfort and joy:

2023 was the year I learned I’m one of 3 million Americans with Celiac disease, a hereditary disorder where I can’t digest gluten. My body’s immune system over-reacts, attacking it and tearing up the lining of my small intestine in the process. For celiacs, ingesting even the tiniest amount damages our digestive system, whether we suffer symptoms or not.

I am basically asymptomatic, it’s what they call “silent celiac” that was only discovered when my doctor noticed my Vitamin D levels were consistently low (because my body wasn’t properly absorbing nutrients). Besides nutritional deficiencies, there are literally hundreds of other ways Celiac disease can manifest, including: bloating, nausea, cramps, migraines, wasting, numbness, high blood pressure, loss of bone mass, depression, itchy rashes – it’s a real grab bag of pain and discomfort.

Celiac disease is not an allergy, and there’s no medication for it. The only cure is to completely eliminate all gluten-containing foods from your diet. I can’t stress this enough: just a crumb of gluten hurts us, and weakens our bodies. If it helps, picture a quarter. A piece of cracker the size of George Washington’s neck is all it takes to trigger an autoimmune reaction. Every little bit adds up, too, it’s not like we need to ingest it all at once. And it’s everywhere!

Being gluten-free isn’t just about what you eat, but also how you make it, what it cooks in, and where you store it. Cross-contamination can easily occur where gluten-containing flours settle in the cracks of porous surfaces and utensils like cast iron, wooden spoons, and cutting boards, and also appliances (toasters are the worst offenders). Microscopic gluten particles can go airborne, too, contaminating across countertops and even irritating our digestive tract through our sinuses. 😬

So what is up with this stuff, anyway? “Gluten” is a general term for elastic proteins found in certain grains, like wheat, barley, and rye that allow these flours to be kneaded into dough. You’ll find it in foods like bread, pasta, cereal, and many baked goods. Most people have no problems digesting it, but for 1% of the population, every meal is loaded with potential landmines. Indeed, gluten is hiding in a lot of unexpected holiday foods.

Gravy, for instance, is usually thickened with flour – a wheat product. Bouillon cubes are often made with maltodextrin, which comes from cereal grains and thus most canned/packaged soups have gluten. So that green bean casserole with the cream of mushroom soup is a no-go.

Those stuffed mushrooms with the breadcrumbs? Totally out. Stuffing too, obviously – and if it cooks inside the bird the meat is off-limits too from cross-contamination. Speaking of turkey, many commercial brines and marinades contain malt flavoring, a gluten product that’s unsafe for celiacs to consume. You’ll also find variations of it in some pickles, dressings, and even some beverages like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Twisted Tea.

And beer, of course! While there are gluten-free options today, most beer is made from grains and other ingredients that will trigger a dangerous autoimmune reaction. Wine is naturally gluten-free however flavored/mulled wines and coolers, might have gluten-based additives. We’re constantly checking labels, as you just never know.

If this all sounds like a lot, please believe me that accommodating a gluten-free guest doesn’t have to be a big deal. Most supermarkets these days offer a wide variety of gluten-free items, and locally there are many bakeries, restaurants, and caterers who specialize in providing delicious food that’s also celiac-friendly.

Home cooks will find a ton of advice, recipes, and ideas on literally any social media platform. PRO TIP: Start with celiac.com’s Ultimate Holiday Guide that’s full of great recipes from apps to dessert (including cocktails), or @beyondceliac, which offers eCookbooks for every occasion.

Lastly, if a gluten-free guest shows up with their own food, don’t be offended. A lot of celiacs prefer to “bring their own party” as an easy way to eat safely without causing a fuss. No need to let it throw you, just be careful not to plop it down anywhere it can be cross-contaminated with other foods. Set aside separate utensils that have been thoroughly cleaned, and put anything that needs to go in the fridge in a designated cooler instead, if possible.

Thank you to everyone hosting a gluten-free holiday meal this year, and thanks, too, for just understanding. Sharing food is an important way we connect as humans, and it’s not easy to say no to the flavors – and faces – we love. Every effort made to support and normalize our dietary strictures is much appreciated. Just remember: it’s not us, it’s our intestines.

For more information, please click the links in this post and also feel free to reach out to Michael at lightmedia@comcast.net

NOT-SO-FUN FACT: The average celiac diagnosis takes 5 years – and up to a decade when it’s asymptomatic. The World Gastroenterology Association estimates 80% of celiac disease remains undiagnosed. The first step is a blood test for certain antibodies, and if that comes back positive, they’ll biopsy your intestine endoscopically to confirm. For More Information about Celiac disease, see the symptoms and assessment tools at celiac.org

🎅🎄🎁 HOLIDAY GIFTING TIP 🎁🎄🤶  Various subscription services curate thoughtful boxes of niche and specialty gluten-free products for all ages and preferences. A great way to be a dietary ally! 🤝❤️💚

About Michael Thomas Leibrandt 8 Articles
Michael Thomas Leibrandt is an Engineer/Consultant/Author/Creator. He lives and works with celiac in Abington, PA

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