For some, adopting a gluten-free lifestyle is a choice. For others, like those living with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance, eradicating sources of wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats becomes necessary for health reasons.
When I was diagnosed with celiac disease in August 2022, I realized I had to make some big changes. I needed to rapidly adjust to a gluten-free lifestyle that can, directly or indirectly, require more water use and create packaging waste.
This created an ethical dilemma: How do I ensure I can take care of my health while avoiding unnecessary waste? Hopefully, this guide can help put you and your celiac loved ones at ease.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack gluten — a protein in foods like bread, pasta, beer, and soy sauce — in the small intestine like an intruder. The resulting inflammation leads to various gastrointestinal and other symptoms.
Many celiacs experience reactions to gluten-containing foods or trace amounts of gluten, though some are asymptomatic. Health complications are generally more severe than for those with non-celiac gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivities.
How does celiac disease change your diet?
There is currently no cure for celiac disease. The only way to manage it is to eat a diet that’s as free of gluten as possible and to avoid gluten-containing non-food items like certain medicines, toothpastes, and lip balms. You’ll also need to take care when eating food that you haven’t prepared.
Not everything you buy needs a gluten-free label, but it’s important to check labels for gluten ingredients or listed trace amounts every time. Write to the manufacturer if you are unsure.
A 100% gluten-free diet is extremely difficult to achieve. Many naturally gluten-free raw ingredients like oats and corn contain trace amounts of gluten due to cross-contamination from harvesting or processing.
To display a “gluten-free” label, manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that their product contains “less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten,” though watchdog organizations sometimes dispute manufacturers’ claims. Products bearing gluten-free certifications like those from Gluten-Free Certified (GFCO), BRCS, and NSF are the safest choice for processed foods. Many of these foods require packaging to avoid contamination.
Accidentally eating gluten is referred to as “getting glutened.” Symptoms can last days or weeks, and the only solution is to get back on the gluten-free bandwagon.
Can you eat out safely with celiac disease?
Due to cross-contamination risks, a celiac diagnosis makes home cooking an easier method to control your environment and ingredients.
With some preparation, it’s entirely possible to eat out with celiac disease. As I adjust to my diagnosis, I’ve experienced it all: attentive chefs who create safe experiences, “gluten-friendly” menus that aren’t celiac-safe, and getting outright glutened. The Find Me Gluten-Free app is a great resource, most often used by celiacs, the gluten-sensitive, and our family members to find and rate restaurants that are celiac-friendly (or not, as the case may be).
It’s important to feel confident that staff can cater to your needs. When you’re not eating at a 100% gluten-free facility, you may need to ask staff to clean food prep areas and change their gloves when preparing your meal. Unfortunately, these important accommodations can create more waste and water use on an individual level.
In responsible cafes, gluten-free pastries are individually packaged, usually in plastic, or kept in separate display cases to reduce cross-contamination. Gluten-free foods sitting beside conventional versions may be safe for the gluten-sensitive but are not celiac-safe.
There are many travel and food blogs written by celiacs. Legal Nomads is my favorite.
Can you live green while eating gluten-free?
Thriving with celiac disease means being adaptable. Once you learn to manage your condition, you can orient your lifestyle towards sustainability, though it may be challenging.
Living a sustainable life as a celiac can involve weighing the social element of your options, like going to a restaurant versus hosting a gluten-free dinner party. You’ll likely find yourself choosing between the benefits of convenience (like buying a gluten-free snack or trying your luck at a café) and avoiding waste (like prepping snacks from scratch or eating at home).
Plan ahead to keep clean and green
You may need to clean your kitchen more often to avoid gluten contamination, especially when there are gluten-eaters in your house. Rather than using disposable paper towels, upcycle old washcloths, towels, or T-shirts into rags. Or invest in reusable cloths that you wash regularly (wash your hands often, too!). If you have a dishwasher, use it instead of hand-washing dishes. Get in the habit of carrying reusable containers to bring your own meals or transport leftovers home without packaging waste.
Always bring snacks
Snacks are critical for hungry celiacs but they can involve more packaging waste. I’m never without three energy bars at any time, although the wrappers are hard to recycle. Instead of buying packaged food, try adapting gluten-free versions of energy balls and hummus, or your own favorites. I also carry whole fruits and roasted peanuts in a reusable container.
Buy in bulk
Big-box retailers like Costco and BJs stock many gluten-free products. Buy in bulk to reduce the packaging waste. When possible, pick products with minimal packaging that is made from recycled materials or is easily recycled, like cardboard and aluminum. Unfortunately, you’ll need to avoid package-free stores due to the risk of cross-contamination.
Meal prep with whole foods
Giving up beloved foods can cause distress, but celiac ultimately requires a mindset shift to focus on what we can eat. Look at it as an opportunity to shift to cleaner eating habits that focus on fresh produce and healthy grains, like gluten-free oats, brown rice, buckwheat, millets, and legumes like chickpeas and lentils. Remember to check labels for trace amounts!
Explore these allergy-conscious brands
Before my diagnosis, I didn’t think much about food allergies. Now, it’s critical to my daily well-being. There are a number of sustainability-conscious brands that make this aspect of my life easier, including Bob’s Red Mills, Schaer, and Oatly (currently gluten-free in the U.S. only).
Alert restaurants to your needs
Many restaurants are familiar with gluten sensitivities, but not celiac disease. For example, it’s common for restaurants to use the same cooking oil for breaded onion rings and naturally gluten-free French Fries, even when they are labeled gluten-free on the menu. You’ll need the staff’s help to make informed decisions. In my experience, 100% gluten-free restaurants typically feature vegetarian and vegan offerings, offering an extra reduction of your diet’s carbon footprint.
Restock your kitchen, consciously
A new diagnosis means getting rid of household items that harbor gluten, from semolina spaghetti to wooden spatulas. Look into food banks (or friends) who can use your non-gluten-free foods. Donate used cookware and utensils to thrift stores or charities. And before you throw out unwanted items, be sure to familiarize yourself with Earth911’s recycling guides to keep useful materials out of landfills.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2023 and was updated in November 2023.