If you have a friend who is gluten-free, it might be difficult to understand what they’re going through, and they might not always know how to answer the question “how can I help you?.” From my perspective as somebody with celiac disease who’s lived the gluten-free diet for a few years, here are 10 ways you can support your gluten-free friend.
1. Understand that Dietary Restrictions can Cause Loneliness
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that dietary restrictions increased loneliness because of the the limited ability of those with food restriction to bond with others over food.
Food is actually a very important part of our lives, including the social aspects, and limiting one’s ability to eat can also limit one’s ability to feel included.
Here’s a personal example of how being gluten-free could cause feelings of isolation in a social setting:
Just recently at my work, somebody mentioned that we should all go eat out at their favorite burger joint. My first thought was “I probably can’t eat there” because many restaurants don’t cater well to those with celiac disease, and my next thought was “if I could eat there, I probably would have limited options.”
I’m not saying here that people shouldn’t suggest we go out to eat, nor am I saying that I don’t want to go out and eat with my coworkers, but it is easy to feel isolated when you know that nobody else has to worry as much as you do about what food they consume. Continually experiencing these situations over time is what can cause loneliness.
As you keep in mind that you’re gluten-free friend could be feeling lonely or isolated, try to make sure they are as included in possible in social gatherings. You definitely shouldn’t exclude them from an event just because the food isn’t gluten-free.
If you’re not sure of what to feed your gluten-free friend, you can always ask them to bring something they can eat, or learn what they can eat and buy it for them (more on this later on in the post).
There are other aspects of the gluten-free diet that make the diet difficult. See our post The Gluten-Free Diet: How Hard is it Really? for a better understanding of the difficulties gluten-free people encounter.
2. Listen to your Gluten-Free Friend
We all need somebody to vent to, somebody to listen to us. One way you can help your gluten-free friend is just to listen to their concerns and their struggles. As mentioned, dietary restrictions can make people feel isolated and lonely, so being a good friend by attentively listening can make a big difference.
When you’re listening, make an effort to be patient with your friend, especially if you feel like they’re making things to complicated for themselves. Being gluten-free is in fact complicated and requires constant learning, so you’re friend doesn’t have all the answers. I have been gluten-free for over 4 years now and still learn new things all the time.
Even though they don’t have all the answers, you can be safe assuming your friend is trying their best with the knowledge they do have, even if it seems like they’re over complicating things.
3. Help your Gluten-Free Friend Find a Support Group
I was gluten-free for a couple of years before I started connecting in anyway with gluten-free support groups, but once I started being more involved in the gluten-free world, I felt support and connection that I didn’t know I was missing. (It’s cliche but also true.)
My friends and family have all been supportive of me on my gluten-free journey, and many gluten-free people do have supportive family and friends, but connecting with a group of gluten-free people, a group that understands the specific difficulties, has still been very helpful for me.
Your gluten-free friend may be like me and not think to join any type of support group initially, but with your help they could have that benefit sooner.
There are free support groups from specific gluten-free organizations like the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) available all around the country. There are forum-type groups available on Reddit, the r/Celiac subreddit and the r/glutenfree subreddit, and there are also support groups on Facebook.
Even following gluten-free accounts on Instagram could be a good way for your friend to feel supported. My wife and I have had a gluten-free Instagram account for a couple of years, and my favorite parts of managing that that account are seeing everybody else on Instagram post their stories about how they learned they needed to go gluten-free and how everybody is so supportive of one another.
You’re friend does not need to face the gluten-free diet alone! There are so many resources and support groups, an just so many people in the gluten-free community that are ready and willing to offer advice.
4. Ask if your Friend has additional dietary restrictions
Unfortunately, many gluten-free people also have other dietary restrictions/food allergies, which can make their diet even more difficult. Many gluten-free people also have to avoid dairy, soy, eggs, oats, or a combination of these.
Before you go out and starting buying gluten-free snacks for your friend, you’ll want to make sure you know all the foods they avoid, otherwise you may be buying expensive gluten-free food that they can’t eat.
5. Learn what Food is Gluten-Free
Depending on how long your friend has been gluten-free, they may or may not know the complexities of navigating which foods are safe for those on a gluten-free diet. (Trust me, knowing what foods are gluten-free is not as easy as it seems).
Learning for your self what foods are gluten-free will help you better support your gluten-free friend, especially if they’re early on in their gluten-free diet. If you ever want to cook for your friend, knowing what they can eat is a must.
Two health-focused websites, Heathline and EatingWell, have good lists of foods that are gluten-free. These website also go into some detail on what foods you need to be careful with and what foods need to avoid completely.
6. Buy your Friend Certified Gluten-Free Food
Unfortunately, not all “gluten-free” food is created equal. Generally, if a food is labeled as “gluten free,” then is really is gluten-free (the FDA requires it). Some foods don’t have an gluten-containing ingredients, buy say things like “may contain wheat” because they’re processes on equipment that process wheat containing foods.
Foods that “may contain wheat” are in general avoided by those with celiac disease (wheat is one of the main sources of gluten in foods). The problem is that the “may contain wheat” label is not required by the FDA. If you buy food that doesn’t have gluten-containing ingredients and also doesn’t have the “may contain” label, it still may contain traces of gluten and not be safe for those with celiac disease.
Foods like fresh produce are naturally gluten-free and safe for those with celiac disease. Processed and packaged foods like snack bars are where you have to be careful about gluten sneaking into the food
The best way to ensure that the food you’re buying for your friend is gluten-free is to buy certified gluten-free food. Food that is certified gluten-free has been certified by a 3rd party that it meets strict gluten-free requirements. Below is are most common certified gluten free logos you’ll see on food, from the Gluten Free Certification Organization (GFCO):
7. Don’t Compare Your Friend to other Gluten-Free People.
There have been a few times when somebody has said something to me along the lines of “You won’t eat that? Are you really that sensitive to gluten? My other friend who is gluten-free eats that.”
I’m positive that most of the time when people make this type of comparison they’re not doing so with malicious intent, but rather they’re doing so out of a lack of understanding of the gluten-free life diet, and it makes sense that those who aren’t gluten-free don’t know as much diet as those that are.
Different gluten-free people do have different sensitivities to gluten, and also just have the basic human right to choose what to eat. Most people following a gluten-free diet, even if they all don’t agree on what they should and shouldn’t eat, are trying to live their best life possible without getting exposed to gluten.
So, if you have a few gluten-free friends, make the effort not to compare them to each other.
8. Let your Friend Choose the Restaurant when Eating Out as a Group
For many gluten-free people, eating out can be a stressful and difficult experience. While the gluten-free diet is already difficult, trusting somebody else to safely cook food for you can be even more difficult when you’re gluten-free.
Check out our post The Gluten-Free Diet: How Hard is it Really? for more on the difficulty of eating out on a gluten-free diet.
Some restaurants have very limited or no gluten-free options, so picking just any restaurant to eat at often doesn’t work for gluten-free people. Letting your gluten-free friend pick the restaurant ahead of time that you’ll eat at will allow them to do research and figure out where they feel safe eating.
They will feel much better about eating out when they know they’ll have good gluten-free options to choose from.
9. Learn how to Safely Cook for your Friend, or Ask Them how
If you really want to step up your friend game, you can learn to cook for your gluten-free friend. For those who have celiac disease and those who are very sensitive to gluten, safely cooking gluten-free involves more than just making sure the food doesn’t contain gluten.
Safe cooking also requires that you prevent the gluten-free food from coming in contact with gluten (gluten cross-contact). If there’s regular wheat flour or bread crumbs left on the cooking surface you’re using, then the food your cooking isn’t going to be gluten-free.
There’s even more to preventing gluten cross-contract than just wiping up gluten from the counter, so if you’re unsure you can always ask your gluten-free friend how to safely cook for them. You could even invite them over and have them cook with you.
If you want to learn more about preventing gluten cross-contact so you can cook for your gluten-free friend, you can visit Beyond Celiac’s website for a thorough overview.
10. Don’t Ask your Friend about their Symptoms
It’s natural to be curious about people’s reactions to food they’re trying to avoid, whether that’s gluten or soy or dairy. From what I’ve seen, many gluten-free people are willing to share what their symptoms are (I also personally don’t mind sharing).
But there are some who would prefer not to share, or perhaps you, the person asking, might not be ready for the gruesome details of people’s symptoms. If you ask what somebody’s symptoms are, you’re basically asking “when you eat gluten, how much pain does it cause you, and does it make you vomit, have diarrhea, or both?”
While severity of symptoms varies by person, its best to just steer clear of this topic entirely. All involved parties can leave happier not having discussed vomit and diarrhea.