The Gluten-Free Diet: How Hard is it Really?

Dinner Plate with frowning face drawn on it
The gluten-free diet can put a frown on your face sometimes. Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

As somebody with celiac disease, the question I’m asked most frequently is if it’s hard to be gluten-free.

Following a gluten-free diet is more difficult than following a non-restricted diet as it requires constant commitment to avoiding specific foods. The gluten-free diet is also be more difficult because gluten-free food is more expensive, increasing the economic burden of food.

Not only do gluten-free people have to avoid gluten in their own home, but finding gluten-free food and eating out gluten free can also prove to be difficult.

The Difficulties of a Gluten-Free Diet

Food is a huge part of our lives, and is something that we can take for granted if we don’t have to avoid specific types of food. Even though the majority of our day isn’t spent eating or preparing food, so much of our lives revolve around food. Because food is such a big part of our lives, being gluten-free has a big impact on your life.

Especially for somebody who is new to the gluten-free world, the Do’s and Do Not’s of being gluten-free can be overwhelming. It seems like there are so many foods that can’t be eaten any more, including foods that you think wouldn’t contain gluten.

Those on a gluten-free diet can’t go out and just buy any food they want. For those with celiac disease or a wheat allergy, just avoiding food containing gluten isn’t enough, as a lot of gluten-free foods are cross-contacted with gluten during processing.

Gluten cross-contact can happen when gluten-free food is prepared in the same area, on the same surface, or with the same utensils, bowls, pots and pans as gluten-containing food. In food processing plants, gluten-free food can be cross-contacted with gluten when its processed on equipment that also processes food that contains gluten.

Do you have a friend who is gluten-free? Read our post 10 Ways to Support Your Struggling Gluten-Free Friend to understand other difficult aspects of of being gluten-free and what you can do to help your friend.

Maintaining a 100% gluten-free diet requires consistent, daily effort, ensuring that the food you’re consuming is gluten-free and that no cross-contact occurs. Even eating a little bit of gluten can cause intestinal damage for those with celiac disease, so having gluten “cheat days” are out of the question.

Avoiding foods that contain gluten and foods that have been cross contaminated with gluten often can make everyday events more challenging when food is involved. Going to a party at a friend’s house, attending a work luncheon, and even traveling can all prove to difficult on a gluten-free diet. Planning ahead and even sometimes bringing your own food is necessary for those on a strict gluten-free diet.

The financial burden of a gluten-free diet can also be difficult, as gluten-free foods cost 183% more on average than their gluten-containing counterparts. Those following a gluten-free diet can spend up to 30% more per week or per month on food than those with no food restrictions.

Thankfully, gluten-free food is becoming more widely available over time, decreasing the cost of the food and decreasing the economic burden faced by those on a gluten-free diet. As gluten-free food becomes more widely available, it’s taste and texture is also improving, providing a more enjoyable experience for those who need to eat gluten-free.

We wrote a whole post about the cost of gluten-free living in all 50 states to help you know what you can expect to spend on groceries in your state if you’re following the gluten-free diet.

Those who are gluten-free also commonly have other dietary restrictions, and often can’t eat foods containing corn, soy, and lactose/dairy, making the diet even more difficult to follow. The more dietary restrictions, the more care and planning is needed, and the more difficult eating becomes.

While being gluten-free is more difficult than following an unrestricted diet, the benefits gained by those for whom being gluten-free is necessary make the diet worth it. For those with celiac disease, protecting their intestines from the damage that occurs when eating gluten is a medical necessity to live a healthy life.

If you’re thinking about starting a gluten-free diet, consult your doctor and dietician first. Medical professionals warn that following a gluten-free diet “just because” could set you up for some nutritional deficiencies.

The Difficulties of Eating Out Gluten-Free

Eating out gluten-free is difficult because of gluten cross-contact and limited menu options. The risk of gluten consumption while eating out can be reduced by researching restaurants and menus ahead of time, which is time consuming. Restaurants have offered more gluten-free options over time, so it’s easier to eat out than in years past.

When eating out on a gluten-free diet, it might not be the best option to pick a random restaurant and hope they have gluten-free food. The amount of gluten-free options available, and the methods used to prevent gluten cross-contact, will vary widely by restaurant. Most restaurants will likely have a salad option that is safe for those on a gluten-free diet, but it turns out that a lot of people don’t want only salad every time they eat out.

Especially for those with celiac disease, eating out on a gluten-free diet can feel risky. Wherever there is gluten present, cross-contact of gluten-free food is possible. It’s much easier to trust your own ability to control gluten cross-contact in your own kitchen than it is to trust that a restaurant kitchen knows how to correctly handle food to prevent cross-contact. For this reason, those who are gluten-free sometimes eat out less often than those with no food restrictions, and are more likely to eat out at places they’re familiar with.

Have you ever ordered food through a food delivery service? Check out our post Ordering from Doordash, Uber Eats, & Grubhub with Food Allergies to learn how to safely order using these apps.

Avoiding gluten cross-contact while eating out starts with researching restaurants and menus ahead of time. Here’s what you can do to find a safe place to eat at:

  • Identify possible restaurants you’d like to eat at, and whether or not they have gluten-free options
  • Use the Find Me Gluten Free app or website to see how other gluten-free dinners rated their experience with the restaurant and if they felt safe eating there (If you’re gluten-free, I highly recommend your download this app)
  • Look on the restaurants’ websites to see what information they have about handling food allergies and dietary needs
  • Call the restaurant and find out what steps they take to prevent gluten cross-contact.

Doing this research does take some time, but will help you be more confident when you arrive at the restaurant. After you’ve arrived, you’ll want communicate your need to eat gluten-free and reconfirm they’ll take steps to prevent cross-contact.

Is it Hard to Find Gluten-Free Food?

Walmart Logo
Walmart can be a great place to find gluten-free food, but selection varies widely by store

Gluten-free foods are not too difficult to find and are available in most grocery stores and online. However, the selection in each store can vary widely, making it difficult to find a specific item. Naturally gluten-free foods like rice, meat, fruits and vegetables are available at all stores.

If you walk into a Walmart, Target, or Trader Joe’s, it is highly likely that you fill find some gluten-free food available. (Gluten-free food in this case is referring to food that isn’t naturally gluten-free, like bread and pasta). In that sense, it’s not hard to find gluten-free food.

What can be challenging is finding specific gluten-free options in stores. If you’re looking for gluten-free cream of mushroom, or a specific brand of gluten–free bread, not all stores will have those items, even though the stores are likely to have the gluten-containing versions of those items. You can even walk into 2 different Walmart stores and find a completely different selection of gluten-free food.

The fact that stores don’t carry a complete selection of gluten-free foods can seem daunting to those who are first starting out on a gluten-free diet. My first visit to a grocery store after I was diagnosed with celiac disease was confusing and saddening. The grocery store seemed like a whole new world, filled with food I could no longer eat, and the small gluten-free section in the store wasn’t reassuring.

Thankfully, gluten-free people aren’t limited to shopping only in the gluten-free section of the store, as there are plenty of naturally gluten-free things available in all stores. Fruits, vegetables, rice, potatoes, meat, eggs, dairy products, and seasonings are mostly gluten-free!

Those switching to a gluten-free diet may find it hard to adjust their style and buy more naturally gluten-free foods and less processed gluten-free foods. However, this balance of naturally gluten-free foods is important as overly relying on processed gluten-free foods can cause you to miss out on key nutrients that processed gluten-free foods lack.

Gluten-containing processed foods, like bread, are often fortified with key nutrients, where as gluten-free processed foods aren’t, meaning that those on a gluten-free diet need to purposefully get those nutrients from other foods.

Jordan Clark

Hi everybody, I'm Jordan! I was diagnosed with celiac disease and lactose intolerance in 2016, and have been living gluten-free and lactose-free out of necessity ever since. I created this blog to help to help others navigating the gluten-free life.

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