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How to Explain “Gluten-Free” to Family and Friends

Though there’s far more awareness around celiac disease and gluten-intolerance today than there was even a few years ago, there are still plenty of people who have never heard of it.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where eating gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye) triggers an immune response that severely damages the small intestine. The only effective way to manage it is to stick to a strict gluten-free diet for life.

While that seems relatively straight-forward, anyone with celiac disease can tell you it quickly gets complicated, especially when you’re dining with friends or extended family members, either at a restaurant or for a meal at their home. People usually understand when you say you can’t eat bread or pasta, but asking to see the label on the soy sauce or the steak seasoning they used can sometimes lead to raised eyebrows.

Related: 9 Surprising Packaged Foods That Contain Gluten


So how do you get through to well-meaning but uninformed relatives and friends that being gluten-free isn’t a loose guideline that you can cheat on once in a while but a very strict health necessity? Here are some tips that can help.

1. Compare it to a severe allergy.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, not an allergy, but people with celiac disease frequently say they compare it to an allergy in order to reinforce the severity to others. People are generally familiar with allergies and get that there are serious health consequences for eating even one bite of the food you’re allergic to. The same goes for celiac disease.

2. Discuss it when you’re not around food.
We’ve all got that one family member who is forever forcing food on people no matter how many times they’ve said “no thanks.” The thing is, when you have celiac disease, you can’t eat a piece of cake just this once to be polite because Aunt Sue made it for you because she knows how much you love chocolate. Sorry, Aunt Sue.

Related: Surviving the Holidays When You're Gluten-Free

Talk to your friends and family about your diagnosis at a time when you’re not about to head out to a restaurant or sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. This is not a discussion to be had when stomachs are rumbling or when people have already gone to the trouble of preparing a meal. Explain how eating even a crumb of gluten is out of the question for the sake of your health, and say that of course you know they will understand if you need to bring your own food to a family meal to protect yourself (because saying that last part will make them more likely to want to live up to the compliment). Also, point them to resources like the Celiac Disease Foundation and celiac disease support groups online where they can take a more active role in learning about your diagnosis.

3. Offer to cook a meal together.
Cooking a meal together can be a great way to help friends and family members learn what ingredients are and are not gluten-free. It gives them a chance to get familiar with a recipe that’s safe for you while reinforcing the food safety rules you’ve already told them about—from disinfecting prep areas to not using cutting boards that have been used for gluten to triple checking ingredient labels. It’s also an excellent opportunity to prove eating a gluten-free diet doesn’t mean you’re restricted to a bunch of bland, boring foods (might we suggest one of these gluten-free recipes?). Shopping for groceries together can help too, since it will allow you to help others to practice identifying gluten ingredients on food labels.

4. Ask to pick the restaurant.
If you regularly join parents, grandparents or a core group of friends for a weekly meal, don’t be shy about picking the restaurant. Provide them with a list of gluten-free-safe choices that you’re comfortable rotating through to make planning get-togethers easier. You can also encourage your loved ones to get the Find Me Gluten-Free app so they can research new places. Empowering others with the tools to make choices that will accommodate everyone will minimize the stress for all of you.

Also: don’t back down if your friends and family are being weird about accommodating your needs. (Sadly, celiac support groups are filled with posts about family members who refuse to believe eating gluten-free isn’t just a fad.) Tell them you’ll eat before you go out and just order a drink or that you can skip the gathering and meet up with them later for another activity. Be matter-of-fact but firm.

5. Share your favorite gluten-free snacks.
If you’re always over at someone else’s house, ask if you can stock some certified gluten-free snacks (like Mikey’s Pizza Pockets!) in their pantry and freezer. That way there will always be something you know you can fall back on if the meal everyone else is eating isn’t gluten-free. Plus, it will give your friends and family an opportunity to get familiar with—and sample!—your favorite gluten-free treats. Chances are they’ll even start adding them to their grocery list!