I have been gluten free for 5 years and 1 month. I've remained mostly dairy free during that time, as well as really limiting my soy intake, and cutting out soy lecithin (an emulsifier found in many, many processed foods). And now, for the past 5 weeks, I have been refined sugar free.
To me, it's just the way of my life. I have no choice if I want to avoid being really sick. I'm forced to eat really healthy, bring my own lunches, and be proactive about the food I consume. For the outsider looking in, it seems like I have such a handle on being healthy that it's a breeze. "How do you do it" is a question I am often asked, by many people. While it's definitely been a struggle and a lot of trial and error, I have learned some tricks along the way to make it work. If you are thinking of eliminating something from your diet, check out the 10 tips below and commit yourself to the process.
1. Pick a realistic timeline. This is SO important. My husband and I decided to go refined sugar free back in early November. But, we decided not to start until the beginning of January because we knew that would make Thanksgiving and the holidays extra hard. We also wanted time to eat most of the foods in our house we'd no longer be able to have, and slowly stock up on new stuff over the course of a few weeks. If we just decided to go sugar free "tomorrow", temptation would be everywhere, we'd have "nothing" to eat in the house, and we would have set ourselves up to fail. When I went gluten free 5 years ago, I did have to make a drastic change over the course of one day, but since I had just returned home from my colonoscopy and my stomach was empty, I was pretty excited to get rid of all the "danger food" - so that was a very special circumstance.
*If you need to be tested for Celiac disease, DO NOT eliminate gluten until your doctor okays it- not eating gluten can mess with your test results.
2. Plan accordingly. This is where you find success. Whatever you are cutting out, do some research. Find out how other people replace these foods. If you're cutting out gluten, you should know it hides in *everything*, so make sure you read up about things like your toothpaste and chapstick (seriously). If you think you have an intolerance to something, you're going to need to clean out all of your cabinets and drawers, get new utensil holders, possibly new utensils, etc. Your kitchen is going to need a deep cleaning, and once it's clean, be very careful about what goes in. Make a meal plan for week 1, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and dessert. You don't want to find yourself hungry, without a plan, and no idea what to do.
3. Find quick replacements. When you're learning how to eat in a new way, like without refined sugar, or without gluten, it can be really hard to figure out what's safe or what to do when a craving strikes. The first week I was sugar free, all I wanted was ice cream. I instead ate popcorn every night because I needed a "dessert", and I had to relearn what that meant. It was hard, and I still wanted sugar. I made things like rice cakes topped with banana slices, peanut butter and unsweetened coconut flakes in an effort to trick my brain. If you've given up gluten and all you want is a sandwich or pizza, you'll have to find someway to "satisfy" your craving (or shut your brain up) by eating something kind of similar, but that is still ok for your new eating style. In a few weeks, your taste buds actually change, and your cravings should start going away. It's really hard at first, so have some plan set up.
4. Stock up on snacks. If you're going refined sugar free, you better have fruit. Fruit will be the closest thing to refined sugar, even though at first it'll do nothing for you. There are tons of what I call "neutral" foods, like nachos, popcorn, etc. Buy lots of foods you can pick at when you're home and desperate. I'm going to suggest that these foods be whole foods, or as close to whole as possible (try to avoid too many processed foods). But I know in the first few weeks it's really hard. Transitioning to whole food snacks may have to happen over time and that's ok. But just remember, gluten free cookies are still cookies- and lots of them contain a LOT of ingredients. Try to keep your snacks as simple and healthy as possible.
5. Learn to trick your brain. Want ice cream? Make 1-ingredient banana ice cream instead (out of bananas!). Want pizza? Try these quinoa pizza bites. Feel like eating? Pop some pop corn in coconut oil (it's actually really fun). Need something sweet? Try a fresh bowl of fruit. Over time, you teach yourself to start craving the "new" food. Once you get through the first few weeks, it gets way easier, I promise.
6. Anytime you leave your house, bring "safe" food. Once you have stocked up on snacks, pick some to always keep with you no matter where you go. Otherwise, traveling (even to work) can be tricky. If you are starving, with no food, with only access to the "unsafe" or "forbidden" food, do you go hungry or do you eat it? If push comes to shove, I go hungry, but most people can't. I have no choice. So make sure you are prepared for when hunger strikes. Another reason- if I go to any party, I bring my own dessert so I don't have to sit and watch everyone else enjoy theirs while I explain over and over why "no thanks, I can't eat anything here".
7. Get support. My husband and I both went refined sugar free at the same time, so we had each other to lean on and talk through it. No one in our house was eating sugar, so it was so much easier. When I went gluten free though, I had to do it alone. I cried a lot, I was so confused, and I spent so much time on google. During that time, my husband (then my new boyfriend) was incredibly supportive and did his own research, and often finished getting me dinner when I got overwhelmed and gave up. Find a good friend to get you through this, and search on twitter or social media to find other people eating the same way you want to. They will offer a ton of support, tips, and guidance. All you have to do is ask.
8. Meal prep. "If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail". For real. The best advice I can give you is MEAL PREP! Sunday night, no matter how you feel, make a whole lot of something. This will be your lunch for the week. I personally hate cooking, so I find the lazy way of doing things. Meal prep is great because you cook a huge dish once and get a bunch of meals out of it. If you cook it, you know exactly what goes into it. Eliminating a food is really hard, but it's also really great because you are forced to try new things. Going gluten free got me to eat more beans, try quinoa, buy fresh vegetables, and open my mind to so many other things. Again, I hate cooking so I do try to find recipes with 10 mins or less of prep. Once you're done cooking, fill a few tupperware up with lunch portions and you're good to go. Don't wait until lunch to decide what you're eating for lunch.
9. You can do just about anything for a few weeks. Anyone can. Just remember that in the beginning. It's emotional, it's tough, it's exhausting. But only so in the beginning. I've been gluten free for FIVE YEARS. I honestly didn't think I'd make it past day 3. Not that I intended to eat the food that was making me sick (nor should I have), but I just really couldn't picture the rest of my life, I felt so hopeless. Hey, I made it! And you will too.
10. Remember why you're doing it. It might sound corny but I'm serious. If you're doing this for your health, or to figure out if something has been making you sick, don't forget that. So many times during the first sugar free week, I kept thinking "Nicole, you can just drive to Whole Foods, buy some peanut butter cups and this will all be over". You know how tempting that was? I had to constantly remind myself that number one, the cravings would eventually go away, and number two, this wasn't about instant gratification. I was trying to feel better ALL THE TIME. Not just for a few minutes after inhaling a piece of candy. If you have to write down why you're doing it and hang it up on your fridge, then do it. Try anything that will get you through the first few weeks. Because once you get that far, you'll be so proud of yourself, you'll feel different, and your taste buds and habits will have changed.