So you’ve been experiencing some weird digestive issues and now your doctor has told you to follow a gluten-free diet.

When I went gluten-free just over a year ago it was quite daunting and I was desperate for someone to show me the way. After a lot of Internet searching, I found the answers to all of my questions but I wish they had all been in one place. This is why I’ve decided to type this post to help anyone who is new to following a gluten-free lifestyle.

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It might seem scary right now but just follow these simple steps and you’ll stop freaking out in no time at all:

1. Don’t panic

I had been experiencing digestion issues for years before I was diagnosed as gluten intolerant and when my doctor finally said I had to cut gluten out of my diet I was initially relieved, but that relief soon turned to panic when I realised that gluten seemed to be in EVERYTHING!

Don’t worry, pretty much every supermarket has a gluten-free section now, and most food companies highlight gluten in the ingredients so it’s actually quite easy to spot. There are plenty of naturally gluten-free foods too! Yes, your weekly shopping will take longer than before because you’ll be checking every food label, but isn’t it worth it to get rid of the awful stomach cramps/bloating, etc!?

2. Register with Coeliac UK or Celiac.com (or your country’s equivalent)

These websites are amazing! They’re full of helpful information and recipes, and should definitely be one of your first ports of call after diagnosis. Despite the name, you don’t have to have coeliac disease to register, they do also accept gluten intolerant members.

Coeliac UK even send out a food and drink directory ever year (for a small fee); this is basically my bible for gluten-free living. It contains lists of all the gluten-free items in supermarkets and it saves hours of Googling ingredient names to clarify if they’re safe to eat.

3. Start sampling

The only way to find out what gluten-free foods you like is to sample them. A lot of gluten-free companies will happily send out small samples of their products for you to try, so give a few companies a call so you can “try before you buy”.

If you have coeliac disease then registering with Juvela will enable you to get a whole box of free samples!

A word of warning: gluten-free bread doesn’t ever taste anywhere near as good as ‘normal’ bread, so if you’re on the hunt for that then (I hate to burst your bubble, but) please give up now. There are some delicious gluten-free breads out there, but I feel it’s important to let you know that bread is one of the items that just doesn’t taste the same without gluten in it.

4. Learn which foods are naturally gluten-free

It’s totally possible to never actually buy any specifically gluten-free manufactured items; in fact the majority of foods I eat naturally don’t contain gluten and it actually works out cheaper than buying the gluten-free alternatives.

All types of plain rice, potato, corn (maize), plain meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, most yoghurts, fruits, vegetables and most pulses (peas, beans and lentils) are naturally gluten-free so you have plenty to choose from!

Always check the ingredients on all packaged foods though as sometimes gluten may have been added, or the food may have been packaged in a factory that handles gluten containing food. Things like flavoured rice often has gluten added for some reason, and packaged potatoes are often coated in wheat, so always check the ingredients.

Also, I specified “plain meat” because items like sausages and meatballs often contain gluten, so be careful. If the meat is anything other than a pure chicken breast or pure steak, for example, then check for any added ingredients.

Be careful: A lot of sauces and gravies contain gluten. I got caught out with these a few times in my early gluten-free stage because I just assumed they’d be safe. Always check, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

5. Experiment

Just because you’re living gluten-free it does not mean your diet has to be boring!

I’ve been gluten-free for 16 months and can honestly say I’ve eaten some of the best foods ever in the last year. Being gluten-free can seem very restrictive to start with because it takes a while to figure out what’s safe to eat and what’s not, but once you get used to it you’ll actually forget how you used to shop, and reading food labels will become second nature.

It will also make you better in the kitchen because you’ll have to make the majority of meals from scratch (if you didn’t before). Going gluten-free is one of the things that really helped me to adopt a clean eating lifestyle. I know every ingredient that goes into my meals and that has made me feel much better about what I eat.

6. Join support groups

When I first went gluten-free I didn’t join any support groups because I didn’t like the idea of burdening someone with my problems and I thought there was some sort of stigma attached to joining a support group, but I soon got over that and signed up for a few different Facebook support groups.

They are great because everyone else in the group knows exactly what you’re going through because they’ve been through it too! You can get support and advice, and I’ve even asked questions about my symptoms and had people reassure me that they’re normal because other gluten intolerant people suffer from the same things.

These groups are also brilliant places to find recipes!

I also like the Coeliac UK Facebook page for advice and you can like my Facebook page Fit and gluten-free to keep updated with all of my latest blog posts.

7. Say goodbye to gluten, and move on

Going gluten-free might mean that you have to ‘break up’ with some of your favourite foods or restaurants. This is admittedly a difficult thing to deal with at first and you will undoubtedly go through an anger phase but believe me; it’s worth it when you realise that you’re going to be free from the awful symptoms associated with being glutened.

When I first went gluten-free I started craving foods that I didn’t even like, just because I knew I couldn’t have them! Crazy! But it’s the classic “you always want what you can’t have”.

It might take time but you need to learn to accept you have to let go of those foods and move on. For the majority of foods there are gluten-free replacements, so there’s no need to get upset. I even managed to find gluten-free scotch eggs (which used to be one of my favourites when I was younger)!

Most restaurants now offer gluten-free alternatives so even when you’re eating out you will usually be able to find something on the menu suitable for you. Always check that the person serving you actually knows what gluten is though, or better still, talk to the chef.

This is the hardest part about going gluten-free, but once you try gluten-free choc chip cookies and my cupcake recipe, you’ll realise there is life after going gluten-free.

8. Be prepared to get glutened

I’d love to say that since diagnosis I’ve been 100% gluten-free but sadly that’s not the truth. I have been accidentally glutened more times than I care to admit; sometimes through my own fault of assuming something would be gluten-free, and sometimes through restaurant staff not actually understanding what gluten is. I was once served gluten-free soup with a ‘normal’ bread roll on the side! I didn’t go back there.

Anyway, it WILL happen. No matter how vigilant you are, it’s practically impossible to go through your whole life without ever accidentally ingesting a small amount of gluten. Be prepared for it because that way it won’t cause you so much distress if/when you do get glutened.

9. Check out the Allergy and Free From Show (UK)

This is a fantastic yearly event (held in both London and Liverpool) with hundreds of stalls selling gluten-free food and drink, recipes classes and helpful advice from leading experts about living gluten-free.

The event in London is going to be held at the Grand Hall, Olympia from 4-6 July (2014 in case you’re reading this blog post later than published).

This is Europe’s greatest ‘free from’ family day out and, if you click HERE you can get FREE tickets (courtesy of Fit and Gluten-Free)! No competition, no catch.

It’s a great place to find out more about living with a food intolerance/allergy.

10. Go get ’em tiger!

Once you’ve got your head around going gluten-free and you’ve stocked your cupboards up, it’s time for you to get back to living your life…except now it will be with a better knowledge and understanding of what you can and can’t eat which, believe it or not, gives you a fantastic feeling of being free!

Being undiagnosed can cause a lot of issues and it can make you feel unhappy because you don’t know what’s causing the symptoms but once you realise the cause of the problems you can get on with your life!

Being gluten-free doesn’t have to change your life at all; I still regularly go out for meals and eat well at home every night. I never eat anything that is of a lower quality than I would’ve accepted before I went gluten-free. Don’t let it get in your way.

Now go and find some great gluten-free recipes. If you’ve got any particularly good ones please let me know.