I was the ‘gluten-free’ girl in the class, the one with the ‘special’ diet. Growing up as a coeliac in the early 90s was certainly a way to build a resistance to being different from my peers. My diet was unlike anyone’s around me and, through enduring the logistics of the disease (like carrying my own carefully packed gluten-free lunch box to parties), I was acutely aware of this fact.
"…Embracing a vegan diet did not actually seem much more of a jump. I just had a few more items on my no-go ingredients list and a few more people with a striking interest in my eating habits. Nutrition has since captured my imagination and now 2 years on, and on my way to becoming a registered dietitian, I am now used to hearing the question ‘so what do you actually eat?!’"
As children, wanting to fit in is a strong instinctive desire in a big and sometimes scary world. For me this was a struggle. Everything I ate had to be checked and double checked and many everyday foods were considered ‘poison’, (a term coined by my Mum to emphasise the damaging effects of gluten on my little body). In the times before the term ‘gluten free’ became mainstream, my gluten-free flour was prescribed by the doctor, picked up from the pharmacy and transformed into warm, crumbly loaves of bread each weekend by my loving Mum. As I grew up and became more conscious of my condition, I became used to hearing the questions ‘what’s a coeliac?’, ‘what happens if you eat gluten?’
Now I can assure you that the bleak picture I have painted is by no means the whole story: my doting family and loyal friends meant I actually had it pretty good. Unbeknown to me, my unique requirements were also setting me up to embrace my differences, build my confidence and enable me to tailor my diet to suit my moral, ethical and health based choices later in life. You see, 26 years after my diagnosis and whilst earning a living studying zoo animal behaviour (and becoming more and more disheartened with it as the years went by), I made the connection between my love of animals and my diet, and decided to go vegan.
With over 26 years of gluten-free experience, embracing a vegan diet did not actually seem much more of a jump. After all, I was already used to an ‘abnormal’ diet; I just had a few more items on my no-go ingredients list and a few more people with a striking interest in my eating habits. Nutrition has since captured my imagination and now 2 years on, and on my way to becoming a registered dietitian, I am now used to hearing the question ‘so what do you actually eat?!’
What I Eat
Prior to becoming vegan, I stuck to a limited range of familiar gluten-free foods. As I introduced myself to the world of veganism, I had to think outside the box and create new recipes from less familiar ingredients (what on earth was tahini, nutritional yeast and tempeh?). My eyes also began to open to the diverse range of familiar foods on offer: gluten-free grains, fruits and vegetables, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, as well as their endless mouth-watering combinations. Despite the controversy of health bloggers and their often questionable nutritional expertise, recipes created by some provided me with imaginative and delicious foody ideas. I admit I’ve never been one for making pasta out of raw courgette (I am far too much of a brown rice pasta lover), but spicy coconut dahls, hearty bean stews and sweet, creamy desserts suiting both my gluten-free and vegan requirements planted seeds of inspiration. As I transformed into a vegan home-cook, my diet began to diversify in ways I could not have imagined. Even my most carnivorous and gluten-loving friends were heartily tucking into my culinary creations. Don’t get me wrong: eating out remains one of my most valuable and enjoyable pastimes and, with the growing market for ‘Free From’ foods, convenience meals are increasingly available. I can therefore whole-heartedly reassure you that lazy non-cooking days and eateries continue to rate highly on my leisure time priority list.
Due to the nature of an autoimmune disease, it is vital that everything myself and my fellow coeliacs eat is 100% gluten free. My coeliac requirements will therefore always take priority, and this is the reason I lead with this information when eating out: I ensure to state I am ‘coeliac’ and not just choosing to be ‘gluten free’. It is true that a trace of milk will not affect me in the harmful way that a trace of wheat would, but I am not prepared to compromise my ethical choices just because I am coeliac.
"I believe there is no greater culinary pleasure than sitting down to delicious and nutritious food that not just supports our health, but saves our animals and protects our world, and no auto-immune condition should stand in the way of that."
Confidence is useful in living as a gluten-free vegan. Having the self-assurance to speak up, whether ringing ahead, gauging a waiter’s confidence, speaking to the dinner party host and offering to assist, or discussing the creation of novel vegan meals (even if just from a restaurant menu’s side options) makes this way of eating far easier in the world of hospitality. I admit, this can occasionally result in sitting down to a meal of potatoes and vegetables, particularly in my beloved rural country pubs. However, my confidence in knowing that the meal will fill my tummy whilst not causing me any harm by far trumps a taste sensation riddled with the fear that it may be damaging the lining of my gut or, alas, be the result of harm caused to other sentient beings. Of course, enjoying a simple meal of plain vegetables means finding a restaurant providing inventive and flavoursome gluten-free and vegan dishes is always a pure joy. Forward thinking and food preparation, whilst not necessary, are also useful traits for living and eating this way. By this, I do not mean spending my weekends cooking up meals for the week in any kind of military operation, but taking a moment to consider my day. Slipping some simple snacks such as fruit, nuts or leftovers into my bag provides me with reassurance in situations when plant-based pickings are scarce.
As more of us are diagnosed with coeliac disease (now estimated to affect 1/100 people in the UK) and more of us are starting to eat consciously, the market for ethical and environmentally sound gluten-free food will be increasingly available to the masses. I believe there is no greater culinary pleasure than sitting down to delicious and nutritious food that not just supports our health, but saves our animals and protects our world, and no auto-immune condition should stand in the way of that.
If you need more inspiration, you can find it online, where there are many delicious recipes suiting gluten free vegans. Much of my original inspiration came from Deliciously Ella’s blog, though she has a great couple of recipes books too! Make sure to check the recipes, however, as some are not vegan as they contain honey.
I’ll leave you with a few foody ideas to whet your appetite including an example of what I might eat in a day and my favourite recipe – coconut dahl! Now back to my kitchen: avocado chocolate brownies anyone?
My gluten-free vegan meal plan
I hear this question a lot. It can be hard to answer because what I eat in a day varies greatly depending on what I am up to, how hungry I am, what I fancy making and what season it is! But you may, in recent days, have seen me munching on the following (along with numerous cups of weird and wonderful types of tea!).
Breakfast: rice flake porridge made with almond milk sprinkled with dried fruit, frozen blueberries, and almond butter OR a big green smoothie with a couple of dates
Morning snack: an apple and a handful of cashews OR a persimmon (in season these winter months!)
Lunch: baby leaf salad with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, avocado and roasted sweet potato drizzled with tahini OR lentil soup followed with a satsuma or pear
Afternoon snack: carrots with homemade hummus OR the latest home-baked treat such as chocolate brownies
Dinner: coconut dahl with brown rice OR brown rice pasta with homemade bean ratatouille topped with nutritional yeast flakes
Supper: mango with soya yoghurt OR frozen cherries and a few (or many!) pieces of dark chocolate