The holidays are a special time to gather with family, celebrate with friends, and eat. In keeping with the spirit, we allow ourselves to forget the calories and indulge in six weeks of overeating. In fact, it’s downright expected that someone who is “on a diet” will sneak a scoop of sweet potato casserole by the end of the night.
For the typical person, this type of cheating usually provokes a mental slap on the wrist and a half-hearted vow to be stronger next time. However, for someone with celiac disease, cheating carries far more severe consequences. It is critical that you avoid those foods that will make you sick.
Throughout the year, you make the effort to stay gluten-free: you use a separate toaster for gluten-free bread, label condiment jars to avoid confusion and clean any shared prep spaces before cooking your food. Cheating at holiday time not only undermines that hard work, it can have a real impact on your health, beyond the immediate symptoms you may experience.
Poor dietary adherence can lead to continuing symptoms and persistent intestinal inflammation. By cheating, you could prevent your intestine from fully recovering, which research suggests can even shorten your life.
This is a pretty convincing argument for why you shouldn’t cheat but in day-to-day life, there are other factors that may make temptation harder to resist.
The Mental Battle
It takes a lot of willpower to decline your favorite holiday foods. While it’s easy to do so in your home by simply not making a dish, it’s hard to avoid the inviting smells when your cousin is serving up that food.
Then there’s the feeling of deprivation. You can no longer eat some of the foods you once enjoyed, and this is never more apparent than when you’re face-to-face with that nostalgic pumpkin pie.
Finding the willpower can be especially difficult for those who have no detectable symptoms of celiac disease, as one bite may not seem that harmful. Likewise for children who are too young to understand the consequences of eating a wheat-based dinner roll, even if it’s just once.
There’s no single formula for how to deal with these moments. Some reach for a safe, gluten-free option. Some recall memories of how bad they felt when they used to eat gluten, and how good they feel when they avoid it. Some eat before the party to reduce the risk of temptation.
I prefer to focus on the incredible gluten-free foods that I can eat: homemade cranberry sauce, apricot and cheese dip, balsamic glazed figs. If the menu is short on gluten-free options, I offer to bring a dish that everyone can enjoy. Instead of stewing in frustration, I put my energy toward looking on the bright side, sharing my own delicious food, and enjoying time with my family.
Next: You Cheated. Now What?
The External Influence
It’s hard enough to resist your own urges, but some relatives can add to the pressure. The media’s coverage of the gluten-free diet as a weight loss regimen hasn’t helped. You may find yourself confronted with a cookie pusher  who thinks gluten-free means you should eat gluten-free, not that you must. Worse yet, another guest may set a bad example by claiming to be “sort of gluten-free”.
Educating your family and friends about your gluten-free needs can help to minimize these awkward moments, but the dinner table isn’t the place to lecture. If you’re in the hot seat, politely say no thank you and change the subject. You can also direct the offer to someone else who would love to take a piece.
You Cheated. Now What?
Maybe it was the holiday stress, or the fact that you couldn’t say no to Grandma. For whatever reason, if you cheat on your gluten-free diet, it’s important to acknowledge the mistake and take steps to avoid this situation in the future.
First, tell your doctor that you ingested some gluten. He or she may want to run a blood test to see if your levels are elevated. You should also talk to your doctor or dietitian about why you cheated; knowing the cause can help with identifying strategies to combat those feelings of temptation or deprivation.
Then, put those strategies in action. Find ways to distract yourself from stress. Keep gluten-free snacks in your bag so you’re never stuck without something to nosh on. Buy Grandma a bag of gluten-free flour and show how to make her famous gravy safe for you to eat, too. You might even be surprised by how eager Grandma is to prepare something special. It is the holidays, after all.
Alice Bast is the Founder and President of NFCA (National Foundation for Celiac Awareness). Find gluten-free recipes and tips for the holidays at www.celiaccentral.org/holiday.