Have you ever seen foods labeled “gluten-free” in the store and wondered if they were healthier in some way? Do you have a friend or family member who extols the benefits of a gluten-free diet? Are you wondering whether you should try it?
With the rise in popularity of dietary approaches such as Paleo and keto, going gluten-free is all the rage. However, many people do well without this dietary restriction. For others with certain health conditions, going gluten-free is a critical part of their medical nutrition therapy.
Today’s article will tackle all things gluten and whether this nutritional lifestyle is a good option for you. Keep reading to get the answers to the following questions:
- What is gluten? Is it something bad?
- Who should consider adopting a gluten-free diet?
- Which foods can you eat on this diet?
- Which foods should you eliminate when you go gluten-free?
- Is there anyone who should not try the gluten-free diet?
- Can you lose weight by following this nutritional lifestyle?
- What are some tips for saving money on a gluten-free diet?
Whether you’re considering going gluten-free or have been following this diet for a while, this article is for you. We’ll show you how to avoid getting “glutened” while maximizing the quality of your dietary pattern.
Foods with gluten can benefit the body, but not in all cases
You can find the protein gluten in specific types of grains, including wheat, barley, and rye. It is not inherently bad, but people with certain medical conditions must restrict or eliminate gluten to be healthy. For others, gluten-containing foods can be a wellness-promoting part of a varied diet.
Whole-grain foods containing gluten are a source of many beneficial dietary components, including fiber, many B-vitamins, and phytochemicals. It is possible to get these things from other food sources, including grains without gluten. However, refraining from unnecessary self-imposed food restrictions makes it easier to create a balanced diet.
For certain people, going gluten-free is the only road to health
If you have a diagnosis of celiac disease, you must maintain a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life. This is because even small amounts of gluten can damage the intestines of a person with this condition.
If you think you have celiac disease, it is important to continue to eat gluten until you get tested. Giving up gluten before testing can result in a false-negative test result.
Following a strict gluten-free nutrition therapy is critical to people with celiac disease. If left untreated, people with celiac disease can suffer from consequences related to nutrient malabsorption, such as anemia. The intestinal damage that results from long-term untreated celiac puts the person at a higher risk for bone disease and intestinal cancer.
Gluten-free diets may also be part of a temporary elimination diet. Stopping the eating of gluten-containing foods for a certain period can help determine whether these foods were triggering a problem. If the symptoms do not resolve with the elimination of gluten, you can reintroduce it.
People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) experience symptoms similar to celiac disease (such as gastrointestinal distress) without damage to the intestines. Celiac disease and wheat allergy are typically ruled out before a diagnosis of NCGS is made. If you have NCGS, you may not have to be as strict with your diet as a person with celiac disease.
There are other reasons that someone may decide to adopt a gluten-free diet. This includes the improvement of symptoms related to autoimmune conditions and to autism. There is less of an evidence-base supporting a gluten-free diet in these instances, but it is something someone may choose to explore.
Get the most from your gluten-free diet with these nutrient-rich foods
Restrictions related to the gluten-free diet involves specific members of the grains group, as well as foods containing these grains. This means that most fruits, vegetables, dairy foods (and calcium-fortified dairy alternatives), and proteins will be safe to eat. Protein foods include meats, poultry, seafood, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
You do not have to eliminate all grain foods from your gluten-free diet. Many grains, pseudo-grains, and starchy vegetables are free of gluten. These include (list adapted from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) Nutrition Care Manual):
- Oats labeled gluten-free
- Wild rice
Oats do not naturally contain gluten but are often contaminated with gluten-containing grains during packaging. If you choose to include oats on a strict gluten-free diet, make sure that they have the gluten-free label.
Gin, vodka, and gluten-free beer are some safe alcohol choices for those on the gluten-free diet. With the immense popularity of this diet, more and more gluten-free substitutions are becoming available.
Watch out for hidden sources of gluten if you need to be gluten-free
The list of foods to eliminate on the gluten-free diet is relatively small. Unfortunately, these foods are highly prevalent in the United States. The foods to remove include (list adapted from the AND Nutrition Care Manual):
- Wheat (all varieties and hybrids)
- Oats that are not marked gluten-free
These ingredients are in a wide variety of food products, including breakfast cereals, flours, bread, cakes, pasta, and cookies. Wheat varieties, mixtures, and hybrids include farro, freekeh, bulgur, einkorn, emmer, triticale, spelt, and Kamut.
Do things still seem pretty simple? A product can contain gluten without using any of the terms above in the ingredients list. If you are on a gluten-free diet, you must avoid the following ingredients (list from the AND Nutrition Care Manual):
- Bromated flour
- Durum flour
- Enriched flour
- Graham flour
- Phosphated flour
- Plain flour
- Self-rising flour
- White flour
- Modified food starch, caramel color, and dextrin may also contain wheat
To complicate matters further, gluten may be hiding in a number of unexpected food sources. These can include (list adapted from the AND Nutrition Care Manual):
- Gravies, salad dressings, and sauces (including soy sauce)
- Beer and some other fermented beverages
- Bouillon cubes and soups
- Processed meats such as cold cuts, hot dogs, and salami
- French fries
- Rice mixes
- Seitan (a vegan meat alternative made from gluten)
- Seasoned snack foods (such as chips)
- Some supplements, medications, and infant formulas
The lists above are not complete; other edible items may contain gluten. Talk to your physician about whether your medications or supplements are compatible with the gluten-free diet. Sometimes there are alternative products available that are free of gluten.
The good news is that since wheat is one of the major allergens, foods containing wheat or wheat protein must list “wheat” on the label. This listing can be in the ingredients list or in a separate “contains” allergen statement.
According to the FDA, foods labeled “gluten-free” must contain a gluten content of under 20 parts per million (ppm). Most with celiac disease can tolerate this tiny amount of gluten.
Dining out can be difficult on a strict gluten-free diet. Be sure to ask for the ingredients list as well as how they prepare the food. Never assume that a dish will be gluten-free just because it sounds like it should be.
For those on strict gluten-free diets, cross-contact can become an issue when dining out. When gluten-containing food touches a gluten-free food, cross-contact has occurred. The small amount of gluten transferred to the gluten-free food may be enough to impact someone with celiac disease negatively.
If you have a condition such as celiac disease, it is essential to ask for what you need to stay healthy. Find out whether the restaurant’s kitchen has a dedicated space to prepare gluten-free foods. If your family members eat gluten, create a dedicated space in your kitchen to prepare your gluten-free meals.
The gluten-free diet helps some, but others need to skip it
A gluten-free diet is an important nutrition therapy that can potentially benefit persons of any age who have certain medical diagnoses. If a person has been prescribed the gluten-free diet by their physician or a dietitian, they must follow it.
On the other hand, sometimes a person may put themselves on a gluten-free diet when it is not medically necessary. People who fall within these groups should not try the gluten-free diet without medical approval and supervision:
- People with a history of eating disorders
- Children and adolescents
- Those on a conflicting medical nutrition therapy (MNT)
- Underweight persons
- Pregnant or lactating women
These groups are at higher risk for malnutrition resulting from self-imposed diet restrictions. The folate or folic acid in gluten-containing grains is particularly critical for pregnant women. The other groups (aside from possibly the MNT conflict group) have an elevated risk for under-consuming calories.
People with a history of eating disorders should be particularly careful to avoid unnecessary diet restrictions. Self-imposed restrictions may hinder their progress in healing and create a barrier in building a healthy relationship with food. It is not worth the risk.
Gluten-containing grains are often readily accepted by picky eaters and can serve as an important source of certain nutrients. The B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B9), iron, and fiber in gluten-containing foods can be provided by meat and grains without gluten. Selective eaters following a gluten-free diet should make sure to include other food sources of these nutrients regularly.
You can use the gluten-free diet to bust the fat if you do it the right way
The gluten-free diet is not necessarily a diet that promotes weight loss. Some of the gluten-free alternatives to bread, pasta, and so on are higher in calories than those with gluten. Also, these products may feel less filling if the gluten proteins are substituted for starches and sugars.
On the other hand, if going gluten-free means that a person stops over-indulging in grain-based desserts and bread, they could lose weight. Switching foods with refined grains and added sugars for fruits, vegetables, and lean protein may aid in healthy weight management.
Foods that are higher in protein and fiber tend to provide greater satiety than foods packed with refined grains and sugars. This feeling of fullness can help a person to create a calorie deficit without depending heavily on willpower. Improving your diet quality is linked to a lower risk of nutrition-related chronic disease as you age as well.
Follow these tips and don’t let your gluten-free diet break the bank
Bread and grain-based desserts marked “gluten-free” tend to be expensive. Besides, they are often not the most nutritious options for those on a gluten-free diet. Many of the best gluten-free foods are single-ingredient minimally processed whole foods that wear no “gluten-free” label.
Dried beans and individual grains (such as brown rice) are naturally gluten-free and far less expensive than gluten-free bread. Don’t forget that fresh fruits, vegetables, most dairy, and lean meats are also gluten-free, though they have no label. You can save a lot of money on groceries by sticking to the basics and limiting the gluten-free specialty bakery products.
Consider batch cooking some healthy gluten-free meals and keeping the extras in the freezer. This can reduce your reliance on pricey ultra-processed convenience meals when you do not have time to cook. As an added benefit, home-cooked meals tend to be lower in sodium than store-bought convenience options.
Final thoughts on The Gluten-Free Diet
Going on a gluten-free diet can initially feel overwhelming. Gluten is a highly prevalent ingredient in the Western world. It is hiding in many different foods under a variety of names.
If you are on a gluten-free diet as medical nutrition therapy, consider checking in with a registered dietitian. A dietitian can review your diet and help you to identify any potential hidden sources of gluten. If you are having trouble finding foods to eat, a dietitian can help you with that as well.
Head over to the recipe section to find an abundance of recipes that will fit your gluten-free lifestyle. We’ll show you how tasty and easy it can be to go gluten-free when you cook for yourself. Getting creative in the kitchen can be fun!
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.