Is a gluten-free diet the right choice for you? It's hard not to think about this when we see so many articles on the topic these days. Many people find that it can be healthy and satisfying to avoid gluten. Whether you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, these tips will help you navigate the world of gluten-free eating.
What Is a Gluten-free Diet?
Gluten holds food together and helps it maintain its shape. Cakes, crackers, and pastries almost always contain gluten. It is found in less obvious places like dressings, sauces, dips, marinades, deli meats, canned foods, candy, and alcohol. Gluten itself is not bad for you, but it can cause issues for some people.
A gluten-free diet will include all naturally gluten-free foods, like fruits, vegetables, dairy, beans, some grains, and meat. You can also eat processed gluten-free foods like cereals, breads, and desserts.
What Does Gluten Do to Your Body
Everyone reacts differently to gluten, which can cause problems for some sensitive individuals. According to The Mayo Clinic, gluten can cause fatigue, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, weight loss, and malnutrition, particularly for those sensitive to it.
If you have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack itself after exposure to gluten, you must not touch gluten altogether. Also, be sure to avoid cross contamination (when gluten-free food makes direct or indirect contact with food containing gluten). This immune system response can damage the lining of the small intestines, making it hard for your body to absorb nutrients.
Celiac disease symptoms can be severe, including diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss. Other complications can also be related to celiac disease, causing anemia, rashes, fatigue, headaches, and joint pain.
You may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) or gluten intolerance if your symptoms are not as severe. These symptoms can be similar such as stomach discomfort, tiredness, headache, or bloating but are more manageable. There is no way to confirm this diagnosis, so patients often try to eliminate gluten from their diets for at least two weeks to see if symptoms subside.
Other people may have a wheat allergy where their bodies produce antibodies to proteins found in wheat which causes an allergic reaction. This can cause a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.
Foods That Contain Gluten
Figuring out which foods contain gluten can be tricky. To stay on the safe side, avoid the ingredients wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. These will be on nutrition labels marked wheat flour, wheat bran, durum, kamut, semolina, and einkorn. Also, look out for the following ingredients and additives which may indicate the product contains wheat: malt, malt vinegar, malt syrup, malt extract, soy sauce, modified food starch, and emulsifiers.
While gluten occurs naturally in some grains, it's also commonly extracted and added to various foods and beverages like soy sauce, beer, and chocolate milk. In these cases, the gluten is added to either act as a binding agent or enhance the product's flavor, texture, and protein content. That's why you can often find gluten hidden in sauces, dressings, and marinades.
Avoid the following gluten-containing foods:
- Cakes, cookies, pies
- Communion wafers
- Malt and malt flavoring
- Processed and imitation meats
- Soups and soup mixes
- Vegetables in sauce
Foods That Do Not Contain Gluten
The following foods are free from gluten, but always check labels and read ingredient lists carefully. Find my complete Gluten Free Food List here.
- Whole fruits and vegetables (watch out for canned, frozen, and dried)
- Nuts, nut butter, and legumes
- Meat, fish, seafood, poultry
- Brown rice, white rice, wild rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, sorghum, teff
- Gluten-free pasta
- Gluten-free oatmeal
- Gluten-free flours
- Milk, cream, cream cheese, sour cream, and yogurt (plain varieties)
- Butter, olive oil, vinegar, avocado oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil
- Tamari, coconut aminos, white vinegar, and apple cider vinegar,
- Spices (be careful with spice blends)
Tips for a Gluten-free Diet
It can be overwhelming to think about removing all gluten from your diet, but it can be done. A gluten-free diet is about eating healthy, whole foods in their natural state.
- Clean out your pantry and throw away or donate any foods containing gluten.
- Keep it simple by eating whole foods that are naturally gluten-free, like fruits, vegetables, non-processed meat, and grains. Don't rely on processed, gluten-free foods with no nutritional value.
- Meal prep for the week. I like to pick one simple breakfast and lunch to eat all week; then, I only have to plan my dinners.
- Be careful and plan ahead when eating out. Most restaurants have gluten-free menus now. If not, suggest a restaurant that does.
- Keep the cost down by buying compliant foods in bulk from warehouse stores like Costco and inexpensive stores like Trader Joe's.
Pros and Cons of a Gluten-free Diet
Gluten-free diets have several advantages and disadvantages, depending on your specific medical issues and how you implement the diet.
Pros of a Gluten-free Diet
- Digestive symptom relief: If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, getting rid of gluten will relieve digestive symptoms like bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
- Increased energy: For individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, consuming foods with gluten can cause them to become fatigued, forgetful, foggy, or sluggish.
- Reduced inflammation: Inflammation is a natural bodily process, but in those individuals with celiac disease, chronic inflammation can damage the gut causing inflammation.
- Weight loss: Many people who switch to a gluten-free diet experience some weight loss in the first few months. Rather than being a result of the lack of gluten, this can be a result of refraining from overly processed packaged foods like cakes and cookies.
Cons of a Gluten-free Diet
- Nutritional deficiency risk: Removing gluten from your diet puts you at risk of missing out on beneficial nutrients found in gluten-containing foods like iron, calcium, zinc, folate, and B vitamins.
- Low in fiber: Eating foods that are high in fiber is one of the best ways to promote healthy bowel movements. Unfortunately, many popular fiber sources like bread and bran contain gluten. Not only that, but most of the gluten-free alternatives on the market are low in fiber.
- Difficulty dining out: Following a gluten-free diet can make navigating social settings like restaurants, parties, and work functions challenging. While it can sometimes present a burden, working around it with a little extra planning is easy.
- Weight gain: Ironically, you can gain weight when you choose this type of diet. That's because many packaged gluten-free products are high in carbohydrates and sugar and contain very little nutritional value.
Are Gluten-free Diets Healthy?
While gluten-free diets are often touted as a healthy life choice, it's essential to understand that not all gluten-free foods are created equal. You can find many compliant products on grocery store shelves with artificial ingredients, fats, and sugars.
That said, it's all about the choices you make. If you prioritize eating whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, then this diet could help optimize your overall health. However, if you gravitate towards unhealthy packaged products and junk every day, the fact that your junk is free from gluten won't mean much of anything.
Can a Gluten-free Diet Help Me Lose Weight?
There is no scientific evidence that you will lose weight, but in some cases, it does happen. Eating gluten-free means consuming whole foods in their natural states, like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and some whole grains. You will not move the scale if you swap processed gluten-based foods for processed gluten-free foods. It may depend on what your diet was like when you started. People who commit to eating this way may be highly motivated and very disciplined, which is more likely the reason they lose weight.
If you are still considering a gluten-free diet, it's a good idea to speak with your doctor about your symptoms and when they occur. It is beneficial to keep a food journal for a few weeks and write down everything you eat and what symptoms you experience. This is often the most crucial information you can share with your doctor then you can work together to develop a plan.
This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks.
Karen Kelly is the gluten free food blogger and health coach over at Seasonal Cravings. She is a busy wife and mother to three teenagers who loves creating gluten free recipes in her kitchen outside of Washington, D.C. She has a wealth of resources on how to manage a gluten free diet.