As awareness of celiac disease becomes increasingly widespread, the popularity of the gluten free diet continues to grow. Unlike many modern diets, the gluten free diet is more than just a fad –for people with celiac disease and wheat allergies or sensitivities, it’s a medical necessity.
Even a decade ago, the gluten free diet was largely a mystery except to people with celiac disease, who followed it as a matter of medical necessity. Today, however, going gluten free has become something of a trend. Some people mistakenly believe that a gluten free diet is the key to weight loss, though many who follow the diet for this reason have very little knowledge about the diet or about gluten at all.
While there are certainly those who misunderstand the gluten free diet, its rise in popularity (regardless of the catalyst) has led to a surge in awareness among the general public and the food industry regarding celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten free diet in general. Restaurants have started to offer gluten free menus and gluten free food manufacturers are growing more and more numerous.
Now more than ever, it is possible to follow the gluten free diet without completely overhauling your life. You will have to make certain changes – especially if you have celiac disease – but the transition may be less cataclysmic than it once was.
If you are thinking about making the switch to the gluten free diet or looking for some helpful tips, let this be your guide.
Understanding the Basics: What is Gluten?
Before getting into the nitty-gritty details of the gluten free diet, you need to have a basic understanding of what gluten is and where it can be found. Gluten is a family of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. Glutenin and gliadin are the two primary proteins found in these grains and they play a role in giving gluten-containing foods like dough its elasticity and bread its spongy texture.
On its own, gluten is not a harmful substance. In fact, most people tolerate gluten perfectly well. The problem occurs when the body mistakenly recognizes gluten as a foreign substance and launches a systemic attack against it. Celiac disease, for example, is an autoimmune condition in which the body recognizes gluten as a foreign invader and acts out against it. In the process, however, healthy cells lining the walls of the small intestine sustain damage which inhibits the body’s ability to properly absorb nutrients from food.
A wheat allergy is somewhat different because it can be triggered by proteins other than gluten. The body’s response, however, is very similar – it launches an attack against the foreign substance by producing immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies while other tissues in the body send out chemical messengers alerting the body to the threat. The resulting reaction causes side effects such as itchy rash, nausea, abdominal pain, swollen tongue or lips, difficulty breathing, and anaphylaxis.
Somewhere along the spectrum between celiac disease and gluten allergy lies non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This term is not clearly defined by the medical community and there is no clear diagnosis or set of symptoms. Gluten intolerance is thought to be a more severe form of this sensitivity and may result in immune system activity and the resulting side effects, though not to the same degree of severity as an allergy or autoimmune disorder. Anyone with celiac disease, gluten/wheat allergy, or gluten sensitivity/intolerance could benefit from switching to a gluten free diet.
What Does a Gluten Free Diet Look Like?
A gluten free diet is simply a diet made up of gluten free foods. It may sound simple when you put it like that, but the truth is that gluten is hidden in many foods where you might not expect to see it. For example, soy sauce is made with wheat and some potato chips have gluten in the seasoning. Locating gluten in some foods can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. In order to be successful with a gluten free diet, you need to know which foods contain gluten (or could contain) gluten, and you need to avoid them.
So, what are the foods that are most likely to contain gluten? Here is a basic overview:
- Cake flour
- Pizza crust
Many of the foods on the list above may seem like obvious sources of gluten. If you think so, great! It means that you already have a pretty good understanding of where gluten can be found in everyday food items. Keep in mind, however, that there is a whole other list of foods that contain “hidden” gluten or that may be cross-contaminated with it. Here are some of those foods:
- Breaded meat
- Processed cheese
- Fried foods
- Baking mixes
- Cheesecake filling
- Chicken broth
- Protein bars
- Multigrain chips
- Soy sauce
- Imitation crab
- Artificial flavors
- Licorice and candy
- Creamy soups
- Salad dressings
- Malt liquor
Now that you have an idea of which foods contain gluten or are likely to contain gluten you have a foundation of knowledge on which to build your gluten free diet. But what exactly does a healthy gluten free diet look like?
A healthy gluten free diet is no different from an otherwise healthy diet except for the fact that it doesn’t contain gluten. You should still aim to consume a balance of lean protein, healthy fats, fresh fruits, and nutritious veggies but you’ll need to be careful about which grains you consume. You can still enjoy corn, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, arrowroot, and other ancient grains as well as flours made from nuts and seeds like almond flour and coconut flour.
Here is a list of some of the gluten free foods that you could include in your diet:
- Meat, poultry, and eggs
- Fish and seafood
- Beans and legumes
- Fruits and vegetables
- Corn (corn flour, cornmeal, grits, polenta)
- Rice (white rice, brown rice, basmati, etc.)
- Arrowroot powder
- Buckwheat (kasha)
- Oats and oatmeal (non-contaminated, pure oats)
- Chickpea flour
- Coconut (coconut flour, oil, milk, etc.)
- Almonds (flour, milk, and seeds)
- Milk, butter, cheese
- Vinegars and oils
- Herbs and spices
- Baking powder and baking soda
Even though most of these items are naturally gluten free, you should still check the package to make sure due to concerns about cross contamination. For example, oats are sometimes processed on the same equipment with gluten-containing grains. If you do not have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, this may not be a problem for you because the oats themselves are still gluten free. It always pays to read the label and you should do more than just check the allergen statement – look through the ingredients list as well just to make sure.
Are Gluten Free Packaged Foods Healthy?
The thing you need to remember about certified gluten free packaged foods is that they are largely the same as their gluten-containing counterparts, minus the gluten. A box of gluten free cookies contains as many calories and as much fat as a regular box of cookies – the only difference is in some of the ingredients. Do not make the mistake of assuming that “gluten free” means “healthy.” While the two certainly can and do overlap, just because something is gluten free does not automatically make it a healthier choice.
So, can you still eat gluten free packaged foods? Of course! Gluten free brands like Schar make delicious foods, everything from bread and pasta to crackers, cookies, and more. If you’re preparing a recipe that calls for some kind of pasta, bread, or packaged food. Be sure to double-check the rest of the ingredients just to be safe, but it may be a simple solution that enables you to continue enjoying your favorite recipes.
Tips for Avoiding Cross-Contamination
If you’re going to commit to a gluten free diet, you need to do more than just avoid foods that contain gluten – you also need to be wary of cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is when a food you eat or a utensil you use has come into contact with gluten. The risk for cross-contamination is very high at a restaurant but it can also happen in your very own kitchen.
Here are a few ways to avoid cross-contamination in your home:
- Buy a new toaster and use it only for gluten free bread
- Use stainless steel cookware because nonstick pans can absorb gluten
- Purchase new bakeware or line it with parchment or foil before using
- Buy new dishwashing supplies and do not use them on anything that has touched gluten
- Keep a separate cupboard or drawer for gluten free foods and label them, if needed
- Buy a non-porous cutting board and use it only for gluten free food prep
In addition to following these simple tips, you should also follow safe food handling practices. Always wash your hands after handling raw meat or seafood and thoroughly clean all utensils including cutting boards, knives, and cookware after coming into contact with raw food. Just know that the more careful you are with food you plan to eat, the better.
Eating Gluten Free at Restaurants
Once you get the hang of following the gluten free diet at home you may feel comfortable enough to go out to eat. Though it is still one of the more misunderstood dietary restrictions, the gluten free diet is becoming more and more commonplace. This means that you can find healthy and satisfying options at most restaurants if you know where to look and what substitutions to make.
The key to eating gluten free at a restaurant is to plan ahead. If you already know where you’ll be going, check the menu online or call the restaurant to see if they offer any gluten free options. Don’t be afraid to ask the restaurant about their gluten free handling procedures to be sure they can address your needs.
Even if the restaurant doesn’t offer a dedicated gluten free menu, certain options are likely to be available to you – here are a few you can look for:
- Sandwiches or burgers either with a gluten free bun, or no bun at all (ask to be sure burgers are not made with breadcrumbs or other gluten fillers)
- Soups and stews prepared without flour used as a thickener
- Grilled, roasted, or smoked meats and seafood made with gluten free sauce or seasoning
- Steamed, stir-fried, or roasted vegetables and gluten free grains
- Salads with grilled meat, no croutons, and gluten free dressing
The options available will depend on the type of restaurant you go to, but these are some of the safest bets. When it comes to ethnic foods, certain types of cuisine are more gluten free-friendly than others. Mexican food, for example, is safer than many other options as long as you choose corn over flour tortillas. Indian food offers a variety of options as long as you skip the naan and Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines largely feature grilled meat or fish with vegetables, salad, or rice. You may also be able to enjoy Asian cuisine served with rice noodles or steamed rice, just be wary of soy-based sauces that may contain gluten. No matter the type of food, always double check to ensure it truly is gluten free and there is no risk of cross-contamination. At the very least, you can always order gluten free meal delivery.
If you still want to eat out but you’re worried about your options, it doesn’t hurt to come prepared. Bring along a handful of Schar Gluten Free Table Crackers so you can still enjoy house-made guacamole dip or bring a Schar Gluten Free Hamburger Bun and order your burger bunless. It may take some creativity, but you can still enjoy a meal out with friends and family while sticking to the gluten free diet.
Avoid These Top 3 Mistakes When Going Gluten Free
The more you know about the gluten free diet, the easier it will be to stick to. The most important thing you need to do is review gluten free food lists, so you know where to look for hidden gluten and what foods are safe for you to eat. After that, it’s a game of balance – you need to create healthy eating habits and structure your diet around gluten free foods. It may be a challenge at first, but with practice you’ll get the hang of it in no time.
As you get started with the gluten free diet, there are some challenges you’re likely to encounter and you may make a few mistakes. To give you your best chance at success, here is a quick list of the top two mistakes people make when going gluten free, so you can avoid making them yourself:
Not learning how to read food labels.
Before you eat anything, you need to make sure that it doesn’t contain gluten and that means reading the label. Check the allergen statement first to make sure it doesn’t list wheat and then review the list of ingredients to check for both obvious and hidden sources of gluten. You can also look for the certified gluten free label.
Not taking the diet seriously.
If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, the gluten free diet is more than just a choice – it is a medical necessity. There’s no cure for these conditions and eliminating gluten from your diet is the only treatment. This being said, you need to take the gluten free diet seriously and don’t cut corners or allow yourself a “cheat” day where you eat gluten-containing foods. If you have celiac disease, even the tiniest amount of gluten could cause severe intestinal damage.
We hope you now have a thorough understanding of the gluten free diet – what it looks like and how to follow it. So, take what you’ve learned here and put it into action. Good luck