Gluten-free diets have become more and more popular in recent years. The reason for this is simple; for the people who have an adverse reaction to eating gluten, the only treatment is to stop eating anything containing it. Obvious reasons aside, there are actually other benefits for those opting to leave gluten out of their lives forever. For anyone with gluten sensitivity or intolerance, this can be one of the best lifestyle changes they ever make. Among those with gluten intolerances, studies have shown a link between gluten and a myriad of other health problems, including arthritis and autoimmune disorders. This article provides a beginner’s introduction to gluten-free eating, including information on the basics of the diet and tips for finding clean food options. If you are looking for relief from your gluten-related symptoms, this guide is an excellent way to get started with your new gluten-free lifestyle!
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in some grains, most notably wheat, barley and rye (15). It’s what gives bread the ability to rise and retain its shape – without it, you’d have flat bread. Gluten can also be found in other grain products such as pasta, cookies and cakes; basically anything that is made with grains that contain gluten.
According to many health professionals, gluten can cause damage to the body when consumed by people who are sensitive or intolerant to it. Although celiac disease (the full-fledged autoimmune disorder that occurs when people eat gluten) occurs in less than 1 percent of the population, more may show signs of non-celiac gluten sensitivity (3).
This means they experience negative effects when eating foods containing gluten but don’t suffer from an autoimmune response. Some of the symptoms include chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), migraines and joint pain.
If you suffer from any of these symptoms on a regular basis, gluten may be the culprit. If you’re uncertain about your symptoms or just want to find out more about making this diet work for you, keep reading!
How Do I Know If My Symptoms Are Related To Gluten?
If you are having symptoms that you think may be triggered by gluten, or if you have a close relative with celiac disease or you yourself have another autoimmune disease, your doctor can perform a blood test, biopsy, or other type of test to screen for celiac disease.
If you don’t have celiac disease but still have symptoms you feel are triggered by gluten, unfortunately there isn’t one test that can tell you with 100 percent certainty whether gluten is causing your health issues or not – but there are some steps you can take to determine whether being on a gluten-free diet would be beneficial to you. Your doctor or a registered dietitian will guide you through the process.
First of all, you will eliminate all foods containing gluten from your home. This includes everything from cereal to candy bars – if it contains wheat, rye or barley, put it in your trash. Many store-bought products will contain these grains even when not listed in the ingredients, so you’ll need to read labels carefully.
Once your home is gluten-free and your symptoms have gone away after a time on a gluten-free diet, your next step is to try reintroducing gluten into your diet. This can be difficult; most people feel terrible the first few times they eat something containing gluten again! If you feel angry, bloated or tired after eating bread or pasta, chances are good that you’ve found the source of some of your symptoms!
If your symptoms come back within two days of consuming foods containing gluten, this is a pretty big indication that you need to continue avoiding it. However, if it takes a while for the effects to show up or not at all, it could be something else that is the trigger.
As mentioned previously, some studies have linked gluten to a number of other health problems – and a great many individuals claim they feel better when they stop eating gluten but don’t notice an immediate change in their symptoms (5). If your body seems okay with gluten-based foods, keep doing what you’re doing! But if every time you eat wheat or similar products, your head begins to pound or your stomach starts acting up again…well, maybe giving the diet a shot won’t be such a bad idea after all!
Elimination diets can be confusing and finding the source of a food intolerance isn’t always easy, so working with a registered dietitian and your doctor throughout the process can be very helpful.
How To Transition To A Gluten-Free Diet
Making the switch to a 100 percent gluten-free diet can seem daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be! Here’s a quick and simple way to begin:
When You Shop
Take a look at a typical shopping list and replace all of the grain-based items with gluten-free alternatives. For example, instead of pasta try spaghetti squash; instead of cereal buy gluten-free oatmeal; and when it comes to bread, get yourself some sweet potato tortillas! In fact, any product containing wheat can usually be replaced by something from another source.
Once You’re At The Store
Be sure to take a look at the label of every food product you buy. Gluten is hidden in a large number of ingredients, and it can be very difficult to avoid. However, make sure that you do! It’s better if you avoid gluten-based foods as much as possible – even occasional treats can derail all of your hard work and cause very uncomfortable symptoms. When reading labels, keep an eye out for these ingredients (6):
While Cooking At Home
Cross contamination is a serious concern for anyone on a gluten-free diet. Be sure that all of your cooking utensils and work surfaces are completely clean before you begin preparing foods that don’t contain gluten – even the smallest trace of grain could make you sick! Remember to cook with non-gluten based ingredients.
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When Dining Out
When dining out is unavoidable, avoid anything breaded or fried as well as any pasta dishes – most likely they’ll contain some kind of dough made from wheat! Instead order grilled proteins with steamed veggies or salad; always double-check that your food is truly gluten-free before you take a bite.
While Eating Out At A Restaurant
If you’re eating at a restaurant, ask about the ingredients of certain dishes. Many restaurants will be able to prepare gluten-free meals for you – all you need to do is give them some advance notice! If that isn’t an option, just stick with foods that are typically gluten free (e.g salad without croutons) and check the ingredients on anything else before putting it in your mouth. Be sure to let your server know that you are gluten-free so the kitchen can take care to avoid cross-contamination.
During A Night Out
Just because you’re on a gluten-free diet doesn’t mean you have to give up your social life completely. However, if you are going out for drinks you’ll need to know what to order. If you aren’t sure about the ingredients of what’s being served or mixed at the bar, don’t go near any alcoholic beverage – even if it looks tempting. Wine without flavorings or additives is typically gluten-free, and you can sometimes find gluten-free beers. An easy bet is to stick with straight liquor – especially unflavored vodka, gin and scotch either straight or with gluten-free mixers.
If You Slip Up And Eat Something With Gluten
Don’t panic! This is going to sound a little dramatic, but if you do slip up and eat something containing gluten, you will know it. It’s very difficult to keep this stuff down for too long without experiencing symptoms. You may feel bloated or experience stomach pain, nausea, vomiting…the list goes on! Don’t freak out about accidental ingestion of gluten – just be more careful next time!
The Gluten-Free Diet Plan For Beginners
Once you’ve got a few weeks of shopping and cooking under your belt, it’s time to actually begin the diet! This section will provide an overview of what foods you can and can’t have – as well as what “special” items may help you make the transition more smoothly.
Foods You Can Consume
If you’ve been eating a gluten-heavy diet for some time now, switching to alternative grains like quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth may be difficult at first – especially if you haven’t eaten them before. However, if your aim is to truly heal your body the only way forward involves learning how to eat gluten-free and choosing ingredients that will promote better health for you both immediately and down the road!
These types of grains are typically high in protein and contain complex carbohydrates. They’re also rich sources of fiber and other minerals that contribute to efficient digestion as well as overall wellness (8). When trying out any new foods it’s always best to do so gradually so as not to overwhelm your system.
Gluten-free oats are actually very nutritious and can be used to make breads, cereals and soups. They even work well as a substitute for wheat flour which makes them a great addition to any gluten-free diet menu plan! Although oats are naturally gluten-free, they are often processed on shared equipment so cross-contamination is common. Just check the packaging to be sure that the oats you buy are certified gluten-free and you’ll be fine!
Almost everyone knows that corn is usually considered safe for those on a gluten-free diet, but not many realize just how versatile this ingredient can be! You can use it in place of pasta or rice; eat it roasted with garlic; transform it into cornbread or simply enjoy some fresh sweet corn on the cob! It’s also a good source of fiber and antioxidants which means that you’ll stay full longer while providing your body with essential nutrients (4).
Brown rice is more nutritious than its refined counterparts (white rice) but both are gluten-free; however, be sure to purchase varieties that are third-party certified gluten-free if you want to be on the safe side.
This grain-like seed can be used in place of rice for added protein and fiber; it provides all nine essential amino acids making it an excellent addition to almost any meal plan (10).
Although it’s not as popular as some other types of grains on this list, teff is a healthy and nutritious ingredient that can be used in breads and cakes or even to make your own pasta. It’s also high in vitamins and minerals so you know that what you’re eating is truly beneficial for your overall well-being.
Healthy proteins are essential for those who’ve decided to eat gluten-free; fortunately choosing the right kinds won’t leave you feeling deprived! From beef and pork to poultry and seafood there are plenty of sources from which to choose.
Although it’s not always easy to find grass-fed beef, if you can get your hands on some it will be well worth the effort. Not only is this type of meat lower in saturated fats than other types but it also contains more heart-healthy omega 3s (2). Choose leaner cuts to help limit your animal fat intake.
This delicious protein source is very versatile and can be used to make a variety of different recipes from breakfast to dinner! Just remember to go for leaner cuts if you want the best possible results.
It’s always best to purchase chicken that isn’t breaded or pre-seasoned. Then again, some people who are intolerant to gluten might have a problem with cornmeal which is often used in pre-seasoned chicken. If you didn’t make the seasoning mixture yourself, it’s difficult to be sure that there wasn’t cross-contamination and that the cornmeal was certified gluten-free. If you can’t eat chicken with breading, look for other types of poultry without it.
Fish, crab, and other types of shellfish are all excellent sources of protein without much saturated fat. If you want to prepare these types of food in different ways your options are endless; just be sure that they’re third-party tested to be 100 percent free from contamination.
Fruits And Vegetables
As you probably already know, most fresh fruits and vegetables are safe for those on a gluten-free diet so long as they don’t come into contact with gluten. This means that your choices are virtually unlimited! They are also rich in vitamins and antioxidants (7). Some of the best things to eat include:
- Citrus fruits
- Cruciferous vegetables e.g. broccoli, cabbage, kale
- Leafy greens e.g. spinach, lettuce
- Root vegetables e.g. Squash, Sweet potatoes
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What Not To Eat
Although there are plenty of healthy foods available when trying out a new gluten-free lifestyle, there are also quite a few ingredients that should be avoided altogether. Since it’s not always easy to spot these items on ingredient lists, we’ve compiled a few tips for you:
Although it’s not always obvious at first glance, wheat can be found in all kinds of processed foods and is considered one of the most common sources of gluten contamination (1). If you want to avoid this ingredient then it’s best to check labels carefully or stick with fresh whole ingredients that are naturally gluten-free.
While some people may be surprised by this one, rye actually contains gluten! It isn’t as popular as other types but it’s still important to keep an eye out for rye ingredients since they’ll often show up in unexpected places like flavored vinegars or marinades.
As expected there are plenty of barley products which are going to be off limits due to their gluten content. Although you can buy some “gluten-free” labeled varieties it’s important to read the labels carefully since barley has a tendency to sneak its way into all kinds of foods!
Not only is malt a prohibited ingredient but it also comes from barley which means that you’ll have to stay away from any flavored syrup, candy or beverage that lists this stuff as an ingredient.
In case you’re wondering, triticale is just another name for hybrid rye/wheat and should be avoided by those who need to follow a gluten-free lifestyle (13). Popular items like cakes and frozen waffles might not seem like they contain rye or wheat but these ingredients are common in the production of these foods.
We know that many people are surprised to hear that spelt actually contains gluten; since it’s not used as often as other grains like wheat or rye it can be easy to miss this stuff on ingredient lists. Luckily it isn’t too difficult to find delicious whole-grain versions of most gluten-free ingredients; they may cost a little extra but they’re well worth the investment!
Sources Of Hidden Gluten
Even though you’ll be avoiding certain types of grains, there are still plenty of foods that you’ll want to steer clear from when starting out on your new gluten-free diet plan (9). Although some of these items aren’t considered unhealthier than others, they’re still common sources of gluten contamination.
Bouillon Cubes Or Packets
You know what goes into bouillon but what about ingredient lists properly labeled as “natural flavors?” These are sneaky ways for manufacturers to get away with using wheat in producing their powdered-type versions even though it’s impossible to see properly listed.
Most deli meats are prepared by placing one slice of meat on top of another which isn’t a problem until you take a look at the ingredients. Although it might not seem like this stuff would cause problems, many types contain flavorings and grains that introduce gluten to these foods. It is also important to keep in mind that processed foods like deli meats may increase the risk of certain chronic diseases (14).
Even if it says “gravy” or “brown gravy” this type of sauce is actually prepared using the meat’s own juices which usually contain flour.
Although most types of sauces aren’t inherently bad for you, many (especially flavored versions) use additives like soy sauce or malt vinegar. These ingredients are often made using wheat so it’s best to avoid pre-made sauces. When you make your own from scratch, you control what ingredients go into them and you can be sure they are gluten-free.
Sample Gluten-Free Meal Plan For Beginners
Now that you know which foods to avoid it’s time to think about your new diet plan! Remember, although there are plenty of foods that should be completely avoided this doesn’t mean that you’ll spend all of your meals eating plain, boring foods! In fact, one of the best parts about developing a gluten-free lifestyle is that you’ll be able to eat plenty of delicious things without having to worry about any negative side effects.
For your first meal of the day it’s best to keep things nice and simple with gluten-free oatmeal or gluten-free cereal. If you’re looking for something a little more flavorful feel free to throw in some fresh fruit or low-fat yogurt to add some flavor and sweetness!
Sometimes it can be hard to fit lunch into your daily routine but this meal is important for maintaining energy. Even if you have a hectic lifestyle, taking the time to prepare yourself a nutritious salad with plenty of veggies will keep you full until dinner. If you want something more filling, try making a sandwich without the bread (turkey with lettuce and tomato is an excellent choice) or heat up some gluten-free soup. Protein is the most satiating food content (11).
When it comes time to prepare your final meal of the day try preparing a nice gluten-free pasta dish or even some delicious gluten-free pizza.
For those of you who can’t seem to go more than a few hours without eating, it’s best to keep your body satisfied by always having plenty of snacks on hand. When done correctly, snacking can be beneficial for health (12). Fresh fruit, popsicles, and gluten-free granola bars are all excellent choices.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, following a gluten-free diet plan doesn’t have to be complicated or filled with boring foods. As long as you’re making smart choices about what foods to eat and avoiding products that contain wheat, barley and rye your new lifestyle will become an easy transition.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Adverse Reactions to Wheat or Wheat Components (2019, onlinelibrary.wiley.com)
- A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef – Nutrition Journal (2010, nutritionj.biomedcentral.com)
- Celiac Disease (2011, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Corn phytochemicals and their health benefits (2018, sciencedirect.com)
- Gluten And Associated Medical Problems – StatPearls (2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Gluten-free diet (2021, mayoclinic.org)
- Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables (2012, academic.oup.com)
- Health benefits of whole grain: effects on dietary carbohydrate quality, the gut microbiome, and consequences of processing (2021, onlinelibrary.wiley.com)
- Hidden Sources of Gluten (2014, webmd.com)
- Seed Composition and Amino Acid Profiles for Quinoa Grown in Washington State (2020, frontiersin.org)
- The Effect of Ingested Macronutrients on Postprandial Ghrelin Response: A Critical Review of Existing Literature Data (2010, hindawi.com)
- The Science of Snacking (n.d., hsph.harvard.edu)
- Triticale: Nutritional composition and food uses (2018, sciencedirect.com)
- Ultra-processed food and chronic disease (2020, nature.com)
- What Is Gluten—Why Is It Special? | Nutrition (2019, frontiersin.org)