A gluten-free diet can be adopted due to medical necessity or simply personal choice. Approximately 1% of Americans have celiac disease which necessitates a gluten-free diet, while others opt for gluten-free alternatives for different reasons.
A 2019 study in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism revealed that up to 5% of people choose a gluten-free diet out of preference, and 13% claim a sensitivity to gluten-rich products.
Various misconceptions surround the gluten-free diet. Some individuals perceive it as a healthier lifestyle or a means of weight loss. However, according to Rachel Begun, M.S., RDN, a culinary nutritionist and expert on gluten-free diets, no research validates that eliminating gluten from your diet results in either of those outcomes.
Regardless of your motivation, initiating a gluten-free diet in the right manner can ensure your well-being, satisfaction, and happiness.
What Is a Gluten-Free Diet?
A gluten-free diet is a nutritional plan that avoids foods with gluten. Gluten is a protein present in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye).
Purposes of Gluten-Free Lifestyle
A diet free of gluten is crucial for managing the indicators and symptoms of celiac disease along with other medical conditions related to gluten. This diet is also favored by individuals who do not have a medically diagnosed gluten-related condition.
The purported advantages of this diet include better health, weight reduction, and enhanced energy levels, although further studies are required.
1. Celiac disease: Celiac disease is a condition where the immune system responds to gluten, causing damage to the small intestine’s lining.
This damage, over time, hinders the absorption of nutrients from food. Celiac disease is classified as an autoimmune disorder.
2. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity triggers symptoms similar to celiac diseases, such as abdominal discomfort, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, “brain fog”, rash, or headache, even though there is no tissue damage in the small intestine.
Research indicates that the immune system is involved, but the exact process is not fully understood.
3. Gluten ataxia, another autoimmune disorder, impacts specific nerve tissues leading to issues with muscle control and voluntary muscle movement.
4. Wheat allergy, similar to other food allergies, occurs when the immune system incorrectly identifies gluten or another protein in wheat as a harmful agent, like a virus or bacterium. The immune system produces an antibody to the protein, triggering an immune response that can cause congestion, breathing difficulties, and other symptoms.
Foods You Can Eat on a Gluten-Free Diet
In a gluten-free diet, you can eat a variety of foods including:
- Fruits and vegetables: These are naturally gluten-free.
- Meat and fish: Fresh meat, fish, and poultry are free from gluten. However, be careful with breaded versions and those that come pre-marinated or in sauces, as they may contain gluten.
- Dairy: Most dairy products are gluten-free. However, those that are flavored and contain additives should be checked carefully for gluten.
- Grains: Quinoa, rice, corn, tapioca, millet, and gluten-free oats are all gluten-free grains.
- Starches and flours: Potatoes, cornflour, chickpea flour, soy flour, almond meal/flour, coconut flour, and tapioca flour are all gluten-free.
- Nuts and seeds: All nuts and seeds are gluten-free.
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, and peas are naturally gluten-free.
- Oils and Vinegars: Most oils and vinegars are gluten-free.
- Spices: Single-ingredient spices are usually gluten-free, but check for gluten-containing fillers.
Remember, it’s important to check food labels for potential gluten content if you’re following a strict gluten-free diet. Also, avoid cross-contamination with gluten-containing foods.
Food to Avoid
In a gluten-free diet, you should avoid foods that contain wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Some specific foods and food categories to avoid include:
- Breads and baked goods: This includes all types of bread, cakes, pies, pastries, cookies, biscuits, crackers, croutons, and many breakfast cereals.
- Pasta: This includes all types of pasta made from wheat, barley, or rye.
- Grains and starches: Avoid wheat (including spelt, kamut, farro, durum, bulgur, and semolina), barley, rye, triticale, and any other grain that has been malted.
- Processed foods: Many processed foods contain gluten, including beer, candies, hot dogs and sausages, ice cream, salad dressings, sauces (including soy sauce), and soups.
- Cereals: Most cereals contain gluten, but there are some specifically designed gluten-free options available.
- Beverages: Some alcoholic beverages, like beer, ales, lager, malt beverages, and certain mixed drinks contain gluten.
- Other foods: Anything that is breaded or battered usually contains gluten, as do many types of fries and potato chips.
Steer clear of any food and beverages that include the following ingredients:
- Triticale — a hybrid of wheat and rye
- Oats, under certain circumstances
Although oats are inherently free of gluten, they might be contaminated with wheat, barley, or rye during the manufacturing process. Oats and oat-based products that are labeled as gluten-free have not been cross-contaminated. However, some individuals with celiac disease may still be unable to digest oats, even if they are labeled as gluten-free.
Positive Aspects of a Gluten-Free Lifestyle
A gluten-free diet is essential for people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy. Here are some potential benefits:
- Improved Digestive Health: A gluten-free diet can help reduce symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and gas in people sensitive to gluten.
- Reduced Chronic Inflammation: In individuals with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet can help to reduce inflammation and improve nutrient absorption.
- Enhanced Energy Levels: Some people report feeling more energetic after eliminating gluten from their diet.
- Lowered Autoimmune Response: For people with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet can help to manage the autoimmune response caused by gluten.
- Healthy Weight Management: A gluten-free diet often involves avoiding processed foods, which can support weight management.
- Better Skin Health: Some people may experience improvements in skin conditions like dermatitis herpetiformis after adopting a gluten-free diet.
Maintaining a rigorous gluten-free diet is essential for individuals with celiac disease throughout their lives.
Adhering to this diet and avoiding any gluten cross-contamination can lead to a decrease in symptoms and complications related to the disease.
However, for those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the condition might not be permanent.
Some studies suggest that these individuals might need to follow the diet for a specific time, like one or two years, and then reassess their gluten sensitivity.
For others with the same sensitivity, a gluten-free diet might be a permanent solution.
Several clinical studies have explored the potential advantages of a gluten-free diet for people without celiac disease or those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Further research is necessary to validate the following claims about the diet’s potential benefits:
- Weight reduction
- Enhanced overall health
- Improved gut health
- Boosted athletic performance
Foods that aren’t part of a gluten-free diet are rich in essential vitamins and other nutrients. For instance, whole-grain bread and similar products are either natural or fortified sources of:
Thus, adopting a gluten-free diet will likely alter your nutrient consumption. Certain gluten-free breads and cereals may have nutrient levels that vary significantly from the products they’re substituting.
It’s worth noting that some gluten-free foods may contain more fat and sugar than their gluten-containing counterparts.
Therefore, it’s crucial to scrutinize labels, not just for gluten content, but also for comprehensive nutrient levels, sodium, fat-derived calories, and sugar-derived calories. You can find more risks and downsides of a gluten-free here.
For advice on nutrient-dense, healthy alternatives, consider consulting your doctor or dietitian.
Is Following a Gluten-Free Diet Expensive?
The prices of ready-made gluten-free products are typically more than those of the foods they substitute. The financial burden of adhering to a gluten-free diet can be significant, particularly if your diet incorporates foods that do not naturally gluten-free.