Going “gluten-free” has become one of the most buzzed-about diets- but many of us find ourselves asking, what does it mean and how do you get started? Gluten is a family of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt. It is most prevalent in food products like bread, pasta, baked goods and crackers but can also be found in foods like soy sauce and chicken broth. It is said that 1 percent of people around the world have Celiac Disease (which is a chronic digestive and immune disorder that is triggered by eating foods that contain gluten), but an estimated 18 million Americans suffer from a gluten sensitivity. Those with a gluten sensitivity often claim that removing gluten from their diet assisted with losing weight, improved digestion, helps with brain-fog, gives more energy and even reduced inflammation. While a gluten-free diet may not be necessary for everyone, if you suffer from any of those symptoms, it may be worth trying to eliminate certain foods to see if you notice positive effects.
If you are interested in reducing or eliminating gluten in your diet, here are a few tips to get you started.
Read Nutrition Labels
Just because something is labeled as gluten-free, does not mean it’s healthier- and this especially the case with packaged foods like cereals, frozen meals, or other packaged snack foods. These products can be made with refined grains, heavy amounts of sugar and can often have even more calories than their traditional counterparts. With that being said, it’s important to read nutrition labels and look for as minimal ingredients as possible (and ingredients that you recognize!) Healthy gluten-free snacks can include nuts, whole fruits, vegetables and protein.
It is important to be mindful of hidden sources of gluten, including hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, malt/malt flavoring and modified wheat starch.
Check Your Pantry
Foods with wheat contain the highest amount of gluten, so when you are grocery shopping or looking through items in your pantry, it is important to know what is gluten-free and what is not. Items like bread, baked goods, pasta, breakfast cereals, crackers and canned soups can contain gluten and should be avoided if you are sensitive. Make a note of the foods you are removing so that you can check for alternatives at the grocery store (i.e., gluten free pasta, crackers, etc.) Fortunately, nowadays there are plenty of good alternatives, for example: corn tortillas instead of flour, zucchini noodles instead of pasta, or raw veggies and dip instead of crackers.
Eat More Meals at Home
By cooking your meals at home, you know exactly which ingredients you are using (and the quality) and don’t have to worry about risks of cross-contamination. Restaurants are increasingly offering more gluten-free meal options, however, many of those menu items can come with an added cost. Gluten-free substitutes are often more expensive in restaurants, so eating more meals at home can be much more cost effective.
Swap Carbs for Naturally Gluten-Free Carbs
The good news is, you don’t need to cut carbohydrates from your diet completely to eat a gluten-free diet. In fact, carbs are necessary for a healthy body, as they provide us with energy, fuels the brain, kidneys, heart and the nervous system. There are plenty of nutrient-dense carb options that are naturally gluten-free, such as quinoa, sweet potatoes, brown rice, wild rice or black/pinto beans. Fruits and vegetables are another healthy source of carbohydrates that are naturally gluten-free.
Keep Realistic Expectations
Adjusting to the challenge of eliminating gluten from your diet does not occur overnight. Unless you have Celiac Disease, most people can eat small quantities of gluten every now and then and feel little effects. Whenever you make a drastic change to your diet, it is important to be patient and trust that it will get easier over time as you gain experience. In the meantime, it can be helpful to speak to your doctor, dietician and find recipes and tips for success on a gluten-free diet online or in cookbooks.