While Keto and Paleo dieting is more of a food choice, choosing gluten-free foods is a necessity based in a specific health need. In many cases, gluten has the same negative side effects as other allergens such as eggs or dairy. Whether you’re preparing food to meet these restrictions or struggling with gluten-related problems yourself, this article describes what is allowed (and not allowed) on a Gluten-Free Diet.
What is gluten and why does it matter for some people?
Gluten is a general name for the family of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. When mixed with liquids (i.e. flour with water or milk), it creates a glue-like structure that keeps dough elastic, helps bread rise and maintain structure, and creates a chewy texture.
This protein is what causes problems for those with Celiac disease and it’s estimated that over 3 million people in the United States suffer from this disease. Celiacs is an autoimmune disorder in which the body overreacts to gluten, triggering production of antibodies that then attack the lining of the small intestine. This, in turn, causes a severe physical reaction; limits absorption of nutrients; and over time causes serious health problems ranging from osteoporosis to cancer.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is similar to celiac disease and those suffering will experience a wide range of side effects including bloating, abdominal pain and gastrointestinal issues, rash, headache, and even mental fog.
Gluten Ataxia is also an autoimmune disorder but in this case the nerve tissues are affected creating problems with involuntary muscle movement or control.
Wheat Allergy. As with other food allergies, the symptoms can range from severe including asphyxiation to less serious immune symptom responses.
Many people without the above conditions still avoid gluten because they believe this diet will encourage weight loss; improve brain and overall health; and boost energy and athletic performance. This is a somewhat controversial notion as not enough clinical research has been done to prove these claims.
What to Avoid on a Gluten-Free Diet
This is another diet that requires a lot of label reading because the risk of cross-contamination is high. Luckily, the FDA has established guidelines that all food labeled gluten-free must follow but labeling of gluten is not required. If the claim of gluten-free is made, the food is either inherently gluten-free; cannot contain any amount of a gluten-containing grain; or be made with a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (for example, wheat starch). Also, any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 ppm.
These foods must be avoided on a gluten-free diet and it’s important to understand, too, all the many names by which wheat or wheat flour goes. Look for these:
- Varieties of the above including: durum, einkorn, emmer, kamut, spelt, farina, graham, or semolina
Generally, all pastas, breads, cakes, cookies, and crackers are made with wheat so they are off-limits on a gluten-free diet. Because wheat flour is often used as a thickening or flavoring agent, gluten is often found in surprising places including:
- Sauces, gravies, and salad dressings
- Beer and malt beverages
- Imitation meat and seafood and processed lunchmeats
- Soup, soup mixes, or bouillon
- Packaged rice or veggies with seasoning or sauce
- Dietary supplements and even prescription or over-the-counter medications
Grains allowed on a Gluten-Free Diet
These grains can be eaten as-is but are also frequently used to make gluten-free flours. Be sure to check all labeling for cross-contamination or additives that may contain grains from the above list. In most cases, gluten-free flour can used in the same proportion as wheat flour but an additional binder may be necessary and the consistency of the finished recipe may a bit different. Look for tested gluten-free recipes online and experiment with your own recipes until you find the right combinations.
Grains safe for a gluten-free diet:
- Corn and cornmeal
- Tapioca (cassava root)
Naturally Gluten-Free Foods
All fresh fruits and vegetables; meat, poultry, fish, and eggs; dairy products; and unprocessed beans, nuts, or seeds are naturally gluten free. It’s the preparation (i.e. adding breading or seasoning) that can introduce gluten. Again, make sure to read the label.
The challenge with gluten-free eating is to substitute ingredients that still provide nutrients. Many whole-grain, wheat-based products such as bread or cereal are naturally fortified or enriched with nutrients such as iron, calcium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. These nutrient levels are not always the same with gluten-free products and, in many cases, manufacturers add sugar or fat to improve taste. Plan your dietary intake carefully if switching to a gluten-free diet and choose foods that are packed with nutrition.
And as with any food allergy, be sure to maintain a food-safe home to guard against cross contamination in storage, food preparation, or dishwashing.
If you’d like to sample some tasty gluten-free snacks, check out our Gluten Free Snack Box here.