5 Things You Need to Know About Going Gluten-Free

Alexis Joseph, MS, RD, LD
by Alexis Joseph, MS, RD, LD
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5 Things You Need to Know About Going Gluten-Free

There’s no doubt about it–gluten (or the lack thereof) was one of the most talked about food trends lately! In hopes of shedding pounds, clearing up the skin, reducing brain fog, or simply feeling better, it seems that everyone and their brother has tried giving up gluten. Is consuming gluten fatal,or is it just unfashionable? And what exactly is gluten? Let’s find out!

What is gluten?
Gluten is a mixture of two proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. It has an elastic texture that helps hold foods together, and gives bread its springiness

What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a hereditary autoimmune disorder that affects about 1% of the US population (it’s rare!). Those who suffer from this condition must follow a strict gluten-free diet to prevent damage to the small intestine. For those affected, ingesting even trace amounts of gluten interferes with the body’s ability to absorb critical nutrients like vitamin B12. Symptoms of celiac disease include fatigue, joint pain, bloating, weight loss and diarrhea. Check with your doctor or health provider if you suspect you have celiac disease, which can have dire consequence if left untreated.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, also known as “gluten intolerance,” is more common. It involves symptoms similar to celiac disease without the intestinal damage. People who experience gluten sensitivity may avoid gluten to reduce symptoms but won’t suffer from nutritional deficiencies.

Who should go gluten-free?
Going gluten-free may be trendy, but it’s not medically necessary if you don’t suffer from celiac disease or gluten intolerance. That said, there’s no denying that Americans over-consume processed carbohydrates like refined white flour (think: bagels, crackers, cookies, muffins, pastries, noodles, etc). Avoiding gluten containing foods is a strategy to eat less of foods with refined carbohydrates. However, replacing wheat products with similar gluten-free versions made with refined starches isn’t doing the body any favors, either. You may have noticed a surge in popularity of gluten-free whole grains and nut meals like wild rice, quinoa, millet, and certified gluten-free oats, coconut flour, and almond flour. These are the kinds of whole, less-refined gluten-free products to be looking for.

Is it necessary for most of us to cut out gluten entirely? No. Research suggests that adequate whole grain consumption is associated with lower risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Whole grains are also a great source of energizing B vitamins and fiber.
Would we all benefit from less refined flour and more real, whole foods like beans, nuts, fruit, whole grains, and vegetables? Definitely!

If you were recently diagnosed with celiac disease or suspect you may have a gluten sensitivity, here are some things you need to know:

1. “Wheat-free” doesn’t mean “gluten-free.”
Just because a food doesn’t contain wheat doesn’t mean it’s free of gluten from other sources, like barley and rye. Keep an eye out for other varieties of wheat as well, including faro, semolina, graham, spelt, and farina.

2. Watch for hidden sources of gluten.
There’s gluten hiding in some unexpected places, like malt (malt flavoring, malt vinegar), brewer’s yeast, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, “natural flavors,” modified food starch, and vitamin and mineral supplements. Always read the ingredient label!

3. Inherently gluten-free foods aren’t always “gluten-free.”
According to the FDA rule for gluten-free labeling, foods labeled gluten-free can’t have more than 20 parts per million of gluten. Products that are naturally gluten-free, like oats, are likely to contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten due to cross contamination during processing. To be safe, choose grains, seeds, and flours that are labeled “gluten-free.”

4. Beware of cross contamination.
This tip applies most if you’re diagnosed with celiac disease or are extremely gluten-intolerant, because, guess what? That pizza you just ordered on gluten-free crust likely wasn’t fired in a gluten-free oven. It’s great that restaurants now have gluten-free options; but unless they were made in a certified gluten-free facility, they’re likely cross contaminated. Other easily contaminated foods include French fries, bulk bin foods, and condiments where people are prone to double dip.

5. Always keep simple gluten-free pantry staples on hand.
Canned beans, tomatoes, hummus, nuts, eggs, veggie stock, frozen fruit and vegetables, and whole grains like brown rice, oats and quinoa are great to have in your back pocket for quick meals. Stock up on your favorite vinegars, oils, herbs, and spices so you can whip up a quick dinner anytime!

About the Author

Alexis Joseph, MS, RD, LD
Alexis Joseph, MS, RD, LD

Alexis is a nationally recognized nutritionist and media personality specializing in nutrition communications and intuitive eating. She founded Hummusapien, a multi-faceted food, wellness, and lifestyle website in 2011 and co-founded Alchemy Juice Bar + Cafe in Columbus, OH in 2014. Alexis also works as a writer, speaker, and nutrition consultant for food brands and commodity boards.

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12 responses to “5 Things You Need to Know About Going Gluten-Free”

  1. Avatar Nerdie says:

    As someone with celiac and a child with celiac, I have a love hate relationship with the fad. On one hand, the dummies going gluten free because of the fad prompt companies to give us food that tastes like food (as opposed to cardboard). On the hand SO MUCH MISINFORMATION floating around.

    I have to say, thanks for this article. I clicked expecting it to be dumb. But thank you for providing proper information.

  2. Avatar Tasha Leslie says:

    I’m gluten intolerant and I’m struggling to lose weight any suggestions?

    • Avatar Meghan Di Rito says:

      Get tested for other food allergies you might have. Food allergies can cause bloating and make it hard to loose weight. Also, get a thorough thyroid testing done. This can also cause weight gain and make it hard to lose weight. I don’t claim to be an expert, but having this done allowed me to know why I wasn’t losing weight when eating right and exercising.

    • Avatar K says:

      Stay away from most packaged gluten free foods. Use a lettuce wrap instead of bread. Make meals that don’t require gluten, like meat or fish + veggies + (brown rice or quinoa or, sweet potato).

  3. Avatar chezus says:

    This is a great post Alexis – I know so many people going gluten free because it is trendy or as a way to “diet”. Definitely sharing this must read!

  4. Avatar barrhon says:

    typo:
    under “3. Inherently gluten-free foods …”
    1st sentence: “… foods labeled gluten-free can’t have than 20 …”
    you’re missing the word ‘more’ before ‘than’.

  5. Avatar Penny O says:

    Many of us have been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition. Functional medicine practitioners (Naturopathic physicians, nutritionists, etc.) recommend we cut out gluten to help heal the inflammatory process of the autoimmune disease.

  6. Avatar Meghan Di Rito says:

    Overall, great article. I would add one more thing that it’s important to know: if you choose to eat gluten-free substitutes, many of the gluten free flours can be high calorie and high on the glycemic index. Always know what you are eating. Just because it’s gluten free does not mean it’s healthy to eat on a regular basis.

  7. Avatar Cassie Williams says:

    Tip 6 – Watch out for all the starch in most store-bought gluten-free foods and in gluten-free all purpose flour recipes. Starch is sugar in the body. It’s no wonder so many Celiac sufferers are also diabetic!

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