Not too long ago, it seemed no one cared much about gluten. You ate bread, a cookie, a bowl of pasta, and maybe you felt fine. Or maybe you felt bloated, fatigued, experienced abdominal pain, or even depression. The link between poor health and gluten has become a hot topic, and with more awareness on intolerance to it, the more questions people have. Going gluten-free for beginners requires education and a game plan. But where do you even start?
What is gluten, and are you gluten-intolerant?
The first place to start is to have a decent grasp on what gluten is, and why people reject it.
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Less than one percent of Americans suffer from celiac disease. This autoimmune disorder gives rise to antibodies that attack the small intestine following the ingestion of gluten.
The symptoms at first can be merely uncomfortable, like a stomachache, gas, and diarrhea, but as the disorder unfolds, over time, ingestion of gluten destroys the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients. This results in extreme weight loss, anemia, and chronic fatigue. Celiac disease is currently diagnosed via a process of exclusion. If a patient tests negative for it, but symptoms improve on a gluten-free diet, they are diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness reports that as many as 18 million Americans may have NCGS. But there are a growing number of people adopting a gluten-free diet without having such conditions. A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine reported that, while between 2009-10 0.52 percent of Americans ate gluten-free despite not having celiac disease, and 1.69 percent between 2013-14, the proportion has more than tripled.
Avoiding gluten is at first a tricky task, however, but our tips on going gluten-free for beginners can help show you the way.
Gluten hides in many foods, so you need to know its many names.
While it would be nice to simply toss out grains like wheat, spelt, rye, barley, farro, kamut, and semolina, and call it gluten-free good, there are plenty of other places gluten is hiding. The standard American diet is, unfortunately, a processed food nightmare, and with that comes a whole lot of gluten. To avoid it, you’re going to have to be one smart investigator. Read labels of packaged foods like you’re looking for the culprit of a crime.
While food companies must list allergens on the label, such as eggs and nuts, they do not have to list other names for gluten. Much like salt has many different names (baking soda, baking powder, monosodium glutamate, disodium phosphate), and sugar (anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup) on food labels, so does gluten.
Love swirling your sushi in soy sauce? Unfortunately, soy sauce is made with fermented wheat. Is your comfort food a big bowl of soup or savory sauce-covered piece of meat? Flour serves as a thickener for many soups and sauces. Gluten is used to stabilize ingredients in products including ketchup, mustard, and pre-made marinades.
Licorice, your best friend since you can remember, contains wheat. Many vegetarian and vegan products contain wheat to give the product its chewy texture. Plus, processed meats like hot dogs and sausages usually contain flour for texture, filler, or as a thickening agent. Even spice blends like taco mixes often contain gluten.
The bottom line is that it’s just not enough to assume something is gluten-free. The certification should be present, and you need to be really diligent about checking labels.
Gluten-free doesn’t always mean healthier food.
Just like going vegetarian can sometimes lead to consuming more simple carbohydrates and high-fat foods (hello grilled cheese), going gluten-free can result in unhealthy alternatives from morning to night. Think: gluten-free muffins for breakfast, gluten-free granola bars for a mid-morning snack, gluten-free packaged microwavable lunches, gluten-free pizza for dinner, gluten-free cookies for dessert.
Just like processed foods can be hiding gluten, the gluten-free alternatives are often hiding refined grains and sugar. This can lead to more calories than even the regular options. Essentially, just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t make it any healthier. Thinking of gluten-free as healthier can actually cause you to gain weight. Remember: a cookie is still a treat.
Be mindful when eating out.
Whether it’s takeout or dining in at a restaurant, people with celiac disease have to be incredibly mindful of what they’re putting in their bodies, while people who are just trying to avoid gluten will find that it’s a bit of work to go gluten-free.
Be sure to ask questions about whether sauce or salad dressing is made in-house or bottled. Assume that anything bottled contains gluten, and if it’s made in-house, you should ask for the ingredients list.
Cross contamination is another big issue. For instance, avoid cooking gluten-free pasta in the same water as the regular pasta. Cook eggs on a separate griddle than the pancakes, and cook fries in separate oil from the fish sticks.
But no matter how mindful of gluten you are, you also need to be careful not to assume all gluten-free foods mean healthy foods.
Keep it simple.
The most important thing to remember is to keep your diet simple. Detective work can be exhausting, but there’s a hack for that.
Simply avoid processed foods altogether! If you begin to cook more at home, you won’t have to grill the server about your soup, and if you choose whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, fish, and lean meat, you can easily avoid gluten. Check out these naturally gluten-free foods to add to your grocery list.
As with any diet, there is a lot of confusion about a gluten-free diet, most especially in regards to grains. You don’t have to give up brains. Rice, millet, quinoa, and buckwheat are just some of the grains you can still enjoy regularly.
There are so many ways to go gluten-free without trusting a package. These recipes, including: a vegetable curry, pork chops with asparagus, salmon quinoa cakes, cauliflower pizza, and fried eggs with sweet potato hash are great options. And while they may all be gluten-free, but they’re dishes you would likely eat even if you weren’t trying to avoid the pesky proteins.
While it can seem tenuous to take on a gluten-free lifestyle, some people have no choice, such as those with an intolerance or celiac disease. And others simply find themselves thriving by giving it up, despite not having an intolerance. No matter the reason, let this breakdown serve as a guide for you to take on the lifestyle with ease.
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