Contemplating going gluten-free to improve your health? Here's what you need to know about the intricacies of staying healthy while not consuming gluten.
Gluten is a combination of certain proteins found often in wheat, barley, rye, and hybrids of these products, such as Kamut. Gluten is the substance responsible for the chewy texture of bread and the elasticity in dough.
Gluten-free diets originated for people who needed to manage Celiac disease, which is a serious autoimmune disease affecting the intestines caused by the reaction of the immune system with gluten. When a person with Celiac disease consumes gluten, their immune system forms antibodies that attack the intestinal lining. The symptoms include digestive problems, anemia, cramps, ulcers, and the inability to absorb nutrients.
There are a large number of people who exhibit symptoms of Celiac disease, but instead are gluten sensitive. Gluten sensitivity is seen as less severe than Celiac disease, causing minimal intestinal damage in some cases. For those with gluten sensitivity, adopting a gluten-free diet helps with the symptoms and intestinal health.
Gluten-free diets have also gained popularity with people not suffering from gluten-related conditions due to the claim that it will aid in weight loss and higher energy levels. It is important to note that gluten-free diets do not necessarily equate to a healthy diet, as many gluten-free diets lack certain nutrients found in gluten-rich foods. There is no scientific proof of the links between going gluten-free and weight loss; people who avoid gluten-rich foods like bread lose weight because they tend to consume healthier alternatives. In addition, many processed foods include gluten, so people who adopt a gluten-free diet tend to feel more energetic as a byproduct of eating more fruits, vegetables, and meats that are not grain-fed.
Do: Choose these foods
The best choices for a gluten-free diet are fresh foods that are naturally gluten-free. Some examples are:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables (potatoes and corn are actually gluten-free)
- Fresh meat, poultry, and fish
- Beans, seeds, and nuts
- Fresh eggs
Don’t: Ignore the risks of going gluten-free
Be aware of the food preparation process when consuming food, especially when eating out. For example, some restaurants will mindlessly toast gluten-free bread with normal bread, which contaminates the gluten-free alternative. Also, common food additives such as malt flavoring are a sneaky source of gluten.
Always double check that your medication or vitamins do not use gluten as a binding agent. Starches are common ingredients in many pills and capsules. Check online or contact the manufacturers to determine if wheat starch (one of the lesser used ingredients) is part of the ingredients list.
By law, refined flour products like white flour, bread, and pasta contain added amounts of B vitamins and iron. A gluten-free diet restricts the grain products you consume that are enriched with nutrients and replaces the ingredients with little added nutritional value like potato starch, rice flour, or cornstarch. Thus, people who follow a gluten-free diet often have low levels of certain vitamins and minerals combined with poor absorption.
Do: Get enough nutrients
A few nutrients that are often deficient in gluten free diets are:
B Vitamins: Common B-vitamin deficiencies include thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. Often found in yeast, thiamin intake can be increased by eating sunflower seeds, black beans, tuna, green peas, or lentils. Riboflavin is used for body growth and red blood cell production and can be found in mushrooms, cooked spinach, venison, and soybeans. Niacin is found in mushrooms, avocados, broccoli, and fatty fish. Folate is abundant in green leafy vegetables such as spinach, asparagus, lentils, beets, and broccoli. Supplements for B-vitamins can cover multiple deficiencies and can ease the process of meeting nutrient intake levels.
Iron: Across the world, anemia is one of the most common deficiencies. The most efficiently absorbed iron is from “heme”, or animal-based sources. Taking iron supplements can also help with this deficiency.
Calcium: The damage from Celiac disease makes adequate calcium intake very tricky, as the enzyme that digests lactose tends to be missing when the small intestine is damaged. Calcium can be found in non-dairy products like sardines, tofu, and deep green leafy vegetables. In general, calcium levels (which is important for bone health, blood clotting, and nerve functions,)in gluten-free diets tends to be low.
Vitamin D: Dairy is also a well-known source of added Vitamin D. In the absence of lactase, orange juice is also another common source of this added vitamin. In areas with limited sunshine, Vitamin D supplements are sometimes necessary to reach adequate levels.
Don’t: Gloss over the ingredients
There are products whose ingredients may be at risk of gluten cross-contamination. Be sure to check the label for “gluten-free”, or do some research on the ingredients before purchasing.
- Gravies, salad dressings, and sauces may have gluten-containing additives or preservatives; for example, many ketchups include gluten.
- Milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, or ice cream may include add-ins with gluten.
- Bread can be found made with gluten-free flour like rice flour.
- Oats can be contaminated with wheat during growing and processing, so look for the ones specifically labelled “gluten-free”
- Distilled alcoholic beverages are gluten-free because the distillation effect removes gluten. Beer often contains gluten, while rum, tequila and vodka are generally gluten-free.
- Breakfast foods like corn flakes and rice puffs often contain malt extract. Granola mixes often contain regular oats that could include gluten.