Gluten and Dairy-Free Diet: How to Get Started and Tips

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While it may seem like almost everyone is eliminating gluten or dairy from their diet, there may be real health reasons to nix both. Not only are gluten and dairy common intolerances contributing to unpleasant side effects such as bloating, gas, and indigestion, but people may also feel relief from allergies, sensitivities, or anti-inflammatory conditions by avoiding these foods.

When you need to ditch both gluten and dairy, it means getting rid of many foods that may be staples in your diet and provide a number of important nutrients. This also means a bigger challenge when eating out, grocery shopping, and meal prepping. Before saying goodbye to mac and cheese completely, speak with a healthcare provider and hear what the experts have to say about the necessity of eliminating both gluten and dairy and how to do it safely.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a group of proteins that are found naturally in certain grains, such as barley, wheat, and rye. Two proteins commonly found in wheat are glutenin and gliadin. These proteins give grains their characteristically soft and chewy texture. Gluten proteins in bread form an elastic network that stretches, allowing bread to rise.

Which Foods Contain Gluten?

Gluten is frequently added to foods to improve their texture and retain moisture. Some foods that contain gluten include bread, wheat bran, farro, couscous, pasta, wheat germ, some veggie burgers, pastries, soy sauce, gravies, beer and certain kinds of wine and liquor, and some processed meats.

Oats are inherently gluten-free but are often processed and transported with equipment that is also used for wheat, which can lead to contamination. You can find gluten-free oats easily, which means they were processed on equipment free from gluten.

Who Needs to Avoid Gluten?

While gluten is safe to eat for most people, certain medical conditions may require a gluten-free diet. Research shows that gluten may cause a leaky gut. When you eat gluten, it releases a type of protein called zonulin in the small intestine. Zonulin signals the tight junctions in the intestinal wall to open. In healthy individuals, the tight junctions normally repair themselves after a meal and are unaffected by any damage.

However, in individuals with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, wheat allergies, or certain autoimmune diseases, the tight junctions are unable to repair themselves and stay open, leading to leaky gut. Gluten may have to be avoided in order to maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall and prevent uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms.

What is Dairy?

Dairy includes foods made from or containing the milk of cows, sheep, goats, or buffaloes.

Which Foods Contain Dairy?

Foods like milk, yogurt, cheese, kefir, ice cream, butter, sour cream, cream cheese, ghee, whey products, and casein are all considered dairy. Dairy is an excellent source of protein and many vitamins and minerals including calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and magnesium.

Who Needs to Avoid Dairy?

Allergies to dairy may include lactose intolerance and milk protein allergies, or allergies to casein or whey. Lactose is the sugar naturally found in dairy and lactase is the enzyme produced by cells in the small intestine that breaks down lactose.

Lactose intolerance is a common condition where people have an impaired ability to digest lactose, which may result in diarrhea, gas, nausea, stomach cramps, and bloating. Individuals with a milk protein allergy, meaning they are allergic to whey or casein, may experience hives, itching, swelling of the lips, mouth, tongue, and throat, sneezing, coughing, or wheezing.

Who May Benefit from a Gluten and Dairy-Free Diet

While it is not widely indicated, there are some populations who may benefit from following a gluten and dairy-free diet.

People with Allergies or Sensitivities

If you have been diagnosed with both a milk and wheat allergy, it is necessary for you to avoid all dairy and wheat-containing foods. Celiac disease is the most severe form of gluten intolerance as it can lead to damage to the digestive system if gluten is not avoided. A milder form of gluten intolerance is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity and can cause symptoms of bloating, diarrhea, stomach pain, headaches, and fatigue.

Those with celiac disease may also need to avoid the milk protein casein. Casein is similar to the gliadin protein found in gluten. In a small number of cases, the body may mistake casein for gluten and cause more inflammation and digestive symptoms. Eliminating both gluten and dairy may be necessary for those with celiac disease, though it is not for everyone.

People with Inflammatory Conditions

Research points to gluten and dairy's role in promoting inflammation in the body. Symptoms of certain inflammatory conditions may be mitigated by following a gluten and dairy-free diet.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease where the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body and causes painful inflammation mainly in the joints. In one study with 40 patients with long-standing rheumatoid arthritis, the effect of a 3-month elimination of gluten and dairy was studied. After 3 months, the number of leukocytes and neutrophils and levels of C-reactive protein, all critical markers of inflammation, decreased. The results suggest that individuals with rheumatoid arthritis who avoid gluten and dairy may have better control of inflammation.

Another inflammatory condition includes Hashimoto's thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid gland and is a common cause of hypothyroidism. While medical management with thyroid hormone replacement is effective, many individuals continue to experience symptoms. The Autoimmune Protocol is a phased elimination diet that has been shown to decrease symptoms of Hashimoto's and improve quality of life.

Included in the Autoimmune Protocol is the avoidance of gluten and dairy products. Studies show that individuals who follow the diet have a statistically significant decrease in inflammation and changes in white blood cell count. Eliminating gluten and dairy may be effective at decreasing the symptom burden of Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

Finally, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the stomach and intestines and is associated with uncomfortable digestive symptoms such as cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, or both. The low-FODMAP diet, which is an elimination diet that excludes fermentable carbohydrates that cause symptoms in individuals with IBS, is shown to decrease the severity of symptoms.

The low-FODMAP diet includes the elimination of almost all gluten and dairy products. Research shows that while avoiding gluten and dairy only will not get rid of IBS symptoms, there is a statistically significant reduction in bloating and abdominal pain.

Children with Nephrotic Syndrome

Steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome (SRNS) is a leading cause of end-stage kidney disease in children. Kidney disease impacts 10% of the world population and it frequently fails treatment with standard immunosuppression. There is increased research on the effectiveness of a gluten and dairy-free diet in children with SRNS on improving outcomes. One study followed 16 patients ages 1-21 while a gluten and dairy elimination diet was implemented in a 4-week summer camp setting. After four weeks, the diet was shown to have a major anti-inflammatory effect and promoted a favorable gut microbiota. While this study shows promising results, additional and larger studies should be done.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD

There is limited research on the effect of gluten and dairy, specifically casein-free, diets for addressing characteristics of autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. Eliminating gluten and casein may help lighten traits and behaviors associated with autism and ADHD.

An imbalance in the composition of the gut microbiota leading to gastrointestinal disorders is also commonly seen in individuals with autism and ADHD. Eliminating gluten and dairy may play a role in decreasing these traits. Since this diet is difficult to follow and may eliminate a number of important nutrients, it is recommended to check with a doctor before starting and eliminating foods slowly. More research needs to be done on the effectiveness of eliminating gluten and dairy for the sake of neurodivergent conditions.

Due to the restrictive nature of gluten and dairy-free diets, they can be difficult to follow and eliminate key nutrients. Be sure to speak with a healthcare provider for guidance on the necessity and planning to ensure a well-rounded diet and the prevention of deficiencies. A registered dietitian can provide guidance on what ingredients to include and avoid and provide many meal ideas and recipes.

How to Follow a Gluten and Dairy-Free Diet

There are a number of steps to take in beginning a gluten and dairy-free diet that will not only make it simpler but ensure you are getting enough nutrients.

  • Educate yourself on where gluten and dairy are found and research alternatives. While there are obvious sources of gluten and dairy, such as bread and milk, there are also many hidden or unexpected sources in foods as well. Learn what terms to look for and where to find them on ingredient labels. Foods that do not include gluten and dairy include chicken, fish, legumes, meat, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, rice, corn, and products specifically labels "gluten and dairy-free."
  • Remove all gluten and dairy products from your home and shop for alternatives. When beginning the diet, you may need to go through your pantry and refrigerator and remove any items that contain gluten or dairy. You may also want to clean cooking equipment, such as pans, utensils, and toasters, well or buy extra ones to prevent cross-contamination if necessary. Replace your food products with suitable gluten and dairy-free alternatives.
  • Plan meal options that are gluten and dairy-free. Once you have your pantry and fridge re-stocked, you can use the new ingredients to plan out gluten and dairy-free meal ideas. Research online or buy cookbooks with gluten and dairy-free recipes for additional ideas.
  • Find where and how to eat out. Research restaurants that can accommodate a gluten and dairy-free diet or look at menus ahead of time to ensure there are options to eat. Additionally, learn what questions to ask at restaurants to ensure no cross-contamination and how to ask for alternatives.
  • Find the least restrictive diet possible. While a gluten and dairy-free diet can feel restrictive, make sure you are eating as much variety as possible to prevent boredom and also to ensure you are getting enough nutrients. Speak to a registered dietitian about what you may be missing in your diet and get guidance on any supplements that might be necessary.

A Word From Verywell

Research shows the efficacy of a gluten and dairy-free diet in abating symptoms in a number of inflammatory conditions, allergies and sensitivities, and neurodivergent disorders. Before beginning a restrictive diet, be sure to speak with a healthcare professional to receive advice, guidance, and support in planning out a healthy and balanced diet. It is recommended to speak with them before beginning and throughout the implementation as questions and concerns arise.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can I eat on a gluten and dairy-free diet?

    You can eat any foods that do not contain gluten and dairy. These include all fruits and vegetables, meat, chicken, fish, legumes, corn, quinoa, rice, legumes, and nuts. Be sure to read ingredient labels on packaged foods and look for products labeled "gluten and dairy-free".

  • What happens to your body when you go gluten and dairy-free?

    Going gluten and dairy-free helps to eliminate two sources of inflammation in the body. It can help to improve your health by reducing inflammation, managing food allergies and sensitivities, and fighting chronic inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

  • Can you lose weight by eating gluten and dairy-free?

    People may lose weight as a consequence of eating gluten and dairy-free due to cutting out what may be a large part of their caloric intake. It is important to replace these calories with other foods, but it is possible that they may not be fully replaced, resulting in weight loss.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Rebecca Jaspan is a registered dietitian specializing in anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, as well as disordered eating and orthorexia.