Getting Started With the Gluten-Free Diet

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Starting the gluten-free diet sounds easy to do: most people assume it's simply a matter of switching out your bread and other baked goods, plus your pasta, for gluten-free versions of the same items. But unfortunately, the gluten-free diet is a lot more complicated than that.

When you've been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you need to eliminate all traces of gluten in your diet. Gluten hides in unexpected places, and it takes some time to learn them all. You also need to take steps to avoid gluten cross-contamination in your food, which can be more difficult than it sounds.

Your Calorie and Nutrition Goals

Studies show that it's not uncommon for people to be overweight or obese at the time they're diagnosed with celiac disease. In addition, some people are underweight — in some cases severely underweight — when they're first diagnosed, and want to gain weight.

It's true that many people follow the gluten-free diet to lose weight, even though it's not designed to be a weight loss diet. Regardless of whether you're trying to gain or lose weight (or even stay at the same level) while eating gluten-free, you'll need to be aware of how many calories you're consuming.

To get you started, here are some healthy (and not-so-healthy) gluten-free snacks, plus their calorie and nutritional information:

  • 9 gluten-free crackers (Mary's Gone Crackers brand): 140 calories, 6g fat, 21g carbs, 0g fiber, 1g protein, 240mg sodium
  • 10 baby carrots with snack-sized hummus singles (Sabra brand): 185 calories, 11g fat, 17g carbs, 6g fiber, 5g protein, 250mg sodium
  • fresh fruit cup with melon, grapes, and mixed berries (14 oz): 160 calories, 0.5g fat, 39g carbs, 4g fiber, 3g protein, 40mg sodium
  • 1 medium-sized banana: 105 calories, 0.5g fat, 27g carbs, 3g fiber, 1.3g protein, 1mg sodium
  • 1 container Greek vanilla nonfat yogurt (Chobani brand): 120 calories, 0g fat, 16g carbs, 0g fiber, 13g protein, 240mg sodium
  • 1 cup celery sticks with nut butter single pack (Justin's brand): 118 calories, 16g fat, 13g carbs, 5.4g fiber, 8g protein, 136mg sodium
  • 1.5 oz bag plain potato chips (Lays Classic brand): 240 calories, 16g fat, 23g carbs, 2g fiber, 3g protein, 250mg sodium
  • 1 oz pistachios, shelled and lightly salted (about 45 kernels): 170 calories, 13g fat, 5g carbs, 3g fiber, 6g protein, 160mg sodium
  • 1 energy bar (Kind Bar, dark chocolate nuts & sea salt flavor): 180 calories, 15g fat, 16g carbs, 7g fiber, 6g protein, 140mg sodium
  • 1.55 oz chocolate bar (Hershey Milk Chocolate brand): 210 calories, 13g fat, 26g carbs, 1g fiber, 3g protein, 35mg sodium

All of these snacks are safe on the gluten-free diet, but they obviously aren't created equal when it comes to your weight loss (or weight gain) goals. If you're trying to lose weight while eating gluten-free, you'll want to stick with lower-calorie snack options, such as fruit and vegetables. Be aware that many prepackaged gluten-free foods, such as cookies, are higher in fat, sugar, and calories than the conventional, gluten-containing versions.

If your goal is to gain weight on the gluten-free diet, don't fill up with junk food. Instead, add more of the healthy higher-calorie options, such as nut butter, to your diet. You also can consider making smoothies with gluten-free protein powder as a snack between meals.

Hydration

When starting the gluten-free diet, there's frequently lots of focus on the foods you can eat, with little attention paid to beverages you can drink. That's a mistake, because everything that you consume, including drinks, needs to be gluten-free.

Water is gluten-free, of course, and many beverages — but not all — are gluten-free. For example, plain coffee and tea are gluten-free, as are many fruit juices, sodas, and energy drinks and sports drinks. If you're thirsty and in a pinch, you can't go wrong with bottled water, regardless of brand, or 100% fruit juice.

However, conventional beer is not gluten-free (this includes light beers), and some popular coffee drinks (iced and hot) are not considered safe on the gluten-free diet. In addition, you should beware of certain smoothies, especially "green" smoothies that include wheat grass (which generally is not considered gluten-free).

Grocery Staples

When you're first starting the gluten-free diet, grocery shopping can seem frustrating and discouraging. You're likely to find that many of your staples — your go-to items in the store — now are off-limits. This probably will include some favorite foods, as well.

It's okay to mourn your favorites. But gluten-free foods are so ubiquitous these days that you should be able to replace those favorites pretty quickly, possibly even with a gluten-free version from the same brand. In other cases, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that your favorite foods already are gluten-free.

Gluten-Free Foods

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Fresh, plain meat, poultry and fish

  • Breads and pastas labeled "gluten-free"

  • Plain rice and corn

  • Most potato and tortilla chips (check the label)

  • Plain milk, yogurt, and eggs

  • 100% fruit juice

  • Many sodas and bottled beverages

Gluten-Containing Foods

  • Bread and bread products (wheat)

  • Pasta (wheat and semolina)

  • Baked goods, including muffins, waffles, and pastries (wheat)

  • Some canned soups (pasta, wheat, and barley)

  • Crackers and cookies (wheat, barley, and rye)

  • Many frozen foods (wheat and barley)

  • Some ice cream (wheat)

Your best bet is to do your research before you venture into the grocery store. Check on your favorites and determine whether or not they're gluten-free; if they're not, then see if you can identify a gluten-free version of the same food to purchase. For example, there are many different types of gluten-free pasta, some of which are made by the same companies as regular, wheat-containing pasta.

Gluten-free bread represents the biggest stumbling block for many people. Although gluten-free bread has recently improved, it's still not as good as wheat bread. You may want to consider eliminating bread while you adjust to being gluten-free, and then experimenting with gluten-free bread (pro tip: it's better toasted).

You can't count on foods to be gluten-free, even if they don't seem as if they would contain gluten since gluten can hide in many unexpected places. For example, some ice cream manufacturers use wheat as a thickener. In addition, conventional soy sauce, which you might think is made from soybeans, contains wheat as its top ingredient (gluten-free soy sauce is available in most supermarkets).

Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, where you'll find the produce, meats, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs. Plain, fresh foods are gluten-free. Get a big bag of plain rice, even if you're not used to eating lots of rice. Plain rice is gluten-free, and it's an inexpensive, easy addition to meals. And only purchase grain-based products such as cookies or crackers if they're specifically labeled "gluten-free."

When it comes to prepared foods, such as condiments or frozen meals, rely on gluten-free lists of products or on grocery store shelf tags (some grocery store chains, such as Publix and Wegmans, label prepared foods "gluten-free" on the shelves).

Creating a Gluten-Free Place to Cook

Before you can create delicious gluten-free meals from your gluten-free foods and ingredients, you'll need to make sure you have a safe, gluten-free place to cook. That means ridding your kitchen of gluten foods and ingredients and probably replacing some of your cooking pans and utensils.

Why take these seemingly extreme steps? When you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, even a tiny bit of gluten can make you sick. So it's actually possible to experience symptoms from breathing wheat flour in the air, or from using a cast iron frying pan that previously was used to make pancakes.

You should give away or throw away gluten-containing items you no longer can eat, and buy new kitchen tools, especially anything that's plastic or which has scratches that can harbor gluten residue.

If the rest of your household is not going gluten-free with you, you'll need to establish rules to share a kitchen. Create your own gluten-free space in the kitchen, and keep your cooking pans and utensils separate. Many people buy two sets of tools in different colors. For example, the blue spatulas could be for gluten-free while the yellow spatulas would be for gluten-containing foods. You'll obviously need your entire household to be on the same page for this approach to work.

Recipe Ideas

Gluten-free recipe ideas abound online and in cookbooks. But a recipe doesn't need to be specifically labeled "gluten-free" to work well on the gluten-free diet; it simply needs to not include gluten ingredients.

For example, a vegetable stir-fry recipe or a paella rice dish may already be gluten-free. If it's not, you may find it's easy to make the dish gluten-free by substituting gluten-free soy sauce or by choosing different spices. Likewise, you can make any pasta recipe gluten-free by substituting gluten-free pasta and making certain to pick a gluten-free pasta sauce.

Recipes that include wheat flour are more difficult to make gluten-free. However, seasoned chefs often have decent luck replacing flour with corn starch in certain recipes. In addition, gluten-free flour blends such as Cup4Cup claim to be direct replacements for wheat flour in baking recipes (although your mileage may vary somewhat, depending on the recipe).

Breakfast

There are two approaches you can take when planning your gluten-free breakfasts: you either can replace gluten-containing breakfast foods such as cereal and toast with gluten-free versions of those foods, or you can eat naturally gluten-free foods. Many people combine these two approaches. For example, a healthy gluten-free breakfast can include:

If you're in a hurry, grab a gluten-free bagel and layer it with cream cheese (Philadelphia Brand is gluten-free), or snatch a gluten-free yogurt from the refrigerator on your way out the door. If you make them ahead of time, flourless banana breakfast cookies also can be a time-saver on busy mornings.

On the other hand, if you want something more interesting, consider gluten-free egg and black bean breakfast tacos, or baked eggs and red cabbage with Parmesan cheese. You even can host an entirely gluten-free and vegetarian brunch.

Lunch and Dinner

There are so many delicious gluten-free recipes available that it's impossible to list them all. Here are a few that would make a substantial lunch or dinner main course:

For a lighter lunch or dinner, consider:

Gluten-free appetizers or side dish ideas include:

Dessert

Sure, you can stick with gluten-free ice cream or sorbet for dessert—those both are safe choices. But there are many more delicious options available:

Snacks

As you saw above, there are plenty of gluten-free snacks available (some healthy and some not). But if you have the time, you can make your own snacks from scratch:

Cooking and Meal Planning

There's no doubt about it: following the gluten-free diet means you're likely to cook more meals from scratch. That's good news; cooking from scratch generally makes your meals healthier, because you can choose the best ingredients. But the bad news; cooking from scratch definitely takes more time. You'll need to allow for that when planning your weekly schedule.

There are a few ways you can save time and still make healthy, homemade gluten-free meals:

  • Plan ahead to have leftovers by making half again as much food as you think you and your family will eat in one sitting.
  • Clean out and reorganize your freezer (or even consider investing in a standalone freezer) so that you can freeze homemade single serving entrees.
  • Purchase a countertop rice cooker that makes perfect rice every time.
  • Buy pre-chopped vegetables at the grocery store (make sure they're prepared in an area that's separate from the bakery; fortunately, most are).
  • Try gluten-free slow cooker recipes that you can leave cooking while you do other things (this Moroccan beef stew is delicious).

A Word From Verywell

The gluten-free diet is essential for your health if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For those with celiac disease, continuing to consume gluten-containing foods can lead to severe intestinal damage, complications such as osteoporosis, and even certain rare cancers. For people with gluten sensitivity, most doctors don't believe permanent damage is done by continued gluten ingestion, but it's likely to cause unpleasant symptoms.

Still, the gluten-free diet isn't guaranteed to be healthy. To improve your health (and potentially lose weight, assuming that's also your goal), you'll need to make sure the gluten-free meal plans you follow include good nutritional choices: lots of fresh vegetables and fruit; lean meats, poultry, and fish (assuming you aren't vegetarian); and whole gluten-free grains.

You also can't neglect other issues that affect your health, so make certain to get plenty of good sleep, follow a regular exercise routine, and manage your stress. Taking care of your digestive health is critical, especially if your health requires you to be gluten-free, but simply going gluten-free won't solve all your problems unless you practice other healthful habits at the same time.

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Article Sources

  1. Diamanti A, Capriati T, Basso MS, et al. Celiac disease and overweight in children: an update. Nutrients. 2014;6(1):207-20. doi: 10.3390/nu6010207

  2. Massachusetts General Hospital, Center for Celiac Research: "Celiac Disease FAQ"

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