What to Expect on the Gluten-Free Diet

Lettuce taco gluten free

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To follow the gluten-free diet, you need to eliminate all foods and beverages that contain gluten. Gluten is a protein that's found in the grains wheat, barley, and rye. Therefore, you'll need to avoid foods that contain wheat, barley, or rye in order to eat gluten-free. This is easier said than done, unfortunately, because gluten-containing ingredients are in a lot of products.

If you're going gluten-free for health reasons—because you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity—you'll also need to watch for gluten cross-contamination occurring when gluten-free foods come into contact with gluten-containing foods. That's because even a tiny bit of a gluten-containing food—even a crumb that's too small for you to notice—can cause bad symptoms.

What to Eat

Following the gluten-free diet is complicated, since food manufacturers use gluten-containing ingredients—usually in the form of wheat or barley—in so many foods.

Wheat is used as the primary ingredient in most conventional baked goods, including: bread, cake, cookies, pasta, crackers, and cereal. Wheat also is used as a thickener in soups and (occasionally) as a thickener in ice cream. Therefore, to eat gluten-free you need to stick to versions of all those foods that are specifically labeled "gluten-free."

Barley isn't found in as many foods as wheat, but it's a sneakier ingredient: manufacturers use barley malt to sweeten some candies and cereals. Barley also is the primary ingredient found in beer. Meanwhile, rye, the third gluten grain, generally is found only in some breads and crackers, most of which also include wheat.

Compliant Foods

  • Fresh fruits

  • Fresh vegetables

  • Some canned and jarred fruits, vegetables and legumes (check ingredient lists)

  • Gluten-free grains such as rice, corn, and quinoa

  • Plain milk and most flavored milks

  • Most flavored yogurt

  • Some ice cream (check ingredient lists)

  • Fresh meat, fish, poultry, and eggs with no added ingredients

  • Most processed meats (ham, bacon, sausage, and lunch meat)

  • Frozen or canned foods that are specifically labeled "gluten-free"

  • Breads, cereals, and pasta that are specifically labeled "gluten-free"

  • Cookies and cakes that are specifically labeled "gluten-free"

  • Baking mixes and flours that are specifically labeled "gluten-free"

  • Most juice, coffee, tea, and soda

  • Some packaged candy

  • Some packaged chips, nuts, and snack foods

  • Wine, rum, and tequila

  • Hard cider

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Bread or rolls not labeled "gluten-free" (almost all bread contains gluten)

  • Cake or cookies not labeled "gluten-free" (almost all cake and cookies contain gluten)

  • Baking mixes not labeled "gluten-free" (almost all contain gluten)

  • Flour (unless it's specifically labeled "gluten-free")

  • Pasta not labeled "gluten-free" (almost all pasta contains gluten)

  • Crackers not labeled "gluten-free" (many crackers contain gluten)

  • Canned soups not labeled "gluten-free" (many contain flour or noodles)

  • Frozen foods not labeled "gluten-free" (many contain gluten ingredients)

  • Soy sauce (contains wheat)

  • Ice cream flavors with cookies or crumbles (always check ingredients)

  • Yogurt topped with granola

  • Cereals unless specifically labeled "gluten-free"

  • Meat, fish, or poultry prepared with sauces (may contain gluten)

  • Malted vinegar

  • Some salad dressings (always check the label)

  • Beer (unless labeled "gluten-free")

  • Malt liquor

Bread and Cookies

Nearly everyone eats bread and cookies, and nearly all bread and cookies contain wheat. So this is where you'll need to make the most significant change in your diet: from now on, you only can eat bread products (and rolls, biscuits, muffins, and buns) that are specifically labeled "gluten-free." The same goes for cookies—only buy and eat cookies that are specifically labeled "gluten-free."

Pasta

Most pasta contains wheat (semolina, an ingredient you'll see on many pasta labels, is a form of very fine wheat). Therefore, to eat gluten-free, you'll need to purchase only gluten-free pasta. Fortunately, there are many good gluten-free pastas available, with a variety of different ingredients.

Milk and Other Dairy Products

Most dairy products are gluten-free. However, there are a few important exceptions, including some flavored yogurts and cottage cheese, plus certain types of cheese. Always check the label, and rely on published gluten-free lists.

Meat, Fish, and Poultry

Plain, fresh meat, fish, and poultry is gluten-free. However, you'll need to beware of meat products that are seasoned in-store at the meat counter—liberal use of bread crumbs and marinades containing soy sauce make those a bad bet. Processed meat products such as bacon, ham, sausage, and hot dogs may or may not be gluten-free, so double-check before purchasing.

Eggs

Plain eggs are gluten-free. People with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity tend to run into trouble with eggs when they eat them at a restaurant, where gluten cross-contamination is a major risk.

Fruits

Fresh fruit may be the perfect gluten-free food, so snack away to your heart's content. In fact, a banana is the perfect gluten-free snack. The vast majority of jarred and canned fruit also is safe on the gluten-free diet.

Vegetables

All fresh vegetables are gluten-free, and many canned and frozen vegetable products are gluten-free (check the ingredients for added ingredients such as pasta). However, when it comes to purchasing beans, stick with a safe brand; because of the way they're grown, beans can be cross-contaminated with gluten grains in harvesting and processing.

Canned Foods

Canned foods such as soups and meat and fish products may or may not be gluten-free. For example, only some canned soups are gluten-free—pasta is a common ingredient in soups, and wheat flour sometimes is used to thicken "cream" soups. Always check the label or consult a list of gluten-free options.

Frozen Foods

If you're looking for convenience, you can find gluten-free frozen food choices in the form of frozen gluten-free pizza, frozen gluten-free meat products (such as chicken nuggets and fish sticks), frozen gluten-free veggie burgers, and entire frozen gluten-free meals. Most supermarkets, even the smaller ones, will have something you can eat in the frozen section (although it might be more exotic than the standard meat-and-potatoes frozen meal option).

Condiments

Condiments are tricky on the gluten-free diet. In fact, one hugely popular condiment—conventional soy sauce—is completely off-limits, since it's made mainly with wheat, not soy. Still, it's easy to find gluten-free soy sauce. You also can find gluten-free ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, steak sauce, hot sauce, and salad dressing. Some vinegars are safe on the gluten-free diet, while others (particularly malt vinegar) are not. Oils such as olive oil and canola oil generally are perfectly fine.

Chips and Snack Foods

Gluten-free snackers should take heart: most potato chips are considered gluten-free, as are the majority of corn and tortilla chips. Beware of other snack foods, such as pita chips (made with wheat-containing pita bread) and wheat-containing crackers. Here's a detailed rundown of gluten-free snack options.

Nuts

Nuts ought to be gluten-free. But plain nuts—like plain beans and legumes—sadly represent a gluten cross-contamination minefield, since they're frequently processed on equipment that also processes wheat products. To find safely gluten-free nuts, look for the "May contain" statement on the ingredients label; if it doesn't say "May contain wheat" (indicating cross-contamination), then you should be fine.

Ice Cream

When it comes to gluten-free ice cream, you have plenty of choices, including some that may surprise you (you actually can find gluten-free cookie dough ice cream and gluten-free brownie bite ice cream). To be safe, read ingredient labels carefully and stick with known "gluten-free" brands. Also, when getting ice cream at a restaurant or ice cream shop, follow these rules to avoid cross-contamination. Frozen yogurt shops also offer a bonanza of gluten-free froyo options.

Non-Alcoholic Beverages

The vast majority of sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and juices are gluten-free. In addition, most coffee and many types of flavored teas (both hot tea and iced tea) are safe on the gluten-free diet. You can't go wrong with 100% juice drinks (plain orange juice or apple juice always are safe options), but you're unlikely to get into trouble by venturing outside your gluten-free beverage comfort zone, either.

Alcoholic Beverages

Many people who are new to the gluten-free diet don't realize that beer isn't gluten-free (it's made with barley). Not to worry: there are plenty of good gluten-free beers on the market. Wine and hard cider also are gluten-free, as are most rum and tequila. When it comes to vodka, gin, whiskey, bourbon, and other hard liquor made with gluten grains, your mileage may vary, since some people with celiac and gluten sensitivity react while others don't. If in doubt, stick with vodka made from potatoes or another gluten-free source.

Protein Shakes and Supplements

Everything that goes in your mouth needs to be gluten-free, and that means you need to double-check your vitamins and other supplements. Many vitamin makers label their products gluten-free. Also, lots of people use protein powder to bulk up their smoothies, and your choice will need to be gluten-free.

Recommended Timing

Most people who start the gluten-free diet do so by going cold turkey on gluten—cutting every gluten-containing food out of their diet at once, and immediately trying to replace those foods with gluten-free versions.

Once you've been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, it is a good idea to drop all the gluten at once. You'll get healthier faster—and feel better, too—by going completely gluten-free, since even a little bit of gluten in your diet can make you sick.

However, you might want to reconsider rushing out to your favorite supermarket and clearing the shelves of every single gluten-free cookie brand, just to find one you like. That's a recipe for potential weight gain (cookies are not exactly health food, gluten-free or not). And, if you've had symptoms of celiac or gluten sensitivity for a long time, you should treat your digestive system gently, and with care.

Many nutritionists recommend starting your gluten-free diet with only whole foods: fresh fruits and vegetables; fresh, lean cuts of meat, poultry, and fish; plain rice; and plain dairy products. Some people with celiac disease also have lactose intolerance; if you're one of them, you may have to omit dairy, at least at first.

Once you know how your system reacts to the gluten-free diet, you can start adding in gluten-free processed foods. But tread carefully and listen to your body—if something doesn't agree with you, try a different product or a different brand. There are many good options from which to choose.

Resources and Tips

Advice on implementing the gluten-free diet abounds, but it's often about duplicating your old favorite foods. Instead, you might want to approach this significant change in the way you eat as a great opportunity to clean up your diet and find some new, healthier favorite foods.

  • Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, where you find the fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and fish, and dairy products.
  • Experiment with fresh spices you'll find in the produce department, and avoid spice mixtures that may contain gluten ingredients.
  • When you eat out, stick with restaurants that offer gluten-free menus or have gluten-free options.
  • Consider trying ethnic foods and ethnic restaurants, since some ethnic cuisines are naturally gluten-free.

Modifications

Most people who follow the gluten-free diet eliminate only gluten-containing foods. However, some people also are intolerant to milk-based dairy products, and so must eat a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. Others choose to follow other variations of the gluten-free diet, including: the low-FODMAP diet, the low-carb diet, and the paleo diet.

Here is some information on these variations of the gluten-free diet:

  • Gluten-free, dairy-free diet. Many people who are diagnosed with celiac disease initially find they are lactose-intolerant due to celiac-related intestinal damage. Ultimately, the gluten-free diet helps to heal that damage, and people with celiac regain their tolerance to milk products. But in the meantime, many need to omit milk-based products from their diets along with gluten-containing products, including milk, cream, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, and ice cream. Learn more about living dairy-free diet here.
  • Gluten-free, corn-free diet and/or gluten-free, soy-free diet. Some people who follow the gluten-free diet find they are sensitive to additional grains and legumes, including corn and soy. Eliminating either corn or soy (or potentially both of them) can be challenging since many gluten-free products feature either corn or soy ingredients. However, some food product manufacturers—especially those catering to health-conscious consumers—make products that are free of gluten, dairy, and soy. In addition, some companies that cater to people with food allergies (such as Enjoy Life) make products that are free of all four of those ingredients: gluten, dairy, soy, and corn.
  • Gluten-free low-FODMAP diet. The low-FODMAP diet, which eliminates gluten grains, may help to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. FODMAP stands for "fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols," all of which are types of carbohydrates. Consuming these types of carbohydrates (including gluten grains, which are high in one particular type of FODMAP) may cause digestive symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. Some people find they're sensitive to one type of FODMAP, but not to all of them. If you need to eliminate FODMAPs, there are plenty of great low-FODMAP recipes available.
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