How to Go Gluten-Free

Eight Simple Steps to Ditch the Gluten

If you're diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you'll need to learn how to eat gluten-free, since doing so is essential to your long-term health. Or, you may decide to try a gluten-free diet even without a diagnosis—you may believe gluten-free may help you lose weight or improve another health condition you have.

But what does it really mean to "go gluten-free"?

Regardless of your reasons for choosing a gluten-free diet, this can be a tricky diet with a massive learning curve, especially at first. But if you follow these nine steps—preferably in order—you should be well on your way to safely eating gluten-free.

1

Clean Out Your Kitchen

bread in toaster

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Before you can start the gluten-free diet, you need to clean out your kitchen and get rid of everything you no longer can eat. Learn the foods that contain gluten. They include:

  • most breads, crackers, cookies, and snack foods
  • most mixes
  • most pasta
  • many frozen food products
  • many canned soups
  • some ice creams

This isn't an exhaustive list, unfortunately; gluten appears in many places you wouldn't expect. If in doubt, throw it out: Give away or dispose of everything, especially wheat flour and baking mixes. When doing so, you'll need to be careful not to breathe any airborne flour, which can make you sick.

You'll also need to replace any open condiments, since they're likely to have been cross-contaminated with gluten (when someone touches the tip of a squeeze bottle to bread or sticks a used sandwich knife in a jar, the bottle or jar could make you sick). The same goes for spices you've used in baking, since those likely have been cross-contaminated by wheat flour.

Donate unopened gluten-containing packages, jars and cans to a food bank or hand them over to a friend. Alternatively, if you're planning on sharing a kitchen with family members or housemates who don't eat gluten-free, you'll need to segregate those products.

Since it's possible to get symptoms from the tiniest morsel of gluten, you'll need a new toaster. You'll also need new plastic and wooden utensils and non-stick pans, if you use them. Replace all these kitchen tools when you go gluten-free, since they can't be cleaned thoroughly enough to keep you safe.

For some people, this is a difficult, emotional process—you may find yourself mourning the foods you used to enjoy. If that's the case, it can help to focus on the positive effect the gluten-free diet will have on your health. Also, if you can afford it, use this opportunity to treat yourself to a new kitchen tool you've been coveting.

2

Start With Fresh Produce and Meats

fresh produce

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Many people think they simply need to drop wheat from their diets—or even just bread—in order to go gluten-free. But it's unfortunately a lot more complicated than that. As you no doubt learned from cleaning out your kitchen, gluten appears in foods ranging from soups to sauces, and it's not always obvious from the ingredients.

There are many, many foods you can eat on the list of gluten-free foods. But by far the best way to avoid making common mistakes when first going gluten-free is to limit your diet to unprocessed foods at first. Unprocessed foods are products you find in the supermarket that don't have ingredients lists printed on their labels; for example, fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh meat, poultry, and fish are examples of unprocessed foods.

On an unprocessed food diet, you can eat:

  • fresh fruit
  • fresh vegetables
  • beef (only from the meat counter and unseasoned)
  • chicken (only from the meat counter and unseasoned)
  • pork (only from the meat counter and unseasoned)
  • fish (only from the fish counter and unseasoned)
  • milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • eggs

To follow an unprocessed foods diet, shop around the edges of the supermarket, in the fresh produce and meat departments. If you can handle dairy products (many people with celiac disease have lactose intolerance, at least at first), you also can add dairy products. Eat as simply as you can, using only fresh herbs, salt, and pepper to season your foods.

The safest grain to add to your diet is plain rice—Lundberg Family Farms produces rice that's certified gluten-free. Try grains such as corn in moderation, if at all, and don't introduce packaged foods—including those labeled "gluten-free"—until you have a better feel for the diet and how it affects your system.

3

Expand to Include Gluten-Free Labeled Products

gluten-free pastries
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Once you've mastered the basics, foods clearly labeled "gluten-free" represent the best way to start expanding your gluten-free diet. Manufacturers aren't required to label foods "gluten-free," but many do. When you're still learning how to stay gluten-free, you shouldn't count on your ability to read labels—stick with products that market to the gluten-free community.

You won't be limited in your selection. On supermarket shelves, you'll find gluten-free versions of practically everything you want, including:

Be careful not to go overboard with the gluten-free-labeled products, since many people find they experience renewed gluten symptoms when they eat too much of these products.

In some cases, symptoms could result from unhealed damage in your intestines. However, in most instances the culprit is the tiny amounts of gluten still present in the "gluten-free"-labeled foods.

If you begin adding gluten-free-labeled foods to your diet but then start experiencing renewed (or even new) symptoms, or if you just don't feel particularly well, cut back on these products, especially anything you've added recently. You may also want to check out this article: How Much Gluten Can Make Me Sick? It's often a lot less than you think.

4

Learn to Read Food Labels

food label with wheat warning
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To really expand your diet—and to figure out which of your old favorites you might be able to include—you'll need to learn to find gluten on food labels.

In fact, you'll probably become a bit of a detective, learning to search for the meaning of various terms you'll find on different products. You'll also get quite an education on the different ingredients that make up processed foods (some of them unpronounceable).

For example, terms that always mean "gluten" can include:

  • flour
  • triticum (the technical name for wheat)
  • hordeum (the technical name for barley)
  • spelt (a type of wheat)

Meanwhile, terms that almost always mean "gluten" can include:

  • malt (likely barley malt)
  • pasta (wheat unless otherwise specified)

Terms that may mean "gluten" can include:

  • vegetable protein (most often wheat or soy)
  • dextrin and maltodextrin (can be made from wheat, although that's not common in the U.S.)

Just remember: Manufacturers can label something "gluten-free," but food labeling laws do not require disclosure of gluten-containing ingredients on food labels. If something has no obvious gluten ingredients listed, but doesn't carry a "gluten-free" label, it might contain barley or rye, or be subject to gluten cross-contamination at the food processing facility. (See more about that here: What Does It Mean When A Product Has No Gluten Ingredients?)

In addition, keep in mind that wheat-free does not equal gluten-free, so don't be fooled by foods labeled "wheat-free" — they're probably not safe.

You might want to consider getting one of the various gluten-free apps on the market to help guide your choices on processed food products, ingredients and restaurants. Several apps provide lists of gluten-free products you can access while you are in the grocery store. A subscription-based app lets you scan a product's UPC code to determine if it's gluten-free or not.

5

Make Your Home Gluten-Free

medicine cabinet

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You'd probably think you should focus on making your kitchen gluten-free... and you'd be right, at least at first. But as you get more skilled in following the gluten-free diet, you should consider removing sources of gluten that lurk elsewhere in your home.

For example, many hair products contain gluten. If you've ever gotten shampoo in your mouth in the shower, or if you touch your hair and then your mouth, you should consider getting gluten-free shampoo and other hair products. Also, check out your toothpaste and make sure it's on the list of gluten-free toothpaste options.

Making your bathroom and medicine cabinet gluten-free can be challenging, as well. Cosmetics and prescription medications also frequently contain gluten, and can cause major symptoms if you're not careful. Here are some resources:

Even art supplies and common household building materials, such as drywall and spackling compound, can contain gluten. Therefore, you should stick with gluten-free craft supplies.

6

Learn to Eat Out Gluten-Free

woman eating rice noodles in restaurant

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Until you feel confident following the gluten-free diet—and ideally until any symptoms have largely disappeared—you should stay far away from restaurants. That's because restaurants (and especially fast food restaurants) are a major risk for gluten cross-contamination. It's common for even experienced gluten-free dieters to inadvertently consume gluten when they eat out at restaurants.

Still, no one wants to eat at home forever. Once you have a better idea of how to eat gluten-free and where gluten can hide, restaurant dining won't present as much of a challenge.

When you first try dining out gluten-free, be aware that many servers and even some chefs aren't very familiar with the gluten-free diet, and mistakes are (sadly) pretty common. Follow these tips to stay safe:

Be careful letting your guard down, even in a restaurant that has served you successfully before. Gluten-free restaurant cards can help you talk to restaurant staff about what to do... and what to avoid doing.

7

Socialize ... But Bring Your Own Food

backyard party

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Once you go gluten-free, it's likely that friends and relatives may try to cook for you. Don't let them—realistically, unless you trust that person to avoid all gluten ingredients and cross contamination (e.g., unless they're also eating gluten-free or they hold professional chef or dietitian credentials), you're better off bringing your own food to social events. As you know by now, this diet has a ridiculously steep learning curve—it's not something a friend can master overnight, no matter how much that person wants to do so, and how hard they're likely to try.

Bringing your own food to gatherings allows you to focus on the company, as opposed to constantly worrying about getting sick. You'll be more relaxed (not constantly on guard against risks) and your friends won't be concerned about making you ill.

If you want, bring a dish to share. If you do this, though, fill your plate first, since cross contamination from other guests can be a risk (most people wouldn't think twice about using a spoon from the bread crumb-covered casserole in your safe vegetable dish).

Holidays can be particularly tricky emotionally when you're gluten-free. To cope with them, always make sure you have something with you that's both gluten-free and delicious. Don't be afraid to treat yourself—you shouldn't be deprived when everyone around you is enjoying good food.

8

Know That You'll Make Mistakes (And Learn from Them)

Stomach-Ache-Paul-Bradbury.jpg
Getty Images/Paul Bradbury

You'll absolutely make mistakes (and potentially get sick from them) as you learn to navigate the gluten-free diet. Your symptoms may return for a day, or even for a week or more in the worst cases. Unfortunately, once you go gluten-free, your body will be primed to make a big deal out of any little bit of gluten you consume. Most people (although not all) find they react badly to small amounts of cross-contamination.

It will take some time—months, probably—to learn your individual level of tolerance for gluten cross contamination, and what you can eat without getting symptoms.

It's tempting to beat yourself up for those mistakes mentally—especially if you're miserable physically. But if you can manage it, try to view them as a learning opportunity, and focus on avoiding making that same mistake twice.

Although there's no quick fix for the sickness you feel after accidentally eating gluten, there are some steps you can take to feel a little better:

A Word from Verywell

Going gluten-free is a major lifestyle change, but it's one you can manage if you take it step by step. Your best bet to avoid the major mistakes people make when going gluten-free is to master each of these eight steps in order. Keeping your diet as gluten-free as possible likely will have real, noticeable benefits for your health.

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