If you look closely, there are many products that line grocery shelves nowadays that have a GF symbol printed right on the packaging indicating they are gluten-free.
A gluten-free lifestyle has become one of the most popular diet trends in the U.S. Today, one in five people reduce or eliminate gluten from their diet because they believe it to be healthier. While many are ditching bread to live a healthier lifestyle, some Americans with certain medical conditions follow this diet plan as a necessary way of life.
“Gluten has become a rather taboo word these days, but it really shouldn’t be,” said Bailey Shupe, a registered dietitian educator with Banner Health. “Some people have the belief that gluten is in some way bad for your health or that removing it will help them lose weight. Unfortunately, there’s no research to confirm either of these things.”
No matter your reason for calling it quits with gluten, Shupe helped provide us with a beginner’s guide to a gluten-free lifestyle, its pros and cons and who it can benefit most.
First, what exactly is gluten?
“Gluten is a protein found in the wheat plant and some other grains, such as rye, barley, triticale and sometimes oats, if it’s been processed with other foods that contain gluten,” Shupe said. “Oats on their own don’t contain gluten.”
Gluten can occur naturally or be extracted, concentrated or added to foods and other products to add protein, texture and flavor. In foods, it’s what gives your favorite breads their soft chewy textures.
“Gluten can be found in a variety of whole and processed foods, including whole wheat, couscous, crackers, pastas, veggie burgers and other meat substitutes,” Shupe said. “It can also be found in many liquids you use, such as salad dressings, gravies, broths, beer, wine and liquor.”
What is a gluten-free diet?
Simply put: A gluten-free diet cuts out any foods that contain gluten. This means eating only whole foods that don’t contain gluten, such as fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, fish and lean meat.
The good news is that if you love your fluffy carbs, you can still eat them.
“Some people think going gluten-free means cutting out all carbohydrates, but this doesn’t have to be the case,” Shupe said. “There are plenty of gluten-free options out there, such as rice, quinoa and potatoes, and even gluten-free pastas made from things like chickpeas, corn or beans.”
What you can and cannot eat on a gluten-free diet
Although not comprehensive, here is a list of gluten foods that should be avoided in this eating plan and those that are OK to eat.
Types of foods to avoid:
- Grains: barley, rye, triticale and some processed oats
- Wheat: bromated flour, bulgur, durum, farina, farro, graham, spelt, wheat berries, whole wheat
- Fruits and vegetables: Some canned, dried and frozen fruits and vegetables may contain gluten. Some plain, unsweetened, dried fruits and vegetables tend to be gluten-free.
- Processed foods: baked goods, breads, breadcrumbs, cereals, crackers, pastas and snack foods
- Dairy: malted milk drinks
- Fats and oils: olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil and vegetable and seed oils
Double-check these foods as they sometimes contain gluten:
- Meats: processed meats, lunch meats or cold cuts, meat substitutes and ground meat
- Dairy: Processed cheeses and flavored milks and yogurts
- Other food items: soups, condiments and soy sauce
Food that are OK to eat:
- All fresh fruits and vegetables
- Unprocessed plant and animal proteins: red meat, chicken, turkey, fresh fish, shrimp and scallops, legumes, nuts and seeds and unflavored soy foods
- Dairy: butter, cheese, cream, cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt and alternative milks like almond and cashew milks
In addition to foods, there are some beverages to avoid. These can include malted beverages, non-distilled liquors, beers, ales and lagers.
What are the pros and cons of a gluten-free diet?
Pro #1: It helps those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance (sensitivity) and wheat allergies
A gluten-free diet is not only safe and healthful but medically necessary for those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
“A gluten-free diet is necessary for those with celiac disease, an autoimmune response to gluten that causes severe inflammation of the small intestine, causing belly pain, nausea and/or diarrhea,” Shupe said. “If you have celiac disease, you can’t have gluten in any form and have to follow a gluten-free diet for life.”
If you have celiac, these attacks can lead to permanent damage to your small intestine and lead to nutrient deficiencies that can increase your risk for cancer and osteoporosis.
The diet is also beneficial for those with a gluten intolerance. These people don’t have celiac, but they may have similar symptoms when they eat gluten-containing foods. Symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, bloating, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea and stomach pains.
For those with a wheat allergy, gluten containing wheat can trigger an immune response in their bodies, which can cause symptoms such as sneezing, headaches and a skin rash. For some, a wheat allergy may cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.
Pro #2: You may lose weight
There is no evidence that eating gluten-free will result in weight loss, but those who follow this lifestyle tend to make healthier food choices because they are more aware of what to eat and how to read food labels.
“Those who lose weight often do so because they also cut out a lot of processed foods and refined carbohydrates,” Shupe said. “It’s important to watch your portion sizes, eat plenty of whole foods and exercise.”
Pro #3: It offers food flexibility
Even if you follow another diet plan, such as a Mediterranean, Paleo or DASH diet, or are vegetarian or vegan, a gluten-free diet should be no problem.
Con #1: It may lead to a lack of fiber and vitamins
If you cut out gluten from your diet, there’s a risk you could miss out on nutritious whole grains that can help put you at lower risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. “Whole grains can lower cholesterol levels and even help regulate blood sugar,” Shupe said.
You could also miss out on needed fiber and nutrients, such as B vitamins, folic acid and magnesium.
If you’re on a gluten-free diet, you can choose to eat gluten-free bread and cereals, as well as dairy alternatives and fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and beans to help boost the quality of your diet.
Con #2: You could overdo it on processed gluten-free foods
Too many gluten-free crackers aren’t healthy – even if they don’t contain gluten.
“Many of these processed foods contain high amounts of unhealthy ingredients, such as sodium, sugar and fat,” Shupe said. “It can lead to weight gain, blood sugar swings and other problems. It’s best to opt for unprocessed, whole foods.”
Con #3: It could increase your grocery bill
Packaged gluten-free foods, like crackers, breads and pastas, typically have a higher price tag than those containing gluten. If you don’t have a gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy or celiac disease, this could be a waste of money.
How do I start a gluten-free diet?
If you have any questions or concerns about potential food allergies or how a gluten-free diet could benefit your health, talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian. They can guide you toward a balanced eating plan that meets your individual needs.
If you’re looking to integrate some gluten-free meals into your diet, here are some recipes to try:
A gluten-free diet is truly intended for those who suffer from celiac disease, wheat allergies or a gluten intolerance. Gluten is a protein found in some types of wheat, rye, barley and oats as well as processed foods.
While a gluten-free diet remains popular in the U.S., there is little evidence to support health claims of a gluten-free diet for anyone without a gluten-related condition. Weight loss claims of a gluten-free diet may simply be from removing a calorie source and not overeating.
If you believe you have a gluten-related disease, talk to your health care provider or dietitian before starting a gluten-free diet.