You might have read my other blog on gluten (4 Gluten Sensitivity Symptoms to Watch Out For), which covers the conditions that make gluten a no-no, signs you may be sensitive to it, how to determine if it’s causing you issues and whether it’s an absolute must to skip this grain-based protein if you tolerate it well (good news: it isn’t!). Today, I want to expand upon the gluten conversation and discuss how to eat gluten-free and maintain a healthy diet.
While it’s not always necessary to avoid it if it works for you, it seems every day there’s a new story about someone who felt a lot better when they ditched gluten from their plate. Maybe you’re one of them, or maybe you’re interested in finding out if a gluten-free lifestyle can help you feel more fabulous. Either way, know this: A gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily a healthy diet (but it can be and I’ll show you how).
To begin, let’s look at the pros and cons of going gluten-free, and the three steps you can take to reduce or eliminate your intake. Plus, I’ve also mapped out a one-day gluten-free meal plan for ya! Check it all out below…
The Pros of Gluten-Free
Well first of all, if you have celiac disease, whether to avoid gluten isn’t even a question—you MUST follow a gluten-free diet, and you probably need to check your toothpaste, laundry detergent, deodorant and play-doh for gluten as well.
But for those of you who just want to feel more vibrant, reducing the gluten in your diet can mean:
- Eating more whole foods. With gluten-packed pasta, crescent rolls and biscuits off the menu, chances are you’ll be reaching for more sweet potatoes, quinoa, beans, lentils, millet, brown rice and other gluten-free grains—wonderful alternatives. These options are more nutrient-rich and are much better fuels for your tank than refined grain products.
- Eating fewer sugary sweets. Cakes, cookies, brownies, pies… More often than not, these sweet treats are made with wheat products, and wheat contains gluten (boooo!). Saying buh-bye to gluten may mean you’re no longer dipping into the cookie jar, instead curbing your sugar cravings with healthier swaps like fruit or dark chocolate. These choices have vitamins and minerals to accompany their satisfying sweetness—bonus!
- Improving thyroid function. Celiac or not, ditching gluten may help improve thyroid function if you have an autoimmune thyroid condition such as Hashimoto’s or Graves’ disease (reference).
The Cons of Gluten-Free
At this point you may be thinking, Well this all sounds great, Kris, count me in. Gluten-free diet, here I come! Not so fast, toots. If you’re not cautious, following a gluten-free path can steer you in the wrong direction. Here are some pitfalls to watch out for:
- Getting tricked by labels. Again, “gluten-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy.” Breads and baked goods marked gluten-free are frequently made of rice, potatoes and corn, and are often much lower in fiber than their gluten-containing counterparts (wheat bran is a great source of insoluble fiber). And then there are the “naturally gluten-free” items that marketers position as better-for-you choices based solely on the absence of the demonized ingredient of the moment. A bunch of Halloween candies are gluten-free and are now labeled that way. Sugar, nougat, caramel, syrups, hydrogenated oils—all zero gluten. See how a gluten-free diet can easily become unhealthy if you’re not careful?
- Seeing your grocery bill skyrocket. Until demand increases considerably, gluten-free goods are going to be pricey—sometimes more than three times the cost of the regular versions (think store-bought waffles, breads, muffins, etc.). Whenever possible, make gluten-free foods from scratch to avoid the hefty hike in grocery budget (tips and ideas below).
- Missing out on iron and B vitamins. Wheat flour is fortified with iron and B vitamins, which may be the richest source of these nutrients in a person’s diet if he or she isn’t getting in enough nutrient-rich whole foods. If wheat flour is your main source of iron and B vitamins and you decide to switch to gluten-free breads and flours, make sure they’re fortified or that you’re taking a B-complex vitamin and/or multivitamin.
- Taking in too many calories. Lots of folks shun gluten thinking it will help them lose weight, but if you’re merely replacing your typical gluten staples with gluten-free breads, muffins and other gluten-free starches, you may be doing more harm than good. Several gluten-free products rely on oils, eggs and low-fiber starches to mimic wheat flour and gluten. Extra oil means extra calories, and a lack of fiber makes these foods easier to overeat—double whammy.
- Finding egg whites everywhere. Egg whites help give gluten-free breads and baked goods the binding and bounce that gluten usually supplies. If you already avoid eggs and want to avoid gluten, too, it can be tough to find products in the grocery store that meet your criteria. You’ll likely be making lots of homemade goodies with flaxseed meal and chia seeds.
3 Steps to Go Gluten-Free the Healthy Way
Follow these three tips to scale back or eliminate gluten without the negatives:
- 1. Enjoy high-fiber, gluten-free whole grains in place of wheat, barley and rye. Try naturally high-fiber quinoa, amaranth, millet, buckwheat groats, gluten-free oats, sorghum flour and popcorn over white rice, rice flour, potatoes and corn. Choose products that have at least four grams of fiber per serving. Here’s a good resource for more info on high-fiber, gluten-free grains.
2. Bake from scratch. Lots of gluten-free baked goods are not only expensive, but they rely heavily on preservatives and eggs to mimic the “glueyness” of gluten. Check out sites like Oh She Glows and Minimalist Baker for some tasty inspiration.
3. Get creative with legumes. Beans and lentils are loaded with nutrition and are a perfectly starchy substitute for gluten-containing flours and foods. Use them in place of pasta, or try bean-powered pasta products like the yummy options from Banza. You can even use beans to make baked goods!
Psst… You’ll also find some epically delicious, naturally gluten-free recipes in my tasty plant-based cookbook, Crazy Sexy Kitchen. A few of them are in the downloadable goodie below. So much yum!
1-Day Gluten-Free Meal Plan + Shopping List
There are so many incredible gluten-free recipes available today as folks start to experiment with cutting gluten and getting creative in the kitchen. I’ve put together this one-day sample meal plan—including the full shopping list—of some of my fave gluten-free meals and snacks. Enjoy!