Feeling bloated and fatigued, with a side of digestive upset? Something or someone—a friend, the latest New York Times bestseller, Miley Cyrus—is going to tell you to go gluten-free. Before you overhaul your lifestyle (and pantry), find out if GF is even right for you.
Who should go gluten-free?
GF foods were originally prescribed for people with celiac disease, a serious genetic autoimmune condition that occurs when gluten causes the body to destroy its own intestinal lining. Celiac sufferers have no choice but to avoid gluten, since failure to do so can lead to serious complications, including cancer of the small intestine. (If you suspect you may suffer from this condition, ask your doctor for a celiac disease blood test.)
Thanks to a slew of high-profile advocates for the gluten-free lifestyle—including Wheat Belly’s William Davis and David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain—a growing number of us believe we suffer from a less severe gluten intolerance, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), and that it’s the cause of maladies like joint pain, skin conditions, arthritis, and adrenal fatigue. Because NCGS doesn’t have a specific set of symptoms, doctors rarely diagnose it; some don’t believe it even exists. Still, researchers say that as many as 18 million Americans could have some adverse reaction to wheat products, a problem attributed to everything from wheat’s changing genetics to FODMAPs, a group of carbohydrates that often cause abdominal pain and bloating.
If you have no adverse physical reactions to foods containing gluten, nutritionists advise against a restrictive diet, since it can do more harm than good. It makes you prone to having low levels of certain vitamins and minerals, and gluten-free versions of processed foods are costly, and in some cases contain more fat, carbs, sugar, and sodium than their standard counterparts.
Can gluten-free make you skinny?
You may be wondering: If a gluten-free diet is only truly necessary for celiac or NCGS sufferers, then why are so many people insistent that going gluten-free has helped them lose weight?
Some researchers are quick to point out that there are no published reports showing that a gluten-free diet produces weight loss in people without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. But take away gluten from an unprocessed diet, and you’ll find yourself eliminating starchy, refined grains like bread, pasta, cake, and other sweets. What you’re left with are meats, seafood, beans, nuts, seeds, dairy, and fats, a preponderance of nutrient-dense foods that make you feel satiated more quickly, thanks to healthy fats and fibers.
If you want to ditch gluten, here's what you need to avoid
According to Shauna James Ahern, creator of the popular blog Gluten-Free Girl, “wheat is where you’ll find gluten 90 percent of the time in the American diet.” Along with types of wheat (barley, rye, triticale, kamut, spelt), look for wheat products referred to a number of different ways, such as durum, farina, graham flour, and semolina. And while it may be obvious that gluten lurks in flour-based products like cake, cereal, breading, and pasta, you may not realize that it’s often present in beer, soft and hard candy, chocolate, condiments, bouillon, and salad dressings, too. When in doubt, always be sure to ask, especially when dining out. Even pills and vitamins sometimes use gluten as a binding agent. Beware that “wheat-free” doesn’t necessarily mean free of gluten, and some grains, like oats, are naturally gluten-free, but often contaminated with wheat during production, so look for a certified gluten-free label.
Eat these instead
Beans, eggs, meats, seafood, and fruits and vegetables are all naturally gluten-free; make them at home, and you won’t have concerns about wheat contamination. For a quick starch fix, rice, potatoes, and corn-based products like polenta make nice stand-ins for breads, noodles, and pasta. With exceptions, wines, spirits, and vinegars are gluten-free (but you should always double check). And you’re in the clear eating any of the following, as long as they haven’t been processed with other gluten-containing grains: amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, cornmeal, flax, rice flour, soy, quinoa, millet, rice, sorghum, tapioca, teff, xanthan gum, potato flour, chickpea flour, and plantain flour.
Gluten-free in the kitchen
Here are some of our favorite gluten-free recipes for flour-based foods, from pizza crust to pancakes:
Slather these flaky gluten-free biscuits with butter and jam.
A light brush of olive oil helps this homemade gluten-free pizza dough crisp up in the oven.
A mix of four different flours gives these gluten-free pancakes a similar flavor and texture to traditional ones.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
America’s best-loved cookies go gluten-free. This recipe uses a mix of milk and semisweet chocolate chips, but if you love dark chocolate feel free to use bittersweet chips.
No flavor sacrificed in these gluten-free brownies.
Finally, good replacements for wheat flour are no longer hard to come by. Companies like Glutino, Cup4Cup, and King Arthur Flour offer widely distributed flour substitutes. As an alternative, you can make your own gluten-free flour mix at home, and customize it however you want.
Supermarket photo from The Telegraph; recipe photos by Chris Rochelle / CHOW