Gluten-free food is everywhere these days, but if you don’t have celiac disease, do you need to eat it? In honor of Celiac Awareness Month (and because the interest in GF everything doesn’t seem to be waning), we’ve refreshed our guide to going gluten-free—which also touches on why some people really shouldn’t.
A Brief Backstory on the Gluten Backlash
You can’t shop the aisles of a supermarket, peruse a fast-casual restaurant menu, or scan a rack of food magazines without seeing it, the GF tag: gluten-free. No movement has consumed contemporary food like the gluten-free one, though keto may be coming close. Once a heavily restricted survival diet for those who suffered from celiac disease, gluten-free has become a mode of eating of choice for most of us, a way to battle mild to moderate wheat allergies we’ve only become aware of, cut down on carbs, or just to eat healthier, and with more intention.
Along with ubiquity comes easy adoption, or relatively so. Thanks to a host of food products, from raw ingredients like gluten-free flours to GF prepared foods, it’s possible to live a gluten-free lifestyle without major disruptions in your daily life. You can go out to eat (though if you do have severe gluten allergies, that can still be dicey), and cook pretty much the same types of foods you always did, without much in the way of major inconvenience.
Disclaimer: It was in 2016 that we wrote that, and in 2014 Sarah Henry covered the then-current state of the gluten-free movement for us; it’s safe to say, it’s even more mainstream these days (and GFF Magazine has outlasted Lucky Peach). So we’ll say it again: Gluten-free is still the new normal. Or maybe just normal.
Danielle Walker's Against All Grain: Meals Made Simple (Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, and Paleo Recipes to Make Anytime), $22.99 on Amazon
This best-seller has been going strong since 2014, and includes recipes for tons of things, including homemade GF condiments.
If you haven’t yet taken the plunge, going gluten-free does take some reflection, and vigilance. So here—for anyone thinking of taking up gluten-free eating for the first time, or being more conscious about gluten and its adjustments—we offer this guide.
Should You Go Gluten-Free?
Gluten-free 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. (Scroll down for more information on CD.)
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” (not to mention various celebrities)—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.
Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, $8.99 on Amazon
Still a best-seller several years after its original publication.
Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain's Silent Killers, $18.30 on Amazon
This one is also continually topping the charts on Amazon.
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 can be costly, and in some cases contain more fat, carbs, sugar, and sodium than their standard counterparts.
What Is Gluten, Anyway?
Gluten is kind of a catch-all name for particular types of proteins that are in many grains, including the most common types of cereal grains: wheat, rye, and barley, but also kamut, spelt, and other wheat relatives.
(Oats are technically gluten-free, but run into trouble from cross-contamination with wheat in milling facilities. What’s more, there’s a protein in oats that’s similar to the one in gluten and that can affect people with celiac disease. For non–celiac sufferers, it is now possible to buy oats that are certified gluten-free—scroll down for more on what you can buy, and what to avoid.)
The combination of proteins that makes up gluten coalesces into an elastic network that gives structure to pasta, breads, and other baked goods. So far, so good. The difficulty comes from all the sneaky gluten lurking in unexpected foods, like some vanilla extracts you might pick up, unsuspectingly, at the supermarket.
What Is Celiac Disease (CD)?
Celiac disease, commonly referred to as CD, is a genetic disorder. When someone with CD eats food containing gluten (even small amounts), they experience an immune-mediated toxic reaction that afflicts the small intestine, preventing the food from being absorbed. Even if they don’t experience immediate symptoms, damage to the small bowel can result. A recent study conducted by NYU Grossman School of Medicine researchers suggests there may be a link between pesticides and celiac disease; the same study also cites chemicals in some nonstick cookware as potential triggers for CD in young girls (and celiac disease seems to occur at much higher rates in the female population in general).
If you’re thinking of going gluten-free because you suspect you have a sensitivity to wheat and other grains, you should probably begin by talking to a health care provider. He or she might refer you to a gastroenterologist and/or require tests, which you should do—it’s never a bad idea to check in with a doctor before changing your diet.
Can Going Gluten-Free Help You Lose Weight?
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.
So, What Can (and Can’t) You Eat on a Gluten-Free Diet?
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.According to Shauna James Ahern, creator of the popular blog
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 chocolate, condiments, soft and hard candy, bouillon, soy sauce, and salad dressings, too. Even pills and vitamins sometimes use gluten as a binding agent.
So always read labels, and when in doubt, ask (especially when dining out).
When it comes to baking (and breading things), 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.
Related Reading: The Best Flour Substitute for Whatever You’re Baking or Cooking
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.
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 (though plenty of gluten-free pasta options do exist now too).
With some exceptions, wines, spirits, and vinegars are gluten-free (but you should always double check, and beware of malt). 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 Cheat Sheet
The “Yes” List
Grain-like plants that contain no gluten:
- Buckwheat (kasha)
- Corn, including corn flour, corn meal, grits, and polenta
- Rice (white, brown, and wild)
• Gluten-free flours made from the above list, as well as those made from nuts (like almond flour), potatoes, plantains, beans, and coconut. Make sure they’re labeled gluten-free, to avoid cross-contamination.
• Dairy products, including milk, butter, margarine, real cheese, plain yogurt, and ice creams (as long as they’re free of gluten-containing add-ins like cookie dough!)
• Vegetable oils (including canola oil)
• Plain fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, potatoes, eggs, nuts, nut butters, beans, and legumes (many of which are nutritionally dense superfoods)
• Distilled vinegar
• Mono and diglycerides
• Spices (beware of blends and always read the ingredients list for hidden gluten—but if there are no ingredients listed, that means the jar contains only the spice or spices on the label)
• Hard liquor and wine (almost always)
The “No” List
• Wheat in all forms (spelt, kamut, triticale, durum, einkorn, farro, farina, semolina, cake flour, matzo, and couscous)
• Barley and malt, which is usually made from barley, including malt syrup, malt extract, malt flavoring and malt vinegar
• Breaded or floured meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetables, when the breading is made with wheat
• Soy and teriyaki sauces (and any meat, poultry, or vegetables with a sauce or marinade that contains these); coconut aminos can be a good substitute
• Foods fried in the same oil as breaded products
• Licorice, which is made with wheat flour, and other candies containing wheat or barley (again…get used to reading labels)
The “Maybe” List
• Beer is gluten-free when made from gluten-free grains. Beer made from barley processed to remove the gluten is not considered to be gluten-free. (Read more about the difference between gluten-free and gluten-removed beer.)
• Flavorings are usually gluten-free, but in rare instances can contain wheat or barley.
• Wheat starch is allowed in gluten-free foods if the wheat starch has been processed to remove the gluten protein.
• Oats are considered safe on the gluten-free diet if they have been specially processed to prevent cross-contamination by gluten-containing grains. They should be specifically labeled gluten-free.
• Processed cheese (spray cheese, for example) may contain gluten; real cheese is gluten-free.
Know This: Wheat-Free Is Not the Same as Gluten-Free
Products labeled as wheat-free are not necessarily gluten-free. They could still contain spelt, rye, or barley-based ingredients. Another reason to always, always read the label, especially if gluten truly makes you ill.
You can find gluten-free recipes in tons of places these days, from cookbooks to blogs (and of course, on Chowhound), but you don’t necessarily have to search for “gluten-free” in particular—if you get familiar with which ingredients are safe and which ones aren’t, you’ll recognize that plenty of standard recipes are naturally gluten-free, or are easily made that way with minor substitutions. Because the paleo and Whole30 diets exclude gluten, any recipes with those labels should also be safe. Here are some basic gluten-free recipes to get you started and keep you satisfied, morning, noon, and night.
A mix of four different flours gives these GF pancakes a similar flavor and texture to traditional ones. (Luckily, maple syrup is GF, but some pancake syrup can contain gluten in the form of malt.) Get our Gluten-Free Pancakes recipe.
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. Get our Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe.
No flavor sacrificed in these GF chocolate treats. Get our Gluten-Free Brownies recipe.
Related Video: How to Avoid Dense Gluten-Free Batter
Note: This article was originally published in 2016, and has been updated with new images, links, and text.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.