Following a gluten-free diet isn't just a trend anymore. It's become a way of life, leading many people to want to know not only how to eat gluten-free, but how to eat well now that gluten is gone from their plates. Luckily, improving nutrition sans gluten isn't hard to do.
What is a gluten-free diet?
For those who don't already know what gluten-free eating means, here’s a short synopsis.
Gluten is one of the main proteins found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye that some people don’t process normally. If these grains (or foods containing them) are consumed, it can trigger an immune system reaction, resulting in inflammation, headaches, rashes, hives, digestive issues or worse. This doesn’t mean gluten is evil! It simply means some people don’t digest the gluten protein as they should.
As a result, individuals who don’t tolerate gluten must avoid wheat, barley and rye or any products made from or with those grains. For those with the autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease, eating a gluten-free diet isn’t a choice but instead a matter of life or death.
The problem with going gluten-free
While many individuals truly have negative or life-threatening reactions to gluten, others choose to go gluten-free because they perceive it to be a "healthier" way of eating.
They may have read information about gluten-free diets and assume it's best for them, even if they’re not allergic or intolerant to gluten. Their diets then become filled with processed foods sporting a gluten-free label.
Perhaps you, or someone you know, fits that bill. Maybe you read a blog, article or a book, or you heard that a gluten-free diet is working for a friend, and you've decided to give it a try. Or maybe you’re avoiding gluten for actual health reasons, and you're not sure if you’re getting what you need, nutritionally speaking.
Four ways to improve gluten-free eating
Whatever situation led you to pursue a gluten-free diet, here are four things to do in order to eat nutritiously. These tips will also ensure you’re not making some of the most common mistakes, so that you can feel your best!
1. Remember that the best foods for you are naturally gluten-free
Many people report feeling better on a gluten-free diet, but it's likely because they've increased their consumption of nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables, not replaced gluten-containing processed foods with gluten-free versions of the same.
Wheat berries, rye berries or barley grains may not be causing your symptoms or discomforts (unless you have an actual allergy to gluten or celiac disease), but rather, it could be the high amounts of sugar and processed chemicals that exist in many gluten-containing processed foods. Instead, stick with foods that are naturally gluten-free such as fresh produce, nuts, seeds and lean protein sources .
Whole grains that are naturally gluten-free are also important to keep in your diet since they are filled with nutrition benefits. Spices and herbs should be used to flavor your foods rather than condiments high in salt and sugar.
2. Whole grains are not the enemy
Many people fall for the low-carb myth and come to believe that grains (both gluten-containing and gluten-free grains) are terrible to eat. Yet research proves otherwise; whole grains are consistently linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer and even diabetes.
Whole grains are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals and incredible amounts of phytochemicals and other antioxidants that protect health. And yes, these benefits include gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley and rye.
If you’re following a gluten-free diet, eat gluten-free grains such as rolled oats or steel-cut oats. Seeds such as quinoa, amaranth, teff, buckwheat and millet also cook up just like grains and offer similar nutrition benefits. Aquatic-grown wild rice is also an excellent option. Finally, if you’re not allergic to wheat, go for more ancient forms of wheat that are easier to digest such as kamut, farro and spelt.
3. Eat a variety of real foods
Eating gluten-free isn’t about eating a limited diet. Your body needs a variety of antioxidants, fiber, protein and healthy fats which are all naturally found in fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes such as lentils and chickpeas. Add variety to your gluten-free diet by eating these foods every day.
Hemp, flax, pumpkin and chia seeds also provide omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fiber. These tasty seeds can be added to a variety of dishes such as oatmeal, smoothies or homemade energy bars.
If you’re craving a treat on a gluten-free diet, forego highly processed snacks and choose something naturally packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Dark chocolate featuring a high cacao content (85 percent or greater), fresh fruit, raw trail mix or whole fruit and nut bars satisfy a sweet tooth while also providing nutrition benefits.
Finally, don’t forget your veggies no matter what! Be sure to include plenty of colorful vegetables and leafy greens in your diet since they’ll help reduce your cravings for unhealthy foods and fill you up with fiber to help keep you satisfied longer too.
4. Above all, listen to your body
Many people don’t feel any better on a gluten-free diet than they did before they went gluten-free. This is likely the case when individuals are already eating healthy diets and when gluten isn’t really the problem at all.
Keep an open mind when it comes to health, and don’t rule out an entire food group from your diet unless you really need to. Vitamin deficiencies, mineral deficiencies, not eating enough calories, an imbalanced intake of nutrients or other allergies and reactions to seemingly safe foods can all pose problems just like a gluten allergy, intolerance or autoimmune disorder can.
Try keeping a food journal to note your reactions to certain foods, and listen to what your body is telling you. It's also important to take a food-based multivitamin and focus on balance--whether or not you're eating gluten-free.
For special occasions or to see how easy it can be to follow a gluten-free diet, check out these delicious gluten-free recipes. You can also try this gluten-free diet plan for beginners if you're just starting out.