Healthy Diets: The Gluten-Free Diet

A gluten-free diet is an eating plan that excludes foods containing gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).

A gluten-free diet involves excluding foods that contain the protein gluten, including wheat, rye and barley.

Most studies on gluten-free diets have been done on people with celiac disease, but there is another condition called gluten sensitivity that also causes problems with gluten.

Gluten is a family of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt.

Its name comes from the Latin word for “glue,” as it gives flour a sticky consistency when mixed with water.

This glue-like property helps gluten create a sticky network that gives bread the ability to rise when baked. It also gives bread a chewy and satisfying texture.

Purpose

A gluten-free diet is essential for managing signs and symptoms of celiac disease and other medical conditions associated with gluten.

A gluten-free diet is also popular among people who haven’t been diagnosed with a gluten-related medical condition. The claimed benefits of the diet are improved health, weight loss and increased energy, but more research is needed.

Wheat allergy, like other food allergies, is the result of the immune system mistaking gluten or some other protein found in wheat as a disease-causing agent, such as a virus or bacterium. The immune system creates an antibody to the protein, prompting an immune system response that may result in congestion, breathing difficulties and other symptoms.

Celiac disease is a condition in which gluten triggers immune system activity that damages the lining of the small intestine. Over time this damage prevents the absorption of nutrients from food. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity causes some signs and symptoms associated with celiac disease — including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, “foggy brain,” rash or headache — even though there is no damage to the tissues of the small intestine. Studies show that the immune system plays a role, but the process isn’t well understood.

Gluten ataxia, an autoimmune disorder, affects certain nerve tissues and causes problems with muscle control and voluntary muscle movement.

Diet details

Following a gluten-free diet requires paying careful attention to food selections, the ingredients found in foods, and their nutritional content.

Allowed fresh foods

There are plenty of gluten-free options that will allow you to enjoy healthy and delicious meals.

The following foods are naturally gluten-free:

  • Nuts and seeds. All nuts and seeds.
  • Beverages. Most beverages, except for beer (unless labeled as gluten-free).
  • Herbs and spices. All herbs and spices.
  • Fruits and vegetables. All fruits and vegetables are naturally free of gluten.
  • Starches and flours. Potatoes, potato flour, corn, corn flour, chickpea flour, soy flour, almond meal/flour, coconut flour and tapioca flour.
  • Spreads and oils. All vegetable oils and butter.
  • Meats and fish. All meats and fish, except battered or coated meats.
  • Dairy. Plain dairy products, such as plain milk, plain yogurt and cheeses. However, flavored dairy products may have added ingredients that contain gluten, so you will need to read the food labels.
  • Eggs. All types of eggs are naturally gluten-free.
  • Grains. Quinoa, rice, buckwheat, tapioca, sorghum, corn, millet, amaranth, arrowroot, teff and oats (if labeled gluten-free).

Foods to Avoid

Completely avoiding gluten can be challenging.

This is because it is found in many common ingredients that are added to foods.

These are the main sources of gluten in the diet:

  • Triticale
  • Malt
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Wheat-based foods like wheat bran, wheat flour, spelt, durum, kamut and semolina
  • Barley
  • Rye

Eating gluten-free at home and in restaurants

For people with celiac disease, in particular, it’s important to avoid exposure to gluten. The following tips can help you prevent cross-contamination in your own food preparations at home and avoid gluten-containing food when you eat out:

  • Eat out early or late when a restaurant is less busy and better able to address your needs.
  • Read restaurant menus online ahead of time if possible to be sure there are options for you.
  • Store gluten-free and gluten-containing foods in different places.
  • Keep cooking surfaces and food storage areas clean.
  • Wash dishes and cooking equipment thoroughly.
  • Toast bread in the oven — or consider separate toasters — to avoid cross-contamination.

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Health Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet

A gluten-free diet has many benefits, especially for someone with celiac disease. Here are the main benefits of a gluten-free diet:

May Boost Energy

People with celiac disease often feel tired, sluggish or experience “brain fog”.

These symptoms may be caused by nutrient deficiencies because of damage to the gut. For example, an iron deficiency can lead to anemia, which is common in celiac disease.

If you have celiac disease, switching to a gluten-free diet may help boost your energy levels and stop you from feeling tired and sluggish.

Can Help You Lose Weight

It’s not unusual to lose weight when you start following a gluten-free diet.

This is because it eliminates many junk foods that add unwanted calories to the diet. These foods are often replaced by fruit, veggies and lean proteins.

However, it’s important to avoid processed “gluten-free” foods like cakes, pastries and snacks, as they can quickly add a lot of calories to your diet.

May Relieve Digestive Symptoms

Most people try a gluten-free diet to treat digestive problems.

These include bloating, diarrhea or constipation, gas, fatigue and many other symptoms.

Studies have shown that following a gluten-free diet can help ease digestive symptoms for people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity

In one study, 215 people with celiac disease followed a gluten-free diet for six months. The diet helped significantly reduce stomach pain and the frequency of diarrhea, nausea and other symptoms.

Bottom Line

Most people can eat gluten without any negative effects.

However, those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity need to avoid it, as it can cause harmful effects.

While a gluten-free diet is restricting, there are plenty of healthy and delicious options.

Just make sure to eat plenty of whole, single-ingredient foods like fruits, vegetables and lean protein sources. They will keep your stomach happy and promote optimal health.

What’s more, a gluten-free diet may provide many health benefits. It can ease digestive symptoms, reduce inflammation, boost energy levels and even help you lose weight.

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