What Is a Gluten-Free Diet — And What Should I Know About Going Gluten-Free?

updated Jan 25, 2020
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In the last decade, gluten-free everything has become mainstream. Grocery stores stock gluten-free breads and cookies and cakes; restaurants offer gluten-free options; and more and more people are cutting out gluten from their diet in an attempt to eat a healthier diet and live a healthier life. But is eliminating gluten actually beneficial for people who don’t have celiac disease (a condition where gluten triggers your immune system to attack and damage the cells of your small intestine) or related disorders, such as non-celiac gluten sensitivity? People diagnosed with these conditions need to follow a lifelong gluten-free diet, but should people who don’t have celiac or gluten sensitivity follow a gluten-free diet?

Here’s what you need to know about what gluten is, what foods you can and can’t eat on a gluten-free diet, and what you should know before eliminating gluten from your diet.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a type of protein found primarily in wheat. When isolated from the rest of the wheat flour, gluten forms a chewy substance called seitan that has been used for generations as a high-protein meat substitute.

In baked goods, and in some packaged foods, gluten is often used to help food hold its shape. Bread flour, for instance, has much more gluten than cake flour, which is why a loaf of bread is less likely to fall apart when you cut into it than a slice of cake. And the reason pizza dough doesn’t rip when a pizza maker tosses it into the air is the gluten holding it together.  

There are several kinds of wheat, (durum, semolina, spelt, and farro) which all contain gluten. Additionally, there are several grains besides wheat that contain gluten, including barley, rye, and triticale (a rye/wheat hybrid).

What foods do you avoid on a gluten-free diet? 

As its name implies, a gluten-free diet eliminates — or diminishes to a very, very low level — the quantity of gluten in foods. Because processed foods are often made in factories with lots of different ingredients present, and because it’s so easy for flour to get into the air and contaminate a product, even if it doesn’t contain wheat or flour, the U. S. government has made a guideline: For a food to be considered gluten-free it must contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. 

Here are some common foods that naturally contain gluten: 

  • Bread, rolls, English muffins, etc.
  • Flour tortillas
  • Many ready-to-eat cereals and granolas
  • Pastas
  • Sauces and gravies (flour can be used as a thickener)
  • Cookies, cakes, and other baked goods
  • Beer and other malt beverages

Food manufacturers also add gluten-containing ingredients to processed foods — even ones you might assume are naturally gluten-free. Some examples of processed foods with gluten ingredients include:

  • Flavored potato chips
  • Soup
  • Salad dressings and marinades
  • Processed lunch meats
  • Energy bars
  • Soy sauce

So, if you’re avoiding gluten, be sure to read ingredient lists as well as looking for gluten-free labeling.  

What can you eat on a gluten-free diet? 

A gluten-free diet leans heavily on animal and plant proteins, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils and other healthy fats. There are also naturally gluten-free grains that are safe to eat. Those include rice, corn, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, teff, and wild rice

Oats, however, can be a source of some controversy. While oats are not related to wheat, and do not contain gluten, many commercial oats become contaminated with gluten in the field and also during processing, which is why some gluten-free dieters avoid oats. To be safe, look for oats specifically labeled “gluten-free” and try to limit yourself to a 1/2 to 3/4-cup of oats a day

What are the health benefits of following a gluten-free diet? 

For people with a sensitivity to gluten, of course, there are huge benefits to the diet. With an immune system no longer on the attack, a person’s body weight will typically move in the direction it needs to — those who were underweight prior to the diagnosis will gain weight appropriately, and those who were overweight tend to lose weight. The small intestine will also begin to heal and with that comes improved absorption of nutrients. 

For people who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) , a gluten-free diet can often help manage the condition either along with or in place of medication. Following a gluten-free diet can be much less costly than IBS medications, and more customizable to an individual’s lifestyle. People with these disorders also occasionally find benefits from following a low-FODMAP diet, which can overlap with a gluten-free diet in some way.

That said, if you are following or considering following a gluten-free diet for non-medical reasons, there is little real evidence that the diet will be beneficial — though there are plenty of anecdotal stories from gluten-free proponents that argue otherwise. In fact, there is some chance that going gluten-free, if not medically necessary, could be harmful to your health.

What are the risks of a gluten-free diet?

Whenever you eliminate one or more major food groups from your diet, it becomes much easier to fall short on the nutrients those foods tend to provide. This is one of the challenges to the gluten-free diet.

Additionally, while many whole foods are naturally gluten-free and are quite healthy, the nutrition profile of gluten-free packaged foods has been called into question. Many are lower than average in protein and higher than average in fat and salt. The good news is research shows the healthfulness of GF processed foods is improving (healthier fiber and sugar levels seem to be trending).

Finally, the research is still preliminary, but when a small study of people newly-diagnosed with celiac disease were put on a gluten-free diet, researchers found that by the 1-year mark, their risk of developing metabolic syndrome increased. This means they were more likely to have higher blood pressure, higher blood sugar, and wider waists.

It’s possible that other factors were involved in the increases, and more research would have to be done to determine cause and effect, but it does underscore that, if you find that you need to follow a gluten-free diet, it is extra important to choose healthy gluten-free foods as much as possible. 

Your turn: Are you gluten-free or have you tried a gluten-free diet? What was your experience? Tell us in the comments below.