Gluten is everywhere. You can’t escape it. It’s in bread, cereal, granola bars, pasta, pizza, soups, sauces, gravy, vegetarian “meat”, cookies, cakes, pastries, muffins, ice cream, Chinese food, and even some medicines. What is this food substance everyone is talking about? It’s literally the glue that holds certain foods together (Gluten is from the Latin word for “glue”). More specifically, it’s a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grains, like barley and rye.
If you find that gluten is not good for you, starting a gluten free (GF) diet might seem overwhelming, especially when you begin looking at ingredient lists and notice that the gluten found in wheat, barley, and rye is in many of your favorite foods. It might seem you’re left with few options to eat.
When people start a gluten free diet they tend to fall into two categories:
- Those who are tempted to avoid any food that looks like bread or pasta for fear it might contain gluten. Before you know it all you are eating is salad and fruit. Not healthy.
- Those who discover the many gluten free versions of their once favorite gluten containing foods. You’re so happy that you can enjoy all the cake, ice cream, cookies and pizza you want without having to worry about the gluten. Also, not healthy!
Both of these gluten free diet approaches can spell disaster. Omitting entire food groups or relying heavily on processed foods might mean you are missing out on important nutrients.
Have no fear: a gluten free diet can be healthy and delicious! Here’s why and how:
More whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, dairy, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, meat, poultry, and seafood are naturally gluten free, as are many whole grains. These foods are the foundation of any healthy diet. Load up on them!
Less processed foods. During the processing of some foods is when gluten might get introduced. For example, deli meat might have gluten to hold the ingredients together, or breaded frozen fish will have gluten in the breading. Following a gluten free diet might mean less processed and more whole foods, which is better for you anyway.
New foods (and new versions of foods). Your new diet may force you to try new foods, or learn new cooking skills and techniques. A gluten free diet that includes a variety of colorful whole foods from each food group is a well balanced diet. You can find some great gluten free foods and recipe ideas on our UVM Medical Center Pinterest board. Don’t want to give up pasta? Try some alternative grains, like quinoa, which is high in protein, or look for pastas that are made from brown rice, corn, a combination of corn and quinoa, potato and soybeans.
Restaurant food. More restaurants are providing gluten free food options, or are able to make gluten free dishes to order. Always ask to find out if a menu item is gluten free. Local options in Vermont include a full range of cuisines: Asian fusion, Bistro/fine dining, Chinese, Japanese, Pub/American, Thai, and Vietnamese. Click to download a list of GlutenFree Restaurants Burlington Area_May2013.
Following a gluten free diet isn’t for everyone.
First, ask yourself (and your doctor and a Registered Dietitian) “Do I really need to go gluten free? What benefits can I get from following this diet?” People with Celiac Disease must follow a GF diet to stay healthy. There is emerging research that some other people might benefit from a gluten free diet as well. They might be able to tolerate a small amount of gluten.
Second, learn what a gluten free diet involves. A Registered Dietitian can help you understand what diet changes you will need to make, learn how to find gluten in foods, and how to get all the nutrition you need to stay healthy.
Emily Piazza, MS, RD, CD is the Nutrition Supervisor on the Community Health Team at the University of Vermont Medical Center.