How to Eat Gluten-Free

I’ve been eating completely gluten-free for over three years and it’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I say this, but I do realize that for some people, the process can be daunting. This is especially true of people who enjoy eating lots of processed food. Before I started eating gluten-free, some of my favorite snacks were crackers and cheese, garlic bread, pasta, pizza, and cupcakes. The people who ask me how to eat gluten-free are always concerned about losing their favorite treats. I admit, this is a valid concern, but before you start to lose heart, here’s the simple start to eating gluten-free.

Getting Rid of Gluten

“How do I eat gluten-free? Gluten is in everything. I’ll never be able to eat my favorite foods ever again!”

Whenever someone finds out that they need to cut gluten, usually because a medical professional suggested it, I find that most people have a huge attitude about it, and their response is initially a bit irrational. As creatures of habit, most humans don’t like change, especially when it’s a change to something super personal like our diets. If the “hassle” is really the part that bugs you the most, you’re in for a treat. Getting rid of gluten out of your diet is probably the easiest thing a person can do.

First of all, gluten is NOT in everything. Gluten is in a lot of processed food, but all of the fresh, real food you find around the outside edges of the grocery store (not the center aisles) is almost completely, naturally gluten-free. You will never find gluten in any produce, fruit, vegetable, dairy product, milk, butter, eggs, or meat, unless they’ve been processed in some way. (Like fried chicken or deep-fried zucchini, for example.)

If you’re starting to see where I’m going with this and not liking it, just hold on for a minute.

This is where I like to invoke Chris Kresser whose position on eating and nutrition is pretty solid. “Eat real food,” he says. The simple reminder that processed food is NOT real food is enough to get my attention. (More on processed food in future posts. I PROMISE!)

Tracking Your Daily Food Intake

All right, time for some practical application.

When you first make the commitment to go gluten-free, I recommend starting by identifying all of the sources of gluten in your daily life. You may need to track your food intake for a few days first if you don’t keep constant tabs on what you’re eating. My Fitness Pal is a great app for food tracking, and I recommend that everyone have that app and use it occasionally on their food journey. (You’ll hear me mention it every time I talk about making some major diet change.) For this exercise, writing everything down can be just as effective as you won’t be counting macros or anything. (Yet…I promise to make you do it on other occasions though!)

A list of foods containing gluten that you eat in a day might look like this:

  • Breakfast cereal
  • Sandwich
  • BBQ sauce
  • Ice cream cone
  • Beer

If you commonly eat a lot of processed or packaged foods, or dine out a lot, especially at chain restaurants or fast food places, there may be lots of sources of hidden gluten in your diet, and this list may be a lot longer than my example! For more specifics, you can check out this comprehensive list of gluten-containing ingredients.

A Note About Cross-Contamination

If you’ve been told by your doctor that you can’t eat gluten anymore, you may want to consider the potential dangers of cross-contamination as well. Food labels will mention possible contamination (with labels that say something like “Made in a facility that processes wheat products” or “May contain wheat”) and most restaurants will be up-front with you about possible cross-contamination or ask you if you want their kitchen staff to handle your food with fresh gloves. In your own home, you may want to consider purchasing a new toaster or have one that isn’t shared with the members of your family who still eat regular bread.

Personally, I have learned to choose which situations I’ll be concerned about cross-contamination, depending on my risk and on previous experiences with getting sick because of cross-contamination concerns. People who are extremely sensitive or have a Celiac diagnosis should definitely be aware of the dangers.

stop before ordering french fries

It’s true that most French fries are naturally gluten-free (they’re just potatoes) but some companies put flour on them to retain their shape, so be sure to read labels if you’re still purchasing pre-packaged foods. Always ask restaurant staff about their French fry making policies as well. Most restaurants deep fry their French fries in the same fryers that make breaded chicken, fish, and cheese sticks, and that means that breading may easily end up on your fries, making you sick. Some restaurants use separate fryers, so be sure to ask around and know which restaurants are safe for you.

Choosing Alternatives to Gluten-Containing Foods

Once you’ve identified the list of all gluten-containing foods that you eat on a daily basis, the process of switching to gluten-free alternatives is fairly simple. Breakfast cereals, bread, sauces, and even desserts and beer all have extensive gluten-free options on the market that can be worthy replacements for the gluten-filled versions that you have to get rid of.

In the world of processed food, it’s so incredibly easy to find gluten-free options that you will probably not even miss a beat.

Some of my favorite processed gluten-free products that helped me transition out of gluten-filled processed foods are listed below to help you out:

For the record, I don’t really buy or use ANY of the above items anymore, but these are brands that are relatively reliable and are working to ensure that gluten-free options are out there for people like us. I applaud them for that effort.

Also, most of these options are available right at your local grocery store as well, but they are often a good deal more expensive when purchased there. I recommend shopping around online for better deals (or clicking my links to find them on Amazon.)

You can also message me for more help. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I don’t mind being a resource for people who need help with this process!

Next steps

Now, you’re eating gluten-free! Congratulations. That was easy, wasn’t it?

I’m not going to let you stop here though. You’re gluten-free, but if you are eating the items that I suggested above on a regular basis, you are not yet eating “healthy.” Take a deep breath, and if you’re ready, keep reading.

When Going Gluten-Free Doesn’t Work

Eating gluten-free is easy enough to do initially, but there is a lot more to “eating healthy” than simply replacing everything processed with wheat with other foods that are just as processed but without wheat. Unfortunately, many gluten-free alternatives, like bread, cookies, and cereals, are actually made with more sugar than their counterparts. This is because wheat gluten acts as a binding agent in most baked goods, and without it, bakers and food manufacturers need to find something else that is sticky enough to hold the food together.

Many people who go “gluten-free” by simply switching to gluten-free processed foods may find themselves feeling initially better after the change, but not long-term. If this occurs, it is usually because, in the effort to rid themselves of gluten, the person has dramatically increased their sugar intake.

You’ve just solved one problem by creating another!

Count Your Macros

The best option for most of us is to track our complete daily macros (consumption of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, and I like to throw in tracking sugar too because sugar is one of the biggest sources of health problems today.)

Once you begin tracking your macros, you’ll have a better idea of what your daily food intake looks like. Most Americans are getting a bad balance of macros (such as too much fat and sugar but not enough protein, or too many carbs and sugar, but not enough of them sourced from healthier vegetables and fruits, respectively.)

At this point, I would suggest tackling the gluten sources that contain the most sugar, like gluten-free bread, desserts, and cereals, but you may find it in other treats as well. (For me, my daily Starbucks habit was one of the greatest sources of sugar in my diet, but I was also getting it from drinking chocolate milk, eating chips with seasonings that were hidden sources of sugar, etc. These were all things I kept consuming regularly for years while eating “gluten-free” and I just couldn’t understand why I was still so sick!)

Get a Food Allergy Test or try an elimination diet

Most medical practitioners can provide food allergy tests that are either covered by insurance or somewhat affordable (several hundred dollars at most, often with payment plan options, if they aren’t covered by insurance). If you’re still experiencing symptoms and discomfort, you may be allergic to something else besides gluten, like dairy or eggs.

Just keep in mind, if you are told that you don’t have food allergies, that does not mean you should carry on as normal and continue eating lots of sugar and processed foods. You can also try an elimination diet to help you determine which foods are causing difficulty and which foods need to be cut. In fact, elimination diets are such a great idea that you can find information about them from lots of nutritionists, health websites, practitioners, etc. I’ve seen elimination diets promoted by some of my favorites like Kelly Brogan and Chris Kresser, and I’ve linked to these resources below.

Understanding More About How Food Works

In my opinion, the biggest issue surrounding nutrition and chronic disease is that many people simply don’t understand that food is the fuel that makes our bodies work. If you’re hoping to fuel your body so that it works the best it can, you need to give it the right nutrients.

Overall nutrition resources

A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives by Kelly Brogan

The Paleo Cure: Eat Right for Your Genes, Body Type, and Personal Health Needs — Prevent and Reverse Disease, Lose Weight Effortlessly, and Look and Feel Better than Ever by Chris Kresser

The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health by Justin and Erica Sonnenburg

The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health by Emeran Mayer

The Longevity Diet: Discover the New Science Behind Stem Cell Activation and Regeneration to Slow Aging, Fight Disease, and Optimize Weight by Valter Longo

Elimination Diet Resources

Mind Body Green Simple Elimination Diet

Change Your Food, Heal Your Mood ebook by Kelly Brogan

Autoimmune Paleo Protocol by Chris Kresser

Opening Up the Dialogue About Processed vs. Real Food

The world of nutritional health is such a complicated one in our modern society, yet this statement seems like the type that I would have crossed out if I saw it as the opening line of one of my students’ essays 10 years ago. How could nutritional health be complicated, especially here in the United States, the land of plenty? Unfortunately, the answer is simpler than it seems. We have “plenty” of things to eat, but most of it isn’t real food.

the chronic illness and processed food connection

Let me be clear up front. I am not judging. How could I? I grew up eating lots of vegetables from cans, enjoying some of my favorite treats like boxed macaroni and cheese, ice cream sandwiches, Chicken in a Biscuit crackers, squeeze cheese, Ovaltine, Starbucks lattes…and writing this list out used to make me hungry, but now it just makes me cringe. When I was a kid, I struggled with all kinds of things like OCD, occasional depression (which I didn’t realize at the time, but understood later), anxiety, constipation, and upset stomach.

As an adult (age 24) I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis after a long period of unexplained illness. (You can read that whole story elsewhere on my blog.) Even after I was diagnosed, the medical care surrounding the treatment of the illness was confusing and weird. Doctors told me I was in a waiting game because until my thyroid actually “did something” (what a terrifyingly vague warning!) there was nothing they could do to treat me. Meanwhile, I asked what I should do about my diet and activity levels, and I was assured that since I was skinny, I was probably fine. So I carried on as always, going merrily along on my own unhealthy way, eating some real food, but a whole lot of fake, processed food as well.

In 2013, my health hit a wall. I started experiencing those stomach problems that had always plagued me, but with even more intensity than ever before. I had acid reflux almost every day, and I could never decide what was causing it. Over time, I started to realize that the acid reflux generally followed food consumption, so eventually, I stopped eating almost entirely and subsisted primarily on my daily Starbucks chai and any other small amount of food that didn’t make me feel too full. Sure, I ate salads and things like organic chicken, but I was consuming more sugar than anything else. (Back when it was still funny, my friends affectionately called me “the hummingbird,” because I lived on sugary beverages and was always jittery with anxiety.)

My doctors had no idea what to do with me. I was diagnosed with GERD, chronic acid reflux, and an anxiety disorder, but these issues, they assured me, had nothing to do with my Hashimoto’s diagnosis. Of course, that wasn’t reassuring in the least! Over the following 2-3 years, I stopped eating gluten, which is recommended for anyone who has an autoimmune disease, took food allergy tests, got back on a serious exercise regimen, and minimized the sugar intake in my diet. I started feeling better, but still, I didn’t feel good. Even though I was now 100% gluten-free, the acid reflux occurred regularly and without warning or any identifiable triggers, I spent nights lying in my bed having inexplicable panic attacks, and I spent an entire winter focusing all of my energy on the simple task of not ending my life.

How was I so sick, so desperate, and so unhappy, and yet no doctor seemed willing to admit that I had a problem? I convinced them to do an upper GI scope and they happily told me that my stomach was incredibly inflamed, but there was no sign of any apparent “cause,” and they sent me home. This was when the depression reached its peak. How could I go on with my life when I was suffering so much and there was no explanation about why?

The simple answer? I was suffering from malnutrition and no one caught it.

baby steps: Treating illness with nutritional medicine

When I found Kelly Brogan’s book, A Mind of Your Own, I had been searching for information about alternative treatment options for depression. Even though my depression was so deep that I was continually envisioning my own death, there was a little part of me that still wanted to believe I could get better and could live a life where I felt good, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I started with baby steps, trying Kelly Brogan’s 30-day reset diet. It was fairly simple and at first, if I’m being honest, absolutely nothing happened. On that diet, I was still consuming some sugar through natural sources like honey and maple syrup and berries, but with the removal of other potentially inflammatory foods like grains and dairy, I did start to notice some physical changes. It wasn’t until I bit the bullet and cut out my favorite vice that things really started to happen.

Breaking up with processed sugar

Breaking up with sugar was the best thing I could have done for myself.

Within the first few days of quitting sugar completely, I went through a few normal mood swings. They were far less than they would have been if I hadn’t already been significantly reducing my sugar intake in the 6 months that preceded this. After getting off sugar, I started feeling less of that groggy, sad feeling and instead, I started feeling calm happiness, energy, and confidence. I thought that it couldn’t be just the sugar, but by then, my body had become pretty accustomed to the clean diet I was eating so the only major change had been to cut the last little bit of sugar out of my diet.

Now, when I slip up and have sugar, I feel those unpleasant sensations in my body starting over again. I realize now that underneath what sometimes felt like my body completely rejecting me, there were subtler elements that I often didn’t recognize, like the achy feeling that occurred with a sugar crash, and the depression feelings that would often occur because of the ongoing body aches.

I’d been dizzy and nauseous and achey and unhappy, because I didn’t realize that I was riding a nonstop rollercoaster of sugar spikes and crashes.

Should you stop eating sugar?

I’ve talked with a lot of people who seek me out asking for advice. They see my food pictures and admire me for eating healthy, but often I start losing them as soon as I tell them what’s actually required.

“I can’t eat dessert anymore?”

“What about Starbucks?”

“How much sugar per day can I have?”

And before you know it, they’ve gone MIA. It happens, I’m not judging. In fact, I usually recognize my old self in their actions and, if anything, it strengthens my own resolve.

By the way, if you’ve asked me for advice and not been able to follow through, don’t cut off communication with me because you’re embarrassed. I know it’s hard to follow through, but that’s why I’m here to help you. I didn’t have anyone to walk me through it and that would have been helpful.

It’s okay to be “not ready,” to perhaps “not believe” that it’ll make a difference, or even to “feel fine” and therefore be willing to put it off again and again. It’s okay to live your own life and make your own decisions, but before you do, I recommend that you at least look at the information that’s out there and USE WHAT YOU LEARN to make your decision.

I’m dying to help everyone. As soon as I hear someone feels sick, I am there trying to preach the gospel of good nutrition, but I’m learning that I can’t save everyone. Some people need to be convinced with facts and evidence, other people need to get their hearts ready, and still other people may never change their minds.

The best I can do is share the information that I find most useful and hope that it will help someone else, or help someone else help someone else they love.

Take baby steps, if you must. One. Little. Step. At a time. Just never stop moving forward.

Educational resources about nutrition

It’s no secret that I love listening to Chris Kresser, whether in his books or his podcast. He collects the most interesting data on nutrition and shares the world of other knowledgeable experts, and he presents the information in the most educational and applicable way. While this podcast might not be the best choice for your START on a nutritional journey (for that, I recommend the reading suggestions at the very end of this post), if you’re already taking your steps toward better health and finding yourself struggling, this podcast may help put some things into perspective regarding supplemental nutritional support.

Chris Kresser’s mantra is “Eat real food,” and I’ve taken that for my own as well.

By the way, this resource is mentioned on the podcast. I’ve explored it a bit and so far, it’s extremely robust and helpful. It details tons of important nutritional facts all in one handy “cheat sheet.”

(If you listen to the above podcast, there’s a COUPON CODE that can be used until, I think, March 26, 2018, so hurry up!)

Crystal’s Healthy reading list

A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives by Kelly Brogan

The Paleo Cure: Eat Right for Your Genes, Body Type, and Personal Health Needs — Prevent and Reverse Disease, Lose Weight Effortlessly, and Look and Feel Better than Ever by Chris Kresser

The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health by Justin and Erica Sonnenburg

The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health by Emeran Mayer

The Longevity Diet: Discover the New Science Behind Stem Cell Activation and Regeneration to Slow Aging, Fight Disease, and Optimize Weight by Valter Longo