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
- BBQ sauce
- Ice cream cone
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:
- Krusteaz Cornbread Mix
- GFB Energy Bites
- Simple Mills Paleo-Friendly snack foods
- Betty Crocker baking mixes
- Naturally gluten-free KIND bar snacks
- UDI’s brand cookies and treats
- Pamela’s brand baking mixes (many of these are also Paleo friendly, so egg and dairy free)
- Cup4Cup Gluten-Free Flour (the best exact baking replacement I’ve found, if you’re not ready to give up your baking yet)
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!
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
The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health by Justin and Erica Sonnenburg
Elimination Diet Resources
Change Your Food, Heal Your Mood ebook by Kelly Brogan
Autoimmune Paleo Protocol by Chris Kresser