Low-carb, paleo, and keto diets have been all the rage in recent years as more people look for healthier meal options. More recently, gluten-free diets have become the go-to alternative for celebrities and a majority of the population in general.
Studies show 30% of Americans avoid gluten-containing foods, yet only a few have gluten-related ailments. More grocery stores stock gluten-free products while restaurants adapt their menus to gluten-free requests.
This begs the question, what is a gluten-free diet, and who needs one? You can just read on to find out.
What is a Gluten-free Diet?
A gluten-free diet does not contain foods made from gluten. Gluten is a protein found in rye, wheat, spelled, barley, and any food or drink made from such ingredients.
It has a glue-like texture and is responsible for the sticky consistency in flour when mixed with water. Gluten also gives bread and other baked foods a characteristic chewy texture.
Gluten is also used as a flavoring and a binding agent in some foods, so you’re bound to find it in foods you least expect, e.g., soups. Foods like pasta, pizza, cereal, soy sauce, and ice cream contain gluten.
Who Requires a Gluten-free Diet?
There’s a misconception that a gluten-free diet is healthier than one that contains gluten. It couldn’t be further from the truth. A gluten-free diet is necessary for people with particular health conditions. They include:
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that causes the body to attack the small intestine. A gluten diet triggers this response because the body mistakes gluten for an antigen.
Consequently, the body attacks gluten and the surrounding parts, like the small intestine lining and the gut wall.
The damage prevents proper absorption of nutrients from foods and increases the risk of developing other ailments. People with celiac disease develop symptoms like:
- Weight loss
- Stomach discomfort
- Sharp stomach pain
Sometimes the disease causes extraintestinal symptoms like anemia, skin rash, reduced bone density, depression, and headaches, making diagnosing it challenging.
In the case of kids, celiac disease may present with diarrhea, unexplained growth failure, short stature, and delayed puberty.
If you develop such symptoms after eating gluten, screening for the disease before trying a gluten-free diet is essential. The doctor will likely perform two tests:
- A blood test to determine if the body has developed antibodies that interact with gluten protein incorrectly
- A biopsy to determine if the blood test tests positive for the antibodies. The doctor takes a sample of tissue from the small intestine to check for damage
Another condition that causes some people to switch to a gluten-free diet is gluten intolerance, also called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
Although the condition doesn’t test positive for celiac disease, an individual experiences similar symptoms after eating gluten food. They include:
- Stomach pain
- Skin rashes
In addition to avoiding gluten foods and drinks, other irritants like FODMAPs may cause gluten intolerance.
FODMAPs are short-chain carbs such as monosaccharides, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, and polyols that cause digestive problems. Cereals, bread, and crackers contain FODMAPs.
People with wheat allergies must also avoid foods that contain gluten. Since wheat contains gluten, it causes the immune system to mistake the protein for bacteria or a virus.
As a result, the body develops an antibody to the protein, prompting the immune system to respond by developing symptoms like:
- Nasal congestion
- Difficulty breathing
In extreme cases, the individual develops anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. The reaction causes the immune system to release chemicals that shock the body. The narrow airways make breathing difficult, and the blood pressure may drop abruptly.
Gluten ataxia is another autoimmune disorder that affects the nervous system. When you eat gluten-containing foods, the body produces antibodies to attack gluten.
In the case of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, the antibodies damage the small intestine lining. However, with gluten ataxia, the antibodies attack the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor control, balance, and muscle tone.
Gluten ataxia is a rare condition affecting only 15% of people aged 50 years and above. People with this condition often experience mild balance problems like difficulty moving their legs and may develop unsteady feet.
If not treated, the symptoms may progress, and the individual may develop slurred speech and involuntary eye movement.
Which Foods Contain Gluten?
When on a gluten-free diet, you must pay attention to the foods you eat, the ingredients used to prepare them, and their nutritional content. This means avoiding the following foods and drinks that contain wheat, rye, barley, triticale, and related ingredients unless they’re labeled gluten-free:
- Pizza bases
- Crackers and cookies
- Bulgur wheat
- Communion wafers
- French fries
- Hot dogs
- Salad dressings
- Seasoned rice mixes
- Veggies in sauce
- Self-basting poultry
- Rice mixes
- Snack foods like a tortilla and potato chips
- Beer, stout, porter, and all
- Breakfast cereals
Examples of Gluten-free Foods
Being on a gluten-free diet keeps your food options minimal. Most of them are naturally occurring foods and include:
- Low-fat dairy products
- Fruits and veggies
- Fruit juice
- Fizzy drinks
- Wine, cider, spirits, and liquors
- Lean non-processed meats, poultry, and fish
As for flours, grains, and starches, you want to stick to options such as:
- Corn (if labeled gluten-free)
Oats also add to the list of gluten-free cereals, but it gets contaminated easily when stored with other gluten-containing grains.
As such, people with gluten-related diseases must look for uncontaminated gluten-free oats. However, you can reduce cross-contamination by:
- Wiping the surfaces clean
- Cleaning the pots with soap and water
- Using different jam spoons and butter knives when preparing toast to avoid breadcrumbs from mixing with other ingredients
- Toasting gluten-free bread in an oven or using separate toasters
Which Wheat Varieties Contain Gluten?
Since many foods use wheat-related ingredients, it’s essential to understand the terms you must look for when buying wheat-related products.
Often manufacturers use terms such as emmer, durum, spelled, and Kamut to refer to wheat. Millers use different terminologies based on the method used to process the flour.
As such, you’re likely to find the following phrases which mean the products contain gluten:
- Self-rising flour, also known as phosphate flour
- Flour enriched with minerals and vitamins
- Semolina which is milled wheat used in couscous and pasta
- Course whole-wheat flour like graham flour
That’s why you must read the labels on food products to determine if they have gluten-related ingredients. Gluten-free products are likely to be labeled as:
- Natural, gluten-free food
- Prepared food that doesn’t have gluten-related ingredient
- Foods with gluten-containing ingredients, processed to remove gluten
- Food that hasn’t been cross-contaminated with gluten-related ingredients during production
What Do You Do When Eating Out?
If you’re dining out and have celiac or gluten intolerance, it would help to alert the staff that you need gluten-free food and drink. Try to check the menu online beforehand so you have a clue about what they offer.
Potato-based dishes and rice are great gluten-free options, but you must watch the soups. Veggie soups may contain gravy or flavoring that contains gluten ingredients.
Another trick is to visit the restaurant early enough or late at night when it isn’t busy to make it easy for the staff to meet your needs.
How to Prepare Gluten-free Foods at Home
People on a gluten-free diet are more inclined to prepare gluten-free foods at home. Here are some ideas:
For breakfast, you may prepare oats (uncontaminated) and eat them with your favorite flavor or topping. Alternatively, roast sweet potatoes and serve with eggs, kale, green onions, and bacon.
You want to keep the lunch option gluten-free while spending a short time preparing them. A baked salmon is an excellent idea; you only need to season and place it in the oven to cook.
However, the chicken salad is an excellent option for a lighter meal. Wrap poached chicken in lettuce and layer it in a sandwich. You can also enjoy this creamy salad alone.
Your dinner options don’t have to be boring because you’re on a gluten-free diet. A chicken stir-fry is a great dinner option. It’s full of flavor and keeps you fuller longer.
If you have the time, you can prepare a zucchini lasagna. This kind is gluten-free and is loaded with zucchini, cheeses, and beef bolognese.
Most snacks have gluten ingredients. However, you can try gluten-free alternatives like smoothies, non-baked energy balls, or classic dips like mango salsa and guacamole.
You’re probably wondering if there are gluten-free dessert options, as most contain wheat. But it’s possible.
There are gluten-free cakes like the paleo lemon blueberry, vegan cheesecakes, and chocolate mug cakes. You may also try gluten-free cookies such as the flourless butter cookies.
With this guide, you will understand a gluten-free diet and why people with celiac disease, non-gluten sensitivity, wheat allergies, and gluten ataxia need one. You can also identify products and ingredients that contain gluten. Although a gluten-free diet is restrictive, you can prepare the most delicious foods with a bit of creativity.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
- Ella Olsson/ Unsplash
- 30% of Americans avoid gluten-containing foods
- FODMAPs are short-chain carbs
- Gluten ataxia is a rare condition
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