Going Gluten-Free

Okay, first things first: if you are gluten intolerant, as I amyou must follow a totally gluten-free diet for life. There is no alternative if you want to restore and maintain your health.

Additionally, if you want to go gluten-free for some time to see if any of your health symptoms improve, you must also eat totally gluten-free. If you are not careful and accidentally eat gluten, or if you “cheat,” then your body will still be reacting to the gluten, making your diet practically pointless. You also need to follow it for a lengthy bit of time (I’d suggest at least 3 months) because some symptoms will take longer to resolve than others.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, most oat products, and a few other rarely eaten grains, such as spelt. If you are gluten intolerant (and some research says 40% of people are, but don’t know it), your body has a serious, dangerous, immune reaction to this protein, so you should not eat any of these grains or anything that is made of these grains. So, for example, you can not eat any bread made of wheat, or pasta made of wheat, or cakes, cookies, pies, etc. made of wheat, or breadcrumbs made of wheat.

So what can you eat? So many things! Gluten-intolerant people can have fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, seafood, legumes, nuts, and non-gluten grains such as rice, teff, millet, and quinoa. Basically, almost everything! Or whatever your health and/or food philosophies allow you to eat.

Then where’s the difficulty in going gluten-free? The problem is that gluten is everywhere, and you must be constantly vigilant that you don’t consume it.

You can think of gluten-containing foods as divided into 3 tiers. The first consists of the obvious foods, usually made of wheat: breads, pasta, cookies, cake. The second tier are foods in which gluten is in the secondary ingredients, foods you may not associate with gluten right away: chicken nuggets, a salad with croutons, tabbouleh, chicken noodle soup. And then there is the third tier, foods that you may not realize have gluten in them: soy sauce, certain brands of ketchup, some kinds of chocolate, certain ice creams, even some tea blends. And the list goes on.

So this is what you do.

Fruits and vegetables, as well as beans, lentils, and nuts, are not only naturally gluten-free, but they are essential to good health. Of course, these should be eaten in their most natural, unprocessed state. For example, eat plain almonds or ones that are seasoned only with salt, not ones that are flavored with strange things. Not only are the processed ones full of unhealthy ingredients, but also, if you aren’t careful, you run the risk of consuming gluten in one of these ingredients in processed foods. Similarly, those frozen, “sauced,” microwavable broccoli packages don’t really qualify as “vegetables.” Microwaving kill almost all the nutrients in the food, rendering it nutritionally useless, and it warps the structure of food, making it unrecognizable to the body. Moreover, the sauces may contain gluten, and they are usually full of sodium, hydrogenated fats, and other undesirables. For quick, delicious, healthy broccoli, skip the processed, sauced stuff and, instead, sautee plain, frozen broccoli with olive oil, garlic, salt, and lemon. It only takes a few minutes and is incredibly healthy and delicious. I think you get the point: buy unprocessed or (at the worst) very minimally processed fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, and nuts, and let these make up the bulk of your diet. There are hundreds and hundreds of foods in this category, so experiment and try new things! Also, as much as possible, eat organic plant food. It seems silly (and dangerous) to eat tons of fruits and veggies for health, but to be poisoning yourself with pesticides at the same time. Also avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms). All fruits and vegetables with a sticker number that starts with “8″ are genetically modified; do not buy them.

Almost all dairy products are gluten free, and these should also minimally processed, preferably organic, and free of artificial hormones. There is research that links dairy (except butter) to health problems, and gluten-intolerant people often have problems with it for various reasons, so research, experiment, and decide for yourself. Even if you seem to be okay with dairy, it’s best used sparingly.

Poultry, lamb, beef, pork, seafood, and other, um, animals, are all gluten free. They should be eaten in as natural a state as possible, once again preferably organic, free-range, and antibiotic- and hormone-free. Beware of pre-seasoned or deli meats, as they can contain gluten.

You can have gluten-free grains, such as rice or quinoa. And all those breads, cookies, and pastas you gave up? Well, there are gluten-free alternatives to almost everything! Look in your local Whole Foods, specialty grocery stores, or even some main-stream grocery stores for gluten-free bread, pie crusts, and pastas. What you can’t find in stores you can find online. And what you can’t find in stores or online, you can probably try to cook or bake yourself. Speaking of cooking, most gluten-containing recipes can easily be made gluten free: switch out wheat pasta for rice pasta, use corn tortillas instead of flour ones, and marinate with a gluten-free tamari sauce instead of soy sauce.

I think it’s healthier and safer to make everything from scratch, but we all have to buy some pre-made food. If the package doesn’t say its contents are gluten-free, it still may be. For example, if a jar of spaghetti sauce says it’s made of only tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and garlic, it should be safe. In fact, even if the package doesn’t have a gluten ingredient, but it says it’s made in a facility that processes wheat (or a similar message), it’s most likely still safe! Not sure about some of the listings on a package? Here are lists of safe and unsafe ingredients. Additionally, you can do online searches (or even call the company) to check if a product is gluten free. Many companies will offer that particular information on their sites, or you may find information from gluten-free people who have already contacted the company. The same precautions must be taken for medications, vitamins, and, often, beauty products; they should all be gluten-free.

Avoid cross-contamination. All food must be cooked and served in cookware and utensils that are totally clean and not contaminated with gluten. For example, you can’t toast your gluten-free bread in a toaster that’s full of gluteny crumbs. You also must be wary of dips and other shared foods. If your house-mates eat gluten, either they should not contaminate shared foods (such as not inserting a crumb-covered knife into the mayonnaise), or you must by your own container of these foods and label them as such.

Finally, if you go out to eat, you must be sure that foods are gluten-free. First, choose foods that do not have any obvious gluten ingredients. Second, inform your server that you cannot eat wheat, barley, rye, or (most) oats, and that you can’t have any of them touching your food (they can’t just remove croutons from a salad and serve it to you, for example). Third, ask about all the ingredients in your food (what exactly is in the chicken broth or special sauce?). Lastly, ask that everything be cooked on a cleaned grill, pan, etc.

Similarly, if you are dining at someone’s house, politely inform them that you can’t eat food with gluten ingredients and ask what’s in the dishes. Most people are mature enough to realize that you have a medical condition and will not be offended. However, even if they do get upset, do not eat any gluteny foods! Not even a bite! And if they or you aren’t sure what’s in the food, also don’t eat from the questionable dish. Do not damage your health just to humor someone. Thank them graciously for their offerings, but firmly state that you cannot eat any or you’ll get sick.

By following these steps, you should be able to maintain a totally gluten-free lifestyle. Here’s a quick recap of this post:

  1. Most foods are naturally gluten-free. Buy and eat them in their most natural form, preferably organic, non-GMO, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and/or free-range. Many recipes are also naturally gluten-free or could be easily made gluten-free. You will have to do more cooking for yourself to ensure that foods are safe.
  2. There are many gluten-free alternatives to gluten-containing foods. Scan your grocery stores and the Internet for them. You can also find many gluten-free recipes in cookbooks and online.
  3. Check the packaging or Websites of all processed or pre-cooked foods to ensure they do not have gluten ingredients. The same must be done for vitamins, medicines, and most beauty products.
  4. Be sure not to get cross-contaminated through cookware, utensils, or shared food.
  5. At restaurants, inform your server of your dietary needs, and ask all the questions and give enough instructions so that you can eat safely. At the homes of friends or family, ask your host questions to determine if the food is safe to eat.