Anyone who has gone gluten-free can attest to the difficulties of making the switch from an unrestricted diet. Beginners often find themselves frustrated after checking nutrition labels at the grocery store only to find that their favorite foods (and most alternatives) contain some form of gluten. If you are just beginning the gluten-free diet and feel discouraged, don’t give up! Below, you will find a guide to the gluten-free diet complete with gluten-free guidelines, what to eat and avoid, and a few of the best gluten-free products.
Overview: What Constitutes Gluten-Free?
If you are just beginning the gluten-free diet, make sure you read the What Is Gluten page for a detailed explanation of what gluten is!
The Food and Drug Administration defines gluten-free as any food that contains gluten in no more than 20 parts per million. What does this mean? This is the lowest amount of gluten in foods that can be found using valid scientific methods, and the majority of people with celiac disease can handle foods with under 20 parts per million. So, if you see a food label that says “gluten-free” or has a similar claim then it legally fits the FDA’s definition of gluten-free and can be considered safe to eat. If you do not see a gluten-free label, don’t fret! Look at the list of ingredients to see if it is safe to eat.
What to Eat and Avoid: Gluten-Free Food Groups
A good rule of thumb when looking for gluten-free foods is to go for the least processed options. Foods with fewer ingredients are less likely to include additives that contain gluten, and it doesn’t hurt to eat natural! Not sure where to begin? Below you will find advice on each food group, including what is safe to eat and what’s best to avoid.
Unprocessed meats such as chicken, beef, pork, and turkey are gluten-free and great sources of protein. Remember that purchasing meat that is not seasoned, marinated, or altered in any way is the safest bet for anyone with celiac disease. The reason is that marinades, sauces, and seasonings may contain gluten or other allergens, so make sure to buy raw meat and find a gluten-free sauce or seasoning to cooking with.
If you enjoy processed meats such as sausage or hot dogs then you will need to find gluten-free versions because many brands will be unsafe to consume. These products are usually highly-processed with ingredients containing gluten, but there are gluten-free options available. Look for a gluten-free label on the package, and review the list of ingredients to make sure products are safe to eat. Tip: Whole Foods has a good selection of gluten-free sausage (chicken and regular), hot dogs, and more.
Gluten-Free Fruits and Vegetables
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is a crucial part of a healthy diet. Luckily, just about all fruits and vegetables are gluten-free. Eat natural, unprocessed fruits (berries, grapes, strawberries, cantaloupe, etc.) and vegetables (avocado, peas, broccoli, carrots, etc.) without concerns about an accidental exposure to gluten. Remember, the safest option is always raw, unprocessed items.
When purchasing fruits and vegetables that have been altered or somehow prepared, it is important to look at the label to see how it has been prepared and what the ingredients are. Look out for foods that have been prepared in facilities that handle wheat, barley, or rye, because they are at risk for cross-contamination. Also be careful with canned and frozen foods, which often have added ingredients that may contain gluten.
Gluten-Free Milk and Dairy
Drinking regular milk is almost always safe, regardless of whether it is skim, 2%, or whole milk. Make sure to look at the ingredients of any milk that is flavored, such as chocolate or strawberry milk, which has added ingredients.
Dairy products in general are typically safe for those with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, however you must check the list of ingredients to be sure. Eggs are gluten-free, as are most plain yogurts and cheeses, but there are exceptions! Flavored products may contain ingredients that are unsafe to those on a gluten-free diet, so make a habit of reviewing the list of ingredients.
Gluten-Free Bread and Rice
Bread is one item that all celiacs should avoid! Just about all regular brands of bread contain wheat, rye, or other ingredients with gluten, however there are now gluten-free breads available at many large grocery stores. Gluten-free bread should be clearly labeled, so don’t purchase any bread if it is unclear if it is gluten-free or not.
On the other hand, rice is almost always gluten-free. Brown rice, white rice, long-grained rice, and most other types are typically safe to consume. This does not apply to rice brands that are sold ready to eat and highly processed, such as Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice. These rice products come in many flavors and varieties that are usually considered gluten-free, however they contain added ingredients that may contain gluten. Taking the time to cook unprocessed rice is the best way to prevent an accidental exposure.
Gluten-Free Pasta and Pasta Sauce
While regular pasta is typically not gluten-free, there are many gluten-free pasta and pasta sauce brands available. Brown rice pasta is not difficult to find in most grocery stores. If you don’t enjoy the taste of this alternative, you can find other gluten-free pasta brands that typically contain soy (an allergen to some). Again, if a pasta brand is not clearly labeled gluten-free then you should proceed with caution.
Similar to pasta, you should assume that pasta sauce is not gluten-free unless it says otherwise. Most grocery stores will offer one or two gluten-free tomato sauces, and usually at a much higher price than the regular options. While gluten-free pasta sauce options are improving, you can also create your own sauce! Add butter or olive oil to the pasta with a pinch of salt. Or, melt a gluten-free cheese over the pasta for homemade macaroni and cheese.
One of the most difficult aspects of switching to a gluten-free diet is saying goodbye to your favorite snacks. Major brands of chips, crackers, and other delicious treats are typically not safe for those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. The good news is that gluten-free snacks are getting much more common and can be found in most grocery stores. Ask an employee of your local grocery store if they have a gluten-free section, or if they include gluten-free tags on items. If you enjoy chips then try Food Should Taste Good – they display a gluten-free label on the package and come in many delicious flavors.
Recap – Gluten-Free Diet Survival Tips
- Never assume something is gluten-free. Always read the list of ingredients to be safe.
- Ask an employee if they have a gluten-free section or use gluten-free labels.
- Always opt for the least processed food, such as meats, rice, fruits and vegetables.
- Carefully plan your meals to ensure you are maintaining a well balanced diet, and are not missing key vitamins and nutrients.