How to Go Gluten-Free (Without Completely Giving Up Your Favorite Foods)
Fad diets come and go (ahem, keto, Paleo and Whole30), but for a lot of people, the gluten-free diet is more than a fad or a weight-loss plan. Anyone diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten allergy knows it’s a medical necessity. But saying goodbye to gluten is, like, really difficult, right? Well, that’s not entirely true.
Yes, your new diet means you’ll probably have to eliminate some of your go-to gluten-containing foods, ingredients and snacks. But it’s actually a lot easier to avoid gluten than ever before, thanks to some pretty tasty swaps and super-helpful strategies.
Newly gluten-free and at a loss on where to start? That’s what we’re here for. Here’s how to go gluten-free (without giving up all your favorite foods).
But first, what does gluten-free really mean? Why go gluten-free at all?
Basically, gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat and wheat-related grains that gives dough an elastic texture and bread a familiar chew. But according to Susan Piergeorge, a registered dietician nutritionist and the nutrition education manager for Rainbow Light and Natural Vitality Calm, going gluten-free isn’t just about giving up bread and pasta or a quickly losing a few extra pounds. “Typically, people who consume a gluten-free diet are those with celiac disease (a hereditary autoimmune disease), a wheat allergy or non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” she says.
“For those with celiac disease, eliminating consumption of gluten is essential,” Piergeorge tells us, “because when gluten is consumed, the body’s immune system goes into action and can potentially damage the small intestine. When left untreated, there’s an increased risk for long-term health complications.”
Aside from digestive issues, Piergeorge says gluten disorders can cause headaches, fatigue, rashes, chronic pain and even neurological disorders, so it’s important that if you have one, you avoid gluten completely. (If you think you might have celiac disease, you should definitely talk to your doctor before trying to treat your symptoms on your own.)
1. Know which foods are gluten-free (and which are not)
Unfortunately, avoiding gluten means cutting out some pretty common gluten-containing foods and ingredients, including…
- Wheat and wheat-related grains (like spelt, farina, kamut, durum, bulgur, semolina and einkorn)
- Brewer’s yeast (the yeast found in beer)
That means foods made with any of those ingredients are also off-limits, including (but not limited to)…
- Wheat-based breads
- Wheat-based pastas
- Boxed cereals (unless specifically labeled “gluten-free”)
- Meat substitutes (like seitan and some flavored tofu varieties)
- Baked goods (again, unless labeled “gluten-free”)
- Packaged snacks (like pretzels, crackers, granola bars and even some chips and popcorn)
- Condiments and other processed foods (like soy sauce, salad dressings, marinades and broths)
- Drinks (like beer and malt beverages)
Of course, this isn’t a definitive list, and when in doubt, you should read the labels. If something is specially labeled or certified gluten-free, you’re in the clear. Otherwise, proceed with caution if you’re not sure whether something contains gluten. Online resources (such as the Celiac Disease Foundation, Beyond Celiac and Gluten Free Watchdog) are a great place to look if you want to find out whether or not something is safe to eat.
2. Get familiar with gluten-free substitutes and alternatives
You might not be able to chow down on a bowl of wheat pasta anymore, but there are plenty of gluten-free replacements that taste like the real thing.
- Instead of wheat pasta, try gluten-free pasta made from chickpeas, rice, lentils, quinoa or beans. (We’re fans of Banza for their flavor and ideal al dente texture)
- If you’re a frequent baker, you can easily swap wheat-based flour for gluten-free flour. There are tons of cup-for-cup blends that can be found online or at your grocery store (such as Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour or Cup4Cup).
- Alternatively, many baking recipes are made with naturally gluten-free grain alternatives anyway, like almond flour. Need some inspo? Try this vegan and gluten-free apple blackberry tart.
- If you’re a sandwich or toast fiend, replace gluten-full bread with gluten-free versions. There are aisles of options at the grocery story, but if you’re ambitious, you can take a stab at making your own gluten-free bread at home with one of these easy recipes.
- Imbibing? Gluten-free beer is a thing now. Cider is also naturally gluten-free, as are most unflavored liquors. Most wine is gluten-free, especially if it’s unfined and unfiltered. Read your labels.
3. Rely on naturally gluten-free foods to build a healthy diet
The world doesn’t revolve around gluten (although it might feel like it at times). There are tons of naturally gluten-free foods that are fair game when you’re eating gluten-free (and most also happen to be good for you). That includes…
- Dairy (like milk or butter) and eggs
- Nuts and seeds
- Fruits and vegetables
- Meat and poultry
- Legumes and beans
- Gluten-free grains and pseudo-grains (like quinoa, buckwheat, millet, rice, amaranth, chia, flaxseed, sorgum, teff and pure oats)
- Starches (like tapioca, arrowroot, potatoes and potato flour, corn and corn flour, polenta, chickpea flour, soy flour, nut flours and coconut flour)
- Nuts and seeds
- Oil and vinegar
- Herbs and spices
- Baking powder and baking soda
- Most beverages other than beer
Even if you know something is naturally gluten-free, it’s still a good idea to double-check the label in case of cross contamination. (But more on that in a sec.) And while gluten-free frozen meals, packaged foods and snacks are certainly convenient, don’t fall into the mindset that “gluten-free” is synonymous with “healthy.” Gluten-free cookies are still cookies, after all. Single-ingredient, unprocessed foods are your best bet for building a nutrient-rich diet (plus you already know they’re gluten-free).
“To replace the gluten in starchy carbs, look to rice, potatoes, starchy beans, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth or gluten-free corn tortillas,” Piergeorge suggests. And if you’re struggling with certain nutrients, she also recommends gluten-free dietary supplements—such as Rainbow Light—to help fill in the gaps.
4. Be mindful of cross contamination
Even if a food is technically gluten-free, there’s still a chance it’s been cross contaminated, meaning it has come into contact with gluten. That’s why it’s so important to read those pesky food labels. (We seriously can’t stress this enough!) Look out for phrases like “may contain gluten” or “processed in a facility that also processes foods containing wheat.” If you’re not a person with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity (e.g., you’re going gluten-free for weight loss alone), this may not be an issue for you. Otherwise, it’s a risk worth watching out for.
Cross contamination can also happen at home, particularly if you’re living with gluten eaters. Ever picked crumbs out of the peanut butter jar or butter dish? Yep, that’s cross contamination. Did your sister toast regular bread in your toaster? Gah! But there are steps you can take to prevent cross contamination, like using a separate sponge to clean gluten-free dishes and bakeware; wiping counters and surfaces regularly; lining shared sheet pans with parchment or foil; keeping a separate cupboard for gluten-free foods; and using a designated gluten-free cutting board (ideally one that’s made from nonporous materials).
5. Be on the lookout for sneaky gluten-containing foods
A lot of gluten sources are pretty obvious. Others, not so much. Unlikely gluten-containing foods are more common than you’d think, especially if they’re processed foods. According to the Cleveland Clinic, these are some sneaky sources of gluten to avoid:
- Fried foods that could be fried in the same oil as gluten-containing foods (like tortilla chips, flavored potato chips and french fries)
- Protein bars and granola bars
- Pre-mixed seasonings
- Processed cheeses
- Veggie burgers
- Store-bought baking mixes
- Flavored ice creams (like cookie dough)
- Candy (um, licorice can have gluten in it)
- Coffee, which can be processed in gluten-containing facilities
- Vitamins, supplements and medications
- Beauty products
- Artificial colorings and flavors
- Wine (yep, you can thank the processing)
6. Seek out gluten-free recipes, food blogs and cookbooks
You’re already scouring the internet for what to eat tonight; now you just have to narrow it down to gluten-free recipes. Luckily, the world (er, web) is your oyster. Might we suggest any of these 30-minute gluten-free dinners? Or how about a week’s worth of gluten-free meals (yep, including breakfast, lunch and dinner)?
Even if you’re more old-school, there are plenty of cookbooks with a focus on cooking and baking gluten-free. We highly recommend Canelle et Vanille: Nourishing, Gluten-Free Recipes for Every Meal and Mood by Aran Goyoaga (our very own chef in residence), as well as Danielle Walker’s Eat What You Love.
7. Learn how to meal-prep so you’re always prepared
It happens to all of us: You forget to pack your lunch and the only takeout close to your office is pizza. Instead of putting yourself in a bind (or skipping lunch because there are no other options), try meal-prepping a lunch that you know is gluten-free.
But meal-prep isn’t just a handy tactic for lunches. It’s also a huge time-saver for weeknight dinners, especially when you’re relying heavily on home-cooked food to ensure your meals are gluten-free. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place. Meal-prep ideas? Check. Instant Pot recipes? We’ve got ’em.
8. Don’t forget to treat yourself from time to time (because you still can!)
Just because you’re making the switch to gluten-free doesn’t mean you’re entering into a life of carrot sticks, salads and plain chicken breasts. We’re here to say that you can still have your cake and eat it too. Maybe you’re not a baker—yet. Become one with some easy gluten-free desserts. Gluten-free baking used to mean sandy textures, soggy bottoms and sad, flavorless treats (if you could call them that). But thanks to those handy gluten-free baking substitutes we told you about, whipping up professional-level baked goods sans gluten is now easier than ever. And some recipes (like these flourless cocoa cookies) are gluten-free by nature.
9. Don’t trip up over the holidays…or eating out
Thanksgiving has stuffing, Christmas has cookies and you’re trying to avoid both of them. Don’t worry, friend. You can enjoy the holiday season without wheat. Here’s how to host a gluten-free Thanksgiving (with everything from drinks to dessert). And here are 33 gluten-free holiday recipes to make the most wonderful time of the year just as mouthwateringly delicious as ever. If you’re not hosting, cooking or baking, we definitely suggest letting your family and friends know ahead of all the celebrations that gluten is off-limits for you because of health reasons.
Good news if you’re planning to eat out: More restaurants than ever have gluten-free options on their menus, and some restaurants are entirely gluten-free. Let your server know in advance that you can’t eat gluten, and if you’re worried about a dish, ask if it can be made without gluten-containing ingredients. Piergeorge suggests ordering meals that are free of sauces, gravies, batters and breads, and asking for vinegar and oil in place of salad dressing.
Our final advice? Read your labels, know what went into what you’re eating and embrace foods that are naturally gluten-free. You’ll be a gluten-free pro in no time.