How to Start a Gluten-Free Diet

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A woman reading a food package label in the grocery aisle.
A woman reading a food package label in the grocery aisle. (Image: eternalcreative/iStock/Getty Images)

If your doctor has told you that eliminating gluten from your diet is essential for your health, you may feel a bit overwhelmed. After all, gluten -- a protein found in wheat, barley and rye -- is widely present in most people's diets.

Foods such as pasta, pizza, hamburgers, beer, sandwiches, crackers and breaded meats are now off-limits. Even a seemingly gluten-free meal, such as sushi or a salad, could be a no-no.

Navigating this new diet plan may be a bit of a struggle at first, but once you understand the variety of naturally gluten-free foods and the array of gluten-free products available in supermarkets, you'll become more comfortable with the approach.

Why Gluten-Free

A gluten-free diet is medically required for celiac disease patients. This autoimmune condition prompts the body to attack itself when gluten is ingested. The attack occurs primarily in the small intestine, compromising nutrient absorption and leading to symptoms including brain fog, skin rashes, joint pain and severe weight loss. A strict gluten-free diet can help reverse the condition and alleviate these symptoms.

Some people may be directed to a gluten-free diet because of a wheat allergy or nonceliac gluten sensitivity, which -- along with celiac disease -- are all known collectively as gluten intolerance. In nonceliac gluten sensitivity, a person has a stress response after eating gluten -- often manifesting as gastrointestinal problems -- but the gluten is not affecting their autoimmune system.

Naturally Gluten-Free

The easiest way to begin your gluten-free diet journey is to clean out your pantry of any questionable foods and restock with naturally gluten-free foods. All plain fruits and vegetables are naturally free of gluten. You only need to be cautious when sauces, dressings or breading are added.

All unprocessed, unseasoned protein foods, including eggs, beans, meat, tofu, fish and poultry, are also gluten-free. Processed meats, such as hot dogs, deli meat or prebreaded chicken nuggets, may or may not be gluten-free depending on the brand and additives.

Dairy foods, including plain milk or milk alternatives, yogurt, butter and cottage cheese, are gluten-free. Many grains and starches are also gluten-free -- including corn, rice, quinoa, millet and potatoes. Stick to unprocessed versions of these foods because processed options, such as chips, tortillas and crackers, may have added ingredients that are not gluten-free.

Oats labeled as gluten-free are usually safe for those with gluten intolerance; oats that don't have a label specifying a "gluten-free" status may have been cross-contaminated with wheat products during processing.

Label Reading

Starting a gluten-free diet means you must become a food label reader. Scan the label of every product you purchase, even if you've confirmed its gluten-free status in the past; product recipes change.

As of August 5, 2014, labels on products stating they are "gluten free" must meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations of less than 20 parts per million gluten -- a level deemed safe for gluten-free dieters. The use of this label is voluntary, however, and some safe, gluten-free foods will not use it.

Soups, dressings and sauces are labels to read carefully as many contain hidden gluten in the form of wheat starch. If "wheat," "barley," "malt," "rye," or "brewer's yeast" appears on the label, the product is not OK for a gluten-free diet. Soy sauce is also a gluten-containing product because it's fermented with wheat.

"Wheat-free" is not enough to confirm the gluten-free status of a product, either; it may still contain barley or rye and negatively affect those with gluten intolerance.

Living Gluten Free

After a few weeks of consuming naturally gluten-free foods, determine which gluten-containing foods you're really missing. Seek out gluten-free versions of these foods, such as breads and crackers. Avoid buying every gluten-free item you encounter because gluten-free cookies, cakes and snacks still have calories and sugar and may not offer much in the way of nutrition.

Don't forget to check medicines and supplements for fillers that might contain gluten, too.

Note that many restaurants have gluten-free menus available upon request. Talk to your server and, if possible, the chef to ensure your meal is safe to eat.

If you live in a house with people who have not gone gluten free, watch for cross contamination. Keep your utensils and cooking vessels separate and avoid sharing condiments -- even a crumb of gluten-containing bread in a jar of peanut butter can trigger a negative response in celiac patients.

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