Why go gluten free? Gluten is a type of protein (or proteins actually – gliadin and glutenin) found in a variety of grains, most notably wheat, and also rye, barley and spelt. Some people are allergic to gluten and have an autoimmune reaction to gluten – they are celiac. Other people experience digestive discomfort and other symptoms of an intolerance.
Going gluten free is very popular, and a lot of food is often marketed as gluten-free as though it correlates with that food being a healthy option. While I personally do follow a gluten-free diet, I do not assume that because something is presented to me as “gluten free” that it’s going to be nutritionally better for me. It’s important to understand that “gluten free” doesn’t make something healthy – but it is possible to eat a healthy gluten-free diet.
Many healthy gluten free options don’t carry a “gluten free” label. They’re just naturally free from gluten. Unprocessed fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, meat, poultry, fish, eggs and legumes are a guaranteed 100% gluten free option. And most dairy products too. These grocery items aren’t labelled (heck, ideally most aren’t even packaged!) so they’re not going to scream “gluten free” at you. But they are all totally gluten free, and they are foodstuffs that really should be forming the base of most of your meals (making adjustments based on whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, paleo, pescetarian, etc.). For example, three meals in a day could be: (1) breakfast of quinoa porridge with greek yoghurt, coconut flakes and blueberries, (2) lunch of baked sweet potato topped with spinach, tomato, roasted capsicum and grilled chicken, (3) dinner of a seared tuna steak with roasted carrots, broccoli and peas. Good food, irrespective of whether it’s for a gluten-free eater.
Conversely, a lot of unhealthy gluten free options get stamped with a big GLUTEN FREE label and are rubbish. This really annoys me, as I feel like it’s led to a plethora of blanket statements cropping up along the lines of “gluten-free food is actually worse for you than gluten-containing food“. The truth is that yes, when some traditionally gluten-containing products get morphed in to a gluten-free version, they become “worse” in that the GF version may be lower in fibre, higher in refined starchy carbs and possibly also higher in sugar and/or artificial sweeteners or thickeners, in order to mimic the effect of the gluten – which gives an elasticity and texture to food. However, this doesn’t mean that all gluten-free options are unhealthy; it just means that – like with any processed food – you should check the label. The “gluten free” label also gets put on food that is just naturally gluten-free, as a marketing tactic, e.g. potato chips – potatoes don’t contain gluten, so it is no remarkable feat that crisps can be made gluten-free!
Watch out especially for gluten free baked goods and snack foods. They are often a starchy, low-nutrient sugar bomb. Some of the most common flours in mass produced gluten-free products are maize (i.e. corn) flour and/or starch, potato flour and/or starch, and rice flour. Sure, these are gluten-free but they’re also pretty low in fibre, nutrients and are very carbohydrate-dense, so the glycemic load is likely to be high. Plus, these packaged gluten-free goods often come paired with sugar and cheap unhealthy industrial seed oils (like many packaged snacks do!). It can be hard to find a good variety of decent gluten-free products like bread, crackers, biscuits etc. in supermarkets; there are few things I’d be happy to eat on a regular basis. I’ve settled for buying them on occasion, but otherwise making my own most of the time. If you do like to buy pre-made, hunt around in local stores or health food shops for boutique brands and learn to read your labels. The flours/grains that I look out for are: coconut flour, almond flour (or other nut flours), buckwheat, brown rice, millet, teff, amaranth and/or quinoa.
Panicking about what you can eat gluten-free, and what’s affordable? My tips are:
- Make up the bulk of your meals with supermarket items that are intrinsically gluten-free (i.e. haven’t been manipulated to be gluten-free), starting with fresh produce, quality meat, eggs and/or dairy. For some easy snacks try raw nuts and seeds, 100% brown rice cakes or buckwheat crackers, hummus, avocado, tahini and nut butters (fresh fruit, hard cheese, smoked salmon and boiled eggs are great too).
- Grains are harder on a gluten-free diet but some are very accessible. Brown and/or white rice, quinoa and buckwheat are quite easy to find and not too pricey. Lots of bigger shops usually also carry some gluten-free noodles or pasta – try 100% buckwheat soba noodles or rice noodles. Some gluten-free pastas are okay, though many are quite starchy and low in fibre so I’d recommend pairing them with lots of fresh vegetables and using a smaller portion. Again, read the label. The same applies to gluten-free bread. A lot of the mass-produced ones have less-than-ideal ingredients. I’m okay living an 80/20 lifestyle though and will often have some in the freezer to use occasionally. (I also like baking my own breads – pictured above is a gluten-free and vegan buckwheat loaf – find the recipe here).
- If you can tolerate oats, certified gluten-free oats are an option for you. Oats are intrinsically gluten-free, however there is such a high risk of cross-contamination that the majority of oats cannot be guaranteed to be 100% gluten-free by the time they reach you. As oats are often grown, processed, packaged etc. next to gluten-containing grains, the risk of cross-contamination extends all the way back to the field and this is why it’s so hard to remove that risk. If you must avoid any contact with gluten, only purchased the certified gluten-free versions.*
- Don’t forget about root vegetables and legumes to bulk up meals and give you a healthy, fibrous carbohydrate source. Sweet potato is a favourite of mine! Parsnips, carrots, beets, pumpkin, potato and peas feature frequently on my shopping list too. Frozen peas save everything. I don’t digest most legumes very well and I prefer my root veggies, but if you enjoy them and tolerate them by all means whack some in your shopping trolley.
What’s your favourite easy gluten-free meal? Any favourite brands or top tips for staying gluten-free? I’d love to hear them!
*Some celiacs cannot tolerate oats, as they contain a protein called avenin which is similar to gluten and which they may react to. If you don’t tolerate oats, focus on quinoa, buckwheat and millet, which can also be found in flake form and make a nice substitute for rolled oats.