Many people assume that a gluten free diet is automatically healthier than a diet with gluten. The truth of the matter is that eating a healthy gluten free diet can be very challenging. But, if you focus on maintaining a healthy diet when you switch to a gluten free lifestyle, you can do it. Eating gluten free is a lot easier than it was even five years ago. There are constantly more gluten free foods available. But, that doesn’t mean that these items are always healthier. Gluten free items are often no healthier than traditional wheat based items, and sometimes even be less healthy.
Gluten is found in wheat and several other whole grains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (the USDA) recommends that people eat at least six ounces of grains and cereals a day. The USDA recommends that at least half of that amount be whole grains. As of 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are readily available, the average American consumed more than 130 pounds of wheat. Wheat is found in all sorts of places you might expect it (cake, bread, crackers, pastries, pizza, gravies, beer, etc.), and also in several places where you probably wouldn’t expect it. Those include things like soups, processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, some hamburger patties, etc.), sauces, seasonings, some potato chips or crisps, and even some dairy products like shredded cheeses. The best way to avoid gluten is to read labels carefully and look for indication that the product is gluten free.
If you are going gluten free, you will need to make sure to continue eating grains and cereals, or products with similar nutrients. Ideally, it is best of most of the grains are whole grains. One easy source of whole grains is brown rice. This is readily available, and easy enough to prepare (especially if you have a rice cooker). Make sure that your rice is actually gluten free, as some rice has gluten in it. Another is gluten free bread made with whole grains. Depending where you live, you may not be able to find this in your local discount store, or even your grocery store. You may need to go to the health food store. A lot of whole grain gluten free breads are more natural than the glutinous versions, so they may not last as long. Additionally, there may not be as much demand for these products. This means that if you are looking for gluten free bread and similar products, they may be in the freezer section with other frozen breads. When replacing products with the gluten free versions, make sure to look for whole grains. In the U.S. you will want to look for items that are labelled as “whole grain rich” or that are labelled as a “whole grain product,” or in the alternative that says how much of the grain is whole grain. Foods just saying they “contain whole grain” or other such wording may not have as much whole grain as you think.
Many gluten free products can be as unhealthy as (or even unhealthier than) the same products that contain gluten. For example, if you are buying gluten free hot dog or hamburger buns, depending where you are shopping there may not be any whole grain options. Or, they may have more added sugars, fats or chemicals to try to make up for the lack of gluten. This can make eating healthy and gluten free a bit challenging. One thing you can do is if you are buying something gluten free take a look at how healthy the replacement item is. You will find a wide variety of things can be used in place of wheat flour in various products. For example, if you are looking at gluten free pastas, you may find that there are a bunch of different options in your store. Options can include corn, quinoa, amaranth, black beans, and the list goes on. Look to see if the product is labelled as being “whole grain rich” or a “whole grain product.” Also, take a look at the nutritional information such as the fiber, carbs, protein and sugars. You will find that the statistics vary wildly from product to product. Some gluten free pastas are simply grains that aren’t whole grains, and contain very little in terms of nutrients. Others, are made from whole grains, or even items like black beans that have a lot of nutrients. Another good option if you are using noodles in an oriental dish is to use bean threads instead of pasta (read the label carefully though to make sure your bean threads are made mostly of beans and that they are, in fact, gluten free).
Also, gluten free products may have more sugars or other food chemicals to try & make the texture more like the regular product. Highly processed foods tend to contain a lot of ingredients that are not good for you. Stick with whole foods such as unprocessed meats, vegetables and fruits as much as possible. If you are buying processed foods, read the labels and stay away from anything that looks like a chemicals.
If you are getting more than enough carbohydrates, you can also consider replacing some processed grain products with vegetable products. For example, in some restaurants you can have your hamburger or submarine sandwich wrapped in lettuce instead of bread. At home, you can try wrapping sandwiches with kale, butter lettuce, cabbage, swiss chard or collard greens. Another great option is to use spaghetti squash in place of pasta. You can also use other vegetables in place of pasta if you would like by shaving a vegetable like zucchini or carrots with a vegetable peeler and boiling them. Cauliflower is another great healthy alternative you can use to make pizza crust or even garlic bread with cheese. If you are looking for gluten free salty snack, consider switching to healthier options rather than gluten free copies of the original. There are plenty of gluten free crackers made with nuts, whole grains and/or seeds that are delicious. Additionally, whole nuts, consumed in moderation, can be very healthy.
One issue that many people on a gluten free diet may experience is that they have certain products that they miss, so when they see the gluten free version they may tend to buy it without thinking about it. It’s not uncommon for the new gluten free junk food offerings to be placed in very prominent positions in many stores, so it is easy to buy on impulse. Remember that junk food items that are calorie dense and have little or no nutritional value should only be eaten occasionally.
In conclusion, eating healthy and gluten free can be a bit challenging. Remember to make sure you are getting plenty of whole grains in your diet. Also, consider replacing wheat based products with healthier vegetable products, especially for things like sandwich bread and pastas where you expect most of the taste to come from toppings or fillings. If you stick to these tips, you can eat a healthy balanced gluten free diet.