A Healthy Gluten Free Diet
If you have established that you need to avoid gluten, here is how to get it right. A healthy gluten free diet should focus on whole foods that are naturally gluten-free, as opposed to processed gluten-free products. All meat, fish, dairy, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses are gluten-free. It is the grains and carbohydrate sources that you will need to pay attention to.
Your health professional will have advised you on the foods you need to avoid, so here is what to include in place of the foods you cut out: –
Gluten Free Diet Staples
Wild, red, black and wholegrain (avoid white rice)
A high protein, nutrient-rich, gluten-free ‘supergrain’
Gluten-free despite the name, makes delicious pancakes and the toasted groats make a crisp granola.
Brown rice pasta
The best texture of the gluten-free pastas
Use in risottos, tabouleh, salads, porridge and baking
Traditionally used in Italian cooking for cakes and biscuits, also makes good pancakes and dense, nutty bread
Chickpea (gram) flour
High in protein and makes super flatbreads, savoury pancakes, falafel, fritters and many Indian dishes
Healthy, filling, nutritious, gluten-free carb source. Look out for purple as well as the usual orange variety!
Your Gluten Free Diet: Common Mistakes to Avoid
- Avoid processed gluten-free products such as biscuits, cakes etc., which are no healthier and can even be less healthy! Extra sugar or fat is often added to compensate for the less appealing texture.
- Avoid refined gluten-free grains such as white rice, white gluten-free pastas and cornstarch products. These are just as low in fibre and nutrients as their gluten-containing counterparts and disrupt blood sugar balance in the same way.
- Choose gluten-free breads carefully! There are good brands available, but you have to hunt them out in health foods shops, bakeries and good supermarkets. The vast majority of standard gluten-free breads are low in quality and made from refined grains. Always check the ingredients and nutritional information.
- Lack of variety – with conditions like allergies and coeliac, fear can prompt people to stick with ‘safe’ or familiar foods, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies. If this is you, commit to trying 1 new food from the list above per week.
Should You Remove Gluten From Your Diet?
For everyone else, without any of the aforementioned conditions, removing gluten from your diet will not have any direct effects on your health. It may well change the nutritional balance of your diet overall though, which can have indirect health effects and this can go in either direction. For example, people often report feeling better due to the fact that cutting gluten can result in eating less overall, leading to weight loss and the perceived feelings of being lighter, healthier and less bloated that come with it.
On the other hand, cutting gluten can sometimes cause health problems. For example, one study found an association with increased risk of heart attacks in non-coeliacs who cut gluten, due to the lower consumption of wholegrains, which are know to benefit the health of the cardiovascular system (1). Wholegrains are a top dietary source of fibre, minerals, slow-releasing energy, phytochemicals and B-vitamins, and form an important part of a balanced diet.
One of the other problems is that gluten-free foods are not necessarily healthy, although they are perceived to be by consumers. Many people interpret the label of ‘gluten-free’ to automatically translate into meaning healthy, when in actual fact it simply means that the product doesn’t contain any gluten and nothing more can be assumed than this. Many gluten-free products are highly processed, made from refined gluten-free grains and have more fat, sugar and salt than the gluten-containing equivalent. Because gluten-free grains are sometimes less palatable and have a less appealing texture, more sugar, salt or fat is added to make them more appealing.
Gluten-free products are also often more expensive and this extra expense is totally unnecessary for most of us. (Coeliacs actually get their gluten-free foods on prescription!) For example, in one supermarket the cheapest gluten-free oats were 42p per 100g versus 17p per 100g for standard oats and there is no absolutely difference in their nutritional profile. They are basically the same thing, just that the gluten-free version is made in a factory free from other gluten grains to avoid the risk of contamination.
Reducing Gluten From Your Diet Is Beneficial
Having said this, what the vast majority of people would undoubtedly benefit from is reducing their over-reliance on wheat and especially refined wheat products, which are unnaturally high in gluten. As discussed in The Truth About Gluten Free Foods, modern wheat varieties have been bred over the years to have a higher gluten content. This, in combination with the fact that wheat is by far the most commonly consumed grain in the UK, means we are getting very high quantities of gluten in our diets. In fact, this is believed to be one reason for the increased incidence of coeliac disease and NCGS in recent years.
A typical day’s menu might be toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, pasta for dinner and a snack of biscuits! That is wheat four times in one day, mostly refined wheat and no other grains at all! We can all therefore benefit from doing the following to improve our diet: –
- Avoid refined wheat products such as white bread, biscuits, cakes, pastry and other white flour products. Try sourdough bread, naturally low in gluten and easier to digest.
- Vary your grains – include more of the above carbohydrate sources, plus rye and barley and consume wheat just a few times per week and definitely no more than once a day.
- Choose good quality wheat – wholemeal is of course better that white, even better are the ancient varieties of wheat such as spelt and Kamut, which have not been bred to have higher gluten content and have a superior nutritional profile overall.
The bottom line is that a gluten free diet does not necessarily equal healthier for the majority of people, although it is often misinterpreted to mean this. For both healthy gluten free diets and gluten containing diets, variation and diet quality are the two key aims for good health.
Unless you have a specific health condition there are no direct health benefits from just avoiding gluten itself, but reducing your consumption will certainly be beneficial.