Everything You Need to Know About Eating Gluten-Free

This week, we continue our exploration of the broad spectrum of eating manifestos that can support, fuel and sustain your unique body—perfect for the unique combination of classes you take on each week.

Before you roll your eyes about gluten-free living being oh-so-passe, hang on! There really is some merit to eating this way, and as we learned from Liza Baker of Simply: Health Coaching, it’s more about what you do eat than what you don’t. Whether you try it out to be trendy or try it out to be well, there are right and wrong ways to approach this lifestyle. Grab a teff muffin and join us, won’t you?

ClassPass: First off, there’s so much hype around being gluten-free. Let’s get those big misconceptions out of the way.

Liza Baker: Many people think eating a gluten-free diet is inaccessibly expensive. I beg to differ! If you focus on eating whole, close-to-the-source foods prepared at home, you’ll actually save money. The expensive branded products that tout “gluten-free” labels are typically poor replacements for real food—not great for your body or your wallet.

Contrary to what many marketers will tell us, gluten is not inherently evil. In layman’s terms, it’s a protein found in wheat (and all its relatives), rye and barley. It’s what makes the long, gluey strands when you mix wheat flour with water, what forms the webbing that traps air bubbles and gives artisanal breads texture. The trouble is, it can be difficult for some digestive tracts to break down this protein, and it causes an autoimmune reaction in other bodies, with varying shades of sensitivity in between.

CP: Do you need to be tested for gluten-intolerance or Celiac disease to benefit from being gluten-free?

LB: Certainly, if you have tested positive for Celiac disease, this lifestyle is highly recommended as ingesting gluten can be truly dangerous. However, if you test negative or experience any of the symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity, it can be worthwhile to explore a gluten-free diet. Symptoms include “brain fog,” depression and mood swings, ADHD-like behavior, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, mouth ulcers and skin rashes, headaches, bone or joint pain, and chronic fatigue.

I recommend my clients consider eliminating gluten for at least three months. Reintroduce it over a few days, paying close attention to how you feel after. If you notice your symptoms improve when you’re off it and return with a vengeance when you reintroduce it, you might want to banish it for good. Bodies tolerate gluten to a different degree. If you don’t have Celiac disease, you can experiment with how much your system can handle, and from which sources.

CP: If I don’t have a diagnosed condition, is there still a reason to try this out?

LB: At the core of an intelligently planned, gluten-free diet is a reduction of processed foods and an increase in whole, nutrient-rich foods. Everyone thrives on a diet of real food cooked from scratch, and everyone benefits from eliminating highly processed foods with myriad additives. Even those who don’t test positive for Celiac disease report an alleviation of many symptoms associated with gluten-intolerance. Whether it’s gluten that caused those symptoms, if they’re made better by adopting a whole foods diet, does it ultimately matter? Paying attention to gluten and other ingredients, and observing our reactions to food, is in itself a valuable exercise in mindfulness.

CP: What would you say are the most fundamental things to think about when taking on a gluten-free lifestyle?

LB: Being gluten-free is deceptively simple. When you focus on the long list of naturally gluten-free whole foods you can consume, it’s hard to feel “deprived.” There’s fruits, vegetables, legumes, gluten-free whole grains and pseudo-grains—rice, millet, teff, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa—and, if animal proteins are part of your world, meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs.

Because gluten is naturally found in only a small number of foods in the grain group, primarily wheat, barley and rye, it’s easy to avoid this tricky molecule if you know what to look for. It’s even simpler if you cut your intake of processed foods where wheat-based ingredients are often used as fillers and thickeners: MSG and malt are a couple of common ones.

I always recommend reading labels to sleuth out offending ingredients, and if you’re being extra vigilant, look for products that may be cross-contaminated from production.

CP: Tell me more about those processed foods. What if they’re labelled ‘gluten-free?’ Are those a good option?

LB: In general, I recommend avoiding processed foods. Even if they’re gluten-free, they’re likely full of highly processed starches. These act like pure sugar in our systems, something that is now recognized as detrimental to our health. Rather than looking for gluten-free versions of factory-made goods such as breads and pastas, it’s best to explore delicious, whole foods that can be added each day.

CP: What makes transitioning to a gluten-free diet a little easier?

LB: I always recommend that you approach the transition from a place of abundance. Focus on, “Wow! Look at all these delicious whole foods that are naturally GF!” instead of thinking about it from a place of lack (“I can’t eat bread or pasta or waffles or cupcakes or, or, or…”).

If you can also work on your cooking chops, you’ll have a much easier time prepping and cooking meals from home that you know for certain are gluten-free. A weekly trip to the farmers’ market for sustainably grown, local produce can be a great motivator to spend more time in the kitchen and a fun way to explore novel foods.

Be flexible and open-minded with your eating: What works for someone else might not work for you, and vice versa. I find that many people believe they have to adhere to a particular diet, and then they wonder why they constantly have cravings and fall off that diet wagon. Pay attention to how you feel, and if it’s not working for you, give yourself permission to make some adjustments and see what happens.

CP: What does a typical shopping list for a week look like for someone eating a gluten-free diet?

LB: You should have:

8-12 servings per day of fresh, frozen and dried fruits and veggies, in a variety of colors (think berries, apples, citrus, peppers, sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, and a variety of leafy greens, including kale, romaine, spinach, collards and arugula)
1-2 servings per day of dried beans and legumes (mix them up: think cannelini, kidney, black, pinto, chickpeas, lentils)
1-2 servings per day of gluten-free whole grains (quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, rice, teff, gluten-free rolled oats)
Nuts and seeds
Meat, poultry and seafood, if these are part of your diet
Dairy, such as yogurt and kefir, if these are part of your diet
Chocolate (dark and gluten-free)

CP: Sounds like a well-stocked kitchen to me! What could we make with all of this?

LB: Three of my favorite gluten-free recipes are below. Combined, these could set up for a whole day of great eating: Toasted Quinoa Cereal with Pistachios and Figs, Beet and Fennel Soup and Sweet Potato Chickpea Buddha Bowls, then round out your day with a Chocolate Chia Pudding.

For more info on gluten-free living and Simply: Health Coaching, connect with Liza on Facebook and Twitter. Pre-order her forthcoming Fl!p Your K!tchen cookbook here.

Amy Height is a holistic health coach, triathlete and yogi traveling North America full-time to discover the best in nutrition and fitness. She shares healthy living ideas and plant-based, gluten-free recipes at From the Ground Up Wellness. Follow the adventures and find some fit-foodie inspiration on Instagram, amyheight.