Tips for Going Gluten-Free

Curious about going gluten-free? Dr. Neal Barnard breaks down the basics.

Photo: Francesco Carta / Getty Images

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Thinking about going gluten free but have some questions? Here are the answers you need to get started.

Q: I’ve heard that going gluten-free diet is detoxifying. Is that true?

A: For some, yes; for others, no. It all depends on how your body reacts to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s actually a great source of protein, which is why food companies may use it for veggie burgers and other faux meats. But if you are one of the roughly one percent of the population diagnosed with a hereditary condition called celiac disease, your body will treat gluten as a toxin, triggering an immune response. You’ll produce antibodies—those microscopic torpedoes that target viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells—against a part of gluten called gliadin. As the battle heats up, your body tissues become inflamed. In severe cases, the intestinal tract is damaged. The villa—microscopic finger-like projections in the small intestine that absorb nutrients—are harmed. If this happens, you’ll have trouble absorbing vitamins and minerals and will be at risk for anemia, osteoporosis, and other effects of inadequate nutrition. You might also suffer from digestive ills such as diarrhea. Other parts of the body may be affected too. The skin might erupt in a red, itchy rash. Or neurological reactions to gluten could result, leading to fatigue and mental fuzziness.

Q: What’s the difference between gluten intolerance and celiac disease?

A: Broadly speaking, gluten intolerance means you’re having problems with foods that contain gluten. Specifically, you could be stricken with gassiness or bloating, which vanishes when you avoid foods with gluten as an ingredient. Celiac disease is an immune reaction that can physically damage your intestinal tract. If you suspect you have celiac disease, your doctor can test a blood sample for the antibodies that are the hallmark of the disease. Typically, a biopsy of the small intestine is also performed to check for damage. Still, many people who suspect they might have an issue with gluten— because of fatigue, poor mental acuity, or other symptoms —are going gluten free without testing, to see if their symptoms resolve.

Q: How do I follow a gluten-free diet?

A: When going gluten free you’ll want to skip wheat, barley, and rye. You’ll be fine with rice, corn, millet, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat, as well as with vegetables, fruits, beans, and soy. Keep in mind that if you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, even the slightest trace of gluten (say, the wheat in soy sauce) can cause a reaction, so you’ll need to read labels carefully, and you’ll do well to stick with mostly unprocessed foods. When choosing restaurants, you’ll have the best luck with Indian, Mexican, and Middle Eastern options. Theoretically, oats should be OK, but sometimes they contain traces of other grains, prompting certain companies (such as Bob’s Red Mill) to use dedicated production facilities, which prevents cross-contamination. If you’re unsure of your reaction to oats, I’d suggest avoiding them at first, then reintroducing them after your symptoms have settled down, to see how they affect you.


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