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The Gluten-Free Diet

What Does It Really Mean To Eat Gluten-Free?

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Updated June 03, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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What does it mean to follow a gluten-free diet?

Getty Images/Diane Macdonald

If you've just been handed a diagnosis of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you probably also were told to "go gluten free."

But what, exactly, is involved in starting and following a gluten-free diet? Just eliminate gluten, right? Well, yes. But the fact that gluten appears in so many products beyond the obvious wheat-based bread, pasta and pizza makes it very difficult to avoid.

In fact, I'd rate the learning curve on the gluten-free diet as equal to or greater than the learning curves on almost any other type of diet. You will get the hang of it eventually, but you'll learn more about food labeling and ingredient names than you ever thought you would need to know in the process.

You'll also make mistakes as you learn how to eat gluten-free, but don't beat yourself up over them (even as your body beats you up because of them). Mistakes on the gluten-free diet are almost inevitable.

I've been doing this for nearly a decade now, and I still occasionally make mistakes. Fortunately, they're rarely bad ones anymore — but I've paid the price on occasion.

What Is Gluten?

The type of gluten we need to avoid is a protein that occurs in the grains wheat, barley and rye. Any food that contains wheat, barley and rye contains that type of gluten by definition.

Conventional wheat bread obviously contains gluten. In fact, the gluten protein provides bread with its distinctive, pleasing elasticity and texture. But bread represents only the tip of the gluten iceberg — gluten is an ingredient in many (possibly even the majority of) processed food products.

In pasta-making, for example, high gluten levels help to keep the pasta from disintegrating. In soups, gluten grains act as thickeners, allowing manufacturers and cooks at home to use less of expensive ingredients such as cream. And in beer and some forms of liquor, gluten grains are fermented to make alcoholic brews.

You can read more on gluten's history and production in What Is Gluten?. For a list of foods that will always contain gluten, check out What Foods Contain Gluten?

Gluten On Food Labels

To eat gluten-free, you'll need to avoid everything that contains wheat, barley and rye. Getting rid of the obvious items — breads, pastas, crackers and cookies — should be pretty easy (although it can be rough emotionally to let go of your favorite foods — yes, I still mourn wheat-based pizza).

The problem is, gluten can hide under various ingredients on a food label. Do you have a can of soup in the cupboard that contains "starch"? It might contain gluten. What about that candy with "natural flavors"? Potential gluten there, too. It's seemingly everywhere, and you'll need to figure out where in order to avoid it.

To learn what ingredients always mean gluten and what ingredients sometimes mean gluten, check out my article Gluten on Food Labels.

Manufacturers Need Not Disclose Gluten

Although gluten-free packaged products once were relegated to health food stores, the growing popularity of the diet has ensured that we now can find all kinds of gluten-free products in many mainstream grocery stores. But the trick is figuring out which ones actually are gluten-free.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require disclosure of gluten on food labels, although manufacturers can disclose it voluntarily under the FDA's gluten-free labeling rules.

Many manufacturers choose to make it easy for us to identify their gluten-free products without looking at the ingredients through bold labeling that states "gluten-free" or through a symbol that means "gluten-free."

You potentially also can feel safe on your gluten-free diet by purchasing foods specifically certified gluten-free by an independent organization. Read more on gluten-free labeling and certification programs in this article: What's Involved in Getting Products Certified Gluten-Free.

Other manufacturers — for example, Kraft Foods and Con Agra Foods — have policies of always disclosing ingredients that contain gluten in their food labels. In those cases, a gluten-containing starch would be labeled in the ingredients list as "starch (wheat)", while a gluten-containing natural flavor might read "flavoring (barley)."

However, even those foods aren't necessarily gluten-free, because they could be subject to gluten cross-contamination in processing. Some people are more sensitive to that type of cross-contamination than others. Learn more about reactions to tiny amounts of gluten in processed foods in How Much Gluten Can Make Me Sick?

Starting The Gluten-Free Diet

Given all of this, you might think eating gluten-free seems a bit intimidating (I warned you about the learning curve!).

But you actually can eat gluten-free without reading a single food label by sticking entirely with naturally gluten-free whole foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry and fish.

If you're shopping in the produce section, all the fresh fruits and vegetables there are safe for you to consume on the gluten-free diet (although anything that comes pre-packaged might not be). In the meat section, stick to beef, poultry, pork and seafood that doesn't contain any added ingredients, such as marinades — as long as it's plain, it's safe.

For more on what products are always safe and what products to suspect, see this article: List of Gluten-Free Food.

I recommend that people starting out on the gluten-free diet begin with whole foods and avoid gluten-free grain products initially — it's easier to manage at first without worrying about reading food labels, and you may consume and absorb more critical nutrients by emphasizing fresh produce over packaged goods.

Once you have a better idea of how your body reacts to the diet, you can branch out and try some of the great gluten-free products on the market.

If you want a blueprint to follow, my article How To Go Gluten-Free lays out nine steps you need to take to start your gluten-free diet. Good luck!

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