Gluten-free diet: What to eat, how to get started, and who can benefit

Gluten-free diet: What to eat, how to get started, and who can benefit
There are plenty of gluten-free options out there, like pizza dough made from cauliflower instead of bread flour.Evan Lang/Getty Images
  • Sticking to a gluten-free diet requires avoiding all foods with gluten in them; some of the most common foods to avoid are bread, pasta, and baked goods.
  • Produce, quinoa, rice, buckwheat, and plain cuts of meat are among the many foods that are naturally gluten-free.
  • Though a gluten-free diet is essential for people with Celiac disease, not everyone experiences weight loss or health benefits from cutting out gluten.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.

If you've heard about the gluten-free diet, you might be wondering whether it's for you. There are common misconceptions about what this diet entails, who it's for, and the benefits that could impact your decision.

"A [strict] gluten-free diet requires avoiding all naturally gluten-containing foods and foods that might be compromised through cross-contamination," says Melanie Sherman, a Registered Dietician of Westside Nutrition and Wellness.

What to eat and avoid on a gluten-free diet

"Gluten is a protein found in some grains including wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and kamut and in extracts of these grains including some malt and yeast," Sherman says.

Common foods that contain gluten include:

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Dough
  • Many baked goods
  • Visit the Celiac Disease Foundation's site on sources of gluten for a detailed list of more foods to avoid while on a gluten-free diet.

But that doesn't mean all carby foods are off-limits. Some starchy foods that you can still enjoy on a gluten-free diet include:


Thanks to the gluten-free diet's popularity, there are many products on the market that now advertise as "gluten-free." According to the FDA, a product can only be labeled as such if it meets the three following criteria:

  • It contains no more than 20 parts per million of gluten, which is the smallest amount that instruments can reliably detect.
  • It does not contain any single type or combination of barley, rye, and wheat.
  • It does not contain an ingredient derived from barley, rye, or wheat.

However, a product doesn't have to always dawn the FDA approved "gluten-free" label. All plain cuts of fresh meat and produce are naturally gluten-free. It's when you get into more processed meats — like bacon, hot dogs, and sausage — and processed produce — like frozen, canned, or dried — that you should check the ingredients label before eating. Here are 8 foods that you probably had no idea had gluten in them.

A gluten-free diet helps treat celiac disease

The gluten-free diet was first introduced by Williem-Karel Dicke, a Dutch pediatrician, in the early 1940s. Although the diet has since become a fad for weight loss, it's original intention is to treat people who have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects 3 million people in the US, according to the FDA.

Brittany Modell, RD, and founder of Brittany Modell Nutrition and Wellness says there are three foods people with celiacs disease should avoid: wheat, which contains gluten, barley, which contains secalin, and rye, which contains hordein. "These three grains contain a certain peptide that can trigger a gluten-related reaction to those who suffer from Celiac Disease."

Why the diet is not for everyone

A gluten-free diet does not necessarily lead to weight loss, despite popular belief. "In fact, some people with Celiac may find they gain weight as their digestive system finally heals and they are able to properly absorb nutrients," Sherman says. Here are some other reasons why you're not losing weight on the gluten-free diet.


However, people may find they have a sensitivity to gluten, aslo called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). They may feel less bloated after eliminating gluten, specifically, from their diet, Sherman says.

Despite initial intentions, "recently the diet has been introduced for purposes of IBS, weight loss, inflammation, auto-immune disorders and other health issues," Modell says. And though, "those with IBS may also benefit from limiting gluten in the diet if their IBS is triggered, for example, by fructan," it's also not a cure for these conditions. The low-FODMAP diet is another meal plan that is designed to help people with gastrointestinal symptoms linked to conditions like IBS.

However, both Sherman and Modell think a gluten-free diet is not a one size fits all diet that everyone should adapt to be healthier. A study in 2017 in The BMJ showed that long-term gluten-free diets in people without celiac disease may increase risk of cardiovascular issues because eliminating gluten also means removing some healthful foods that provide vitamins and minerals.

"A lot of evidence points to the fact that whole grains in the diet are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cancer," Modell says. If you're following a gluten-free diet, including gluten-free whole grains will help you meet your nutrient needs.

Sherman agrees that the diet is not inherently healthier for everyone. It's unlikely that healthy people will benefit from a gluten-free diet.


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