The protein gluten is found in items such as wheat products and may cause digestive symptoms in some people. Find out who would benefit from a gluten-free diet, and get tips on how to enjoy one.

A gluten-free diet involves excluding foods that contain the protein gluten, such as wheat and rye products.

Most studies on gluten-free diets have involved people with celiac disease. However, other health conditions — like non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) — can also cause gluten issues.

If you have a gluten-related disorder, you need to avoid gluten completely. If you don’t, you may experience severe discomfort and adverse health effects (1, 2).

Here’s a complete guide to a gluten-free diet, including a simple sample menu. First, let’s start with the basics.

Gluten is a family of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and spelt.

Its name comes from the Latin word for glue. It gives flour a sticky consistency when it’s mixed with water (3).

This glue-like property helps gluten create a sticky network that gives bread the ability to rise when baked. It also gives bread a chewy and satisfying texture (4).

Some people have uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms after eating foods that contain gluten. Severe reactions can occur in those people diagnosed with celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body mistakenly attacks itself after exposure to gluten. Celiac disease affects at least 1% of the population in the Western world and can damage the intestines (5).

If eating gluten makes you feel uncomfortable, a doctor may recommend screening for celiac disease.

The most common ways to test for celiac disease include:

  • Blood test: A blood test will look for antibodies that incorrectly interact with the gluten protein. The most common test is the tissue transglutaminase IgA (tTG-IgA) test.
  • Biopsy from your small intestine: People with a positive blood test will likely need to have a biopsy. During this process, a technician takes a small tissue sample from your intestine and checks for damage (6).

It’s best to get tested for celiac disease before trying a gluten-free diet. Otherwise, it will become hard for the doctor to tell if you have celiac disease or not.

People who don’t have celiac disease but feel they may be sensitive to gluten can try a strict gluten-free diet for a few weeks to see if their symptoms improve. They should also seek assistance from a healthcare professional, such as a dietitian.

After a few weeks, you can reintroduce gluten into your diet and test for symptoms. If a gluten-free diet doesn’t help your symptoms, something else is likely causing your digestive issues.

Summary

Gluten is a family of proteins that’s found in certain grains. Eating it causes harmful effects in people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).

Most people can eat gluten without experiencing any side effects, but people with celiac disease can’t tolerate it.

People with other disorders, like non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and wheat allergy, frequently avoid gluten too.

Celiac disease

In celiac disease, the body mistakes gluten for a foreign threat. To remove this perceived threat, the body overreacts and attacks the gluten proteins.

This attack also damages surrounding areas, like the gut wall. Not only can this lead to nutrient deficiencies and severe digestive issues, but it can also increase the risk of many harmful diseases (7).

People with celiac disease often experience symptoms such as:

  • diarrhea or constipation
  • sharp stomach pain
  • stomach discomfort
  • bloating
  • weight loss
  • skin rashes

Interestingly, some people with celiac disease don’t experience digestive symptoms. Instead, they may experience other symptoms such as:

  • fatigue
  • anemia
  • depression

These symptoms are common in many other medical conditions, making celiac disease difficult to diagnose (8).

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is believed to affect around 0.6%–13% of people (1).

People classified as having NCGS don’t test positive for celiac disease or a wheat allergy, but they still feel uncomfortable after eating gluten (9).

Symptoms of NCGS are similar to those of celiac disease and include (1):

  • stomach pain
  • bloating
  • changes in bowel movements
  • tiredness
  • skin rashes

NCGS is highly controversial. Some experts believe this sensitivity exists, while others doubt its validity.

For example, one 2015 study followed 35 people with NCGS. Scientists gave participants both gluten-free flour and wheat-based flour at separate times without identifying them.

They found that around two-thirds of people couldn’t tell the difference between the gluten-free flour and wheat-based flour. In fact, nearly half of the participants experienced worse symptoms after eating the gluten-free flour (10).

Also, these symptoms may be caused by other irritants such as FODMAPs. FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates that can cause digestive problems. They include fermentable (11):

  • oligosaccharides
  • disaccharides
  • monosaccharides
  • polyols

Animal and test tube studies show some evidence suggesting that gluten may affect the intestinal lining. Human studies have mixed results. Larger, more well-controlled studies in humans are needed (12).

At the end of the day, the evidence surrounding NCGS is mixed. If you think gluten makes you uncomfortable, it’s best to let a healthcare professional know. They can help determine whether a gluten-free diet may be beneficial for you.

Gluten ataxia

Similar to celiac disease, gluten ataxia is an autoimmune disorder.

This disorder causes the body’s immune system to attack the nervous system in response to gluten ingestion. This can cause a range of neurological symptoms.

In particular, gluten ataxia can cause balance, coordination, and motor control issues.

According to one review, gluten ataxia typically affects individuals over age 50 years and accounts for approximately 15% of all ataxias. Ataxias are a group of disorders that affect balance and coordination (13).

A gluten-free diet is recommended to reduce symptoms of gluten ataxia and prevent further damage to the nervous system.

Wheat allergies

A wheat allergy is a type of allergic reaction that occurs in response to one or more proteins found in wheat (14).

It can cause symptoms such as:

  • hives
  • headache
  • difficulty breathing
  • nasal congestion
  • swelling or irritation of the mouth or throat

In severe cases, it can also cause anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that can be life threatening.

Wheat allergies are most common in children, but approximately 65% of children with a wheat allergy outgrow it by the age of 12 years (15).

Though people with a wheat allergy don’t necessarily need to avoid gluten specifically, they may need to avoid certain foods containing gluten. This includes wheat products such as bread, pasta, and baked goods.

Summary

Most people can tolerate gluten without any issues. However, people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), gluten ataxia, and wheat allergies may need to avoid foods containing gluten.

Completely avoiding gluten can be challenging, as it’s found in many common ingredients that are added to foods and beverages.

Wheat is the main source of gluten in the diet. Wheat-based products include (16):

  • wheat bran
  • wheat flour
  • spelt
  • durum
  • kamut
  • semolina

Other sources of gluten include (4):

  • barley
  • rye
  • triticale, a hybrid crop that combines wheat and rye
  • malt
  • brewer’s yeast

Below are some items that may have ingredients containing gluten added to them:

  • Bread: all wheat-based bread
  • Pasta: all wheat-based pasta
  • Cereals: most types of cereal, unless they’re labeled gluten-free
  • Baked goods: cakes, cookies, muffins, bread crumbs, pastries
  • Snack foods: candy, muesli bars, crackers, pre-packaged convenience foods, roasted nuts, flavored chips, pretzels
  • Sauces: soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, hoisin sauce, marinades, salad dressings
  • Beverages: beer and some flavored alcoholic beverages
  • Other items: pizza, couscous, broth (unless it’s labeled gluten-free)

The easiest way to avoid gluten is to eat unprocessed, single-ingredient foods. Otherwise, you should read the food labels of most foods you buy.

Oats are naturally gluten-free. However, they’re often contaminated with gluten, as they might be processed in the same factory as wheat-based foods (17).

Summary

Completely avoiding gluten can be challenging, as it’s found in many common foods and beverages. The best way to completely avoid it is to eat whole, single-ingredient foods or carefully check the ingredients labels of food products.

There are plenty of gluten-free options that will allow you to enjoy healthy and delicious meals.

The following items are naturally gluten-free:

  • Meat, fish, and poultry: all types, except battered or coated meats
  • Eggs: whole eggs, egg whites, egg yolks
  • Dairy: unflavored dairy products, including, plain milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Fruits: berries, melons, pineapples, bananas, oranges, pears, peaches, etc.
  • Vegetables: broccoli, tomatoes, onions, peppers, mushrooms, asparagus, carrots, potatoes, etc.
  • Grains: quinoa, rice, buckwheat, tapioca, sorghum, corn, millet, amaranth, arrowroot, teff, oats (if they’re labeled gluten-free)
  • Starches and flours: potato flour, cornstarch, corn flour, chickpea flour, soy flour, almond meal or flour, coconut flour, tapioca flour
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, etc.
  • Spreads and oils: vegetable oils, olive oil, coconut oil, butter, margarine, etc.
  • Herbs and spices: black pepper, turmeric, oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley, cilantro, etc.
  • Beverages: most beverages, except for beer (unless it’s labeled gluten-free)

If you’re ever unsure if an item contains gluten, it’s best to read the nutrition label carefully.

Summary

A gluten-free diet has plenty of options, allowing you to create a variety of healthy and delicious recipes.

Here’s a sample menu with delicious, gluten-free meals.

Feel free to swap suggestions according to your liking or add extra meals and snacks to fit your needs.

Monday

  • Breakfast: overnight chia seed pudding with 2 tbsp (30 grams) chia seeds, 1 cup (285 grams) Greek yogurt, 1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) vanilla extract, and sliced fruits of your choice
  • Lunch: chicken, lentil, and veggie soup
  • Dinner: steak tacos with steak, mushrooms, and spinach served in gluten-free corn tortillas

Tuesday

  • Breakfast: omelet with veggies
  • Lunch: quinoa salad with sliced tomatoes, cucumber, spinach, and avocado
  • Dinner: shrimp skewers with a garden salad

Wednesday

  • Breakfast: oatmeal with fresh berries and walnuts
  • Lunch: tuna salad containing hard-boiled eggs
  • Dinner: chicken and broccoli stir-fry with olive oil and gluten-free soy or tamari sauce

Thursday

  • Breakfast: gluten-free toast with avocado and an egg
  • Lunch: burrito bowl with black beans, rice, guacamole, and fajita veggies
  • Dinner: garlic and butter shrimp served with a side salad

Friday

  • Breakfast: banana-berry smoothie with 1/2 medium banana, 1/2 cup (95 grams) mixed berries, 1/4 cup (71 grams) Greek yogurt, and 1/4 cup (59 mL) milk
  • Lunch: chicken salad wrap, using a gluten-free wrap
  • Dinner: baked salmon served with baked potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and green beans

Saturday

  • Breakfast: mushroom and zucchini frittata
  • Lunch: stuffed bell pepper with ground beef, brown rice, tomatoes, and cheese
  • Dinner: roasted chicken and veggie quinoa salad

Sunday

  • Breakfast: two poached eggs with a slice of gluten-free bread
  • Lunch: chicken salad dressed in olive oil
  • Dinner: grilled lamb with roasted vegetables
Summary

This sample gluten-free menu provides a variety of healthy food options that are rich in nutrients.

A gluten-free diet has many benefits, especially for someone with celiac disease or another gluten-related disorder.

May help relieve digestive symptoms

Most people try a gluten-free diet to help treat digestive problems. This includes many symptoms, such as:

  • bloating
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • gas
  • fatigue

Research shows that following a gluten-free diet can help ease digestive symptoms for people with celiac disease and NCGS (18).

According to one study of 856 people with celiac disease, those who didn’t follow a gluten-free diet experienced significantly more diarrhea, indigestion, and stomach pain compared to those on a gluten-free diet (19).

Can help reduce chronic inflammation in those with celiac disease

Inflammation is a natural process that helps the body treat and heal infection.

Sometimes inflammation can get out of hand and last weeks, months, or even years. This is known as chronic inflammation and may lead to various health problems in the long run (20).

A gluten-free diet can help reduce chronic inflammation in those with celiac disease.

In fact, a gluten-free diet can reduce markers of inflammation, like antibody levels, and may also help treat gut damage caused by gluten-related inflammation in those with celiac disease (21).

People with NCGS may also have low levels of inflammation, but it’s not completely clear if a gluten-free diet can reduce their inflammation (22, 23).

May help boost energy

People with celiac disease often feel tired or sluggish. They may also experience brain fog, which is characterized by confusion, forgetfulness, and difficulty focusing (7, 24).

These symptoms may result from nutrient deficiencies caused by damage to the gut. For example, an iron deficiency can lead to anemia, which is common in celiac disease (25).

If you have celiac disease, switching to a gluten-free diet may help boost your energy levels and stop you from feeling tired and sluggish.

According to one literature review, people with celiac disease experienced significantly more fatigue than those without celiac disease. Not only that, but five of the seven studies included in the review concluded that following a gluten-free diet was effective at reducing fatigue (26).

Can help you lose weight

It’s not unusual to lose weight once you start following a gluten-free diet.

The diet eliminates many high-calorie, processed foods and often replaces them with fruit, vegetables, and lean proteins.

Avoid processed gluten-free foods such as cakes, pastries, and snacks if you’re trying to lose weight. They can quickly add a lot of calories to your diet.

Instead, focus on eating plenty of whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins to reach and maintain a moderate weight while also meeting your nutritional needs.

Summary

A gluten-free diet can provide many health benefits, especially for those with celiac disease. It may help ease digestive symptoms, reduce chronic inflammation, boost energy, and promote weight loss.

Despite having a variety of health benefits, a gluten-free diet could also lead to certain side effects and has downsides to consider.

Risk of a nutritional deficiency

People who have celiac disease are at risk of several nutrient deficiencies, including deficiencies in (27):

  • fiber
  • iron
  • calcium
  • zinc
  • folate (vitamin B9)
  • vitamin B12
  • vitamin D

Interestingly, studies have also found that following a gluten-free diet may not help treat nutritional deficiencies (28, 29).

This may be because many gluten-free food products are often lower in protein and fiber yet higher in saturated fat, sodium, and carbohydrates compared to their gluten-containing counterparts (30).

Moreover, many gluten-free versions of foods aren’t fortified with B vitamins such as folate.

Since fortified bread is a major source of B vitamins, people on a gluten-free diet may be at risk of vitamin B deficiencies. This is especially concerning for pregnant people with celiac disease, as B vitamins are vital for fetal growth and development (31).

Constipation

Constipation is a common side effect of a gluten-free diet.

Gluten-free diets eliminate many popular sources of fiber such as bread, bran, and other wheat-based products. Eating a fiber-rich diet may help promote healthy bowel movements (28, 32).

In addition, many gluten-free substitutes for wheat-based products are low in fiber. This could be another reason why constipation is common on a gluten-free diet (33).

If you experience constipation on a gluten-free diet, aim to eat more fiber-rich foods, such as:

  • broccoli
  • beans
  • lentils
  • Brussels sprouts
  • berries

Cost

Following a gluten-free diet can be difficult on a tight budget.

Research shows that gluten-free foods are almost 2 1/2 times more expensive than their regular counterparts (18).

This is because gluten-free products cost manufacturers more money to make. For example, gluten-free foods must pass stricter testing and avoid cross contamination.

If you’re on a tight budget, try to eat more whole, single-ingredient foods, which are often more affordable and nutritious.

Can make socializing difficult

Many social situations revolve around food.

This can make it difficult to socialize if you’re following a gluten-free diet. While many restaurants have gluten-free options, there’s still a risk of food being contaminated with traces of gluten (34).

Celiac disease is also associated with a significant social burden, which can make traveling and eating at restaurants more challenging (35).

That said, you can still socialize while following a gluten-free diet. It simply requires a little extra preparation beforehand.

For example, if you’re eating out, call the restaurant beforehand to see if they have gluten-free options. If you’re going to a social gathering, you can eat ahead of time or bring your own food.

Summary

People who follow a gluten-free diet may be at risk of nutritional deficiencies and prone to constipation. Following a gluten-free diet can also be quite expensive and may make social situations difficult.

These tips can help you follow a gluten-free diet successfully:

  • Read food labels: Practice reading food labels so you can easily identify gluten-free foods.
  • Tell your friends: If your friends know that you’re following a gluten-free diet, they’re more likely to choose places with gluten-free options when you eat out.
  • Buy a gluten-free cookbook: Reading gluten-free cookbooks may help you be more creative with your cooking and make meals more enjoyable.
  • Plan ahead: If you’re traveling, make sure you research places to eat and shop. Otherwise, plan your diet around plenty of whole, single-ingredient foods such as fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.
  • Use separate cooking utensils: If you share a kitchen with friends or family members, make sure you use separate cooking and cleaning equipment. This can help prevent cross contamination to avoid negative side effects.
  • Bring your own food: If you’re visiting family, take foods such as gluten-free bread and pasta with you. This way you won’t feel left out of family meals.

If you don’t have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, there’s no need to follow a gluten-free diet. While it has many health benefits, it also limits some foods that are great for overall health.

Summary

Though certain situations may arise that can make it hard to stick to a gluten-free diet, taking steps such as reading food labels and planning ahead can help.

Most people can eat gluten without any negative effects.

Those with celiac disease, NCGS, and other gluten-related disorders need to avoid it, as it can be harmful.

While a gluten-free diet can be restrictive, there are plenty of healthy and delicious options available.

In fact, eating plenty of whole, single-ingredient foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources can help you meet your nutritional needs and enhance your overall health.

What’s more, a gluten-free diet may provide many health benefits, especially if you have celiac disease or a gluten-related disorder.

If you do, following a gluten-free diet can ease digestive symptoms, reduce inflammation, boost your energy levels, and even help you lose weight.

Just one thing

Try this today: Though transitioning to a gluten-free diet can be challenging, there are lots of delicious and nutritious foods you can enjoy. Check out this article for a comprehensive list of over 50 gluten-free items you can easily add to your diet.