The protein gluten is found in items like 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 like wheat and rye products.
Most studies on gluten-free diets have involved people with celiac disease. However, gluten in the diet can affect other health conditions like non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
Wheat allergy occurs when your body creates antibodies to wheat proteins causing a potentially serious anaphylactic reaction. It’s important to see a health professional who’s experienced with gastrointestinal issues to help reach the correct diagnosis.
If you have celiac disease, it’s important that you avoid gluten completely to help prevent severe discomfort and side effects. If you have NCGS, you may be able to significantly reduce your gluten intake and have a resolution of symptoms (
Those with wheat allergy will need to avoid any wheat in their diet, which means that may also follow a strict gluten-free diet (
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 (4).
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 (
Some people have uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms after eating foods that contain gluten. Severe reactions can occur in 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 (
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: Blood tests are used to 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. The sample is then checked for damage (
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 whether you have celiac disease.
People who do not have celiac disease but feel they may be sensitive to gluten might consider trying a strict gluten-free diet for a few weeks to see if their symptoms improve. It’s important to seek assistance from a healthcare professional like a dietitian before starting a gluten-free diet.
After a few weeks, you can reintroduce gluten into your diet and test for symptoms. If a gluten-free diet does not help your symptoms, something else is likely causing your digestive issues.
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). People with wheat allergy also need to avoid products containing any form of wheat.
Most people can eat gluten without experiencing any side effects, but people with celiac disease cannot tolerate it.
People with other disorders like non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and wheat allergy frequently avoid gluten too.
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
- weight loss
- skin rashes
Interestingly, some people with celiac disease do not experience digestive symptoms. Instead, they may experience other symptoms like:
These symptoms are common in many other medical conditions, making celiac disease difficult to diagnose (9).
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)
NCGS is believed to affect around 0.6%–13% of people (
People diagnosed as having NCGS do not test positive for celiac disease or wheat allergy, but they still feel uncomfortable after eating gluten (10).
Symptoms of NCGS are similar to those of celiac disease and can include (
- stomach pain
- changes in bowel movements
- skin rashes
NCGS can be complicated to identify because there are currently no specific lab or tissue tests to diagnose it conclusively.
There have been a few very small studies where people who did not have celiac disease or wheat allergy were given gluten-free or gluten-containing test foods. The participants did not know which test foods they were eating.
When asked to describe symptoms after each challenge, most of the participants were unable to correctly identify gluten-containing test foods. Researchers point out that other triggers besides gluten may be involved (
Also, other irritants like FODMAPs may be causing these symptoms. FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates that can cause digestive problems. They include fermentable (12):
Larger human studies are needed to help pinpoint the possible causes of NCGS. Before going on a gluten-free diet, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional with expertise in this area (13).
Following a gluten-free diet without first testing for celiac disease or wheat allergy may delay the proper diagnosis and treatment. 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.
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 ataxia diagnoses. Ataxias are a group of disorders that affect balance and coordination (
A gluten-free diet is recommended to help reduce symptoms of gluten ataxia and prevent further damage to the nervous system.
Wheat allergy is a type of allergic reaction that occurs in response to one or more wheat proteins (15).
It can cause symptoms like:
- 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 allergy is most common in children, but approximately 65% of children with wheat allergy outgrow it by age 12 years (16).
Though people with wheat allergy do not necessarily need to avoid gluten specifically, they may need to avoid certain gluten-containing foods. This includes wheat products like bread, pasta, and baked goods.
Most people can tolerate gluten without any issues. However, people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), gluten ataxia, and wheat allergy 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 (
- wheat bran
- wheat flour
Other gluten sources include (
- triticale, a hybrid crop that combines wheat and rye
- brewer’s yeast
Below are some items that may have gluten-containing ingredients 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, prepackaged 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)
Many gluten-free products are now widely available, but it is important to read the ingredient section of the food label on most of the foods you buy.
Labels may include additional statements like “processed in a facility that also processes wheat-based foods.” Oats are naturally gluten-free but may be processed with other wheat-containing foods.
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 (
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 ingredient labeling of food products.
Gluten-free diets can be expensive and may lack important nutrients if not properly planned. There are plenty of gluten-free options that will allow you to enjoy healthy and delicious meals. It can be very helpful to work with a registered dietitian to make sure you are meeting all your nutritional needs.
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.
A gluten-free diet has plenty of options, allowing you to create a variety of nutritious 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. Heartbeet Kitchen offers some excellent recipes for gluten-free snacks and entrees.
- 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
- Breakfast: omelet with veggies
- Lunch: quinoa salad with sliced tomatoes, cucumber, spinach, and avocado
- Dinner: shrimp skewers with a garden salad
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Breakfast: mushroom and zucchini frittata
- Lunch: stuffed bell pepper with ground beef, brown rice, tomatoes, and cheese
- Dinner: roasted chicken and veggie quinoa salad
- Breakfast: two poached eggs with a slice of gluten-free bread
- Lunch: chicken salad dressed in olive oil
- Dinner: grilled lamb with roasted vegetables
This sample gluten-free menu provides a variety of healthy food options that are rich in nutrients.
A gluten-free diet can be expensive to follow and may lack important nutrients if not planned carefully. It’s necessary for those with celiac disease or other gluten-related disorders, but it may not be appropriate for everyone.
May help relieve digestive symptoms
Most people try a gluten-free diet to help treat digestive problems. This includes many symptoms like:
- diarrhea or constipation
Research shows that following a gluten-free diet can help ease digestive symptoms for people with celiac disease and NCGS (19).
According to one study involving 856 people with celiac disease, those who did not follow a gluten-free diet experienced significantly more diarrhea, indigestion, and stomach pain compared with those on a gluten-free diet (20).
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 (21).
A gluten-free diet can help reduce chronic inflammation in those with celiac disease.
In fact, a gluten-free diet can help reduce markers of inflammation, like antibody levels, and may also help treat gut damage that gluten-related inflammation in those with celiac disease causes (
People with NCGS may also have low levels of inflammation, but it’s not completely clear if a gluten-free diet can help reduce their inflammation (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 (8,
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 (26).
If you have celiac disease, switching to a gluten-free diet may help boost your energy levels and relieve tiredness and sluggishness.
According to one literature review, people with celiac disease experienced significantly more fatigue than those without celiac disease. Additionally, five of the seven studies included in the review concluded that following a gluten-free diet was effective at reducing fatigue (
Possible weight changes
You may experience some weight loss when you first start following a gluten-free diet.
Some weight loss may be due to eliminating many processed foods like cookies, cakes, and other snack foods. But some weight loss may occur due to the restrictive nature of the diet or the lack of planned balanced meals.
Gluten-free options do not always mean they are “healthy” or “nutritious.” Some processed gluten-free products like cakes, pastries, and snacks can be high in calories with few nutrients. They can cause weight gain if they’re eaten regularly.
A gluten-free diet is not considered a weight loss diet. It’s important that everyone focus on eating more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, dairy, and healthy fats in place of more highly processed foods.
A gluten-free diet is important for those with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders. It can help ease digestive symptoms, reduce inflammation, and boost energy. It should not be considered a weight loss diet.
A gluten-free diet could lead to nutritional deficiencies and may have downsides for those who do not have a diagnosis that requires elimination of gluten.
Risk of a nutritional deficiency
People who have celiac disease are at risk of several nutrient deficiencies, including deficiencies in (28):
- folate (vitamin B9)
- vitamin B12
- vitamin D
Interestingly, studies have also found that following a gluten-free diet may not help treat nutritional deficiencies (
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 with their gluten-containing counterparts (
Moreover, many gluten-free versions of foods are not fortified with B vitamins like 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 (
Working with a registered dietitian can help you plan balanced meals that meet your nutritional needs. Vitamin and mineral supplementation may be recommended for those unable to get adequate amounts of these nutrients.
Constipation is a common side effect of a gluten-free diet.
Gluten-free diets eliminate many popular sources of fiber like bread, bran, and other wheat-based products. Eating a fiber-rich diet may help promote healthy bowel movements (
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 (
If you experience constipation on a gluten-free diet, aim to eat more fiber-rich foods like:
- Brussels sprouts
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 (19).
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, you might consider trying to choose fresh produce items when they’re in season, using frozen or canned fruits and veggies, which are nutritious and affordable, buying grain items in bulk, and using beans and legumes as high fiber protein choices to help save money.
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 (35).
Celiac disease is also associated with a significant social burden, which can make traveling and eating at restaurants more challenging (36).
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, consider calling the restaurant beforehand to see if they have gluten-free options. If you’re going to a social gathering, consider eating ahead of time or bringing your own food.
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 more expensive compared with eating a gluten-containing diet and may make social situations difficult.
These tips can help you follow a gluten-free diet successfully:
- Reading food labels: Practice reading food labels so you can easily identify gluten-free foods.
- Telling 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.
- Buying a gluten-free cookbook: Reading gluten-free cookbooks may help you be more creative with your cooking and make meals more enjoyable.
- Planning ahead: If you’re traveling, researching places to eat and shop can be helpful. Otherwise, plan your diet around plenty of whole, single-ingredient foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.
- Using 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.
- Bringing your own food: If you’re visiting family, consider taking foods like gluten-free bread and pasta with you to help you feel more included in family meals.
If you do not have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there’s no need to follow a gluten-free diet. While it has many health benefits, it may not be suitable for everyone.
Though certain situations may arise that can make it hard to stick to a gluten-free diet, taking steps like 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 cause harmful symptoms.
While a gluten-free diet can be restrictive, there are plenty of nutritious and delicious options available.
Eating more fruits, vegetables, lean protein, dairy, and healthy fats can enhance overall health, and with careful planning, it can meet your nutritional needs. Supplements may still be needed, so working with a healthcare professional like a registered dietitian can be very helpful in creating a dietary plan that meets your needs.
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 help ease digestive symptoms, reduce inflammation, and boost your energy levels.
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.