The number of Americans on a gluten-free diet tripled from 2010 to 2015, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine—but during that same time period, the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease dropped 17%. With weight-loss benefits touted by celebrities, and new aisles in the grocery store devoted to gluten-free goodies, eliminating gluten can seem like just another trendy dietary choice.
But for the 1% of the population with celiac disease, the diet is vital to their health and wellbeing. If you have celiac disease and get "glutened," you may experience gas, bloating, abnormal stools, vomiting, fatigue, or weight loss. Over time, this immune response caused by consuming gluten can damage the small intestine—making it infinitely harder for your body to absorb nutrients from the food you eat.
Keeping up the diet means more than simply avoiding the breadbasket. It's imperative to know exactly what you can and cannot eat—your health depends on it. A registered dietician can help you create a sustainable meal plan if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Below, nutritionists share the 6 most common mistakes made by people on a gluten-free diet.
If you don't have an intolerance or celiac disease, you don't need to eat gluten-free. "People tend to lose weight and feel better on this diet, and it's likely from cutting out processed foods that contain additives," says Torey Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But despite these potential benefits, a gluten-free diet should be reserved solely for someone who has an intolerance, says Armul. That's because unnecessarily eliminating whole grains can make you miss out on important vitamins and minerals. Instead of going gluten-free, try cutting back on processed foods. Stick to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to ensure your diet is clean and packed with nutrients, says Armul.
These days, there are oodles of gluten-free options on the market—cookies, breads, cakes, crackers, etc. They may be convenient, but these gluten-free alternatives aren't very healthy. "In these products, gluten is often replaced with extra fat or sugar to get more flavor," says Armul. Instead, folks with gluten intolerance should focus on eating real food—fruits and veggies, lean protein, healthy fats, beans, nuts, lean meat, and dairy (or try one of these naturally gluten-free recipes.). If you want to occasionally indulge, eat prepackaged items only as a treat.
To be successful on a gluten-free diet, you'll need to become a label super sleuth. Gluten is a protein found in many different whole grains, says Angela Ginn-Meadow, RDN, LDN, CDE, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Keep an eye out for wheat, barley, rye, brewer's yeast, spelt, faro, oatmeal, wheat, germ, and wheat bran. Brewer's yeast can be found in both beer and wine—so be sure to read the labels before you imbibe. To avoid cross-contamination, many companies also list if their products were made in a facility that also produces gluten products. If you're unsure if an item contains gluten, contact the manufacturer.
On a gluten-free diet, you don't need to eliminate all grains—quinoa, millet, rice, buckwheat, and a few others are still fair game. Still, your whole grain options are limited, which means missing out on an easy source of fiber and vitamins A and E. Trace minerals and nutrients such as iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium are also found in these grains, says Ginn-Meadow. To ensure that you're getting enough of these key nutrients, be sure to fill half of your plate with fruits and veggies, recommends Armul.
Do your homework before you head to a restaurant. Read menus in advance, and speak up about your dietary restriction. "Be a more vocal restaurant patron, and be specific with your needs; most restaurants and servers are happy to answer your questions—if you are polite and patient," says Armul. Aside from working with the servers, keep a close eye on your appetizers. If you're eating a meat and cheese plate, be careful that bread isn't touching the other items. Also, be sure to ask about sauces, since many use flour as a thickening agent. If you're ordering fried goods, make sure your dish isn't cooked in the same fryer used for other breaded items.
Your hygiene products might not be gluten-free. "You can still have symptoms from products that aren't gluten-free—from toothpaste to mouthwash," says Ginn-Meadow. Keep an eye out for products you might ingest. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who develop dermatitis herpetiformis—a form of celiac disease—may experience an itchy, blistering rash. While it may seem like this reaction is the result of using a topical product, it is still a direct result of ingesting gluten. Call the manufacturer of your products to verify the gluten-free status of products, or check the company website.