6 Easy Ways to Eat Gluten-Free and Feel Better

Tips to tame tummy troubles

Got gluten?

You might wish you didn’t.

Gluten is a generic name for the storage protein found in grains; in wheat, for instance, it's called gliadin. Gluten basically binds starches together; it's the stuff that makes dough, well… doughy.

If you regularly feel uncomfortable after a gluten-rich meal (like pasta and bread), gluten could be the culprit. “Uncomfortable” can mean anything from feeling slightly bloated and gassy (mild gluten sensitivity) to much more severe symptoms like excruciating cramps, vomiting, migraines, dizziness, even loss of consciousness — signs that you may have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that is the most serious form of gluten intolerance.

“Problems with gluten are widely under-diagnosed,” says Mark Hyman, M.D., author of The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First and creator of Gaiam's UltraMind Solution Club. “The most serious gluten-related problem, celiac disease, affects 1 in 100 people or 3 million Americans, most of which are not diagnosed.”

“People with gluten sensitivity don’t have the long-term and ongoing damage to the villi of the small intestine that people with celiac disease have; once gluten is removed from the diet, the symptoms go away,” says Melissa McLean Jory, a master nutrition therapist and yoga teacher who writes the blog at www.glutenfreeforgood.com. “But gluten is hard to break down, period, for all of us.”

Although you might not even know it’s making you sick, gluten intolerance is linked to many ailments, including seizures, swelling, intestinal problems, lowered immunity, adrenal exhaustion and thyroid problems. “Other studies have linked eating gluten to everything from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia, autism and even dementia,” notes Dr. Hyman.

Allison Sampish, a kindergarten teacher from Fort Worth, Texas, spent decades not knowing what was causing her painful symptoms. “I remember in middle school I was always not feeling well,” she says. “I had all kinds of tests but they never found much.” Finally, in 2001, her new gastrologist suggested eliminating gluten from her diet for two weeks to see how she felt. She did, and it worked, and she has been happily gluten-free since.

“The diet is a lot easier to follow now than it was at first,” she admits. “Maybe it’s because I have a core group of foods that I eat, or maybe because it’s also getting a lot more common to find gluten-free foods in ‘normal’ grocery stores and restaurants.”

So...how do you eat gluten-free?

Most people who follow a gluten-free diet — either out of necessity or personal preference — say that eating gluten-free is not as difficult as it sounds.

“The gluten-free segment of the food industry is exploding, so it’s much easier to find gluten-free products now than it was even a few years ago,” says Jory.

1. Focus on “real” foods

Jory says that the easiest and healthiest way to live gluten-free is to focus on fresh, organic, whole foods. “There are no labels to decipher on an apple; no wondering what the ingredients are in spinach,” she says. “This way you don’t have to worry about being unintentionally exposed to gluten.” Check glutenfreeforgood.com for Jory’s unique recipes like Sweet Potato & Kale Soup and Ruby Red Beet Cupcakes.

2. Read labels

Food shopping can be frustrating and tiresome for those new to the diet. “I cried the first month at the grocery store because I was so tired and so hungry, and I couldn’t figure out what I could safely eat,” says Patty Carmichael, a teacher in Longmont, Colo., who has been gluten-free for two years because of celiac disease but also avoids corn, dairy, raw fruits and veggies, and nuts because of Crohn’s disease. “At first, I wasn’t thinking well enough to figure it all out. But now I’m used to it, and there are so many more options out there.”

Tricia Thompson, M.S., R.D., is the author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Gluten-Free Eating. Her Web site, glutenfreedietitian.com, is loaded with information on the subject, like gluten-free diet basics and a long list of resources. Thompson says that reading labels is actually pretty simple: “With a few exceptions, if you don't see the words wheat, barley, rye, malt, or oats (unless labeled gluten free), the food most likely does not include any gluten-containing ingredients.” (According to the National Institutes of Health, most people can safely eat small amounts of oats, “as long as they are not contaminated with wheat gluten during processing. People with celiac disease should work closely with their health care team when deciding whether to include oats in their diet.”)

But don’t just read labels on breads, pasta, cereal, crackers and cookies. “These ingredients are also commonly found in many other processed foods, including soups, gravies, sauces, seasoned rice mixes, seasoned nuts, and many others,” Thompson warns. “You must therefore read the ingredients list of all processed foods.”

If the thought of all that label-reading gives you a headache that rivals your worst gluten-induced pain, browse a Web site that has already done the legwork for you. The Gluten Intolerance Group site has links to other sites where you can find gluten-free products and manufacturers, plus restaurants with gluten-free food, and gluten-free recipes you can whip up at home.

At Zeer.com, you can search for gluten-free products or sign up for Zeer Select, which gives you detailed information on more than 30,000 products for a small monthly fee. The site also directs you to alternatives for the foods you miss the most. For instance, type “Oreos” and you see two comparable products — although if you join Zeer Select, the list of alternatives is more than 70. 

Gluten also hides in many non-food products, including some lip balms, lotions, makeup, soaps, shampoo, even Play-Doh. The blog at Gluten-Free Cosmetic Counter is a good starting point for finding safe cosmetics. For gluten-free molding dough, you can make your own or buy some from Aroma Dough.

3. Get creative in the kitchen

Once you’re armed with only gluten-free ingredients, you’re ready to start playing with new recipes at home. Or take a class; Sampish went to a gluten-free cooking seminar in Rhode Island and gained the confidence that she could make just about anything. “It helped me realize that I could play in the kitchen and find the best fried chicken, snickerdoodle or stir fry recipe.”

Living with family members who are able to eat gluten does pose a few problems, but Carmichael says she’s gotten used to that, too. “My diet is so restricted, I don’t think it’s fair to the kids,” she says. “So most of the time I make different things for myself, but it usually takes just a little tweaking, like I make them spaghetti, but I make mine with gluten-free noodles.”

4. Go ahead — eat out!

Venturing into restaurants is usually the biggest challenge for those following gluten-free diets. Says Sampish, “More and more restaurants are offering gluten-free choices, but it’s still scary … especially the sauces.”

The Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program lets you search for restaurants using your zip code, though only a handful of restaurants, mostly national chains, are listed.

You can also e-mail the corporate headquarters of your favorite restaurant and ask about their gluten-free menu items. In response to customer concerns, Chipotle, for instance, includes gluten in the allergen information on the "Special Diet" page of their Web site. Chipotle says that only the flour tortillas contain gluten; someone who is sensitive to distilled vinegar should also avoid the hottest salsa. They also allow you to bring your own gluten-free tortillas; just be aware of cross-contamination by the person preparing your food.

5. Say “yes” to dinner invitations

When family and friends embrace your gluten-free lifestyle, it’s less stressful to eat in their homes. “I am amazed to think of the amount of menus changed, desserts custom-ordered and Google searches that have occurred as a result of my friends and family accommodating me,” says Sampish. “And many of my friends have been willing to try my food with me; some unfortunately got to eat the dirt-tasting muffins, while others rejoiced with me over the delicious pizza crust I found.”

If it still makes you nervous, consider bringing your own food. “I prefer to just bring my own food to potlucks,” says Sherri Willocks, an R.N. in Loveland, Colo., who has been gluten-free for three years, after suffering for 14. “But I also have cousins who are celiacs, so it’s always safe to eat with them. Two years ago, they started hosting a totally gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner, and I love it!”

6. Remember that you’re not alone

Staying connected with others going through the same thing makes it easier. “Just ask around; you’ll be amazed how many people are gluten-free, or know someone who is,” advises Sampish. “My best resources and brands of food [like that pizza crust] have come by word of mouth.”

Use Google to find support groups; GlutenFreeIndy, for one, provides support in the Indianapolis area. Or search “gluten free” on Facebook; more than 500 groups pop up.

Most of all, do whatever it takes to stick with it. “When I was first diagnosed,” says Sampish, “I was a little bitter that I couldn’t enjoy that great cookie, donut or breadstick. But if gluten ever slipped in, and I had to go through the painful repercussions, I never craved them again. And now, I have no bitterness and no desire to eat those foods ever again.

“I do still miss cinnamon rolls and Cheez-Its the most,” she adds, “though I have found some really good gluten-free substitutes, even for these. Just keep at it.”

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RachelC's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 50 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 08/12/2009

Yay! Great article. My life has changed since I went gluten free. No more stomach problems, I finally lost that 25 lbs that I never could get off, I have more energy, my face lost that constant redness I had for so long... so many things!
I post many gluten free recipes on my recipe blog and link to many other great gluten free blogs. It's easier than you think to enjoy so many things gluten free, you just have to get used to making them. And, more and more restaurants are offering a gluten free menu.

Samantha Ross
Samantha Ross's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 13 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 04/26/2010

We all want to eat healthy food, we all want to eat fat free food but the thing is that we probably cannot do what we want to do and rather do what we should not. We eat all the wrong food and then say I just wish I did not. People frequently order restaurant delivery so they can eat even more conveniently. I do not know how such people would practice healthy eating and living.


elkrull's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 42 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 10/08/2010

Hi - I'm the author of the Gluten Free Cosmetic Counter blog mentioned above. Please check out my new website www.gluten-free-cosmetic-counter.org as well as my blog. Thanks for writing a great article about the gluten free lifestyle.

Anonymous's picture

Great article. I've had severe acne for the past 4 years (I'm now 27, and never had acne before that). I was eating right and I pretty much tried most skin care out there. About 2 month ago I really paid attention to what I was eating and how it affected my skin. I found out that every time I had bread (and I ate a lot of it), my skin would severely break out the next day. Then I tried pancakes and pasta, and the same thing happened. I also tried potatoes and other carbs, and nothing happened. I haven't been to a doctor yet to tell me that I am sensitive to gluten but I am sure that is what is making me break out like that. I have not had gluten in about 3 weeks, and my skin is so clear. and it's amazing how fast it shows on my skin. If I have gluten, I'll break out that night or the next morning. If don't have any my skin will clear within the next 3 days.
But I'm still trying to adjust to it, and trying really hard to find alternative. It's a challenge.

Anonymous's picture

There is a skin reaction associated with Celiac disease called Dermatitis Herpetiformis. You may actually be getting this as opposed to what you are calling acne. Getting tested for celiac disease begins with a simple blood test and moves to an endoscopy. You must have a small amount of Gluten in your system though for the blood test to read accurately since Celiac disease is an auto immune disease. Please do NOT takie this as advice from me to start eating Gluten again. Rather you should find a gastroenterologist who specializes in Celiac disease and explain to him/her what you have been experiencing. Having an appropriate diagnosis can qualify you for other services such as a consultation with a dietician, food pantry support, discounts at local stores, etc. If this is not what you have, it can also start you on the path to a correct diagnosis.

deejay's picture
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Joined: 10/28/2010

Find some amazing recipes at Karina's Kitchen blog on-line. Karina has been gluten free for several years and has done all the experimenting with recipes to share with us. I've tried many and they are tasty and healthy for us gluten sensitive eaters. Many of the recipes could be equally enjoyed by non-gluten sensitive eaters as well. I highly recommend the website.

BrainLasik's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 5 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 02/23/2010

There are a lot of confusion about gluten-free diet and celiac. Many people think that only children will get the disease but research show that it can be diagnosed at any stage of age. In fact the disease is most frequently diagnosed in people aged between 40 to 60 years old.

Chris87654's picture
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Joined: 05/15/2012

For some more great meal ideas, check out this article: http://fix-your-stuff.com/gluten-free-meals/

Quite a few delicious ideas, which all remain Gluten-Free!

smathew40's picture
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Joined: 07/11/2013

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