If you have recently discovered that you need to eliminate gluten from your diet, you may feel overwhelmed when it comes to meal planning. Will your diet be too restrictive? Will you be able to meet your nutritional needs? Will your food choices now be bland and boring? While it may seem overwhelming at first, with a bit of dietary guidance, you can be a successful gluten-free vegan. In fact, you will likely discover a whole new world of abundant and delicious food choices to meet your nutritional needs—and satisfy your taste buds!
What is Gluten?
Gluten is the general name for a group of proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. Any product containing wheat, rye, and barley—or its derivatives—must be eliminated when going gluten-free. As you begin to read the food labels of the more than 48,000 products that stock the average American supermarket, you will quickly realize that many of your favorite foods contain gluten. So where do you begin?
Going gluten-free means eliminating most grain-based foods common in the Standard American—and vegan—Diet. Most breads, pastas, hot cereals including commercial oats (unless labeled gluten-free), and cold cereals that are not strictly corn- or rice-based contain gluten. In fact, ingredient lists that include wheat bran, wheat germ, durum flour, bulgur, faro, kamut, spelt, barley, triticale, and rye—to name a few—contain gluten. Vegans may find that dishes like vegetable wraps in whole wheat tortillas, couscous salads, and tabouli are all off the gluten-free menu.
Vegans may also find that they have to eliminate a few other favorite foods from their plates. Seitan (also known as “wheat meat”), hydrolyzed vegetable proteins derived from wheat, and plant-based milks that are made from oats or contain barley-derived flavorings also contain gluten. Thus, certain brands of veggie patties and mock meats, oat milks, and seitan stir-fry can no longer be enjoyed. And, of course, gluten is hidden in many processed foods—both vegan and not—including crackers, cookies, bottled salad dressings, condiments like soy sauce and marinades, and packaged soups and entrees. By now, you are probably wondering: what’s left to eat?
As you become an avid label reader and begin to eliminate gluten from your diet, you will soon discover your pantry and plate filling up with an abundance of gluten-free foods. As you toss out your boxed breakfast cereal you may start filling your bowl with oatmeal (made with gluten-free oats), warm buckwheat cereal (no wheat or gluten in it, despite its name), or homemade or raw granola. Your mid-day snack of crackers and cookies will be replaced with apple slices and nut butter, homemade fruit and nut trail mixes, and slices of fresh veggies dipped in hummus. And while you ditch the bread and pasta at mealtime, you will begin filling your plate with nutrient-rich grains like brown rice and quinoa and protein powerhouses like beans, lentils, and tofu. As you say good-bye to many of the processed and refined foods that were once filling your plate, you will be ushering in many fresh whole foods—and you will quickly realize just how good you feel going gluten-free. Ready to get started?
- Read food labels. Eliminating gluten from the diet requires avid label reading. Many products are clearly labeled “gluten-free.” However, some products are labeled “wheat free”; this does not necessarily mean that the product is gluten-free. Remember that many ingredients are derived from wheat, barley, and rye—and figuring out what those derivatives are can be tricky. Visit www.glutenfreediet.ca for one of the most comprehensive lists of foods and ingredients to avoid while going gluten-free.
- Choose whole foods first. Build the base of your diet from whole foods that are naturally gluten-free. Stock your fridge and pantry with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Not sure what to create with these simple food staples? Check out cookbooks like Terry Walter’s Clean Start or frequent blogs like Alyson Kramer’s Manifest Vegan, both of which are filled with recipes for the gluten-free vegan.
- Choose more raw foods. Raw food dishes are great additions to a gluten-free, vegan diet—both for boosting intake of high-quality nutrients and providing creative and delicious dishes (often made from the simplest of ingredients) to keep you inspired in your kitchen. Visit your local bookstore to explore the growing selection of raw food cookbooks now available, or visit blogs like Kristen Suzanne’s Kristen’s Raw or Gena Hamshaw’s Choosing Raw for recipe ideas.
- Stock up on gluten-free products. Begin exploring the gluten-free section of your local supermarket. Gluten-free flours made from teff, amaranth, garbanzo beans, almonds, and others are now taking over the baking section of the supermarket. In addition, gluten-free baking mixes along with ready-made products like breads, pasta, crackers, and cereals are readily available in most markets. These products may be helpful in easily beginning or maintaining a gluten-free diet. Just be sure to check ingredient labels as some brands may contain egg or dairy.
- Discuss supplements with your health care provider. It may take months for the intestinal tract to heal in individuals with celiac disease, and a damaged intestinal tract may impact the absorption of several nutrients possibly leading to deficiencies. In addition, some nutrients, such as B vitamins, may be lacking in a gluten-free diet due to the elimination of most grains. Be sure to discuss your individual supplement needs with your health care provider to ensure all nutrient needs are being met. Also be sure to check with supplement manufacturers to ensure that their supplements are gluten-free.
- Remember that gluten-free diets are not fad diets. Gluten-free diets benefit those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Eliminating gluten from the diet provides relief from the symptoms of celiac and allows the small intestine to heal. While there is no evidence supporting the use of gluten-free diets for those without celiac disease or gluten intolerance, some individuals find gluten difficult to digest and report improved digestion, increased energy, and relief of abdominal symptoms while eliminating gluten from their diets. If you suspect you have a food allergy or intolerance, be sure to work with your health care provider who can recommend tests or guide you on an elimination diet.
Gluten-free Vegan Waffles Image Source: Candice Eisner (via Flickr)