Whether you have a major allergy, Celiac disease, or are simply looking to experiment with a gluten-free lifestyle, it’s important to know the details of what it means to “go gluten-free.” The first thing to consider is that gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. Gluten, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily unhealthy on its face. The discussion of how the practice of growing wheat has changed over the course of our agricultural history (and thus has changed our gluten consumption) is a topic for another blog post. But suffice it to say, that not every single person has an adverse reaction to gluten. That being said, it could be the case that you feel better when you don’t eat it.
Why Do People Tend to Feel Better on a Gluten-free Diet?
One big, and very simple reason is that gluten is present in a lot of highly processed foods. Many people find that when they go gluten-free, the first thing they do is toss out all the processed food in their house (an automatic “win” if your goal is to get healthy, lose weight, or gain energy).
Another reason why people might feel better on a gluten-free diet is the inevitable reduction of overall simple carbohydrates in your diet. Gluten is present in a lot of simple carbohydrate-foods; foods that break down quickly into sugar, spiking our energy levels immediately, followed by a crash (and often cravings). Examples of simple carbs are things like cookies, white bread, and cereal (read: foods made with refined flour and sugar). We should try to reduce our intake of simple carbs and increase our complex carb consumption in order to ensure steady and consistent blood sugar (and therefor energy) levels throughout the day.
Although some complex carbohydrates contain gluten, many do not. Examples of some gluten-free complex carbs are sweet potatoes, rice, corn, quinoa, and all starchy vegetables. When we go gluten-free, we more readily increase our consumption of complex carbs, which ultimately make us feel better and more energized throughout the day.
Gluten-free Does Not Mean Healthy
Food companies have caught on to the gluten-free craze. There are now many, many gluten-free choices that are every bit as much “junk food” as Chips Ahoy, your favorite pastry, or a frozen pizza. Don’t fool yourself into believing that those gluten-free pretzels are any more of a health food than the regular ones!
With all these new products coming out by food companies trying to keep up with the trends, it’s safe to say that not all gluten-free foods are created equal. If you’re interested in trying a gluten-free diet, have a look at these simple swaps that will put you on the right track.
1. Homemade Salad Dressings Instead of Bottled Varieties
It might seem like an odd place to start, but many bottled salad dressings are made with gluten as a thickening agent. Though some brands offer gluten-free varieties, often the replacement is something like cornstarch – not exactly a healthy switch. Making your own homemade salad dressing can be super simple and delicious. You just need a little olive oil mixed together with your favorite vinegar, and an emulsifier like mustard, a blended avocado, or even a really great quality raw egg. Check out this video for a super simple recipe. To add a little flavor, you can season it with salt, pepper, or fresh herbs. Yum!
2. Alternative Flours Instead of Wheat Flour
This is a perfect example of where things can start to go awry. No one is saying that you can’t have sweets from time to time, but rest-assured that a cake is a cake. A gluten-free cake is still a cake. Don’t double your portion because “gluten-free is healthier.” With that in mind, here are some great ways to swap out wheat/white flour in your baking endeavors at home:
- Almond flour is the perfect alternative for heavy or dense baked goods like cookies or brownies. It is high in protein and heart-healthy fats, but low in simple carbohydrates. Almond flour is one of the choices on this list least likely to spike your blood sugar.
- Coconut flour is another great alternative. But beware — It soaks up a lot more moisture than other flours. Do a little bit of research before you use it, as it doesn’t work to swap it 1to1 for wheat flour. Make sure the recipe calls for or has alternative measurements specifically for coconut flour or search for replacement ratios online. Coconut flour is another great choice for those watching their weight or looking for alternatives that don’t spike blood sugar.
- Rice flour has a similar consistency to wheat flour if it is ground finely enough, so it’s perfect for foods like breads and pancakes. Careful though, it can get gummy.
- Corn starch and tapioca flour are great thickeners. They’re both mostly flavorless, which makes them great alternatives to white/wheat flour in certain dishes (think: mushroom sauces, gravy, even custard or pie filling).
- Gluten-free baking blends are also available. Again, as more people have become curious about gluten-free cooking, the food companies have begun to innovate to make the switch easier. Many of these are simple 1 to1 swaps for white/wheat flour. Most of the time, the ratio will be on the back of the box for your convenience. Pamela’s Pancake mix and Bob’s Red Mill are two good examples. Again, you’re still making a flour-based food, which isn’t always the healthiest choice, but these alternatives work great for gluten-free treats!
3. Fresh Meats Instead of Cold Cuts
Processed cold cuts may contain gluten-based starches that are added to the meat as binders. Fortunately, processed meats are easily replaced with fresh, whole meats, which are naturally gluten-free. You can use sliced chicken breast or uncured ham in salads and in sandwiches. If cold cuts are a must for you, some suppliers produce only gluten-free, filler-free meats. Look for Boar’s Head and Applegate Farms brands and make sure to read the labels or ask the butcher behind the counter.
4. Quinoa pasta or brown rice pasta instead of white/wheat pasta
If you are used to eating white pasta, quinoa pasta is a great alternative. It might take a little getting used to, but it will hit the spot if you’re having a craving. Quinoa is a great alternative, because it has a marginally lower glycemic load (think complex vs simple carbs). Other tasty alternatives are brown rice pasta or even some new bean/lentil pastas that are coming to market. Treat pasta as a treat, not a daily meal, and you’ll get more out of your gluten-free transition. Which leads us to …
5. Vegetable Noodles Instead of Traditional Noodles
If you’re planning to eliminate pasta altogether but are still looking for a vehicle for your delicious homemade tomato sauce, vegetable noodles make a great alternative. They’re easy to make and (not surprisingly) delicious!
You can make noodles from zucchini, sweet potatoes, carrots or spaghetti squash. Vegetable noodles are generally low in calories and high in fiber. Make your noodles using a spiral slicer, cook your “noodles” until they’re tender (or roast your spaghetti squash and simply use a utensil to spoon out your “noodles”),, then top them with your tomato sauce or your favorite protein dish. Try shrimp in a lemon sauce served over zucchini noodles. You’ll be surprised as how quickly you’ll get used to eating these instead of the “real thing!” And the increased intake of veggies vs mostly empty carbs will only get you closer to your health goals.
6. Homemade chicken broth instead of prepared chicken broth
Many prepared chicken broths and stocks contain hydrolyzed wheat protein, which, of course, is not gluten-free. Some brands do not contain the proteins but if you want to be assured that your chicken broth is always gluten-free, we recommend making your own. It is easy and inexpensive. All you need is a couple pounds of chicken parts (or the scraps from two whole chickens), carrots, celery, an onion and a lot of water (the amount doesn’t matter much because you simmer it for a long time).
Chop and simmer all of the ingredients in a large pot for as many hours as it takes to make your broth flavorful (usually 6 to 8, the longer the better and more nutrient-dense your broth will be). You can save some time with a pressure cooker if you have one. Here’s a great recipe.
If you freeze the broth in ice cube molds and then place the broth cubes in a storage container, you will have a quick easy way to flavor your rice, quinoa or pasta dishes for weeks!
7. Lettuce Wraps Instead of Sandwich Bread or Burger Buns
About a decade ago the Atkins diet hit the scene, and millions of people, in an effort to reduce their waistlines, started dropping carbs from their diet. Down went the sandwich breads and hamburger buns. Up rose the carb-free meat-wrapping alternatives. These alternatives became so popular that they are even offered in restaurants (and some fast food chains now). Not great news for bread companies, but perfect for gluten-free dieters.
Lettuce-wrapped burgers and sandwiches are delicious, low-carb, nutritious, and gluten-free. For the healthiest choice, use romaine (a leafy green) rather than iceberg lettuce for your lettuce wrapped recipes.
8. Corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas
Flour tortillas are essentially unleavened bread. They are made from the same basic ingredients as white bread. Corn tortillas, on the other hand, are made with maize, which is a type of corn and thus naturally gluten-free.
Corn tortillas tend to be more textured than flour tortillas, but that is the appeal in many recipes. If you prefer to eat them soft, just heat them up for a few seconds in the microwave or on the stovetop in a skillet. For the microwave, take 2 to 4 tortillas and wrap them in a wet, wrung-out paper towel. Then, put them in the microwave for about 10 seconds. Heating them this way before cooking with them also helps keep them from cracking if you have to roll them for things like tacos and fajitas.
9. Nuts Instead of Croutons
Does the lack of croutons in your salad leave you craving some crunch? Nuts make a great heart-healthy, naturally gluten-free alternative. Try adding chopped walnuts, toasted almonds or pecan pieces instead.
10. Tamari instead of soy sauce
Standard soy sauce is made from soybeans, wheat, salt and water. Tamari, on the other hand, is a variety of naturally fermented soy sauce that typically doesn’t contain gluten. Tamari is less salty and has a milder flavor than soy sauce, and is a perfect alternative for all your favorite recipes.
If you’re considering going gluten-free and are having trouble knowing where to start, let us know! A Livzo Health Expert is the perfect resource to guide you through a successful transition. We’ll have you up and running in no time!