Gluten Free Diet Plan for Beginners – 5 Critical Steps to Succeed
What does a sports dietitian know about a gluten free diet plan for beginners, you say?
back in the day, I was once a frequent flyer at Subway and Wendy’s. I used to devour bread pudding. I also loved family pizza night on Fridays. I made sure to sample fried chicken on every corner when I lived in New Orleans.
You get the idea…
Then, before I knew it, I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease well into my adult years.
- Huge disappointment. I didn’t see that one coming.
- Also, at the same time, grateful and perplexed that my organs were still functioning optimally after everything I ate growing up.
So, if there is one area where I can successfully guide you in this life, it is most definitely a gluten free diet plan for beginners! Stay tuned as I walk you through the low-down on gluten avoidance. Bonus: None of the food recommendations in this article taste like sandpaper or tree bark 😉
Step 1: What is Gluten?!
Gluten is a general term for the family of proteins found in wheat. The most popular examples include but are not limited to barley, malt, rye, Kamut, einkorn, farro, and spelt. Think of gluten as the “glue” that gives grains that lovely chewy texture. Gluten is commonly used as a thickener or food additive because of this.
A few basics before we get rolling…
While wheat and gluten are found in many of the same foods, they are not interchangeable. Wheat is one of many whole grains, and gluten is the major form of protein found in wheat (as well as other similar grains like barley and rye.)
Are Gluten Allergies Real?
Yes! Well, sort of. A gluten allergy should actually be referred to as a gluten sensitivity. There is no such thing as a gluten allergy. However, a gluten sensitivity can be severe in nature.
A wheat allergy on the other hand is very real.
A wheat allergy is not the same as a gluten sensitivity as they involve two different immune mechanisms. A wheat allergy is an IgE-mediated response with immediate and usually moderate to severe presentation. Symptoms may include rash, hives, anaphylaxis, stuffy nose, or watery eyes. It is possible in some cases that an individual who is highly allergic to wheat could die upon exposure.[1,2]
Is Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance the Same Thing?
Celiac Disease is an extreme sensitivity to gluten. While long-term complications after repeat exposure can be quite serious, someone with Celiac Disease will not die after being exposed to gluten, even in large amounts. On the other hand gluten intolerance is essentially a less severe sensitivity to gluten. However, a less severe sensitivity can still wreak havoc on the body.
There are essentially four major categories of gluten sensitivity:
- Celiac Disease (usually a digestive issue, but it can attack any tissue in the body)
- Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity (think migraines, joint pain, fatigue, gut issues, etc.),
- Dermatitis, herpetiformis (tiny red bumps on the skin, often on the back of the arms) and
- Gluten ataxia which is a disorder related to the brain and nervous system.[3,4,5]
Now, we certainly do not need to dive 7 paragraphs deep into the logistics of gluten in present-day America. However, it is critical to understand that the farming and manufacturing practices of wheat today is vastly different than it was when our grandparents were children.
This, in combination with stress, genetics, and an overabundance of processed foods, has led the human immune system (for many of us at least) to react very negatively to gluten.
And, those of us with the genes for Celiac Disease are seeing it manifest itself in our 30s, 40s, and 50s when decades ago, the gene would have been more likely to remain dormant. Some experts believe this may be why we once thought Celiac Disease was strictly a childhood condition.
Should everyone be on a gluten free diet then? No. But it is definitely worth noting that for the right person with relevant genetics and medical history, the benefits of going gluten free can be tremendous. For some, gluten can serve as gasoline on the fire for their autoimmune, inflammatory, neurological or immunologic condition(s).
Why You Might Feel Better on a Gluten Free Diet
If you have noticed that you feel better following a gluten free lifestyle, here is a deeper explanation as to why you feel an improvement.
Please also keep in mind that there are numerous components to the wheat molecule that you could be reacting to. Check out one of our client’s test results below:
In the positive column, you will see all of the components of wheat/gluten that she reacted to: some are proteins within the molecule, some are antibodies or peptides present upon exposure, etc.
In the negative column are the only components she did not react to. As you might have noticed, this client actually had Celiac Disease that was undiagnosed until we ran testing. She did not have any gut issues, her only symptom was chronic fatigue. Needless to say, removing gluten changed her life.
While most people are not walking around with undiagnosed Celiac, they are suffering from some form of gluten intolerance. One of the biggest reason’s many individuals strut through life not realizing their eczema, fatigue, headaches – you fill in the blank- are stemming from wheat/gluten consumption is because health care providers are only checking the most well-known enzymes such as Transglutaminase 2,3 and 6 or the autoantigen tTG while there is an entire host of different markers that could provide us with a much bigger picture.
Other Ways Gluten May Affect Us (Even if You Do Not have Celiac Disease)
Here are just a few examples of many…
Prodynorphin is an opioid that is a building block of endorphins. In this situation, gluten consumption may cause the individuals to feel more anxious or depressed.
Glutenin is one of the most prominent proteins in wheat (almost 50% of its protein content). Glutenin has been linked to conditions such as asthma, atopic dermatitis, Celiac, and urticaria.
Wheat Germ Agglutinin is a lectin that is naturally found in all wheat varieties. It acts as a shield, protecting the wheat molecule from things like bacteria and insects. For some of us, these lectins can bind to cells in the gut and can cause premature cell death which has been known to cause “leaky gut”, otherwise known as intestinal permeability.
Wheat Germ Agglutinin is also known to disrupt the mucosal membrane in the gut which can lead to annoying gut symptoms and issues such as bacterial overgrowth.
Crazy but true, these are only 3 examples of about 25 that we could touch upon. The whole point here is that a simple, surface level test for wheat intolerance or gluten intolerance may totally miss the mark if you suspect that you might have issues.
One last thing, a wheat/gluten allergy is different than a wheat/gluten intolerance. You can learn the difference between the two here. Neither are good, but it’s helpful to know the difference as they involve different arms of the immune system.
(Usual disclaimer: FWDfuel Sports Nutrition is a participant in the Emerson Wellevate Associates program as well as the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.)
Alright, So How Do I Go Gluten Free?
How to eat gluten free you ask? Luckily it’s not as complicated as you might think, especially since so many restaurants and food manufacturers have caught on. Nowadays, you can live a completely normal life being gluten free vs. 10-15 years ago, it was a fairly big and depressing struggle.
Here is my quick and dirty 5 step process on how to go gluten free:
Step 1: Pantry Revamp
First and foremost, you will want to reorganize and sort out your pantry. Donate any remaining items that are not gluten free. Not sure? It may be worth a call to the company. Then, head on over to your fridge and repeat the process.
Step 2: Develop a Core Grocery List
I would strongly recommend creating a core gluten free grocery list for yourself that you have stocked and on hand at all times. Try to have 2-3 of your favorite proteins, 2-3 vegetables, 2-3 fruits, a nut or seed, and a nut or seed butter, a healthy fat or two for cooking, and a gluten free grain.
Here is an example of a basic gluten free grocery list:
- Pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon
- Broccoli, spinach, carrots
- Strawberries, bananas
- Spicy pumpkin seeds, cashew butter
- Avocado oil and grass-fed butter
- Organic brown rice
Step 3: Make a List of 3-5 Core Restaurants
The vast majority of us dine out from time to time, if not weekly and even daily for some. My best advice is to make a few phone calls and find 3-5 restaurants that are able to prepare a gluten free meal.
This not only means gluten free ingredients (as every restaurant on the planet has that), but a restaurant that has the ability to prepare your meal in a clean, gluten-free space in the kitchen.
Bonus if the restaurant is able to offer a dedicated fryer (this is a game-changer) This means a fryer that is not shared with gluten-containing foods such as chicken tenders or fish sticks.
Popular chain restaurants that fit the bill include but are not limited to: Chipotle, Bibibop, Five Guys, P.F. Chang’s, and Chick-Fil-A. However, be sure not to overlook your favorite local restaurant as sometimes they can be even more accommodating than the major chains.
Step 4: Be Mindful of Cross Contamination. Talk About Certified Gluten Free
For those with a formal diagnosis of Celiac Disease, cross contamination must be avoided in all forms. For example, in your home you would not share a toaster with someone who is preparing gluten rich foods. You would not share a knife or a pan that was used by someone in the home who is eating gluten.
As mentioned above, when you dine out at a restaurant, you will try your best to avoid shared fryers and request that your food be prepared in a designated gluten free area. It is really important that you ensure the restaurant staff does not cut corners.
It’s amazing how many times I have watched chefs and servers behind the scenes pick croutons off a salad or switch a bun after the gluten-rich bun has already touched the inside of the sandwich—sorry, not going to cut it.
Unfortunately, when the immune system is on such high gluten alert, the body will begin to attack itself even after the smallest exposure. I have even had a few clients over the years who cannot even walk into a room when wheat flour is being used to prepare a dish.
And by the way, there are many individuals who do not have Celiac but have such a strong sensitivity to gluten that cross-contamination makes them ill.
One last point when it comes to cross-contamination…
I am seeing more and more client’s -Celiac Disease or not- who feel a noticeable difference choosing Certified Gluten Free products from the grocery store.
Let’s take oats for example. By nature, oats are gluten free but oftentimes, during the harvest and manufacturing process, there is cross-contamination with gluten due to often being processed in the safe facility or on the same equipment as gluten-containing grains. The same can be said for other grains such as rice or millet and other packaged products such as granola bars and crackers.
Therefore, my suggestion (at least for the first few months) would be to only choose products that are Certified Gluten Free. There are three agencies that certify products:
- The most stringent is The Celiac Support Association (CSA). CSA only certifies foods containing less than 5 ppm of gluten, and not admitting any products that contain oats- even gluten free oats!
2. Next we have certification through GFCO.org, known as the Gluten Free Certification Organization through the Gluten Intolerance Group. This green and purple label mean there is less than 10ppm of gluten in that particular product.
3. Lastly, Beyond Celiac in the US, and the Canadian Celiac Association, stand behind the Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP), which uses the same limits as the FDA, testing products for gluten levels under 20 ppm.
If you have Celiac, it is recommended that you choose Certified Gluten Free Products for life. For those with a gluten sensitivity, you may be able to safely and successfully incorporate gluten free products without the certified stamp. Although, if you start to notice symptoms creep back in, that may be your clue to tighten up the cross-contamination reins.
Step 5: Consider Supplementation to Support Digestion Post Cross Contamination
Sadly, it is almost impossible to be 100% gluten free at all times.
Ok sure, if you live on your own farm and grow your own food and never visit the grocery store or dine at a restaurant, this would be possible. But, this is not the situation for most of us and as a result, I would suggest always keeping some form of supplementation on hand in case you encounter gluten when you least expect it.
For my clients with severe reactions, I suggest bringing supplementation support every time they dine out, unless they know the restaurant well and can ensure zero cross contamination.
While there are a handful of great products on the market, my three favorite products to support accidental gluten exposure are:
- Gluten Manager by Integrative Therapeutics. This supplement helps reduce the amount of gluten and gliadin proteins in a meal. The goal is to take 1-2 capsules at the start of a meal you feel may contain some form of gluten via cross contamination.
- Spectrazyme Gluten Digest by Metagenics is a great supplement to alleviate symptoms upon gluten consumption. This supplement contains specific enzymes found in a healthy digestive system that digest wheat, barley, rye grains, and other gluten sources. For best results, take two capsules with a meal.
- Gluten/Dairy Digest by Pure Encapsulations is another excellent product. Many individuals who struggle to digest gluten also struggle to digest dairy, therefore making this an awesome two for one. Gluten/Dairy digest contains a blend of digestive enzymes to help relieve symptoms associated with gluten and dairy consumption. It is recommended to take one capsule with a meal. This product is not currently available on Amazon, however it is on Wellevate with the 20% discount when you create an account through our FWDfuel Wellevate link.
If you’d like to give any of these supplements a try for the most reasonable price you will find anywhere, try shopping where we buy all our supplements (and have been for many, many years now(, Wellevate. Just create your own Wellevate account here and search for the supplement(s) you would like to try. The discount and free shipping will automatically be applied at checkout. We’ve been using Wellevate for forever because they do testing to assure quality and purity for the brands they carry and their prices simply cannot be beat. With so many supplement brands out there, we appreciate having a company like Wellevate that only stocks the ones that are high-quality.
One last thing to note, these supplements are NOT a crutch or an excuse to have the ability to eat gluten-rich meals. Please do not think of this as a safety net in order for you to house a large pizza.
If your gluten sensitivity is not severe and you only consume gluten from time to time, it may be appropriate to take these supplements prophylactically. Otherwise, these supplements should only be used for those with a severe sensitivity or allergy who may become very ill from cross contamination.
Without Further Ado, A Gluten Free Diet Plan for Beginners
Alright, so if you’ve dabbled in any of my other posts, particularly, Is it Healthier to Go Gluten Free?, you know my golden rule when going gluten free:
Do NOT live off processed garbage day in and day out when going gluten free. This is never, ever the answer, nor will it lead to optimal health.
Most of these products, although much tastier than they used to be 10 years prior, are filled with funky preservatives, additives, added sugar etc. Total waste unless you are really in a pinch.
If you are going to eat packaged gluten free items, please strive for and support brands who use real food ingredients! For example, Siete Tortillas and Simple Mills Crackers are staples in our household.
Most importantly, all of the foods you SHOULD be eating as a living, breathing human, are naturally gluten free!
What foods are gluten free, you ask?
Lean meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, and many gluten free grains such as rice, oats, corn, millet, and quinoa are gluten free! (Just be mindful of cross-contamination! Also, yes I know quinoa is technically a seed.) Organic dairy is also gluten free if this is something that you tolerate.
Check out this anti-inflammatory grocery list for the best gluten free, pantry-stuffing ideas!
I guess what I am trying to say here is that with a little thought and effort, eating gluten free is fairly easy once you learn the ropes. Additionally, it does not have to be expensive if you’re willing to eat whole food and get a little elbow grease going in the kitchen!
Here is a simple meal plan example for a gluten free diet plan for beginners:
By the way, for all my fellow pasta-monsters out there, here are my favorite gluten free pasta brands. And if you are just curious about gluten free grains in general, here is an article on The 7 Best Gluten Free Grains.
Help, I Need Gluten Free Meal Ideas
Don’t worry, you’re probably overthinking it! Most of your favorite meals can be reworked to be gluten free. Here are my client’s top 10 favorite (And quick!) gluten free meal ideas:
- Grass-fed beef burger wrapped in lettuce + side of baked sweet potato fries
- Homemade turkey chili poured over a roasted russet potato
- Grilled chicken breast + roasted broccoli + Seeds of Change garlic rice + quinoa packet
- Shrimp tacos + salsa/guac/fermented veggies of your choice + black beans sauteed w/ fajita vegetables
- Whip up an easy homemade gluten free pizza crust and add your favorite sauce, protein, and loads of veggies!
- Grilled salmon + roasted broccoli + baked purple potatoes
- Sauteed scallops over a bed of glass noodles tossed with your favorite Asian vegetables
- Overnight oats make the perfect meal at any time of day. Be sure to add your favorite nut butter, protein powder, and fruit!
Quick pro tip: Wondering why you don’t see corn listed? While corn is naturally gluten free, someone who is sensitive to gluten may also find that they react to corn. This is because of something called molecular mimicry. The body can mistake the molecular structure of corn for gluten, and the body may react. Experts also believe there may be a growing sensitivity to corn in America as the vast majority of our food products contain corn or a derivative of corn, i.e., cornstarch, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, citric acid (created from corn when its not naturally-occuring in a food). Flip over a few labels in your pantry and you will be amazed!!
There are hundreds upon hundreds of more gluten free meal options that will please the crowd and can be made in minutes. Feel free to message us directly or follow us on Instagram @fwdfuel for further guidance.
For those of you who are reading this because you feel it would be of benefit to go gluten free, we hope this was a helpful starting point. For those who are on the fence and are just not quite sure if giving up gluten is right for you, here is more info on Gluten Free Diet Benefits and also check out our elimination diet meal plan for additional information and guidance.
Just remember my friends, nothing tastes as good as healthy feels!!!